Why the term hustler is gaining currency in Kenya

Opposition leader Raila Odinga during the National Covid-19 conference at ICC Nairobi on Monday, September 28, 2020. [David Njaaga, Standard]

Opposition leader Raila Odinga has declared that all the presidential candidates, including himself, are hustlers.

He explained in detail why even past presidents and his late father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who served as Kenya’s first vice-president, qualify to be called hustlers. 

It’s the second time I have heard the former prime minister talk about hustlers. This should not be taken lightly. 

His position on hustlers shows clearly that the tag is working and must be deflated.

I think Raila has done his political homework or those he has delegated the task to have done it well.  

The mention of the term hustler by Raila could be a clear indicator it is a threat to dynasties, a term everyone wants to jettison. Since when did joining the lowly become a badge of honour? Don’t we all aspire to be rich and affluent, join the jet-set class?  

Raila and other possible presidential candidates know that the road to State House is lined with hustlers, cheering you and most importantly, they are the ones who will vote you in.

Truth be told, we rarely admire hustlers or want to be hustlers; we salivate at their votes. Anything good said about hustling is usually sentimental.  

Most Kenyans are hustlers, with data from Kenya National Bureau of Statistics showing that 83 per cent of Kenyans work in the informal sector. Simply put, they hustle. They lack the certainty of a salary, health insurance, a pension in old age and an inheritance.  

The other 17 per cent, though formerly employed, have side hustles. So Raila is right in declaring that we are all hustlers. But why should the rich and affluent want to humble themselves, identify and align themselves with the hustlers?  

They know that 2022 is going to be a different election. Leaving sentimentality alone, all our presidents have not been hustlers. You need lots of money to win an election.

But Raila and other contenders have noted there is a silent backlash against the affluent leaders, often associated with dynasties.

A hard-nosed economist would prefer the term old money to “dynasty.” They are seen as detached from reality and the suffering of the masses. Covid-19 may have exposed this fissure even the more. 

Be sure, every effort will be put to distract us from dynasties and the political truth thereof.

Only a very idle Kenyan would waste their time debating if there are political and economic dynasties in Kenya. To escape political wrath, dynasties could simply be disguising themselves as hustlers; you reap more political capital.  

Any well-informed politician knows the hustlers might lack the wealth, but they understand the political situation very well.

They are on the receiving end of bad economic or political decisions and now the Covid-19 pandemic. This is why any presidential contender must court them. They know that despite their money, the hustlers can make or unmake their political ambitions. It seems they are no longer like a bag of potatoes, to quote Karl Marx, whose communism ideology has faded into the mists of history. 

If you want to know what’s happening in the country, don’t call a professor of economics or political science, just ride in a taxi and engage the driver in small talk. After riding in a taxi in Khartoum in 2013, I was not surprised by the turn of events in Sudan recently.  

By identifying yourself with the downtrodden, you can get their votes and sympathy.

Serious presidential contenders know that it does not matter if we are two years to the polls. And it seems in using hustling as a political conveyor belt, one of the contenders is way ahead of the rest. Let us be fair, we know the real hustlers. These are the men and women on the road at 4am and only get back to their houses after sunset.

They work hard every day, turning the reluctant wheel of progress. In the last three years, this newspaper has been running a pullout on Wednesdays specifically about hustling- ”Hustle.”  

The hustlers who appear in the pullout are different from those described by Raila.  

There is a deep fear, which is justified that if the 2022 presidential contention is phrased as dynasty vs hustlers, the dynasty could lose. It’s simple; though we all aspire to be rich and affluent, we distaste the rich. 

Add the headlines on graft and corruption associated with non-hustlers, and it becomes politically safe to be associated with hustlers.  

Could the hustler talk be a realisation that inequality has taken the dynasties so far that they must come back for their followers - the hustlers?  What you can be sure of is that you have not heard the last of the hustler or hustling nation.

-The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi