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Kenya’s poor will get their voice, and the world will listen

COMMENTARY
By Gabriel Dolan | November 4th 2018

Talk of dynasties, handshakes, 2022 and constitutional change is boring, frustrating, distracting and a waste of time and energy.

Yet, a huge percentage of the population is hooked, almost addicted to this charade that is succession politics. The political class may have mismanaged the economy, looted the coffers, grabbed the land and tenders but the masses endure, tolerate and still enjoy the games and lies.

Despite everything, politicians are revered and applauded when they donate to our churches, campaign in our villages, attend our funerals and weddings or remember our names.

While the middle class may ignore the politicians ranting, it is the poor, the marginalised and the unemployed – those who suffer most from corruption and bad leadership – who dance themselves lame and return home hungry from political rallies.

The poor are excluded but still cling to the coat tails of the political class hoping that they will liberate them from poverty and destitution.

The excluded still perceive themselves as objects of development rather than believing that they should be the subjects and set the agenda. Put another way, the voiceless give tacit consent to oppression because they do not recognise their potential to demand change.

Indian writer Arundathi Roy said, ‘There is no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard’. In other words, if the poor don’t have a voice it is because they have been silenced or they have chosen the path of non resistance.

It has not always been that way.

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There were the many independence movements that grasped the public imagination and support and in more recent decades we have witnessed the democratic movements that put an end to authoritarian rule in many of the continent’s countries.

But apart from South Africa, there are no large people’s movements emerging that bring together the poor, landless and excluded of society.

We are yet to witness in Kenya the emergence of a movement that deals with poverty and inequality. Why?

One reason perhaps is the living memory that those who fought for Kenyan independence benefited least from the change of governance in 1963.

The home guards and the educated reaped the benefits of the Mau Mau efforts to end colonialism. The poor were used to fight the battles of the better off segment of society and were then demonised for their efforts.

A second reason perhaps is the emergence of civil society organisations that operate in every corner of the republic.

Many of these CSOs have taken up the role of defender of the voiceless and the poor. In many respects, they have performed very well in exposing corruption, protesting extra judicial killings and holding governments accountable.

However, their proliferation may well be an obstacle towards the masses organising themselves.

Besides, many CSOs have a radical agenda but have no effective links to the poor they claim they represent. They are middle class organisations disconnected from grassroots communities. The ‘Kenya We Want’ document is progressive, bold and demanding but will make little impact because it is not known or owned by the people whose needs it addresses.

One man who appears to understand the value, role and frustrations of the organised poor is Pope Francis. Addressing social movements from around the world in Rome, he said: “We want your voices to be heard – voices that are rarely heard.

No doubt this is because your cries are bothersome because people are afraid of the change that you seek. You are not satisfied with empty promises, with alibis or excuses.

Nor do you wait with arms crossed for NGOs to help, welfare schemes or paternalistic solutions that never arrive; or if they do, then it is with a tendency to anaesthetise or to domesticate. The poor are no longer waiting. You want to be protagonists.”

The poor in Kenya are for the most part still waiting, not yet ready to be protagonists. The abolitionist Harriet Tubman is reported to have said that she freed a thousand slaves and she could have freed thousands more if they knew they were slaves.

If the poor realise they should be the subjects of history, they will find their own voice and shout aloud.

Rosa Parks of the Montgomery Bus Protest said that the day she was arrested was only significant because the masses then joined her protest.

Sometimes it only takes one brave person, one spark to begin a movement for change.

[email protected] @GabrielDolan1

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