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Cultivating trust: Lessons from my stay in Hamburg

Xn Iraki
 The skyline over the port city of Hamburg, Germany. [XN Iraki]

In the realm of government priorities, countless projects are initiated and executed through manifestos, sessional papers, parliamentary acts, regulations, and executive orders. While foreign investors often supplement these endeavors, there exists an overlooked project since Kenya's independence—the Project Trust.

The pervasive lack of trust within society, whether directed towards the government, neighbours, spouses, or even children, has become an undeniable issue.

This deficit in trust has spawned various industries, employing "trust enforcers" such as lawyers, prisons, security guards, intelligence services, policemen, and arbitrators. Mistrust, manifested in burglar-proof doors and fortified perimeter walls, has proven to be one of Kenya's most costly undertakings.

This ingrained mistrust exacts not only a financial toll but also imposes emotional costs, leading to sleepless nights, heightened anxiety, and unfulfilled lives. However, a recent experience during my week in Hamburg, Germany, has offered a profound revelation—that trust can indeed be built and can function effectively.

In Hamburg, a city where I purchased a week's ticket for public transport, the level of trust was striking. No one checked the ticket each time I boarded a bus or train, and there were no conductors, inspectors, or police present during my entire week of travels.

Random checks were acknowledged, and the deterrents in place, including fines and records, emphasised the expectation of rational citizens adhering to the system.

Remarkably, my hotel in Hamburg operated without security guards or a receptionist. Access to the premises and hotel room was granted through a code sent to my phone, and no one checked on guests throughout the week.

The pervasive trust extended to supermarkets, where security guards were noticeably absent, and self-checkout systems were prevalent.

This level of trust, often surprising to those accustomed to other societal norms, was further exemplified at a university we visited. The absence of security guards and the ease of entering buildings highlighted a stark contrast to the prevailing practices in Kenya, where stamps are frequently used to authenticate documents.

The scarcity of trust, both among individuals and in institutions, poses a greater national challenge than issues such as climate change.

Yet, the success or failure of other government-defined national problems hinges on cultivating trust. Mistrust has inadvertently led to the appointment of trusted individuals from specific tribes or communities to key positions, fostering exclusion, inhibiting diversity, and stifling innovation.

Economically, mistrust has led to the inclination to invest in treasury bills and bonds rather than initiating entrepreneurial ventures.

The affluent, seeking more trustworthy environments, often choose to relocate, contributing to the brain drain phenomenon. The concern lies in the potential inter-generational growth of mistrust, evident in persistent stereotypes about Kenyan tribes over six decades.

Amidst these challenges, it becomes imperative to consider proactive measures. A nationwide initiative, akin to tree planting or Covid-19 vaccination campaigns, could address this issue—Project Trust.

Commencing at the individual and familial levels and extending to government and private institutions, this initiative should be a collective effort to instill a culture of trust. Public shaming of trust violators, accompanied by a weekly list of shame, could serve as a powerful deterrent.

A radical suggestion involves renaming the country to the "Swahili Republic," symbolising a commitment to a new era characterised by trust. Given our deeply rooted religious beliefs, the question arises: If we can trust in the unseen, can we not trust in each other, the visible beings around us?

The misunderstanding of capitalism as merely a pursuit of wealth, rather than an advancement of society, exacerbates mistrust. Realigning our perspective to see capitalism as a collaborative effort to create better and safer products for mutual benefit is essential. Without trust, we treat each other as if we were invisible, neglecting the consequences of our actions.

Addressing mistrust in the government is crucial, as it acts as an enforcer of trust. Mistrust becomes a serious handicap in building societal trust, leaving institutions vulnerable to subversion.

The initiation of trust-building must commence at the grassroots level, within homes, among siblings, neighbors, parents, extended family, and immediate communities. Trust-building is a task that cannot be outsourced, unlike infrastructure projects such as roads or railways.

Drawing inspiration from traditional societies where trust was abundant might offer valuable insights into how we can reclaim and rebuild trust in our modern context.

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