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BLACK SKINS, WHITE MASKS REVISITED: Moving From Education To Knowledge

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Education Africa

I attended a private high school, Girls’ College, in my teens. It is situated in the leafy suburb of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. We received what was deemed “the best education”, which is to say, distinctly British. We had etiquette lessons in form one, at age thirteen, where we were taught how to talk, how to walk, how to laugh, how to eat, how to pour tea, how to sit. It was a stellar education into the ways of British bourgeois society.

We had to read the Bible during assembly. You had to practise the reading beforehand, in the presence of an English teacher, to make sure you got the pronunciation right. If you mispronounced a word during assembly, the whole room would fall apart in hushed giggles. And yet, pronunciation is a matter of one’s mother tongue, in which case, there are many ways to speak English, particularly seeing as it has become a dominant global language. And yet, because of our multiplicity, it has also come to be possessed by and thus carried by multiple dialects, cultures and ways of being.

The British Englishness we learned at school was a form of education that alienated the black pupils from themselves and fostered in the white pupils their British, albeit colonial, heritage.

During Africa Day, there were readings during assembly in Ndebele, and when the white girls mispronounced Ndebele words, the assembly would, in contrast to when the black girls read English, fall into solemn silence, and afterwards clap their hands enthusiastically for an effort well done.

We did the Cambridge IGCSE examinations for our O, AS and A levels—the crucial exams taken at age sixteen, seventeen and eighteen—and so we learned European history, that is to say, world history from the perspective of Europe. This history encapsulated the partitioning of Africa at the 1884 Berlin Conference, as well as the World Wars I and II. Everything was told from the vantage point of Europe, which, to quote Achille Mbembe in his seminal treatise Decolonising Knowledge and the Question of the Archive, tried “to portray colonialism as a normal form of social relations between human beings rather than a system of exploitation and oppression.” We studied Jayne Eyre and William Shakespeare in our English class. As the forward-looking, cosmopolitan future of tomorrow, we also studied French.

The need to study for the British Cambridge exams instead of the local Zimsec ones was necessitated by the fact that the teaching profession, along with other civil servant professions, had deteriorated along with the economic and political mayhem in Zimbabwe, starting from the early 2000s. The teachers in government schools went for months without pay, and thus went on strike frequently, or simply had to find other means to support themselves. As a result, the education system was in chaos, and students who wrote the Zimsec exams would receive results for subjects they had not taken in school, giving them ground to question the results for the subjects they had really taken and may have, according to the dubious results, failed. A private education, and doing the Cambridge IGCSE exams, became a much sought-after alternative to the local Zimsec exams, one that could guarantee not only a “stellar education”, but also increase one’s chances of gaining entry into reputable universities outside the country. The university system in Zimbabwe—once lauded as one of the best on the continent—had also deteriorated, thanks to the crises crippling the country.

I became “African” in the USA, someone from Africa, not the real Africa, if there can be said to be such an Africa, but the Africa of the Western imagination.

At the time of my high school education, from 2001 to 2007, we were going through what we believed would be a short nightmare, but which has endured for the past two or so decades. The city of Bulawayo, and the whole country, was knotted in never-ending bread, mealie-meal and fuel queues. The city was a hive of energy; we laughed at ourselves and cluck-clucked over this terrible situation, as though refusing to bow to the burden of grief and struggle, and humiliation. There was comfort to be found in this communal suffering; perhaps it took away the sting of it, a little bit.

We did not know it then, and it felt new to us and anguished us greatly, but we, once deemed the bread basket of Africa, had become yet another post-colonial cliché. Zimbabwe is currently involved in a struggle for self-realisation where its denizens refuse to accept as normal the abnormal, tragic conditions of the country, a route which has been taken by the majority of post-colonial societies. Spaces like Nigeria, for instance, where this has been going on for decades, have come to somehow find a logic within and a “normalcy” to their dysfunctionality. Perhaps Zimbabwe has a few more decades to play out its anguished, fighting spirit against the post-colonial condition. Perhaps something new, something other than what has come before, will emerge out of this struggle. Post-colonial societies are nothing if not prime sites of experimentation and struggle to bring about new forms of societal organisation. The planet is dying; capitalism has continued to wreak havoc and exploit the black and brown world; we need a new way of being.

