We must stop undervaluing community - nobody develops alone

Monday October 23 2017

By BITANGE NDEMO
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Mwalimu Julius Nyerere once said, “It has always been my belief that you can’t develop people — poor people have to develop themselves.”

The interpretation that followed made one of Africa’s foremost socialists suspect, in thinking that individuals could, without community, develop themselves.

However, that has now been clarified in many languages. What Mwalimu meant was that individuals couldn’t make decisions about people’s own lives and development without their concurrence. Development, in his understanding, was the well-being of a people.

Even with that clarity, Africa remains confused on its best strategy for development.  In the process of self-determination, we have undermined virtually all institutions, destroyed some of the most beautiful colonial artefacts and ruined all institutions of governance.

Tension exists in virtually every sector across Africa, from politics to economics and social welfare, because we have never found a formula that aligns people's needs with the national aspirations of becoming a developed nation.

We will never develop if citizens are scattered across several centuries of progress. You can't have part of the population trading stock on the New York Securities Exchange while others live in 18th century manyattas, while hoping to attain developed status in the near future.

MARKET RATES

Before ranting, let me explain how we have undermined our institutions.  During colonial times, there were virtually no labour disputes as we experience them today. The system provided for decent housing, whether you worked for government, a parastatal or even the private sector.

Nurses, doctors, lecturers, civil servants and members of the disciplined services lived in posh estates and beautiful colonial homes in towns across the country. Schools functioned, so that there was no need to take children to private schools run on foreign systems.

But donor agencies decided those were luxuries and recommended the disposal of what used to be housing for the public sector.  House allowance was substituted instead, but was never adjusted for market rates, and in the process, all public housing was grabbed.

As a result, today, few if any publics servants are housed by the government and few can honestly live in the estates their predecessors lived in a few years ago. Average rent in Kileleshwa, which was mostly a public housing estate, ranges between Sh70,000 and Sh300,000, more than the current salary of most public servants. 

BETTER THAN THE PAST

We also worked hard to run down virtually all schools across Kenya.  The recently burned down Moi Girls High School, Nairobi, together with Lenana School and Nairobi School are some of the top public schools that maintained old, beautiful, colonial architecture, but today they are pale shadows of their past. 

The trend cuts across from universities to hospitals to government offices.  Perhaps development is about destroying foreign artefacts and building anew our own taste of architecture.

I would rather have maintained the old and aspired to build new, more aesthetically pleasing buildings. In essence, doing better than the past is what development is all about.

Education, which was to level the playing field, is elusive in parts of Africa.  Parents must choose between school and food, or security and school.

Sometimes, I question whether education has really achieved its development objectives. The most educated, as in Kenya today, see every issue through the lens of tribe. 

The Constitution of Kenya, which we touted as the most progressive in Africa, means nothing to some learned people. Individuality, even where the honour is bestowed by an entire community, has become paramount, yet we are fiercely communal.

LOVE FOR COMMUNITY

To align people to a common goal, they must be part and parcel of the process.  They must understand where they are, where they need to be and how they get there, and none of those can be done without agreeing to a set of values. 

These I call the irreducible minimums for people to participate for sustainable development:  We must agree that hunger to any one of our citizens is hunger for all of us.  We must provide quality universal education (we have been there and we can revive it) and aspire to provide universal healthcare insurance.  We must provide agricultural extension services and inculcate a culture of environmental cleanliness to ward off emerging opportunistic diseases. 

Although we often think Africa has no notable value system, and although others may say we need to change our primordial cultural practices, it is perhaps the strengths hidden behind our love for community that will take us to “Canaan.” 

In my frustration over the pace of development in Africa, I discussed ethics and values with a European friend. In spite of our failings, he thinks Africa has key values it can contribute to the ethics debate. These, he says, are spirituality and community. 

I had no idea that my friend had escalated our discussion to a wider audience in Europe, where one of his friends sent him an analysis of Teilhard de Chardin’s theory of evolution by Cynthia Bourgeault.

In his view it can could explain our discussion, especially as digital shapes new ways of relating and defining community.  Below is part of Bourgeault’s essay, which I quote at length:

The second hopeful resource that Teilhard brings to our unsettled times is his unshakable conviction that evolutionary progress will unfold its ultimate triumph in the realm of the personal. Our postmodern temperament has a well-ingrained tendency to regard the world through a filter of distrust, in which we inevitably view evolution as “random,” disconnected, and certainly impersonal. However, Teilhard encourages us to see our planetary home as a coherent and increasingly compassionate whole, steadily plying its way along an irreversible evolutionary trajectory.

In the big picture, there is nothing to suggest that evolution has gone off track. But there is plenty to suggest that we are entering a critical new phase in which some old-order survival strategies (read: the “fight or flight” mechanisms that have ruled our survival thus far) are giving way to a new and more intentional sense of mutual interdependence. The transition appears to already be underway. To continue this turning, it’s crucial that we humans make the evolutionary shift from “individuals” to “persons.”

What’s the difference?

We typically use these terms interchangeably, but for Teilhard they denote distinctly different, progressive evolutionary stages. An individual lives as an autonomous unit, subject to the old-order laws of “survival of the fittest” and planetary indifference. A person has come to understand themselves as belonging to greater relational field. They now sense their identity from a sense of wholeness in an entirely different order of coherence: a whole greater than the sum of its parts. In this greater whole both unity and differentiation are preserved; meanwhile the whole begins to be infused by a supremely personal tincture or essence. The universe is no longer random, but a system of relationships to which we all belong and are participating in!

A cautionary note: for Teilhard, oneness does not equate simply to some sentimental proclamation of “fellowship” or “let’s all just get along.”

For Teilhard this process of becoming unified is evident in the evolution of the smallest cell to the orbit of our very planet. In fact, says Teilhard, it’s the very direction of how consciousness evolved in the first place! As more complex forms emerged in unified units on our planet, consciousness was able to emerge with it. From this we can gather that the future of spirituality will not be found in the “enlightenment” of a select number of individuals, but will arrive through us collectively as a new “unit,” in the emergence of what we might call the mystical body of Christ. 

The rising scent of our common humanity is already in the air, and as we consciously join hearts across the antiquated boundaries of the nationalities and denominations that once defined our identities, the blue biosphere of our planet Earth is being suffused with the gold and scarlet of our common human heart.

We can therefore develop, even leapfrog economically, socially and politically, if we harness our sense of spirituality and community.  Perhaps our political stalemate results from placing individual above community.

We can ensure a decent living for all if we discard individuality, embrace the person and become the best example to the world.  As a community, we can then discover our development philosophy.  

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito