We in Africa love freebies and the ‘easy good life’ of freeloading, don’t we?
In fact, I dare be bold enough to say that we love stealing and admire thieves, especially in the white-collar camp. The empire of graft is the dream of a great majority of us.
I am familiar with a study that has revealed that six out of 10 people reporting to work in Kenya get there with the intent to steal. Another two don’t get there intending to steal, however if they see the opportunity, they will steal.
Accordingly, if you are not a thief in your place of work, just remember that whenever 10 of you are gathered, the likelihood is that there is only one more honest person in the group. While we loathe the fellow who steals a banana bunch, we are in love with the flashy high-profile thief with bling bling and other trappings of the big thief’s lifestyle.
African writing has often satirised the luxurious limousine that attempts to pass for the status symbol of achievement. Nigerian poet and novelist Nkem Nwankwo captures this adroitly in his 1975 effort,
My Mercedes Is Bigger Than Yours. In Chinua Achebe’s No Longer At Ease, his offering of 1960, we see Obi Okonkwo harassed to maintain an impressive public image with an automobile and other class trappings that he can hardly sustain.
His challenges range from buying new tyres to paying for insurance and settling power bills. At the apogee of his crises, he is not even sure he can feed himself, despite his senior position in the civil service.
In Ngugi Wa Thiongo’s, Devil On The Cross, which was published in Gikuyu as Caitaani Mutharaba-ini in 1980, we come across VVIP thieves who have come together to boast about their larcenous prowess. Among the things you are expected to crow about are your cars.
There are all manner of cars for all kinds of occasions. A man whose car breaks down on the way to the secret meeting is shut down when he claims to own a Peugeot 504 with petrol injection. The chairman comes to his rescue, saying that the man’s face is – in fact – “beginning to look like a Peugeot 504 with petrol injection.”
Ngugi is in his element when satirising Africa’s arriviste class in the short story, The Mubenzi Tribesman, and in The Mercedes Funeral. The Mubenzi Tribesman is a young university graduate from Makerere.
Waruhiu graduates into lifestyle pressures that eventually send him to jail, for putting his hand in the till. In this, he mirrors Achebe’s Obi Okonkwo who is expected to furnish a certain lifestyle to feed the illusion that his village has of him.
Yet the flashy machine is not just the metaphor of ‘success,’ it is also the symbol of unbridled avarice. There is a compelling urge ‘to make it’ and to symbolise this ‘arrival’ by rolling on elegant wheels that will often throw you in trouble, either socially or with the law.
Dr Brendon Nicholls, a lecturer in African and post-colonial literature at Leeds University, has suggested that the negative energy that drives these pressures is a factor of neo-colonial disruption of simple rural order. In the volume titled Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Gender and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading published in 2010,
Nicholls suggests that neo-colonial transformation of primitive African communities into quasi-urbanised entities is responsible for the frantic material desires and appetites evinced by Africa’s emergent middle class. The individual is at once pressured by himself and by society. He needs to display consumer habits that define him as a man who has “made it in life.”
Has the African society mastered attitudes and values that must invariably push her educated class to take at least the occasional dip into the till?
Do we frown upon educated occupants of high office if they lead simple lifestyles? The people of Umuofia Clan in No Longer At Ease are proud to have a member of the clan in what they call “a European job.” He is the beneficiary of a good university education, having studied literature in the United Kingdom. He has returned home to be appointed in the public service as the secretary to the scholarships board.
While he has initially resisted the urge to take bribes, financial pressures, borne out of social expectations, eventually push him into bribe taking. Reflecting about Obi’s situation, Achebe remarks that his clansmen had helped him to get to the top. Yet, did they not know that there was a price to be paid to keep him there? In the end, that price is corruption.
What of Waruhiu, the Mubenzi tribesman? The name itself is wordplay on the Mercedes Benz, once hailed as the king of cars. The Wabenzi are the people who roll in this pricey machine. And so Waruhiu is a Mubenzi tribesman. Our first encounter with him is soon after he has left prison.
We discover him walking home through some slum where the smell of roasting meat struggles against that of sewage. We soon learn that he was jailed as a result of social and domestic pressure to live like “someone who has made it.”
The same society that pressurises you into stealing will reject you once you are jailed. In the case of Obi Okonkwo, everyone is aghast at the thought that he took a bribe. “Everybody wondered why. The learned judge . . . could not comprehend how . . .
The British Council man, even the men of Umuofia did not know. And we must presume . . . Mr Green did not know either.” Obi’s situation is closely mirrored by Waruhiu’s. “This is what galled him most. He had been to a university college and had obtained a good degree. He was the only person from his village with such distinction.”
When he goes to jail, the villagers wonder what they could not do with the kind of salary they “know” him to earn. When he returns from jail, the mind-blowing wife he once dotted upon does not want to as much as set eye on him. She threatens to call the police, if he will not leave her house at once!
Barrack Muluka is a publisher and commentator on socio-political issues