I often hear researchers say that talking to taxi drivers is a good way to get a sense of the political atmosphere of any place. My experience with one tells me that Kenyans are angry and despondent at a political system that has completely failed them.
While I was in a taxi today, the driver was very vexed, and I decided to hear him out. It turned out that he was so ideologically grounded, it felt like I was in a Sociology 101 class that was speaking to the realities of what is happening. He spoke with a lot of concern and anger about the inequality that this country is grappling with. He said, “everything that is going on, is benefiting just a few people, and everyone else is suffering as a consequence”. He spoke of the standard gauge railway and how billions of shillings have been misappropriated by just a handful of people. Then he went on to talk about a by-pass that was recently built, but because the land surrounding it has been grabbed, the road is so narrow, that when trucks approach each other, they have to be very careful not to cause an accident. “You see”, he continued, “a few people grabbed those pieces of land, and now Kenyans are not safe on the roads that are coming up”. “These roads will kill Kenyans, because a few people have to take what does not belong to them”. He called it the politics of “me, mine and myself”.
I noticed how the narrative has changed. For a long time, whenever I got into a political discussion with taxi drivers from the Mt. Kenya region, they would go on about the humility of the president, and how this was the best president that Kenya ever got. I remember one day as we were driving past State House, the taxi driver began to narrate in awe how the president had dropped off a chopper, ignored the car that was meant to drive him into State House, and instead opted to walk. “The chopper landed right there” he pointed excitedly. This to him was a sign of great humility and good leadership. I remember asking him angrily whether he had ever eaten humility. So today I was surprised when this person who is from the Mt. Kenya region sounded so dissatisfied with the system. I take it as a sign that people are coming to the reality that their tribesman is not their security.
As I was getting to my destination I had to interrupt him, because I wanted to hear from him what he thought the solution was. I asked him what he thought people could do, and he replied, “only God will save us, he is watching and one day he will rescue us; I know that day is coming”. But even as he was saying that, he seemed to have a good understanding of power dynamics. He argued that people could organize themselves and challenge the system, but then the powers that be would seek private meetings with the organizers and pay them off. He gave me an example of a time when they organized as drivers to challenge the difficult working conditions, in an organization that he worked for. But the drivers that led the organizing were paid off and given better conditions, and that was the end of their organizing.
Speaking to the taxi driver and other Kenyans, it is clear that people of all walks of life are disgruntled, because of the blatant economic exclusion, where those in the lower strata of the socio-economic ladder toil for hours on end but are unable to afford the basics. A recent survey tells us that 36% of children in Kenya are underfed, yet their parents are the same people who work day and night, only to send their children to bed on empty stomachs. Even the middle class are struggling with high interest rates on loans and mortgages and failing public systems that force them to send their children to expensive private schools and healthcare services that they can only afford because of the private health insurance their employers provide. Not forgetting constantly having to send MPESA to support friends, relatives and even strangers to access education or to get treatment both locally and abroad.
In a context where the political environment is so stifling, yet organizing to challenge the system seems impossible, citizens have little else but to resign to their fate. Those that strongly believe in a higher being, see that as the sole saviour. Those that do not believe or have given up on the idea that even a higher being could rescue us are giving in to the idea that violence is inevitable, particularly given the subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways in which incitement is happening.
Like many Kenyans, I am concerned that the social, economic and political environment bears the signs of looming violence. But I am even more concerned at the way people are speaking of violence with such simplicity. Like it is a door that you walk in, and walk out. The little exposure we have of violence has left us with the idea that violence is as simple as killing and burning each other’s property, flying Kofi Annan into the country, having two political figures from opposing sides shake hands, and life going on as usual. Some of us have been arguing that Europeans had to slash and kill each other to get to where they are economically, socially and politically. We forget that it took Europeans 300 to 400 years of slashing and killing each other to finally figure their politics and economies.
As I think of the simplicity that we approach the idea of violence with, I am reminded of an older Somali friend of mine, whom I have the privilege of getting into political conversations with once in a while. He has on several occasions commented that Somali was exactly where Kenya is in the 80’s. That massive infrastructural projects were ongoing, roads were being constructed, high-rise buildings were coming up and foreigners were investing in the country. It seemed as if all was going well, but this development co-existed with massive looting of public resources by those placed in power and outright ethnic hostility. We know that Somali is yet to recover from the war. We know several countries endowed with resources, but war will not allow them make use of the resources.
As we grow more and more despondent, and some us begin to accept the inevitability of violence, let’s put the Kofi Annan mediation scene off our minds for a moment, and think for a while other possible ways that this could go. When I think of such possibilities, I want to try something else. Isn’t that what we always do in life? Don’t we try other channels when one isn’t working? It’s not easy but we have to be willing to try other routes; do our best and remain hopeful that our efforts will create change. We must begin organizing slowly, but in a progressive fashion, understanding that “unless we learn to live together as [Kenyans], we shall perish together as fools”.*
*Adapted from a Martin Luther King Jr. quote