By Darius Okolla
For decades we’ve been indoctrinated into the belief that we are superior to Tanzanians and more urbanized than Ugandans. The rural North has minimized our access to Ethiopia meaning we haven’t perceived them as direct rivals worthy of comparison. We’ve in turn bought into the national myth of being the regional powerhouse. This superiority complex has fed our egos, filling us with notions of having a material edge over our neighbors. What we’ve always failed to appreciate is that whatever economic advantage Kenya enjoyed over these two neighbors consisted of White financial/industrial/property capital. We internalized the illusion of equating our proximity to these trappings of modernity, with having actual access to this wealth.
Now that this economy is tanking, I think it’s time to be honest with ourselves that this is not a democracy or a capitalist economy. Kenya has all the machinations of a colonial state. Colonial States like this tend to have five key traits, 1. A plantation economy; 2. Primitive elites, 3. Layered historical trauma 4. High poverty levels and 5. Broken systems. I’ll dwell on #4 for a moment. Kenya is a poor country, where majority of the population would struggle to raise 100 bob.
This country is ranked at position eight globally and sixth in Africa as having one of the highest number of people who are extremely poor. From Turkana’s 756k poor to Bungoma 726k and Nairobi’s 800k this is one struggling society where as recent as June 900k of the 4M Nairobians said they skip at least one meal a day to survive. You wouldn’t know this though, going by the public perceptions of wealth, hustle, and ostentation. So how did we become this country that’s so blind to its own pervasive and ravaging poverty? Why does the majority wretched poor seem ‘invisible’ to the public?
Thing one, the myth of Kenyan wealthiness is grounded in the hypervisibility given to the skyscrapers/malls/highways of Nairobi and the SUVs in its traffic jams, despite it having less than 10% of our national population. And even these highlighted bits of Nairobi tends to ignore the fact that Nairobi is a slum city with 2.5 of its 4M residents living in the 280+ slums that the city. Our self-perception as a society is one of pesa otas despite majority living in scorching poverty and from paycheque-to-paycheque.
Secondly we bought into the myth of this being a capitalist nation as though that were something to be proud of were it true in the first place. That this is a plantation economy dominated by White capital with very tiny pockets of indigenous capital is a well concealed truth. Kenyans, dazed by the modern conveniences such as smartphones, V8s, Art Cafe and Facebook would hardly admit that they live in a modern plantation society but that’s just what it is.
Thing three, after suffering for decades under Muigai I and Moi, Kibaki came in, in the 2000s and the economy expanded under the neoliberal boom. The upswing; a combination of real estate/banking/higher-ed/telecoms booms created a rising consumer society populated by the growing intellectual and business classes coming out of the expanding universities. The problem is that instead of crediting the boom for our success we leaned on the gospel of personal effort and entrepreneurship. And therein lay another problem.
See, neoliberalism told us that we are the masters of our own fate and we could shape our future whichever way we wanted. That sounds good in a rising 2000s economy, but when the economy starts heading south like right now, the reverse begins to sound true; that the majority poor starts seeing their fate as a personal testimony to their moral failure, laziness or lack of wisdom rather than the effects of a tanking economy. Poverty is largely structural and so is societal richness. In a society that’s obsessed with ‘self-made’ tags the structural causes of economic challenges key among them corruption, the plantation economy, sabotage and neo-colonialism become tragically blamed on individual.
To worsen all this, it doesn’t help that our cultural production, public conversations, and social visibility are largely driven by the middling class and the liquid working class. How do you convince anyone that this is a poor country when gigs and bashes get sold out every month? How do you convince anyone that this is a majority poor country when the poor have no voice within the public square and their social visibility is policed through criminalization of poverty. And their cultural products such as ghetto sheng are considered a fetish rather than a key part of our social identity?
One thing the austerity-engineered recession will do is expose the hidden poverty and economic apartheid that’s the mainstay of this country’s population. The inequalities that we’ve long ignored, if left unaddressed will culminate in social tension and heightened insecurity. That 10k humans control close to 63% of the economy while 48M get to share the crumbs makes for a massive indictment of our primitive elites. This ‘lost decade’ will prove interesting and challenging in so many respects.