If Covid -19 did not shock or change Kenyans, what will?
By XN Iraki | September 20th 2020
Even before coronavirus is contained, we are back to full-blown politics. That should not surprise us, politicians know how to make hay when the sun shines.
Few business professors would admit, but politicians are entrepreneurs in their own right. The initial Covid-19 shock was short-lived; humans inevitably adapt to situations, no matter how dire. Lebanese found it hard to adapt to peace after 20 years of civil war.
We expected Covid -19 to change our philosophical orientation, give us a new perspective about life, its purpose and how we relate with each other, the planet and the universe. It seems it was not a big shock, after all. Why is it so hard to shock the nation?
Looking back through the last 100 years, it seems our country has never had a big enough shock to change fundamentally, transform or renew itself, the same way a snake sheds its old skin.
Big shocks lead to great suffering; they include floods, drought, economic meltdown, war and pandemics. These have touched us on the periphery. WWI barely touched Kenya, it brought the first soldier settlers who farmed the land, brought new crops and ushered in modern capitalism. Some Kenyans estimated to be about 250,000 fought in this war against Germans mostly as carriers.
The pandemic of 1918-20 had an insignificant effect on Kenya, transport was poor and transmission was hard. The trip to Nairobi from Mombasa took you through Arusha. There was no direct route unless through the railway. Remember Kenya became a colony in 1920.
The Great Depression was far away, the Kenyan economy was not integrated into the global economy to feel the effect.
The event that almost shock Kenya was WW II because a significant number of Kenyans fought for the British Empire in North Africa and Far East mostly in Burma (Myanmar). Kenya got its first war veterans. Most have died forgotten, the experiences in jungles of the East and their encounter with Japanese never captured by historians. And why don't we have a department of veteran affairs just like the US whose constitution we heavily borrowed?
The veterans of WW II planted the seeds of the next near shock, Mau Mau. But this was localised and never shock the whole country. But for the men and women who went to detention, that was a real shock. The localised nature of Mau Mau makes it hard to label it a national war against the British empire; it doesn't have the unifying effect a war should have, sadly. That is why post-election violence was possible.
After uhuru, shocks have been fewer, milder and more political. They range from political assassinations to droughts, floods, HIV/Aids, coup attempt, post-election violence and lately terror attacks.
Covid-19, we thought would shock us to new thinking and reality. Within six months, we have regressed to where we were before. It seems the number of deaths and cases from Covid -19 was not big enough.
Maybe after these so many mini-shocks, more like a vaccine, we have developed a sort of immunity against change.
Without internal or external shocks, thinkers change the country. Their ideas are put into use by leaders both in the public and private sector. Check the boards of the big US corporations, you are likely to find academics, thinkers. How many academics are in our boards? Thinkers do better when working from the periphery not at the front. Remember Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, Isaac Newton, Wangari Mathaai among others?
Truth be told, we have scant respect for thinkers. We pay more attention to politicians than seasoned thinkers. Call a meeting in one Kenyan village with a professor of virology as guest of honour and see how many will attend.
With expansion of higher education, industrial strikes and joblessness, our thinkers are getting less attention. Their newest competitors are motivation speakers. We may blame thinkers for not coming up with ground breaking ideas, but research is expensive and funding is not forthcoming even from the government, the entity that can underwrite the uncertainty and risks that go with research.
Noted how governments are funding research into Covid-19. They are prepared for mass production of vaccine even before the final trial.
Without shocks, without listening to thinkers, we are becoming a country frozen in time and prospects. Our economy is not growing fast enough, our social fabrics are breaking, inequality is on the rise, unhappiness stalks the nation, children feel their parents had better prospects than them.
Curiously, our neighbours have gone through shocks or are going through shocks. Ethiopia with a revolution after fall of Haile Selassie, Somali and South Sudan have had civil war while Rwanda had their moment of truth in 1994. Tanzania is closest to us in terms of shocks faced without a Mau Mau though Maji Maji rebellion can be its equivalent.
External shocks like colonialism, education and religion ended up having a calming effect, slowing change instead of catalyzing it. Colonialism taught us to respect the status quo and avoid risks. Education teaches us that avoiding work is heroism. Religion is about conformity.
Paradoxically, we have more churches but we are less religious, never mind that most public meetings are started with a prayer. Even our celebrated 2010 constitution did not change the country significantly, we are calling for more changes through BBI.
Technology like mobile phones has not changed us. Doubting? What proportion of what you share through Snapchart, Facebook, WhatsApp, SMS and other media is distilled gossip?
The end of Kanu era was closest to a national transformation. Kibaki years minus post-election violence was the apogee of national confidence before we got back to our old ways.
Would electing new leaders inspire the nation, shock us into action and imbibe us with new dreams? Covid-19, it seems was a wasted opportunity to change this country. Will 2022 polls be another lost opportunity? Why do we consistently squander any opportunity for national renewal or renaissance? Must there be shock and awe?
-The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi School of Business.
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