- February 3, 2022
A few months ago I was in a matatu, heading to town. Upon alighting, a gentleman who had been in the same matatu with me was going in the same direction I was. And so, we walked together having some boring conversations about the weather, the traffic, and such lame stuff. One moment, he bent down to pick something and quickly stood up. He rushed by my side and said, “That guy dropped some cash,” pointing with his mouth.
For a moment, I was engrossed, searching for the guy who had dropped the money. It didn’t take a minute before I noticed him. An elderly man, maybe in his fifties, frantically searching his pockets. He must have dropped the money while retrieving his phone from his pocket.
In my mind, I was wondering why it was taking my matatu “friend” so long to give back the money. The elderly man was now turning back to trace where he had dropped the money, and my friend was walking as if nothing had happened. I had to ask, “you are not giving back that money?” Without batting an eyelid, he responded, “hii ni kanairo na unijui,” which loosely translates to “this is Nairobi, and you don’t know me.” This guy took off in a different direction, just like that. I stood there, watching him disappear into the crowd of pedestrians. I honestly didn’t understand how someone can steal in broad daylight and have the audacity to blame it on Nairobi.
Late last year, a matatu driver narrated how his colleagues mocked him for returning Kshs. 20,000 and a laptop to a passenger, whom he later discovered was a student. His colleagues couldn’t bring themselves to understand how he could give back the “free” money and a laptop when Christmas was around the corner. I mean, what if God was answering his prayers? The irony!
Time and again, the stories of people returning money or other lost items have become headlines and gone viral in this country. Why? These are isolated cases. We marvel and praise these rare breeds of humanity, yet this should be normal. Are we not expected to return lost items? When did we graduate from those childhood lessons of returning lost items? When did we turn into crooks?
Some people say that you’ve not seen the true picture of dishonesty until you employ a fellow Kenyan in your business. Business owners have attested to being milked dry by their employees. In their defence, employees claim that poor remuneration and working conditions lead them to loot from their employers. Now, the question is, how about resigning if the job is not meeting one’s expectations?
Culture or politics? Who is to blame?
Our morality is simply in the gutter. I would love to blame it on the leadership, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s our own doing. Our culture has reinforced a weird belief that honesty is not the best policy. You have to cheat in one way or another. If you are in university, getting a degree is a collective effort. If you are searching for a job, you have to know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody. If not, perhaps a kickback will do. If you want to get any service fast, give someone a bribe, also known as chai.
This culture is so deep that you’ll hear people blaming politicians for corruption but also closing their discussion with, “even if we elect other people, they’ll still steal” (read: if you elect me, I’ll steal). Most Kenyans feel like nobody is honest enough to stick to their job description.
That’s why people swear that if they were to get an elective seat, they’d ensure they are filthy rich before their term elapses. That is to say, we condemn leaders of the day not because they are failing us, but because we don’t have the same opportunity to steal.
In my culture, there’s a saying that goes kumaitie ema echieme which loosely translates to “you eat where you work”. The “eating” here doesn’t mean enjoying your hard-earned salary. It’s more of accepting a kickback without labelling it as corruption. To put it simply, your workplace is feeding you.
It’s the same thing with the mtu wetu culture. The term mtu wetu means our tribesman. If your tribesman is working in a particular office, you can be sure to get quick and efficient services. But what happens to the people without mtu wao in that office? Will they get standard services? Will they wait for ages for a service that takes five minutes?
This skewed belief doesn’t stop there. We are so used to mediocrity that when one does their job well, we feel compelled to give them chai to appreciate them for doing the job they are actually employed to do. And please, let’s not drag the tip conversation here. This is not about tips.
Other times, you hire someone for a job and pay for it, but they’ll still ask for something small on top of the payment to execute the job in record time, or they will just come up with something outrageous to warrant chai. Let me not even get started about the traffic police. If I do, we’ll camp here. The situation on Kenyan roads is dire.
Own it and save the country
From schools to hospitals to transport to hotels, the corruption culture thrives like it’s the norm. Perhaps it’s time to look within and change our perspective. Do we need to loot the country dry to achieve our dreams? The energy we use to condemn big corruption cases is the same energy we should use to criticize the everyday shortcuts and bribe culture we’ve cultivated.
Instead of labelling the whole country, let’s take the personal initiative of changing the narrative. The next time you are tempted to say, “Kenyans are corrupt,” own that sh*t and instead say, “I am corrupt.” Because we are all fueling the corruption narrative in one or another, perhaps taking personal responsibility will help us reflect within and refuse to be part of the problem.