Houston, United States of America – There is sometimes a moment one can pinpoint as demarcating a tectonic shift in one’s being, a cracking open of something deep within, sucking one’s mental and emotional resources of their vitality. The Death of Living as animated expression.
Just the week before November 8, I had been living, specifically traipsing all over my new home, Houston – having just moved from Iowa City, where I had spent the past three years, and before that Johannesburg, and four years before that the home of my birth, Bulawayo – hopping from Metro bus to Metro bus like the two-month old resident that I am. Standing on the side of the road, glistening in the exuberant Houston sun, my bracelets jangling, my Africa necklace – speaking of home, the repose of lazy Bulawayo streets on a Sunday morning, the frenetic beat of Jo’burg on a Saturday evening – dangling around my neck. Allowing myself the freedom to explore, to be, to risk losing my way. Squinting at Google Maps. Rejoicing in precious discoveries – a taste of the South in Mama B’s Shrimp N’ Grits at BB’s on Montrose and Weistheimer. Savouring the breathtaking beauty of the Julia Ideson Building in downtown Houston, with its magnificent Reading Room, striking hallways and generous windows (lots of light!).
Traipsing. Discovering. Living. Being.
Something shifted on the night of November 8, letting in a fear and anger that has made it difficult to ‘see.’ And I attempt to use THAT word as little as possible here, because words, when deployed recklessly as they have been over the past several months, can and do Trump our attempts to accord ourselves humanity, dignity. No, I don’t want to use that word, it has been on my mind since November 8, it desires to make itself the single story, to swallow us and regurgitate us as inferior versions of ourselves, minions serving as apprentices to a Trumpian universe – the very worst of dystopia. Words carry meaning, connotations, context; words are never innocent, we know that. What does it mean, this ‘T’ word, what meanings and connotations has it accorded itself?
- Calling for a ban on all Muslims (remember Adolf Hitler’s call to first ostracise and then exterminate all Jews?)
- Claiming – against data that suggests that there is no evidence that immigrants commit more crimes than native-born Americans – that Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals
- 2016 word for Mysogyny:Bragging that one as a (famous white) male can ‘grab them by the pussy’
- Debasing Black Lives Matter and reducing it to a terrorist movement (rhetoric reminiscent of the Reagan Era when Civil Rights and the affirmative action movement were seen in a similar light, and support was given to apartheid South Africa, meanwhile demonising the anti-apartheid movement as ‘terrorists’)
- Smearing ‘Make America White Again’ swastikas on buildings
- Placing a black baby doll with rope around its neck in an elevator on a college campus
- Declaring that Black Lives Don’t Matter
- Shouting slogans such as ‘Cotton Picker, You’re a Nigger, Heil Hitler’
- Free and public expression of sentiments such as the following: ‘I can’t wait until Trump asks us to rape your people and send you back over the biggest damn wall we’re going to build’
- Free and public expression of sentiments such as the following: ‘How scared are u, u black bitch? I should kill u right now!’
I am overcome by a profound grief. I mourn for my personal illusion of America and what was possible in it, the death of the very best of my America that had so far cultivated in me a culture of free speech and thought as advancing humanity. A space that allows one the freedom to see, if one so wishes, in a world that does not want to be seen, only looked at. It takes a long time to see. Seeing is a difficult thing, always in flux because it’s reciprocal, a dialectical activity always in conversation with the world. The view is never static. And everything matters with seeing – angle, distance, depth, breadth, obstruction, mood… The mood of fear instigates a shrinking away from the lens and a surface view of others.
To stare at an image of yourself and come face to face with a face that you cannot recognise as your own, a caricature as seen by others, is the most dehumanising experience. It is a form of erasure
Viet Thanh Nguyen expresses the ethics and responsibility of seeing in his book, Nothing Ever Dies, where he talks eloquently about the value of Remembering One’s Own, as well as the value of Remembering Others:
‘If the ethics of remembering one’s own operates in every society, the ethics of remembering others is the refinement of remembering one’s own, at work only in those societies that see themselves as more open, inclusive, and tolerant…An ethics of recognition involves a change in how we see the other, and in how we see ourselves as well, especially in relation to the other…To avoid simplifying the other, the ethics of recognition demands that we remember our humanity and inhumanity, and the humanity and inhumanity of others as well. As for what this ethics of recognition asks us to forget – it is the idea that anyone or any nation or any people has a unique claim to humanity, to suffering, to pain, to being the exceptional victim.’ (2016: 77-97)
TO BE DEHUMANISED AND TO DEHUMANISE IN RETURN
I feel trapped in the imagery of November 8, in the experience of having been dehumanised and having a strong impulse, out of the hurt to, in turn, dehumanise. To see the world around me in terms of a totalising whiteness, and reflected in this my blackness. The white young man with a ragged beard at my regular Starbucks who is cleaning my table as I type this; does he look at me now, post-November 8, reeking of my Africanness with my wooden bangles and Africa necklace, and see a Trumpian immigrant? Is this who he is, a ‘white man’? Is this who I am, a ‘black immigrant’?
The Black Skin and White Masks of Fanon –that dynamic, oft-misunderstood, abused, anguished, beautiful mind –are calling out to me. What, in the end, did he say?
‘Before embarking on a positive voice, freedom needs to make an effort at disalienation…It is through self-consciousness and renunciation, through a permanent tension of his freedom, that man can create the ideal conditions of existence for a human world. Superiority? Inferiority? Why not simply try to touch the other, feel the other, discover each other?’ (1967: 205- 206)
A Friday walk in the early evening, three days after November 8, along Shepherd Avenue, turns into a stumble. Everything is a blur; Trader Joe’s to my right – housed, amusingly, in what used to be a cinema – and Little Pappas Seafood Kitchen to my left. Overhead, near the corner of Shepherd and Alabama, like some omen in a dystopian novel, the crows have gathered on the electricity wires, smudges of black against a cobalt-grey sky. There is whiteness all around me, everywhere whiteness, whiteness everywhere; I cannot breathe, blackness, whiteness, breathe, breathe, try to breathe…When I glimpse the two homeless men (white) who are always sitting by the bus-stop at the corner of Shepherd and Richmond and who sometimes greet me and whom I sometimes greet, I quickly cross the street.
Can we talk about the foundational ideas of Western civilisation and address its seeming inability to recognise other cultures except as a negation of itself? It becomes difficult, in an authoritarian atmosphere, to ask these kinds of questions freely
Are we now forever caught in a binary of blackness and whiteness? To stare at an image of yourself and come face to face with a face that you cannot recognise as your own, a caricature as seen by others, is the most dehumanising experience. It is a form of erasure. It is like an emptying of the insides, of the essential parts of you; it is a muting, a mutilation, a death of the real you and a rebirth of someone you do not recognise but may be shocked to find, through constant answering to this false image, yourself becoming.
This is what colonialism is. This is what imperialism is. This is what fear turns us into.