My high school education, including the etiquette classes, felt like a performance. One that had social currency, for Girls’ College is a respected school that is successful both academically and in sports. But outside this artificial school life, I had a home to go back to, a society to traverse, friends and relatives to interact with. One was aware, at once, of inhabiting two worlds, one extremely utilitarian and divorced from one’s society, and yet possessing high currency—the high school setting and its teachings—the other filled with various strands of knowledge which one had access to and partook in but whose utility was not clear in the society. This kind of knowledge was garnered from my grandmothers, for instance, from my aunts, from my Ndebele culture, from the eclectic youth culture of our society, from the adaptation of and application on home soil of a multicultural perspective—a testament to the mobility of knowledge—and the shared hopes and dreams of nationhood (not to be confused with nationalism, which is a form of jingoism that is more divisive than it is consilient).

For me, my life at school and my life in my society demonstrated the difference between education and knowledge. Education is very much a top-down approach that is harnessed by the state to meet its functionary needs (and in many spaces in Africa not even that; the education seems not to be geared towards the needs of the state in service to its denizens, but rather the state as an arm of globalisation, through which the best knowledge and resources flow from the periphery to the centre).

Art is where living occurs; living as a wondrous site of struggle, where life bursts from the dark, wet confines of the womb into the piercing light of existence, where woman exercises that great gift endowed to her by consciousness: freedom.

Knowledge, on the other hand, is fertilised by the communal meeting of shared hopes, dreams, values, cultures, traditions and ways of being. This is what makes up a nation—a group of people who share bonds due to common values and hopes. Artists can be said to be the harbingers, agitators, keepers and illuminators of the spirit of nationhood.

The British Englishness we learned at school was a form of education that alienated the black pupils from themselves and fostered in the white pupils their British, albeit colonial, heritage. But more interesting in this meeting of various cultures, albeit not on equal footing, was the manifestation of the various cultural identities and combative histories that make up the country Zimbabwe.

In contrast, English as it is used in daily life in Zimbabwe, as one more quilt in the fabric of society, is knowledge in action. Such an English becomes, inevitably, diluted into local cultural ways of being, for though it is a form of education that was imposed from without, it becomes a form knowledge through its adaptation in society. Knowledge springs from within a society, since it is utilised within and for that society. It is an organic process that is nevertheless dynamic since it has the power to adapt new ideas for the benefit of the community—the nation—that utilises it to better realise its goals and ideas of self. This is the difference between education and knowledge.

Thus, the dilution of English becomes a joyful assault on colonial modes of being and their accompanying Macaulayan attitudes to non-European languages. Such a dilution is also a testament to our interconnectedness and the curious, inventive human spirit; the idea of exclusivity has always been a myth – all knowledge is made up of diverse strands from multiple cultures. No one civilisation has a right to or a special claim to knowledge.

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There have been times, during my time in the USA, when I have tried to replicate the intimacy of home. The person reflected back to me here is somebody I struggle to recognise. This is probably an inevitable process of being thrust into a different culture; however, because of the history of Africa as a concept and a group of people who were “owned, “created”, enslaved and appropriated by Western ideology under the banner of colonialism and slavery, the immersion as one from “Africa” into such a culture still carries the hegemonic trauma of such a history.

I became “African” in the USA, someone from Africa, not the real Africa, if there can be said to be such an Africa, but the Africa of the Western imagination, that place where, as Achille Mbembe writes in On the Post Colony,

‘the actual is no longer perceived except through the mirror of perversity that is, in truth, that of the subject uttering this discourse… Picking up rumour and gossip, amplifying them in the telling, it claims to throw light on things that haunt and obsess it, but about which, in truth, it knows absolutely nothing’ (2010: 178-179).

Random people wanted to help me, all because “I was from Africa”. My ability to speak English fascinated them, especially because I was neither a refugee nor an uneducated immigrant. People offered stories about having given relief to Africa with this or that aid organisation. It was a stark, shocking experience of the legacy of that other “Africa”, the one of the 1884 Berlin Conference, when the powerful nations of Western Europe decided to appropriate and enslave the continent and all that was in it. This legacy is inextricable from the Western lexicon; furthermore, “Africa” is what the West knows; “Africa” was once a property of the West; the West ‘knows’ Africa, and nothing made this starker than the confidence with which people would attribute to me experiences of a continent which were not my own and which I did not recognise.

This is where Art becomes important. Art is where living occurs; living as a wondrous site of struggle, where life bursts from the dark, wet confines of the womb into the piercing light of existence, where woman exercises that great gift endowed to her by consciousness: freedom. Art is the exercise and utilisation of knowledge; it is also the manufacturing of education into knowledge. For education to be useful in a society, it needs to be adapted into knowledge, especially in Africa where many of the education systems were inherited with little modification from colonial times and which thus perpetuate the current system where everything that the continent possesses is siphoned by powerful hegemonic forces towards Western spaces.

