July 13th, 2013
That Kenya is an unequal society is not in question. The gap between the few very rich and the many very poor is wide. The 2010 Global Human Development Report by the United Nations Development Programme ranked Kenya 103 out of the total 169 countries surveyed – making it the 66th most unequal country in the world.
What is not clear is how fast the inequality gap is widening. A publication by the Society for International Development titled ‘Pulling Apart: Facts and Figures on Inequality in Kenya’ published back in 2004 painted a disturbing picture of growing inequality. I am sure there is a more recent report but back then, “the country’s top 10% households controlled 42% of the total income while the bottom 10% controlled less than 1%”. Consider the following comparative facts between what we used to call provinces: In Central province, gross enrolment rates in primary school in 2000 was 106% compared to only 18% in North Eastern province. Only about 1% of households in North Eastern province had piped water compared to about 12% in Central province.
Is the gap between the very poor and the very rich increasing? We may never fully know because household surveys would need to consistently focus on the same parameters and use the same methods of measurement. A more recent (2012) publication by researchers at the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis titled ‘Poverty, Growth, and Income Distribution in Kenya’ however concludes that – based on income inequality and consumption – the inequality gap has in fact been increasing in Kenya.
Accurate measurement aside, there is clear evidence that huge segments of the population eke out miserable existence from the most unjust and degrading conditions. Most worrying is the seeming lack of empathy or outrage. There is no evidence of an inverse relationship between growing inequality and increasing outrage and empathy. State action or inaction aside, no one seems to shed tears at the pain and suffering that millions of fellow citizens are going through. Is this cultural or are we regressing to a primitive state?
I was brought up to believe that shedding tears on account of pain or suffering is for weaklings. Pain; be it physical or psychological, I was taught, purified a man’s soul. It made you strong. Until the other day, the following poem perfectly defined my relationship with pain:
When sorrow throws its vile blow,
And everyone’s tears freely flow;
And, though screams of grief feel my ears,
I urge my tear glands in vain to shed tears.
When pain preys on my sweet thrill,
And the ache is such that it could kill;
And, though I may wince, and in my heart cry,
Tears forsake me, and my eyes still remain dry.
But when cheer and joy make merry,
And friends toast champagne and sherry;
When victory leaps sky high, and honour to enjoy,
Then only do I bath my cheeks…with tears of joy
I was culturally allowed to only shed tears of joy. That changed last week. One incident brought tears streaming down my cheeks. Perhaps age is making me more empathetic!
The incident was the painful dilemma of the middle aged woman interviewed by a popular investigative journalist on one of our Kenyan television stations. She was being interviewed about the brutality visited on her family by state security forces following one of the many attacks by suspected Al Shabab terrorists in Garissa. You could feel indescribable pain and hopelessness in her voice as she spoke to the journalist. The gist of her story is this: She is Kenyan. Her son – who was allegedly arrested and beaten by security forces – is Kenyan too. He completed secondary school and obtained additional qualifications but he could not get a job because he had no national identity card. And he could not obtain identification because, she said, those responsible said the boy was probably a foreigner and demanded a bribe of Kshs 70,000. During security operations, he got arrested and nearly got killed because he could not proof his citizenship. A classic no win situation.
Kenyan. Trained. Cannot obtain national ID. No job. This is a recipe for hopelessness – and trouble. Any surprise if such youth join Al Shabab? The government must act before this gets out of control.
The German philosopher, Fredrich Nietzsche, once said “… what does not destroy me makes me stronger.” That is only true up to a point. Marginalization may not destroy, but it makes one weaker – and dangerous.
Even as the government implements job-creating economic policies, it must also tackle corruption and set up effective social safety nets. As individuals, we can play our part if we believe in Ubuntu – the concept which originates from the Zulu expression “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”: a person is only a person through other people. I am because you are.
We must learn to shed tears – and act empathetically.