One of the attributes of the America I have experienced and that threatens to get lost – and there are many attributes of this place, some very beautiful, some very ugly, for the USA is both a country and an empire, doing the ugly things that countries and, on a more devastating scale, empires do – is the upholding of the thing I hold most dear: The freedom to think. To explore, free of limitations, in the sense of independent thinking and thoughtful expression, the potential of our world; the work of creative invention and intellectual innovation. It is different to grapple with the questions of how the recent surge in civic participation and ethical responsibility currently being propagated by Americans following Trump’s election can be extended in the American imagination from just a protection of all persecuted Americans to all humans persecuted by American imperialism. It becomes difficult not to read articles that speak so humanely about the plight of white rural America, highlighting this plight, which is a real thing, without noting, again, the kind of language that is deployed, that flattens and gives a one-dimensional view, with a kind of disingenuousness that fails to address how often racist and conservative in its view of non-white peoples much of white rural America is (I, as a black person, have been warned repeatedly not to try to venture to the rural parts of white America on my own, as it may be dangerous because of my skin colour), and how these two issues – the economic plight of white rural America and the concurrent ideas around race, especially given how racist, violent and inflammatory the pre-November election campaign language has been – ought not to be separated. They have a real tie to history. They both require grave attention. Which is to say, doesn’t this one-dimensional view facilitate pathos and not empathy, in the same kind of manner, but for different purposes, that the political rhetoric deployed during the election campaign flattened Muslims, Mexicans, minorities, people of colour, women and LGBTQs? It is this sort of erasure of language and its possibilities that I mourn, whose divisive currency now leads to a clamouring of voices as we all seek to inhabit the ‘group’ designated to us by narrow political rhetoric and compete, ‘free-market’ style, to highlight our respective plights as most deserving of attention over the plights of others. I become tempted to add a very long list of grievances that this space, that functions both as country and empire, ought to address with the same level of moral fervour: What about the plight of the Native Americans in the reserves? What about the Iraqi civilians trapped in the nightmare instigated by the US invasion of Iraq? The Syrian civilians (I hesitate to call them refugees as this immediately attaches the kind of narrow imaginary that others, flattens and divides). What about the black and brown peoples of the world who are the casualties, in their countries, of the ‘soft imperialism’ enforced by the US and Western Europe often in cahoots with local governments and elites – IMF and trade policies that hurt local industries and protect multinational corporations from bearing environmental responsibility? Is it possible, in this atmosphere, to ask, with the aim of the kind of critique that expands rather than constricts, how American culture can be made less insular so as to learn more about the rest of the world it must share with everybody else? Can we talk about the foundational ideas of Western civilisation and address its seeming inability to recognise other cultures except as a negation of itself? It becomes difficult, in an authoritarian atmosphere, to ask these kinds of questions freely, even ‘innocently’, and to cultivate the kind of creative and intellectual exploration that leads to innovative imaginaries of how we may inhabit our world. This is the kind of slower, yet equally crucial work of the creative enterprise, the work of slow-cooking the soul until it’s nice and tender, making sure not to turn up the heat too high lest that soul-stew burns.
An essay about a book due for a class turns into a post-Trump rant (directed at the book but so obviously not about the book). ‘White people’. ‘Whiteness’. ‘Privilege’. ‘White Supremacy’. I cannot breathe. I cannot ‘see’. Something feels bruised within. I can feel the fatigue creeping in. The creative and intellectual work I think I have been doing and participating in all this time – it suddenly feels inconsequential. Powerlessness. Grief.
There is nowhere to hide.
THE SLIPPERINESS OF IDEAS
Friday evening, November 11. At the Menil Gallery for a talk by the celebrated poet Terrance Hayes on the relationships between the written line and the drawn line. There is a precision to the stark, white walls of the gallery, a delicious coolness to the air-conditioned room. This hushed, civilised bourgeois atmosphere feels, in the context of the rest of the week, surreal. Hayes’s tawny skin, his graceful movements, his collected comportment, are in themselves an artistic installation thrown against the crisp white background of the Menil. Listening to him speak about the slipperiness of language, and the slipperiness of ideas as things that inhabit tangible, visible shapes, I can’t help but think of the ideas stuffed to near-bursting in the suffocating shapes we are each being encouraged to inhabit by the polarising language of political rhetoric. Anger is a surface response, a superficial response because it covers something else. It is necessary for the artist to be a shape-shifter, so as to inhabit different consciousnesses. Vulnerability can be a sort of power. Openness can be a sort of power. Vulnerability leaves one open to surprise.
Listening to Hayes’s talk, I can’t help but think of the people on the continent, back in South Africa and especially Zimbabwe. Have we, I wonder, been so abused and so beat down politically by many of our own leaders, that we have lost the capacity for outrage or any sort of meaningful emotion, the kind of response that can stir up something other than apathetic cynicism?
Listening to Hayes’s talk, I can’t help but think of the people on the continent, back in South Africa and especially Zimbabwe, and the kinds of political environments we inhabit. Have we, I wonder, been so abused and so beat down politically by many of our own leaders, and also this tumultuous history of struggle, that we have lost the capacity for outrage or any sort of meaningful emotion, the kind of response that can stir up something other than apathetic cynicism? What is this loss of the impetus to dare to imagine a radically different tomorrow? The death of the hope that we can get there? How, in an age where we have been encouraged to live only for ourselves and validate only those things in the world that impact us and our ‘group’ directly, can we expand the nodes of connection across a horizontal axis – that is to say, across spaces and nations – and not just a vertical one – the nationalist rhetoric we are hearing now everywhere, centred around our respective flags? What is it that Arundhati Roy said about flags? ‘Flags are bits of coloured cloth that governments use, first to shrink wrap people’s brains, and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.’
THE WORLD OUTSIDE, THE WORLD WITHIN
Seated at the Menil, listening to Hayes’s magnificent talk, and the invitation to the cheese and wine after, I imagine the effects of a timely disturbance just outside, the kind of frenetic commotion I feel inside; white and black bodies, slamming against the front glass wall of the gallery, faces squished against the pane; a thud, a jolt, our inner bourgeois tranquility ruffled, if only momentarily, as the world outside struggles to collide with the world within.
LOST AND NOT FOUND: What happens when people go missing in Kenya
It could be an empty bed or an untouched room. An automated horoscope on their Twitter account or a dormant Facebook profile. All that remains are memories. A family photo no one talks about anymore. Things left unsaid. Spaces left unfilled. Some choose to keep them that way in the hope that their loved one will walk back through the door.
But they don’t always do.
Mohammed Abdulkarim, popularly known as Czars, has been missing since October 2006. The teen heartthrob was barely a week away from his final high school exams and on the verge of what looked like it would be a wildly successful music career. The skinny, light-skinned 17-year-old was a national sensation for his song “Amka Ukatike.” Yet that day in 2006, he took a walk from their family home and never came back. Last year, on the tenth anniversary of his disappearance, his father voiced that undying hope that he will find his way back, wherever he is. He’d kept his son’s room intact for a decade.
For Abdullahi Boru, those constant reminders are embedded in his career after his best friend and former housemate, Bogonko Bosire, went missing in September 2013. Bogonko was a pioneer blogger who ran a popular and controversial tabloid. He went missing at the height of the International Criminal Court cases against President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy, William Ruto, and from the little we know so far, probably because of them. “I’ve known Bogonko Bosire since 2000 when we joined journalism school. Then after we were done we shared a house as we fit into our first jobs” Boru says. For him, Bosire is still in the present tense, an unsolved disappearance that will one day have a solution. That same year, in December, a senior State House advisor called Albert Muriuki also disappeared. His case too, remains unsolved.
Last year, on the tenth anniversary of his disappearance, his father voiced that undying hope that he will find his way back, wherever he is. He’d kept his son’s room intact for a decade
For the family of independence hero Kung’u Karumba, one of the Kapenguria Six, that has been a 43-year-long wait. The freedom fighter disappeared in 1974 while on a business trip to Uganda and was most likely caught up in political upheaval. But there has never been any proof of his death, so his family has kept hope alive. In 2004, 30 years after he went missing, his youngest wife Esther Wanjiru told The Standard “I am still waiting for him to show up in his pickup van, KPD 304.”
Without a Trace
“The reasons why people go missing are almost as varied as the people themselves,” a tracing investigator who requested anonymity tells me. Outside of extrajudicial killings and conflict, other reasons why people disappear include kidnappings, accidents and suicide. Someone can leave intentionally because they decided to, or drifted away. Someone can be forced to go missing because of disease or an accident. Mental health conditions rank highly here.
A close friend’s family once lost her 80-year-old grandmother, who suffered from dementia, for three weeks. She turned up in Dodoma, Tanzania with no memory of how she got there. In an email conversation, a lady called Sharon Johnston who lives in New Zealand told me about the fruitless search for her father, Dr. Tony Johnston who had lived and worked in Kenya for three decades. She eventually found him in a home for the elderly, living with dementia. His property seemed to have changed hands, and visitation rights were controlled by the same tight knit circle.
In the course of a week, I counted at least nine missing persons’ posters placed in different digital spaces, including several news alerts. Eight were kids below twelve years of age, and the ninth involving a teen, was deemed resolved after she was found at a friend’s house. I also scoured through a Facebook page called Kenya Missing & Unidentified Persons, which was set up to help families find their loved ones. Although it has not been updated since 2015, the page gives a small sample size of the people who go missing in Kenya. Of about 30 cases posted in a period of six months, most of them were relatively young (17-30 years old) and from a cursory glance, from the middle and lower socioeconomic classes. Almost all the cases involving older people, above 60 years of age, mentioned some form of mental illness.
She eventually found him in a home for the elderly, living with dementia. His property seemed to have changed hands, and visitation rights were controlled by the same tight-knit circle.
While Sharon was lucky in a way, most aren’t. Law enforcement agencies do not give priority to missing persons’ cases, and in some of them, are actually complicit. In one recent example, a human rights lawyer called Willie Kimani, his client, and a taxi driver were kidnapped and then killed by police officers. Such extrajudicial killings are at times followed by attempts to hide the bodies, or disfigure them beyond recognition.
Such police brutality and state violence have a long history in Kenya, even before the genocidal ‘50s. In precolonial Kenya, it was not unusual for people to leave and simply never come back. Some died in skirmishes, while others fell sick along the way. Others simply moved and made new homes elsewhere, sometimes leaving even their spouses behind. In the social dynamics of the time, this was not as serious as it is today, but the heartbreak was no less real.
But in that decade of the Mau Mau rebellion, disappearances especially of men from around Mount Kenya became commonplace. This would happen again, in the 2000s as Interior Security Minister John Michuki led a murderous effort to kill off the Mungiki, literally in this case. From hearing one of my grandmothers’ stories about how her dad left to pick rent from a residential building in Nairobi in 1954 and never came back, I moved to listening to one of my neighbors describe the last time she saw her son in 2008. He was a young, skinny lad with shaggy hair, and most likely got caught up in the extrajudicial war on the Mungiki.
If someone you know goes missing today, the process goes something like this. You make a report to a police station where a bored police officer records your complaint. Then forwards it to a police station with an investigator from the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). If it’s a high profile case then it might get priority, and the digital and physical search will begin immediately. If you are absolutely lucky, and this is rare, then you will never get to hear those debilitating words “investigations are still ongoing” and “the file is still open.”
But more often than not, you will be unlucky. There is no national data on missing persons, or any related database to speak of. Everyone is, at the base of it, groping in the dark. Access to a telecom company’s data may provide some answers as to the last place a phone was on, as well as the last people the person talked to. A find such as a car or clothes, as was the case with IEBC manager Chris Msando, may hint at a few things, but mostly say nothing. Add to this the fact that the investigation process is so opaque and complicated that it often feels like law enforcement agencies are not doing enough.
Most families supplement this with either searching for the person themselves or even hiring private investigators. A search of morgues is a common go-to solution, but it is often based on the hope that if the person is dead, they would be in the specific morgues the search party is looking into. The same goes for hospitals and hospices, and the search is grueling. At least one independent missing persons’ investigator was described to me as “…someone who walks into morgues the way he would a coffee shop.”
From hearing one of my grandmothers’ stories about how her dad left to pick rent from a residential building in Nairobi in 1954 and never came back, I moved to listening to one of my neighbors describe the last time she saw her son in 2008.
There are other avenues. The Red Cross has a tracing department in its offices across the world, including Kenya. The project, called “Restoring Family Links” is designed to help people look for their family members or restore contact with them. Their focus though, is on people who’ve gone missing due to conflict, disaster or migration. Without enough resources to expand this to cover all missing persons cases, even their assistance is limited.
Public appeals for information sometimes work. They can yield information about a sighting or identification of places where the family can start looking. But more often than not, each appeal for information is followed by many false leads. In the search for the teenage heartthrob Czars, for example, one of the earliest seemingly credible leads came from an entertainment journalist. He had gotten it from a source he trusted, and it looked promising at the time. Czars, the intel suggested, was living in Eastleigh, likely in the company of an older fling. That singular statement led to a wild-goose chase with journalists and the musician’s father scouring Eastleigh in vain.
Another infamous false lead example is in the days after Nyandarua MP JM Kariuki was killed. After he disappeared in early March 1975, then Vice President Daniel Arap Moi confidently said he had left the country for Zambia. It took a newspaper report to dispute this, and for five whole days, no one knew what had happened to the charismatic MP. His body was eventually found on March 12, 1975, mutilated.
Two decades before, another missing persons case had stood out in a decade of conflict. Mau Mau leader Stanley Mathenge disappeared one night in 1956, and for years the official story was that he had gone to Ethiopia to seek assistance for the cause. It stopped there, never explaining why the freedom army’s most formidable military mind chose to abandon the cause. Years later, in 2003, a stranger from Ethiopia was feted in his place, not only costing taxpayers’ money but also leaving the government embarrassed.
Like JM, its more likely Matheng’e never left Kenya. The most likely scenario was that his compatriot and power rival, Dedan Kimathi, had him killed and then weaved the Ethiopia story to avoid internal strife. Kimathi was himself shot and arrested later that year.
Some leads seem purely coincidental and others outright suspicious. In the case of Bogonko Bosire, that happened to be a terror attack. The last time anyone ever saw the journalist was on 18th September 2013, three days before the Westgate terror attack. Although his family had already been searching for him at that point, the leads suggesting he could have perished there kept coming. So they looked, through the rows upon rows of dead bodies from the mall, to no avail. A few times since, there has been some activity on his social media profiles. The last, at 5:30pm on August 10th 2016, was a new profile picture and name on his Facebook profile. “From time to time I check his Twitter handle to see if he’s back,” Boru tells me as we discuss his hope that his friend is still out there somewhere.
Where do We Go from Here?
Many cases remain unsolved because there is no coordinated effort to actually find them. Even well-meaning investigators are hampered by one thing, the lack of dependable data. While some patterns are easy to see, most of them aren’t. A child who disappears from home while in the care of her nanny has most likely been kidnapped, but not always. An aging man with a mental condition who goes missing on his way home probably got lost, but not always. A young man who disappears on his way home could have been shot by the police, but not always.
There is no national data on missing persons, or any related database to speak of. Everyone is, at the base of it, groping in the dark.
What Kenya needs is an integrated system that not only improves information flow between agencies and families, but also provides a support network for both. Part of this could be a searchable DNA and personal profile database for missing persons and unidentified remains. In countries like Scotland, for example, the standard operating procedures of policing give priority and resources to missing persons’ investigations.
There is some hope though. Earlier this year, the National Crime Research Center released a report on kidnappings in Kenya. In it, researchers found that you are most likely to be kidnapped if you are female, under 35 (and especially below 18) by men of around the same age. The report also ranked Kenya number 17 out of 19 in prevalence of kidnappings. It also looked into interventions and found that at least 12 different bodies, most of them government units such as the police and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, are involved in addressing kidnapping cases. Some private organisations include Missing Child Kenya, which provides free resources to search for and rescue missing kids.
Still, there is a long way to go in improving our interventions in finding missing people. In 2008, the US state of New Jersey passed “Patricia’s Law”, a landmark law that describes the investigative process when looking for missing persons. Named after Patricia Viola, a 42-year-old wife and mother who disappeared in February 2001 (her remains were identified via DNA a decade later), the 2008 law was part of a combined effort beginning in 2004 to facilitate communication between agencies to ease the process of finding missing persons. The law not only dictates who should (and must) accept missing persons reports, but also describes stages in the investigation. For example, after 30 days missing, the law enforcement agency is required to take a DNA reference sample from the family. The DNA is run through the Combined DNA Index System for Missing Persons.
Beyond such a legislative backbone, law enforcement agencies also need dedicated resources and personnel. These can form the core structure to coordinate the effort with other agencies as well as stakeholders such as telecom companies. It would also ease communication with the families and friends, and even ease the pressure on morgues, hospitals and hospices.
The last time anyone ever saw the journalist was on 18th September 2013, three days before the Westgate terror attack. Although his family had already been searching for him at that point, the leads suggesting he could have perished there kept coming.
Dependable data will also help researchers identify patterns, and give law enforcement agencies to investigate. As is, beyond their current training and help from telecom agencies and the public, there is little else to go on. No one knows for sure how many people are currently missing, and without that, it is impossible to actually to solve open cases, and even mitigate future ones. Such patterns can be age, gender, risk, and even location. Disappearances of young women in one specific location, or area, could point towards a serial killer, for example. A string of disappearances of kids could point to a human trafficking ring, or even something more sinister.
Anyone can disappear without a trace. Even people in the limelight like Czars, Bogonko Bosire, and Albert Muriuki. All these cases remain unsolved, but their families and friends maintain the hope that that won’t be the case forever. They are only three in an ever-growing list of people who have gone missing without a trace, leaving behind nothing but memories and a never ending worry. The worry that someone is in trouble, or is somewhere lost, is not easy on anyone. Some families simply seek closure, a body to bury even, or just answers. But they are few and far between, and mostly obtained through sheer luck and at times effective policing.
For some those answers never come. As days become months, and then years, and memories fade, the lingering need to find those we love doesn’t dissipate. The worst, Sharon wrote, is in the not knowing.
A NIGERIAN STORY: How Healthcare is the Offspring of Imperialism and Corruption
As a Nigerian, the greatest scorn often finds you when you argue for Nigeria. Other Nigerians will mock you, denounce you as impractical or a dreamer, when you say that Nigeria is where your future lies. But why?
Nigeria as a heritage that separates the Nigerian from the Black American is awarded a loud (though false) superiority. The Nigeria that is evoked in jollof rice debates is praised. Even the Nigeria that must beat Ghana in the football match is supported. Yet, it remains that the Nigeria that will gain a Nigerian’s abuse is the real Nigeria – with its abusive civil servants, its police haggling for bribes and its megachurches auctioning salvation. This real Nigeria is the child of a mean parent called corruption. It’s useful to trace the family tree of this corruption but also useful to think about the way corruption earns Nigeria scorn to the degree that anyone who argues for that Nigeria is unworthy in some way—or should we say, she who argues for Nigeria is worthy of its corruption?
The Nigeria-corruption association has been repeated so often that it has long since become the small talk of world leaders; David Cameron’s aside to Queen Elizabeth II about “fantastically corrupt” Nigeria is but one example. That corruption touches every facet of life in Nigeria is a banality. As Michael Ogbeidi, a history professor at the University of Lagos, put it so accurately in his article, Political Leadership and the Corruption in Nigeria Since 1960, “Indeed, it is difficult to think of any social ill in [Nigeria] that is not traceable to the embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds, particularly as a direct or indirect consequence of the corruption perpetrated by the callous political leadership class since independence”.
Bureaucratic corruption affects healthcare and this is a very old problem both in Nigeria and throughout the formerly colonized world. When Nigeria was incorporated by Imperial Britain, it was conceived of as a repository of natural minerals and riches that could be exported for the benefit of the master race and country. The profits of colonial exploitation are so large they inspire disbelief. For instance, the British Ministry of Food made profits of 11 million pounds sterling in some years, according to Walter Rodney. As Rodney’s seminal text, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, so clearly explains: this obscene figure of 11 million pounds sterling per annum was the result of artificially low prices set by private capitalist investors in Britain. The British government allowed dummy organizations, like the West African Cocoa Control Board (est. 1938) to lie to and bully African farmers, while pretending to advocate for them. Moreover, farmers were mandated to sell their crops no matter what price they were given. The farmers did not have the might to stand up against the military and political power of the British government. They did not have a choice. They were not economic players in the game, just chess pieces to be thrown around the board. At any rate, 11 million pounds accounts for the profits of just one body, the British Ministry of Food, so we can only imagine the cumulative profits enjoyed by the British Empire.