An example of the adaptation of education into knowledge and its successful utilisation in a society is the application of the dialectic method of critique by the Martinique-born philosopher Frantz Fanon, which is the style of inquiry in his seminal The Wretched of the Earth, and which he innovated from the German philosopher Hegel. The dialectic is a method of philosophical inquiry that is bent on interrogating the nature of reality with the intention of unearthing insights about the human condition, as Fanon managed to do via his interrogation of the colonial situation. Fanon also adapted Marx’s concept of the commodity fetish under capitalism to include the racial fetish under colonialism; Marx himself adapted Hegel’s dialectic method in his interrogation of the workings of capitalism and the commodity fetish. As such, what is important for the continent, particularly in this highly mobile 21st century, is the manufacture and application of knowledge. It does not matter where knowledge comes from; what is important is how it is used. When knowledge is adapted, as Fanon shows, it is able to bring enlightenment to a society about itself.

If Art is the soil where human existence in all its contradictory, impulsive, celebratory, mournful, meaningless, meaningful, meaning-making capacity sprouts, tearing through it with all the existential potential to grow into something essential, if this is what Art is, then knowledge is the fertiliser for that soil.

Art is both a safe and a vulnerable meeting space for all peoples; safe because it involves simulation, and vulnerable—and thus dangerous to the nationalist, jingoist, exclusivist and divisive propagators in our societies—because it breaks down our walls and pierces through our prejudices. This becomes ever more important for the African, who has only recently been seen to have a right to the freedom that is hers by virtue of her consciousness (but who has always had inherent possession of this consciousness and thus this freedom; to recognise something is to come into knowledge of something that has been always there). For the African, who is only in recent decades coming out of an age where she was once someone else’s property, where she was once a slave, where she was once deemed to be not a human being but a “thing: that could be appropriated and utilised like a horse and sold on the market like a mule, this Art, this creative expression of her humanity, this cry, this song, this poem, this story, this dance, this mourn, this groan, becomes ever more important.

Art is both a safe and a vulnerable meeting space for all peoples; safe because it involves simulation, and vulnerable—and thus dangerous to the nationalist, jingoist, exclusivist and divisive propagators in our societies—because it breaks down our walls and pierces through our prejudices.

It is why, in authoritarian spaces, knowledge, because of its dynamic and uncontainable nature and its inevitable fostering of the new, that is, of Art, is all the more threatening to a state, because its outcomes cannot be controlled. It is always prone to creation and experimentation; it picks up different ideas and ways of being wherever it encounters them and patches them up into something innovative, and thus may not necessarily align with the state’s objectives. Its alignment, where it thrives, is first and foremost to humanity, to living, to life, in all its spectacular multiplicity and diversity.

In Art, we see people; and in Art, we may even refuse to see them. This is why it’s such a joy to encounter Darling in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. Darling exists, loves, hopes, dreams and defies at the margins of society; one can almost call her subaltern, in the sense of one who cannot speak or one whose voice would not be heard otherwise. She is, to stretch the metaphor further, a subaltern who has been thrust into conversation with hegemonic spaces, or spaces of privilege, through her international mobility via We Need New Names. Her psychology is a delight to behold; to read her is to come into contact with her knowing—and not her education. For she is not educated in the conventional sense, and this is perhaps why conventional methods of trying to apprehend her find her so slippery. Through the text’s Ndebele-ised English, which is a form of translation of Darling’s Ndebele, we experience her worldview, which, in her ten-year-old rendering, is delightfully unself-conscious and unapologetic. Her narrative speaks from her and also beyond her, so that we come into contact, via the novel, with that double consciousness that is the gift and the curse of the African.

Listen. Listen; when Darling and her friends come across the woman from London who lives in the posh suburb of Budapest, what do they say?

“…you only look fifteen, like a child, Godknows says, looking at the woman now. I am expecting her to reach out and slap him on the mouth but she merely smiles like she has just not been insulted.

Thank you, I just came off the Jesus diet, she says, sounding very pleased.

I look at her like, what is there to thank?”

What we encounter here is the meeting of two cultures in conversation, on equal footing as existential modes of being in the world—for Darling has not learned to question her way of being in the world, and approaches the world confidently through her cultural lens.

Let us eavesdrop a little more on Darling; what does she do to the picture of Jesus that is hanging in the shack of Mother of Bones’ wall?

“He (Jesus) used to have blue eyes but I painted them brown like mine and everybody’s, to make him normal.”

There is something refreshing about Darling’s easy attribution of normativity to her cultural way of comprehending the world; to understand blackness and black people as “normal” is part of what the colonial project sought to destroy, and what post-colonialism has sought to reinstate, albeit at times in painfully self-conscious ways. To be educated against yourself, that is to say, to be taught ways of being that glorify whiteness while concurrently denigrating what one is, be it Ndebele or African or black, is to introduce a painful self-consciousness in the African subject. In We Need New Names, it seems as though Darling was never touched by the self-alienating effects of colonialism. Hence perhaps why she is such a (delightful) anomaly as a “post-colonial” fictional character.

And what about after the NGO trucks have come and gone, and the children have gotten their gifts from the NGO people and are running after the truck and waving goodbye, what does Darling say?

“…we take off and run after it; we have got what we wanted and we don’t care how they want us to do.” (Emphasis added.)

Any African or non-white person who has had to straddle the “formal” or reified world, which is still indelibly white, with its Macaulayan teachings and its self-glorification, and her own world, where she is in sync with her familial and cultural ways of being, is familiar with simulation, the acting that one slips into when one is in the white world—such as I used to slip into at my high school Girls’ College with its distinctly British education—and the other version of one which one slips into when one is in one’s home or cultural setting.

Thus, we can appreciate Darling’s double consciousness with regards to the NGO people, which she herself seems unconscious of, probably because she is a child and has not yet learned how to be self-conscious in the world, which is the painful condition of being a post-colonial subject in a neo-colonial globe.

And what does Darling say of home, when she is overseas in America?

“No matter how green the maize looks in America, it is not real. They call it corn here, and it comes out all wrong, like small, sweet, too soft. I don’t even bother with it anymore because eating it is a really disappointing thing, it feels like I’m just insulting my teeth.”

“In America, the fatness is not the fatness I was used to at home. Over there, the fatness was of bigness, just ordinary fatness you could understand because it meant the person ate well, fatness you could even envy. It was fatness that did not interfere with the body…But this American fatness takes it to a whole other level: the body is turned into something else.”

What is endearing about Darling’s uncanny, if a little biting, criticism is her absolute lack of infatuation with and reification of America, which is the all too common trope of the immigrant story; that is to say, Darling privileges an understanding of the world from her own cultural lens, inadvertently becoming, in the process, the “ungrateful immigrant”. Her ability to give herself and her way of being free reign in her consciousness is refreshing to behold; it’s a way of apprehending the world against which the African is educated and which, in her polemic against a hegemonic white world, she strives to attain but cannot due to the fact that she already possesses a double-consciousness. What is born from such an existential struggle is the creation of novel ways of being that cannot be anticipated, which is how all new things are born, becoming, inevitably, larger than the sum of their parts.

Darling as a consciousness, a semi-subaltern consciousness, if one may say so, is an example of the value of Art to the African. The question the post-colonial African seeks to answer is, Who am I in the World? The answer being that I am a human being. Humanity is not contingent on circumstance; its very recognition is what leads to its ability to express itself materially in the world; the inability to recognise it, and the brute force used to deny it its realisation, as was done to the African under colonialism and as is being done under neo-colonialism, does not mean it ceases to exist.

To be educated against yourself, that is to say, to be taught ways of being that glorify whiteness while concurrently denigrating what one is, be it Ndebele or African or black, is to introduce a painful self-consciousness in the African subject.

As such, Art, because it’s an expression of womankind and her dynamism and multiplicity, traffics, inevitably, in knowledge, and knowledge traffics in Art. Knowledge in and of itself is a multi-purpose tool, and who is using it and to what ends is more the point than its intended purpose; in “educating the native” so as to control colonised societies, the coloniser never dreamed that the native would one day take this education and use it against him. But she did!

Thus, the African, in answering the question, Who am I in the World?, through being, living, celebrating, crying, mourning, dying, striving, dreaming, hoping, thinking, loving, expressing is, like all humans, a trafficker in multiple knowledges, and, in claiming her place in the world, has the right to utilise all forms of knowledge towards her self-realisation. That is to say, she has access to everything that has ever been discovered and created by womankind, of whom she is not only an inheritor, but a builder and partaker.

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LOST AND NOT FOUND: What happens when people go missing in Kenya

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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.

What Follows

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.

Hopelessness

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.

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A NIGERIAN STORY: How Healthcare is the Offspring of Imperialism and Corruption

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Pourous Institutions

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.

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THE BLACK SPOT: Why The Kenyan Road System Is Designed To Kill

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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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