Of the Pattni billions and Bangla Pesa

Friday June 7 2013

By GABRIEL DOLAN

Bangladesh in not just an Asian country, it is also the adopted name of Mombasa’s largest informal settlement.

The sprawling neighbourhood covers 20 acres and is home to 2,886 families. With a total population of over 12,000 and located alongside the Nairobi highway, it is just one of 52 informal settlements that are home to 60 percent of the Coastal city’s population.

All these communities suffer from insecure tenure and government neglect but possess a high degree of community spirit. Their villages may be unplanned, overcrowded and lack even basic sanitation but the residents endeavour to educate their children, make their homes comfortable and provide by themselves basic services that most taxpayers around the world would expect their government to supply.

The government does not provide schools so you build your own informal ones; when police only come to arrest or harass and chiefs act as brokers for land grabbers then village elders become the security machinery; no sports facilities exist but budding Victor Wanyamas showcase their talent on surfaces that would put Ronaldo to the test.

There are six million slumdwellers in Kenya providing cheap labour in industrial sweat houses, security guards, beer brewers, cart pushers and every other labour intensive activity imaginable.

For 50 years successive governments have demonised slumdwellers instead of criminalising poverty. Every squatter is considered a criminal except of course the state house ones; every well connected land grabber walks freely and shamelessly while slumdwellers face eviction threats on a daily basis.

Yet, humanity thrives and grows in these settlements that are full of creativity and ingenuity. When cash is short and credit flows slowly, you create promissory notes among members of your chama that is redeemable at a later date.

That is the basis of the Bangla Pesa initiative that grabbed the headlines this week. Launched just a month ago, it was already making a huge impact on the lives of small businesses in Bangladesh when the heavy hand of government hauled off its founder and five members to the cells.

Much has been written on the same, suffice to repeat what Jimnah Mbaru, who knows quite a bit about finance, shares and exchange said on the matter: Bangla Pesa is just a promissory note liquefiable at a later date. It is discountable in the secondary market. It is NOT illegal.

Try telling that to busy body CID officers in Changamwe or Court officials in Mombasa who charged the six with forging documents and released them on Sh50,000 cash bail each — the equivalent of six months income.

Try convincing Bangladesh residents that the judiciary have reformed or Jubilee government is pro-poor and they will tell you which stage to alight.

Mr Pattni, the chief suspect in the Goldenberg scandal that cost the country Sh70 billion, walks freely and arrogantly. Kenya loses a further Sh80 billion each year in tax avoidance.

The city of London has plans to make Kenya the African tax haven under the pretext of making it an ‘International Financial Centre’. Yet, our cops and courts spend their time harassing the poorest of citizens for using coupons and promissory notes to enhance their businesses. God help us all.