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Will a new Kenya rise from the rubble of demolitions?

By X N Iraki | August 19th 2018
St Nicholas Church in Hamburg, Germany.

On the rubble of the Second World War, nations were rebuilt with new constitutions and new economic dispensations. Germany and Japan stand out; from war losers they became economic winners.

Interestingly, China does not feature much in world wars except her invasion by Japan in 1937. She had enough internal problems before her rebirth in 1949 upon the ruins of civil war. 

Does the rubble of demolished buildings and corruption cartels mark the rebirth of a new Kenya, just like these nations after World War 2? Do these demolitions suggest that a nation must be shocked or shaken to wake up and be transformed?

For the aforementioned nations, the shock was war. For us, it is our contradictions, failing to forge a nation 123 years since Kenya became a British protectorate. It seems a few shocks following each other have finally made us see sense. That includes post-election violence, terrorism, repeat elections, and vulnerability of political elites.

Tipping point

Why did it take so long for the demolition of buildings and cartels? Have the power elites realised Kenya has reached a tipping point and if they don’t act they may go down with it? Could the debris indicate a civil war within the power elite or some political cleansing? 

Once the rubble has cleared, maybe we can see clearly, to quote Jamaican singer Jimmy Cliff - or was it Johnny Nash?

The ruins go beyond some individuals losing their assets and reputation. It is also about creating order in a country where anything goes as long as you have the money and political power. You can build on road reserves, on sewer lines, or on public land. You can get school land or divert rivers. You can even get cheerleaders as you do all this.

How did the demolished buildings get there in the first place? How did cartels get so bold in accessing public money? Were these random events? Are they connected to election cycles?

The demolitions will hopefully lead to physical order with the renewed flow of rivers and traffic, or children get playgrounds. Shall we finally strike a balance between economics and environment or between power and common good?

Interestingly, economic growth is closely tied to voluntary demolitions as new ideas replace old ones or old buildings and other structures are replaced by new ones, hopefully without destroying history. Thika Highway could have been built without some demolitions.

You probably demolished something before you built your new house. Is religion not about demolishing old self for renewal?

Intellectuals are fascinated by demolitions. Thomas Kuhn even gave intellectual demolition a fancy term, “paradigm shift” as one tired idea is demolished and replaced by another. Joseph Schumpeter was more fanciful before Kuhn, coining the term “creative destruction.”

We could replace destruction through demolition with new ideas often espoused by new products or services replacing old ones. Cars replaced horses, the cassette player replaced the gramophone. M-Pesa could destroy credit cards - the list goes on.

Less talked about as buildings and cartels are brought down is the need for mental demolitions. Lots of our thinking needs demolition, even more urgently than physical demolitions. If we had demolished our mental structures first, we may not have reached the stage of using bulldozers. Our mental structures are also built on riverbeds or based on wrong assumptions.

The first structure that needs demolition is our definition of wealth. We think of it mostly in terms of physical assets; that is why buildings and land are the first choice for investments or cleaning ill-gotten wealth.

More entrenched thinking is that you should get wealth through any means, even if it means killing someone or getting a cemetery and building on it.

Yet the greatest wealth is freedom, to quote Barrack Obanda (not Obama), to live where you want, associate with who you want, do what you want including thinking the way you want without interfering with the freedom of others. 

Intellectual wealth

On this rubble we can build new thinking; wealth can be intellectual, espoused by patents, copyrights, trademarks and other types of subterranean wealth. What is Facebook’s biggest asset? Bankrupt Kodak made $525 million from selling intellectual assets in 2012.  

Why do you buy movies or songs? Where is the physical asset in M-Pesa? There is so much non-physical wealth if you look for it. From the debris of demolitions, we hope to see this new thinking and new wealth. 

Two, we must demolish the thinking that wealth is the only route to heroism. What of helping others? What of going beyond the call of duty? Were Carey Francis or Geoffrey Griffin wealthy? Was Mwalimu Nyerere wealthy? What of Mahatma Gandhi? No wonder philanthropy is rare in Kenya, though it is growing. What happened to the missionary spirit?

Deeply ingrained in our minds is the belief that wealth and fame go together. That relationship could be spurious. As social media has shown, we can be famous for doing lots of things, from silly to reckless. 

Three, we must demolish the thinking that capitalism is about individualism and money. We make money from other people by satisfying their needs and wants. A better route to capitalism is individuals doing their best so that we all become better. It is not a zero sum game, “if you get, I lose”. 

This thinking is so hard to demolish. It is being reinforced every day with walls around business premises and homes, not to keep off sabre-toothed tigers but fellow human beings. The “fake truth” that the customer is king needs to be demolished with the truth “your money is the king.” The sense of community was never demolished in capitalistic countries.

Four, we must demolish the thinking that life is about our lifetimes only. We must start thinking inter-generational. Too many of us are concerned only about today. That thinking is residual from our traditional thinking. In some communities they even say “tomorrow will take care of itself.” 

Next generation

We must start thinking about those who will come after us, long after we are under the sod. One of the hallmarks of any advanced civilisations is how they take care of the next generation. Will they have access to clean water, fresh air and room for physical expansion? Will they have higher living standards than us? Will they pay tribute to those who prepared the future for them?  

Fifth demolition is the thinking that “some should work and others enjoy the fruits of others’ labour.” One big drag on our economy is the belief that work is evil, to be avoided. That thinking should not be demolished but uprooted.

This thinking is driving the growth of higher education- get higher qualifications, using minimum efforts then get higher pay with less work. If work was respected and well incentivised there would be fewer cases of corruption. 

Sixth, demolishing our old thinking could mean rebooting our entire education, not so much in terms of the years spent in each level of education but in terms of the contents, the values and attitudes. Some say in silence it needs “uberalisation”. More importantly, our education needs to be cross-pollinated with more optimism.

Seventh, who said we can’t live in the city and must commute? Chester House on Koinange Street was ahead of its time. Who lied to us that only governments can solve our problems? Who originated the myth that only other people are sources of national problems and not you? What of our love for demolishing others through rumours, gossip and being purveyors of pessimism?

Eighth, we can’t ignore voluntary demolitions. Marriage is being demolished in some parts of Kenya with children bearing their mother’s name as surname. Traditional identity is being demolished with Western names replacing our traditional names, respect for the elderly is under demolition too and so is the centrality of Mau Mau in the freedom struggle.

Some ideas, though, have successfully resisted demolition. A good example is the myth and mystic of Nairobi, despite devolution. What of stereotypes about various Kenyan communities?

The Western models on economic systems, governments and even personal relationships have also defied demolition despite the rise of China. 

Demolitions are more than dust rising as buildings are brought down by bulldozers. It is more than public figures spending a few days in police cells.

Demolitions are also about political and economic power; and possibly political legacy. After demolition of buildings and corruption cartels, new economic and power relationships will emerge and could have a bearing on 2022 and even 2032. 

After the rubble and dust have settled, just as it happened in Germany or Japan, we hope a new economic and political order will emerge. We all hope we shall not be the collateral damage. One last question; will our grandchildren look back and pay tribute to the demolishers?

- The writer is on intellectual pilgrimage in Germany.    

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