When Nigeria was incorporated by Imperial Britain, it was conceived of as a repository of natural minerals and riches that could be exported for the benefit of the master race and country.
Whatever the final profits, the people of Nigeria didn’t share in the wealth generated from such exports. The people were simply the machinery of the capitalist endeavor. They were machinery in the sense that the colonial political and economic government had absolutely no consideration for their physical well-being. Instead, by allowing missionaries to overrun the landmass, they rid the country of traditional doctors and what is now referred to as homeopathic medicines. For all the superstition and abuse that occasionally accompanied it, traditional medicine functioned as a rudimentary healthcare infrastructure across the African continent. Aspects of these so-called primitive practices have real and proven benefits.
For instance, West African medical practice is the foundation for inoculation and vaccination. In fact, when inoculation was introduced in colonial Boston during the 1721 smallpox epidemic, the origins of inoculation were so widely known that it was derided as “African” medicine and “Negroish thinking” in the press. Cotton Mather, who is credited with introducing inoculation into North America, wrote extensively about how a West African born slave, Onesimus, told him about inoculation practices. After learning from Onesimus, Mather began interviewing other enslaved Africans who backed up Onesimus’ testimony of being inoculated as children. Mather then tested inoculation on slaves born outside of Africa and when it proved successful, he introduced it to the white population. But as the practice of inoculation became widespread throughout colonial America, and the rest of the West, its origins were conveniently forgotten.
Once the traditional healer was undermined by new religious concepts, Imperial Britain continued to loot the land and exploit the people. Never was there any real investment in an alternative healthcare infrastructure. There are those who quote the 19th century European lie: they brought us civilization; they brought us religion and railways and doctors! But the numbers don’t bear that out. Rodney notes that in the 1930s, the British colonial government maintained a 34-bed hospital for Ibadan when the city had a population of 500,000 people! The colonial government later expanded their medical facilities, but this was only after pressure from nationalist movements set up by people tired of economic and political exploitation.
For instance, West African medical practice is the foundation for inoculation and vaccination. In fact, when inoculation was introduced in colonial Boston during the 1721 smallpox epidemic, the origins of inoculation were so widely known that it was derided as “African” medicine and “Negroish thinking” in the press.
It’s obvious that the dearth of medical and healthcare infrastructure was inherited by the national government in the 1960s. Understanding this history, it can be easy to excuse Nigeria and the Nigerian elite. In fact, this is precisely the hope of the Nigerian political and economic elite.
But we can’t let this excuse win the day since the post-1960 era hasn’t seen a marked continual commitment to the healthcare infrastructure system. The initial investment in healthcare wasn’t bad. In fact, as AO Malu, of Benue State Teaching Hospital, points out, when the Ashby Commission on Higher Education recommended the expansion of educational facilities in 1960, the year of Nigeria’s independence, Medical Faculty at the London College of Ibadan (now known as the University of Ibadan) was expanded and new medical schools were established in Lagos and in Northern Nigeria. The newly independent government continued to found and support teaching hospitals, particularly in the southwestern and northwestern region of Nigeria (Malu).
These teaching hospitals were instrumental in educating the vast majority of licensed nurses and doctors in Nigeria. Up until the late 1980s, they were known for professional teaching quality, their rigor, cleanliness and commitment to medically-appropriate technology. There is many a “middle class” Nigerian that can testify to their own birth or treatment in a Nigerian teaching hospital. Graduates in this 25-year span, from 1960 to 1985, also willingly testify to the maintenance of the facilities, which is no small thing since it both reflects and demands pride from the facilities’ users. It also reflects real material investment and demands it as well. But all of these testimonies are historical. The testimonies are about what the teaching hospitals used to be. Neglected by federal and state governments, the hospitals are today decrepit artifacts that are stuck with the technology of the last decade. I know one doctor who cried when she visited her alma mater in Rivers State, such was the state of the place with debris and rats. Another physician I know refused to discuss her medical school; she stammered, shook her head in anger and walked away. When she returned to the subject, she said only, “It was never, never like that before. The standard has really fallen.”
These teaching hospitals were instrumental in educating the vast majority of licensed nurses and doctors in Nigeria. Up until the late 1980s, they were known for professional teaching quality, their rigor, cleanliness and commitment to medically-appropriate technology.
But these “historical” hospitals are still hospitals. They still admit patients and attempt to treat them; they still admit students and attempt to educate them. Their treatment is curtailed by the lack of technological investment, the deteriorating facilities and the stagnated curriculum that Nigerian medical students are afforded. This is not the doing of some late 19th century Briton. It is the result of the rampant and insidious corruption executed by the political elite and their counterparts in the financial sector. As Professor Ogbeidi, notes in his article, citing this 2004 Reuters interview with then anti-graft chief Nuhu Ribadu, “Incontrovertibly, corruption became endemic in the 1990s during the military regimes of Babangida and Abacha, but a culture of impunity spread throughout the political class when democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999. In fact, corruption took over as an engine of the Nigerian society and replaced the rule of law”. In other words, the neglect of healthcare infrastructure is a product of recent and present-day choices that continually disregard the health of the people who are the machinery of the nation.
The teaching hospital model was never capable of nor adequate in caring for Africa’s most populous nation. It was a step in the correct direction, but a step that has been halted. As Professor Ogbeidi puts it: “As a consequence of unparalleled and unrivalled corruption in Nigeria, the healthcare delivery system… [has]become comatose and [is] nearing total collapse.”
So what are Nigerians left with? The vast majority of Nigerians who were never able to access teaching hospitals must rely on book doctors and unlicensed and unregulated pharmacies. A book doctor is a person who has learned about the practice of Western medicine solely from books. This book doctor never attended medical school, never sat for a medical certification or license exam and never completed a residency or rotation under the supervision of more experienced medical practitioner. Book doctors are common in areas outside of the major Nigerian cities. Having been to one myself, I can attest to the fact that they are not clandestine operations, but clearly marked persons with public enterprises. Neither the federal nor state governments make any attempt to investigate them in the interest of the people.
My experience with the book doctor was fine. He was affable. All the materials I observed were clean and unused. His nurses were well-trained and products of nursing schools. Yet the facility did not have electricity from the Nigerian energy grid, running water, nor a toilet. (Outside of major Nigerian cities, it is not rare to go 2 or more months without electricity from the Nigerian energy grid, this is despite the fact that Nigeria sells energy to Togo, Benin, and Niger.) The book doctor instead powered his facility with a generator and bathroom functions were undertaken in a darkened room at the back of the property. The patients brought their own water.
Book doctors are common in areas outside of the major Nigerian cities. Having been to one myself, I can attest to the fact that they are not clandestine operations, but clearly marked persons with public enterprises.
Despite my benign experience, Nigerians die daily from inadequate care from book doctors, just as they die from the inadequate healthcare system throughout Nigeria. Death is the fruit of corruption.
The other fruit of corruption is the bankruptcy of Nigeria’s national wealth.
In making adequate healthcare difficult or impossible to access, the political class is making it an absolute necessity for people to seek medical help outside of Nigeria’s borders. This drives those people who can afford it, to go to African countries like Ghana and South Africa, or ever further to Europe, India, the Middle East or the Americas for medical care. This is an insane situation for a citizen of an oil-rich country.
The Nigerian government acknowledges that sending medical tourists abroad is a real problem that has cost the country at least 1₦ billion –the equivalent of 690 million pounds sterling. This is money that was made in Nigeria but spent elsewhere; money that should be circulating in the Nigerian economy. Bu a real investment of capital into the construction and maintenance of medical infrastructure would not only stem this but also enrich the country, especially if the construction materials were purchased from Nigerian companies and Nigerians were employed in the labor.
But the same government that is legislating against “medical tourism” is led by President Mohammed Buhari who has become the “face of medical tourism.” President Buhari spent 7 weeks, from January to March, in London before offering up a vague explanation about his health. The lack of specificity was an allusion that was meant to be understood in the mind of the Nigerian citizen as you know we no get oyibo (white man) medicine na. Buhari left Nigeria for London again in May. When the Nigerian populace, aided by journalists, demanded that the President return and govern after an absence of more than 3 months, the president reluctantly returned. He has refused to say how much money the Nigerian government spent on his almost 5-month stay in London. No matter. The failing Nigerian healthcare system is implicit in the president’s long stay in high-priced London and the unstated, exorbitant price tag is yet another example of political corruption.
The Nigerian government acknowledges that sending medical tourists abroad is a real problem that has cost the country at least 1₦ billion –the equivalent of 690 million pounds sterling.
This drama, of course, comes after the 2010 death of President Umaru Musa Yar’adua whose 3-month medical stay in Saudi Arabia ended when the Nigerian government sent a delegation to “check on his health.” Yar’adua’s absence was explained to the Nigerian people as medical treatment, but during those 3 months, he was not seen in public and this fueled both rumor and a real leadership crisis in the federal government.
The travels of Yar’adua and Buhari demonstrate in a practical, evidentiary manner that the Nigerian healthcare system has been abandoned by its political elites. They seek their health and medical care elsewhere and as a result, they have left the funding and maintenance of the healthcare infrastructure to the birds.
Yet, still the middle class, takes the political and financial elite as “leaders” and follows them abroad. They are not leaders; they are elites by virtue of being on top of the capitalistic structure and because they are elitist, believing that only those at the top should have access to what are now called “basic human necessities,” including electricity and running water. If they were not elitist, they wouldn’t rob the country to the detriment of the health and very life of the people.
In going abroad, middle-class Nigerians are increasingly identifying service sectors and medical acumen with the West. This is dangerous because such identification alleviates the pressure to improve the facilities within Nigeria. The determination to go abroad should instead be replaced by the determination to improve the healthcare infrastructure at home.
The travels of Yar’adua and Buhari demonstrate in a practical, evidentiary manner that the Nigerian healthcare system has been abandoned by its political elites. They seek their health and medical care elsewhere and as a result, they have left the funding and maintenance of the healthcare infrastructure to the birds.
The portion of the Nigerian middle-class that does utilize the healthcare system have little encouragement. Added to the corruption that robs the system is the dearth of physicians who might otherwise provide superior care and demand attention from the political and financial elites. It is not that Nigerian isn’t training medics, but the problems already noted drive them to ply their trade abroad.
A 2013 article by the Foundation for the Advancement of International Medical Education and Research (FAIMER) is titled “Nigerian Medical School Graduates and the US Physician Workforce” and the title says it all. Despite the corruption and deteriorating conditions, Nigerian-educated medical professionals are skilled physicians who are able to practice throughout the world. This is good for them but bad for Nigeria.
According the statistics of the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, at least 4300 Nigerian medical graduates were certified to practice in the United States between 1980 and 2012. That is 4,300 doctors who are not practicing in Nigeria. What would Nigeria be like with 4,300 more doctors? Before answering, consider that this is only one type of certification program doctors in the United States and Canada; it does not account for the medical graduates who have emigrated to mainland Europe, the UK, Australia, the Caribbean nations, India, or the increasingly, alluring South American republic of Brazil. Now consider that President of the Healthcare Federation of Nigeria, thinks that the correct estimate of Nigerian doctors practicing abroad is closer to 37,000. This is a real exodus with dangerous ramifications.
With the flight of medical graduates, Nigeria must educate another person to become part of the healthcare infrastructure. With the flight of medical graduates, Nigeria loses another bloc of people capable of putting pressure on the political class to fix the healthcare infrastructure. With the flight of medical graduates, Nigeria loses people who might create real national wealth by buying Nigerian made goods and supporting local industry, rather than the cheaply made, imports – the shine shine – that litter the market stalls of the subsistence worker and the Instagram pages of the so-called middle class. With the flight of the medical graduate, Nigeria is left stagnant.
Now consider that President of the Healthcare Federation of Nigeria, thinks that the correct estimate of Nigerian doctors practicing abroad is closer to 37,000. This is a real exodus with dangerous ramifications.
It is this stagnant Nigeria that earns a Nigerian the ridicule of his countrymen. At home, everyone (or so it seems) wants to travel abroad. Abroad, home is just a green-and-white outfit, a party theme on October 1st. Healthcare in Nigeria is a fatal casualty of continued political corruption. Medical tourism will cease only after the government has demonstrated sustained and responsible investment and maintenance of healthcare schools and facilities. Until then, the middle class will follow its political and economic elites in seeking medical treatment abroad; they will spend their hard-earned money in other countries and continue to wonder why death and bankruptcy follow them home to Nigeria.
THE BLACK SPOT: Why The Kenyan Road System Is Designed To Kill
Two road crashes in the first two weeks of November have robbed Kenya of six lives including that of Nyeri Governor, Wahome Gakuru, and once again brought to the fore the crisis of safety on the country’s roads and highways.
As of November 8, according to statistics released by the National Transport and Safety Authority, 2,387 people had lost their lives on our roads. In its 2015 Global Status Report on Road Safety, the World Health Organisation shows Kenya’s roads are amongst the most dangerous in the world claiming an average of 29.1 lives per 100,000 people. By comparison, Norway, which has significantly more cars on its roads had just a tenth of Kenya’s average fatalities per 100,000. Road crashes are among the top ten killers of Kenyans, account for between 45 and 60 percent of all admissions to surgical wards and cost the country up to 5 percent of GDP.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. While the number of registered vehicles on the roads nearly doubled between 2008 and 2012, from just over 1 million to just under 1.8 million according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the total number of both accidents and victims actually fell by about half says the 2015 study Analysis of Causes & Response Strategies of Road Traffic Accidents in Kenya. However, what should set off alarm bells is that despite this, the number of deaths barely budged. It may only make the news when crashes either involve large numbers of people or a prominent person is killed, but on average, Kenya has lost a Nissan matatu-load of people every two days for at least the last decade and a half.
In the face of such appalling statistics, it is nothing short of outrageous that the NTSA considers a reduction of 4 percent in the number of pedestrians who have lost their lives on the roads as “drastic”. Though overall deaths were down by a slightly higher 5.8 percent, it speaks to the low expectations the Authority has of itself that the numbers it is celebrating do not even come close its own rather modest target of reducing traffic fatalities by 12 percent.
By comparison, Norway, which has significantly more cars on its roads had just a tenth of Kenya’s average fatalities per 100,000.
The widely trumpeted but almost always short-lived measures that have been taken by the government to address the issue over the last ten years -such the famous “Michuki rules”, the banning of night buses, enforcement of speed limits, introduction of random breathalyzer tests- have barely budged the average annual number of deaths which still hovers stubbornly around the 3000 mark. By contrast Sweden, which has the world’s safest roads managed to slash in half the number of traffic deaths between 2000 and 2014.
What are the Swedes doing right?
Unlike Kenya’s knee-jerk approach, where reactionary legal measures are quickly announced in the aftermath of a particularly horrific crash, with little research, forethought or long-term planning, and just as quickly forgotten, the Swedes have adopted a more systemic, evidence-based method. Unlike their Kenyan counterparts, the Swedish Transport Administration does not believe that deaths and injuries on roads are an inevitable cost of having a functional road network. “We simply do not accept any deaths or injuries on our roads,” says Hans Berg told The Economist in 2014. Matts-Åke Belin, a traffic safety strategist with the same agency in an interview with CityLab calls it a “civil rights thing”, saying that rather than trying to get people to adapt to the traffic system, the Swedes are trying to “create a system for the humans”.
It may only make the news when crashes either involve large numbers of people or a prominent person is killed, but on average, Kenya has lost a Nissan matatu-load of people every two days for at least the last decade and a half.
This focus on building “a system for the humans” is the central pillar of Vision Zero, the radical policy that since 1997, has governed the nation’s approach to transportation. It is even written into their laws. In the same year, the Swedish Parliament passed the Road Traffic Safety Bill which declared that, “the responsibility for every death or loss of health in the road transport system rests with the person responsible for the design of that system”.
Think about that for a minute. Road accidents are not the fault of drunk or crazy drivers, of careless pedestrians or stupid cyclists. Instead, as Dinesh Mohan notes, the Swedes put the blame on “the engineers who build and maintain the road and the police department that manages traffic on that road. Not primarily on the people who use the road because it has been demonstrated that road user behaviour is conditioned by the system design and how it is managed.”
Vision Zero seeks to not just reduce, but to completely eliminate deaths and serious injuries on the roads. But it does so, not primarily on the back of enforcement of punitive legislation as is the preferred approach in Kenya. “We are going much more for engineering than enforcement,” says Belin. “If we can create a system where people are safe, why shouldn’t we? Why should we put the whole responsibility on the individual road user, when we know they will talk on their phones, they will do lots of things that we might not be happy about? So let’s try to build a more human-friendly system instead. And we have the knowledge to do that.”
Enforcement of traffic rules is an important element but rather than merely bullying road users into compliance, the Swedes are building their system around the road users. Safety is not something that is added to the road system; it is an essential component of the system itself. As one analysis of the policy puts it: “Road users are responsible for following the rules for using the system set by the designers. If the users fail to obey the rules … or they obey and injuries occur nonetheless, the system designers must take steps to avoid people being killed or seriously injured.” The road system is thus built in the knowledge that people will break the rules and is structured to both minimize the opportunity for wrongdoing and to mitigate the harm that can result.
Matts-Åke Belin, a traffic safety strategist with the same agency in an interview with CityLab calls it a “civil rights thing”, saying that rather than trying to get people to adapt to the traffic system, the Swedes are trying to “create a system for the humans”.
In Kenya, the approach is diametrically opposite. While the NTSA acknowledges that 80 percent of road crashes are caused by human error, and blames everything from drunk drivers to jaywalking pedestrians, it rarely discusses the design of our road transport systems, the behaviour it incentivizes and how such errors are mitigated beyond arresting people and increasing fines.
Take the two crashes referenced at the beginning of this tale. Both happened at notorious “black spots”, one at Salgaa and the other at Kabati. Murang’a County Commissioner John Elung’ata says of Kabati, where the Governor died, that “motorists lose control whenever it rains”. The 14-kilometre stretch between Salgaa and Sachangwan along the Nakuru-Eldoret highway has been the scene of multiple horrific accidents involving trucks. Yet in 2015, then NTSA Chairman, Lee Kinyanjui, whose agency blamed the crashes on “ignorant drivers” could only promise that “over and above fining those freewheeling, we will be recommending an immediate revocation of their licences and this should go to all the drivers. Reckless driving on our roads will no longer be there.” In these cases, administrators seem to have either resigned themselves to the inevitability of crashes or limited their responses to punishment. There was not talk of redesigning the road to eliminate the “black spot”. Instead Kinyanjui promised to “construct lorry park with a capacity of 200 vehicles where the NTSA officers will be checking lorries”.
But one could perhaps cut Kinyanjui a little slack. While the NTSA can only advise the national government on such design changes and mostly appears to confine itself to patrolling roads to catch errant drivers or chasing down jay-walking pedestrians, STA actually owns, constructs, operates and maintains all state roads in Sweden.
Obviously, a road system is more than just the state of the road and transport authorities have to coordinate with a wide array of government agencies, non-governmental organizations and road users. That system includes all factors that have a bearing on behaviour on the road. As such, the commitment to safety cannot be simply a matter for one body, but rather a national, even cultural commitment. As Belin says, “Sweden has a long tradition of working with safety. So Vision Zero is also based on a historical context.” It is, after all, the home of Volvo. Kenya, on the other hand, has historically had a rather tenuous relationship with safety and a huge appetite for risk. From our politics to security to our hospitals, being Kenyan is like a constant dicing with death. A national obsession with safety is definitely a bonus. However, even without one, Kenya can make better infrastructural decisions that would reduce the risk of injury and death.
The road system is thus built in the knowledge that people will break the rules and is structured to both minimize the opportunity for wrongdoing and to mitigate the harm that can result.
