Every month, the watchman of the building I live in asks me to lend him 1,000 or 2,000 Kshs, with the promise to pay me back at the end of the month. He rarely pays me back on time, because things always come up. Although he watches over property worth several hundred million Kshs, his earnings are barely enough to see him through the month.
This man walks three hours every morning to get to work and back home every evening. He works 12 hours a day, without a lunch break, and yet he cannot afford to pay 40 Kshs. for his daily transport. This is despite the fact that he supplements his income by washing the cars of the residents of the building, alongside other manual work that is given to him.
Even with all these efforts, he still owes me 1,000 Kshs. from last year, and he has explained to me that he is paying a loan, which makes it even more difficult to make ends meet. He is highly in debt, just to survive. On top of that, he recently got a wife, so things are probably worse, with an extra mouth to feed.
Now that he has a wife, there is a possibility that he will be getting children in the future. I don’t need to investigate to confirm that the chances of his children having the same kind of education, healthcare and nutrition as the children occupying the houses he mans are close to, if not zero. Miracles may happen, but I foresee a high probability that his children will be in the same situation he is in 20 years down the line.
Sometimes I overhear the conversations between the watchmen and the domestic workers, and I get a sense that they are well aware of the structural inequalities in this country. Talking and joking are their ways of dealing with the harsh realities of life. They talk about the challenges of being on the tail end of the inequality divide. They joke about how they can only afford certain luxuries in their dreams.
The luxuries they joke about are nothing luxurious by middle class standards – sometimes it is just the need for a decent lunch, the dream to take their children to university, or to take public transport to work and back home. For the domestic workers, they wish they could see their children daily, spend more time with them, and like their employers, receive their children when they come back from school.
These kind of inequalities glare at us every day in the places that we live, our places of work and just about every public and private space. Any Kenyan will tell you that the fruits of independence are only enjoyed by a few; that where you are born, and who you are born to determines your chances in life and the kind of opportunities that life will present you with.
In their conversations, the watchmen and domestic workers correctly correlate their social and economic challenges to corruption, nepotism, cronyism and tribalism. They know that without these social ills, their lives would be somewhat, if not significantly different.
Yet when Obama talked about inequalities, tribalism and corruption in Kenya, we spent the entire day quoting different sections of his speech through tweets, re-tweets, and Facebook posts that were liked, commented on and shared widely. We marvelled at Obama’s genius, his wisdom, and spoke at length about how inspired we were, never mind that any ordinary Kenya would have told you the exact same thing. We celebrated these obvious statements, as if they were the words of the prophet, foretelling a future that we don’t know of.
I have found myself trying to make sense of the response of Kenyans to Obama’s visit, and more specifically, his speech. I have found myself wondering whether the over-celebration of these obvious statements could be symptoms of a repressed society. Were we celebrating because Obama said what many of us could not say for fear of being branded traitors or unpatriotic?
Could the ‘Obama-mania’ that we witnessed, and the over-enthusiastic cheering of obvious statements be signs of a nation clinging to the hope of much needed salvation? Could these be signs of a society that is in self-doubt? Could the hope we vested in Obama be an indication of low confidence to emancipate ourselves from the problems that we often articulate so well, even across socio-economic divide?
As Africans, we have struggled to emancipate ourselves from the indignity of domination by foreign and colonial rule. Even after attaining independence, Africans have vehemently objected to be shaped by dominant narratives of the West, about Africa. This is a journey that we continue to pursue spiritedly.
However, we cannot succeed in the journey to emancipation if we continue to cling to the West for affirmation and legitimization. When we fail to believe ourselves until a foreigner ‘diagnoses’ our problem and speaks on our behalf. We must rise above the need for affirmation by the foreign, and believe that we are holders of knowledge about ourselves. We must believe that the power to chart a new kind of Africa lies with us, and not the West.