10. Four Metaphors and a Wish

By Kap Kirwok

December 1st 2012

I am often asked by some of my foreign friends to give a read out of Kenya’s future prospects. These are business types that want to know if this country will be politically stable, and the policy environment friendly, to allow business and investment to thrive. Others, mostly young Kenyans starting families, ask: will this country be safe to work and raise my family? In the current political environment, and in the wake of recent security incidents, this question takes on a new urgency.

I have no ready answer for them; but I invite them to join me as my mind starts roaming, searching for an apt metaphor that best crystalizes my wishful thinking. Right now four metaphors come to mind: the gomboc, the tortoise, the gyroscope and the elastic band.

Gomboc? What is that? A gomboc is what is called a mono-monostatic object in geometry, which is a fancy way of saying it has one stable point of balance and another point of unstable balance. It was invented by Hungarian mathematicians. No matter at what point you place it on a flat surface, the gomboc will rock back and forth, building momentum, until it flips itself over as if by magic, to rest on its one stable point of balance.

I think of a gomboc because I wish Kenya had the properties of this object. I wish we had only one stable point of balance – the Constitution; and only one point of unstable balance – leadership. Using the ‘stable’ powers of the constitution, we would happily flip destabilizing leadership and return the country to its stable point of balance.
Like the gomboc, I wish we would react to small negative and disruptive changes in our circumstances by easily finding ways to right ourselves back to our point of equilibrium.

The second metaphor is that of a tortoise. Despite its reputation for slowness, this creature is famous in folklore for its intelligence. We are familiar with the story of the hare and the tortoise and the moral of ‘slow and steady wins the race’. There is however a less celebrated quality of the tortoise that ought to be an apt metaphor for Kenya: its ability to flip over and right itself when thrown on its back.

Can Kenya, finding itself on its back from time to time, flip itself back on its feet and keep moving forward? The ability to maintain balance no matter how disruptive internal or external forces, and to keep moving forward slowly but steadily is desirable. But even more desirable is the ability to maintain the right orientation, to know your direction and position. This brings us to the third metaphor – the gyroscope.

Gyroscopes are devices for maintaining orientation. They are indispensable in moving objects that require a sense of balance and direction even as they spin and turn – such as airplanes, motorcycles and space shuttles. If the Constitution is Kenya’s stability instrument, the Vision 2030 is its gyroscope. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, despite changes in our governance, no matter what the political wave of the day, we maintained a steady, unwavering line of sight to our vision? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to hold steady even in times of strife and turmoil?

The fourth and final metaphor that comes to mind whenever I am asked the stability question is a rubber band. The key quality in a rubber band is its elasticity; the ability to stretch to great lengths without snapping – as long as the stretching does not exceed its strength. Elasticity is priced by economists; they define it as the percentage change in one variable that results from 1 % change in another variable.

Adam Smith, said to be the father of modern economics, had elasticity in mind when, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, he said, “human beings are driven by passion, but at the same time, regulated by reason.” Passion and reason. These are the ingredients of human mental elasticity. They are the materials from which a self-correcting mechanism can be fashioned.

Today, our passion for our preferred presidential candidate knows no bounds. Reason seems to be in permanent retreat. The danger of instability is clear, present and menacing. But do not be fooled: the rubber band will snap back. The gomboc and the tortoise will flip and right themselves up. And maybe, just maybe we will discover the use of our own gyroscope. This – the bounce back response, the self-correction – may take days, weeks, months, years, or even decades; no matter, it will come. It always does.

Thank you for roaming with me; but what was the question again? Oh, stability – yes, for as long as the earth spins on its axis, Kenya will be stable.

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