In most countries, including Rwanda, there are no ugly walls around homes or offices. What we learned from Rwanda about polythene bags should apply to the walls. Curiously, even Kenyan police stations are now surrounded by walls.
Do police feel insecure like the rest of us? Why are we putting up walls everywhere that seem to be getting higher, topped with either electric or razor wire? The walls are not for keeping off wild animals that are rare in most urban centres except the crow and rats. A few monkeys are found in leafy suburbs.
Some national parks have electric fences to stop human–wildlife conflicts. In rural areas, walls are rare, hedges are more common. Curiously, as you drive past Kericho towards western Kenya, wallsand fences disappear. The trend continues to Uganda.
In the central and Nairobi regions, walls have become part of the natural environment, just like anthills or trees. So why all the walls in Kenya? Why do we spend so money building walls?
The walls serve three purposes. One is for beauty. It is unlikely the walls in our cities and towns are for that; most are quite ugly. Some “live” walls are beautiful, well trimmed and evergreen. Two, they secure homes, offices and other premises.
That is perhaps the main reason walls are everywhere. Has anyone proved that walled homes or residences are more secure? Isn’t there more security in open rural areas compared with walledurban areas?
Historically, walls have been used to keep off invaders. Examples include the Great Wall of China and the Hadrian wall in the UK. Why are we going back to an earlier age? Does it surprise you that walls are surging as tribalism and bigotry flourishes?
As we see other people as threats not complements to our lives. Who is invading Kenya? Why should there be razor wire, the same we see in battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan?
In whispers, there are people making money from this insecurity or perceived insecurity, selling razor wire, providing security guards, CCTV and other paraphernalia that go with insecurity.
Walls are used to exclude other people so as to maintain privacy. But who do they exclude?
Is it only thieves, gangsters and robbers? By building walls around yourself, you end up excluding good people who may add value to your life. You also fail to add value to others. When did you last have an innocent conversation with your neighbour?
The tragedy of physical walls is that they soon become mental. You create mental walls and barriers to other people who you perceive to be different from you based on race, class, colour, tribe and other characteristics. Some walls are deliberate like quota systems in schools that keep kids in their locality.
Such exclusion threatens diversity, innovation and creativity that go with it. It seems we did not anticipate the unintended consequences of insecurity emanating from terrorism; it ended our freedom and made us more inward-looking and less willing to share ideas with other people.
The long-term cost to the economy might be higher than we want to admit. Think of missed opportunities to network, to create ideas and think freely without fear. It is unfortunate that even universities where ideas are generated and shared with the public are also walled.
Walls also deny us happiness that goes with meeting new people, exchanging ideas and sharing our loneliness. Ever wondered why stress is more common in urban areas as compared with rural settings? We have been there before.
In 1987, Ronald Reagan met the then Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev in West Berlin. In a celebrated speech, Reagan challenged him to tear down the wall that separated East and West Berlin. It was not long before the wall came down and Germany was one country again. Why can’t we tear down the physical and mental walls that keep us apart?
How can we talk of freedom when walls restrict our movement and thinking? Most of the personal and national problems emanate from our failure to tear down walls and reach out to those holding solutions to our problems. Trust me, no matter what problem you have as an individual or nation, someone somewhere most likely has a solution, sometimes for free.
The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi