Growing up corrupt: A journey into adulthood in Kenya

I first encountered the term ufisadi (corruption) when I was about 10 years old, in an editorial caricature on Taifa Leo – the Swahili version of the Daily Nation newspaper. My grandfather would make me read it out loud for him as he worked, for the coveted prize of owning the Katumbilikimo page.

The memory is fairly vague, but I vividly remember a few things – for who can forget the day they lost their innocence? I asked my grandfather what it meant, and he nonchalantly summed it up as 'TKK – Toa Kitu Kidogo'. Upon noticing my confusion, he further explained that it's what a policeman would say if he caught me riding my bike at night without a light. Odd, I thought, but that, he said, was ufisadi in its purest form. And so began a personal journey with the most contagious plague of our lifetime.

I couple of years later, I saw another caricature on Taifa Leo (yes, my grandfather was obsessed with the paper, but you would be too if you didn't speak a word of English) but this time the name that would stick with me to this day was Kamlesh Pattni. Funny name, I thought.

It was only later that I would see the man himself, on Baba Julie's television (where we would all go to watch the addictive Philippine soap, Pangako Sa 'Yo, 'The Promise'), testifying on something they called 'a commission of inquiry into the Goldenberg affair'. You can imagine my surprise, when years later I saw the same exact man on television, this time as a pastor, preaching the word of the good Lord, to an actual congregation of Kenyans! But, I digress.

So there Pattni was, testifying, and I remember my grandfather seemingly untroubled by the whole issue, calling it a charade - in more colourful words. His indifference was curious, especially because the old man would go berserk if a shilling disappeared from the house! Why is this different, I wondered. Anyway, I moved on, struck by the term 'Goldenberg' which sounded rather cool, like the stuff I had started reading on Robert Ludlum's novels. Because really, don't they all sound like fictional titles? 'The Goldenberg Affair', 'The Anglo Leasing Scandal', 'The NYS Saga', 'Chickengate', 'The Afya House Scandal', 'The NHIF Saga', et cetera.

I paid my first bribe immediately after high school, to the father of a former classmate, who worked at the government office that issued identity cards. He had given me the run-around for almost three months, hoping – I suspect – that I would get the clue and offer something. Untutored in the particulars of corrupt dealings, I naively kept expecting him to provide service, until he finally just came out and demanded that I offer something for his troubles.

I was a little taken aback, not only because he wanted something, but because he wanted something from me, a barely 18 year old kid, and he wanted it right there, in his office, in full view of a bunch of people.

I protested, reminding him that I was in the same class as his son, I even spoke to him in his mother-tongue, but he would hear none of it! So I reached into my pocket and shook his hand with the only banknote I had, which he quickly stuffed in his pocket without looking, thank heavens. My new identity card materialised just as quickly, and for 50 shillings I became a bona fide citizen of the Republic of Kenya, baptised in the holy waters of corruption.

Indeed, it was on this sunny day in a beautiful coastal town, that I too became a co-author of this serialised book of corruption we were all writing – an unwitting writer of my own country's stagnation. I would, of course, put my pen to paper time and time again, forced to become prolific by a society that not only accepts corruption, but also expects it.

Denuded of all innocence, corruption was no longer immoral in my mind, let alone illegal. For how can it be illegal, if the police, government officials and your friends' parents do it?

It was only when I stepped into the 'Development 101' class, and a picture was painted of Mobutu Sese Seko's Zaire, Omar Bongo's Gabon, Ferdinand Marcos' Phillipines and many others, that I finally understood – on a personal level - the devastating, intergenerational effects of corruption on health, education, security and on all socio-economic aspects of life.

But more than that, I understood one fundamental fact: if you truly want to nip corruption in the bud, explain to the 10 year olds what exactly it is. Teach the 15 year olds how it affects their families. Impress upon the 20 year olds how futures are destroyed by the vice. Put it in a book, give it a face, a voice, a taste. Let me touch the animal with their hands, let them see its fangs and smell its foul stench.

It is simply not good enough, to say you have institutionalised its fight. For even worse than corruption, is to spend billions of taxpayer shillings pretending to fight it.

Mr Wainaina is a graduate of International Relations.

[email protected]

Related Topics