Take the Thika Superhighway, on which Governor Gakuru died, as an example. The road which rumbles through populated areas is Kenya’s most dangerous road for pedestrians. In 2014, the Senate committee on transport and infrastructure found that over 200 pedestrians had died since the road was inaugurated two years prior. Nearly 300 had been injured. That works out to about 5 people killed or injured every week. The difference between Thika Superhighway and, say, the UK’s M40 is not that Kenyans are congenitally poor drivers and law breakers and the British are not. In fact, the M40 does have its fair share of pile ups. But the reason you do not find pedestrians dashing across it and buses stopping on it is mostly that such problems have been engineered out. People don’t run across it because it is not located where they would need to. We obviously cannot physically move our Superhighway but we can ask questions about how and where our roads are built and about the systems governing the behaviour on them.
We can also ask about emergency responses, or rather, the lack of them. And about the safety of guard rails and whether there are better alternatives. Road accidents, even when they do happen, need not result in grievous injury or death. Why weren’t systems for rescuing trapped people and getting them emergency care factored into the design of the road? How can Kenya fix this? And what rules for other existing and future highways?
Perhaps nowhere would such approach be beneficial than in addressing the safety problems posed by Kenya’s public transport system. According to the WHO, in Kenya “buses and matatus are the vehicles most frequently involved in fatal crashes and passenger in these vehicles account for 38 percent of total road deaths.” Although the 2015 study found that matatus only caused about a third as many accidents as cars and utility vehicles considering that matatus make up only about 5 percent of the about 2 million vehicles on our roads, the fact that they cause around 15 percent of accidents indicates a big problem.
The study found that “Kenyan drivers cause crashes largely because of behavioural and attitudinal problems” and that these problems were more acute in drivers of Public Service Vehicles. “While matatu drivers are viewed as crooks, they regard other drivers as amateurs and always try to show them that they have superior driving skills.”
However, adopting the Swedish approach, one would not just settle for blaming the drivers, as the study, the NTSA and pretty much all of Kenya does. Considering the ecosystem they operate in, the ridiculous and seemingly suicidal behaviour of matatu drivers seems rational, reasonable even.
Kenya, on the other hand, has historically had a rather tenuous relationship with safety and a huge appetite for risk. From our politics to security to our hospitals, being Kenyan is like a constant dicing with death.
The late Donella Meadows, in Thinking in Systems – A Primer described a system as “a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time,” and invited us to consider the implications of the idea that any system, to a large extent, causes its own behavior. Consider the Kenyan public transport system, which is privately owned and dominated by matatus.
Most matatu crews are not salaried. They basically have a deal with the matatu owner where they deliver an agreed sum every day and get to share what is left over. This means that their daily income is directly tied to how many people they carry and how many trips they make. At the same time, as this Africa Uncensored investigation reveals, most traffic policemen on the road are there, not to enforce the rules, but to extort bribes, matatus being a favourite target. In fact, during vetting by the National Police Service Commission last year, many traffic officers were unable to explain the source of their wealth and the many mobile transactions they seemed to be making. Given that it has been reported that most actually pay their superiors for the privilege of being deployed on the roads, it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out where they were sending the money.
The rub of this is that matatu drivers have big incentives to stop anywhere to pick up passengers and to make as many trips as possible, even when this means driving like madmen. The police, on the other hand, have little incentive to enforce the law. And given that many powerful government officials and senior police officers own matatus, there is little incentive to fix the problem.
Looked at from this perspective, it is clear that the problem is less incompetent drivers with an attitude problem, but rather the perverse system of incentives which generates the behaviour. Thus the solutions proposed, such as retraining and recertifying drivers, will have little effect. As US philosopher Robert Pirsig, wrote in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory.” Similarly, retraining drivers without changing the underlying system will resolve nothing.
Considering the ecosystem they operate in, the ridiculous and seemingly suicidal behaviour of matatu drivers seems rational, reasonable even.
Changing the system would require the NTSA to confront more powerful forces than lowly matatu crews, but is the true measure of the government’s commitment to dealing with the carnage matatu’s wreak on the road. However, it is not just where matatus are concerned that Kenya could benefit from a serious retooling. Rather than shooting from the hip when confronted with speeding or drinking drivers, the country would do well to adopt a research and evidence-based approach which looks at the problem in all its facets. For example, if, as one study found, “mandatory seat belt use laws and beer taxes may be more effective at reducing drunk driving fatalities than policies aimed at general deterrence,” should Kenya be focusing on those?
An important aspect of ensuring roads are safe is ensuring the road system caters for the needs of all its users, not just a few of them. That requires understanding how the roads are actually used. According to the World Bank’s Kenya State of the Cities Baseline Survey released in March 2014, half the labour force and three-quarters of students walk to work or to school. Another 43 percent and 19 percent respectively use matatus. Only 3 percent actually drive to work. Yet Kenyan roads treat pedestrian traffic as an afterthought and, as detailed above, the public transport system is in a shambles. This inevitably creates conflicts and, as statistics show, it is passengers and pedestrians who bear the brunt of the violence on our roads. Similarly, as the use of motorcycle-taxis, or bodaboda, has increased, so has the number of fatalities and injuries associated with them.
Concepts such as the Dutch-inspired “shared space”, which does not privilege cars and other motorized transport but rather treats the road as a community asset for the use of all traffic, motorized or otherwise, could help reduce the carnage. Well thought-out policies, including pedestrianizing the CBD, have been successfully adopted in cities like Pontevedra in Spain, which eliminated 53 percent of traffic in the city as a whole and 97 percent at its historical centre. “We inverted the pyramid,” its long serving Mayor, Miguel Lores, says, “leaving the pedestrians above, followed by bicycles and public transport, and with the private car at the bottom.” As a result, the city has not had a single traffic fatality in 6 years.
Understanding behaviour on the roads does not require condoning its unsavoury aspects. Rather, it means Kenya can get to grips with the systemic reasons such behaviour is prevalent and why it is destructive. It means, beyond demonizing road users, the NTSA and other stakeholders within and outside the government consider how they contribute to the problem, and what needs to change in order to either eliminate the incentives for that behaviour or to mitigate its effects.
Concepts such as the Dutch-inspired “shared space”, which does not privilege cars and other motorized transport but rather treats the road as a community asset for the use of all traffic, motorized or otherwise, could help reduce the carnage.
In fact, Kenyan roads are a microcosm of the colonially-inspired hierarchies at work in Kenya and the relative values they place on the time, lives as well as the fortunes of the various classes of Kenyans. At the very top is the political class and those riding on their coat tails, from government officials to the wannabe county potentates for whom nothing is allowed to get in the way of their dash to riches. The tiny middle class is next in line and at the very bottom of the pile are the poor, whose presence on the Kenyan road is barely tolerated despite their vastly superior numbers. When, periodically, their anger spills over in riots and “mass action” they can take over the streets entirely. Like the traffic police, the institutions of accountability simply serve to keep everybody in their proper place. They are there to police the citizens, to clear a path for their betters.
Eliminating traffic deaths and injuries is an achievable goal. But to do it, Kenya must change, not just its roads and its drivers, but itself. The country must revolutionize its approach to the problem and start seeing people as the reason the road system, and indeed the entire rubric of government, exists. In short, like Sweden, it must “create a system for the humans”.
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