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Pangs of drought should unlock our nation's sense of compassion

A Man in Lagdera disposes of a carcass of a cow that died due to the prevailing drought situation in Garissa County. [File, Standard]

Being Kenyan should count for something. The Kenya dividend should pay out at some point.  If it does not pay out at a point of need, one wonders when it will – and whether it even ever will. It is time for people in Turkana to know that they have sisters and brothers in you and in me. It is time for the drought-struck people to know that God exists and walks the world through people.  

Food is still being thrown away in many places. The question therefore is not whether we have enough food in Kenya. The questions are whether we are willing to share it and how badly we want it to get to the people who need it. We should move fast – we are four years late.  

Compassion is the quality that turns mercy into action. Compassion is the action department of love - action is stirred, strategies are birthed and missions are executed. When one operates on compassion mode, thought shifts from the descriptive “This is a very bad situation” to the active “What should I do?” Compassion by nature grips and does not let go until an action is effected. It is compassion that makes a mother breastfeed another’s baby. It is the absence of compassion that says “Let the child be split in two!”

Greed and self-centeredness are enemies of compassion. Where greed abounds, suffering broods freely. When selfishness rules, the neighbour is never a point of concern. A patient will groan in pain and die as a nurse combs her social media pages. A man will be knocked down by a car and zooming cars will negotiate around the battered body and continue on their way. A public leader will build a grand residence not far from where people live in perforated, wind and rain-letting huts. In countries suffering a compassion shortage, “I feel nothing” is the culture.

If we are not disturbed by the drought stricken Kenyans, something is terribly wrong.  Compassion is not for the rich. Having a lot is never connected with giving a lot. There are rich people who permanently suffer a compassion drought.

There are poor people who have great compassion – they give from the little they have. At times they will give all the little they have because compassion tales a grip on them. A rich but compassionless person is unmoved by suffering. They do not know how to love with their wealth. They do not invest in the happiness of others. At best, they hold that everyone is in charge of their own wellbeing. They consider the act of freely giving to others as wealth mismanagement. Letting in the poor into their wealth is not on their list of things to do. Among the compassionless, statements like “Don’t those hungry people have leaders to help them?” and “Isn’t this why we pay taxes?” are a staple. National empathy is not anchored in a government ceremony where trucks carrying relief food are flagged off. Real empathy is flagged off in the hearts of people. National empathy is manifest when people interrupt their routine lives to go to another part of the country to help fellow citizens in distress. Employers allow employees to take leave to be part of relief missions for this citizen to citizen duty. Persons who know no one in North Eastern Kenya make a trip fueled by compassion. National empathy converges individuals and institutions in Turkana - making it for a while, a compassion capital. Big and small formations gang up to do good. National empathy does not need one to be religious. It just needs one to be human.

But in a country where Abrahamic religions lead, regard for the neighbour, care for the poor and the stranger should be fundamental marks of our culture. In a country where traditional African philosophy still speaks strongly, the welfare of another should be everyone’s business because “I’m because we are.” In a country where Christianity is widespread, love should be a visible quality.

The food shortage situation is not beyond love-driven, neighbour oriented and other-centered individuals and institutions. But it seems the spiritual coffers of compassion are struggling too. While lacking cash is a crisis, lacking compassion is an even bigger crisis. Cash coffers can be empty and people still survive if compassion coffers are full. It should worry the State that Kenyans do not care for one another enough. It should worry the church that despite the Messiah’s cry “I was hungry but no one gave me food,” the hungry have no friends. It should worry every Kenyan that many of us “feel nothing” about our fellow citizens in need. Billions were not spent in political campaigns for the winners to lead millions of hungry people. The hungry pose an authenticity test to the new administration. The government must do all that is possible to get the hungry off their hunger. Otherwise, the ruling class will be branded an opulent lot leading a hungry population. That is not a good tag for a leadership that came into power in the promise of a revolution.

How can a country unlock its sense of compassion? It unlocks actions by tackling the bystander effect. The bystander effect happens not because people have no capacity but because persons and institutions are not moved enough to initiate action. In a situation of hunger, some people expect an institution – like the church - to act.

The church in turn insists that the government must move with speed and act. The central government instructs the county government to act. The local government blames the local people for not heeding to previous drought alleviating efforts. Compassion works best when injected directly and speedily into the veins of the local community. Top bottom – where leaders get onto the frontline to exemplify and sponsor compassion – works best to unlock the bystander effect.

When leaders are aloof, unbothered and demonstrate minimal interest in the hungry, the nation suffers a spectator effect.  For a poor country compassion is a key asset. In the absence of money, people will frequently need each other, all the more reason why the government must invest in accumulating compassion.