change and deep slumber
I had an opportunity to spend some time in Kenya as a member
of the commonwealth group of election observers deputed to
oversee the national general elections. Even though I had
taken on this assignment rather reluctantly, I am really glad
that I did, as it has opened an entirely new world and shattered
the many unflattering myths we harbor about Africa. Nothing
that we learnt as kids about Africa prepared me for the breathtaking
beauty of Kenya and the grace and dignity of the people.
Like most other African countries, Kenya also became independent
from its colonial rulers in the 1960's and was led by first
generation leaders who had roots in their freedom struggle.
Unfortunately like the rest of the continent, the first generation
Kenyan leaders also simply looted the country and haven't
allowed either a democratic tradition or good governance to
take root and as a result suffered from despotic rule, lawlessness
to pressure from the international community, and under the
terms of a constitutional amendment in 1992, the incumbent
president, Daniel arap Moi who presided over a regime of plunder
and tyranny for the past 24 years had to give way. For the
first time since independence in 1963, free and fair polls
were held and the Kenyan people voted overwhelmingly for change.
The ruling party was routed giving a landslide victory to
Mwai Kibaki who campaigned for good governance and end of
corruption. This is a rare instance of peaceful, democratic
transfer of power in Africa and it bodes well for the rest
of the continent.
most striking thing one notices in Kenya is the high level
of literacy. Kenya's per capita income in purchasing power
terms is only half that of India. There are some 42 tribes,
and people are dispersed in small, remote villages with hardly
any infrastructure. And yet, every village or a group of tiny
villages has a primary school of good quality. Most schools
are run by missionaries, and they have good infrastructure.
Each class has a teacher and a room. Compare this with our
single-teacher and two-teacher schools, and you will realise
how much of catching up we have to do. What is more, Kenyan
education is really good. About 75% of people are literate.
And every literate Kenyan knows how to read, write and speak
two languages - Swahili and English. I have talked with hundreds
of Kenyans from all cross-sections. The level of awareness
and articulation of the ordinary people with only school education
course, Kenya has had rotten governments so far, and tyranny
and plunder have been synonymous with power. Government did
little to promote education, provide health care, or build
infrastructure. And yet Kenyan society values education. Even
poor people are willing to pay large sums for education in
private schools. Part of the reason is the sense of equality,
despite the many tribal divisions. There are no hierarchies
in society. Every Kenyan has a sense of dignity and self-esteem.
There is no feudal subservience. A driver often shares a meal
with his employer, and a constable sits in front of his boss
and converses freely! They have many challenges ahead, but
happily the recent election brought hope, and the ordinary
citizens discovered their power.
of us have disdain for the 'dark' continent of Africa. Outside
the west, we only recognize two regions - South East Asia,
whose rapid growth in recent decades left us behind and envious,
and the gulf countries, whose oil wealth attracted many youngsters
in search of jobs, including from Hyderabad. But there are
many lessons we the 'civilized' have to learn from the much-neglected
Africa. Our insulation and hierarchies are doing us immense
damage. All over the world, determined efforts are being made
to improve the conditions. We need to wake up from our deep
slumber and focus on things that really matter, if we are
not to be left behind.