As I was driving on Mombasa Road recently, I saw that many cars had slowed down or parked by the roadside around the Lusaka Road roundabout.
Unknowingly, I drove past most of these vehicles through the Langata exit only to find a matatu ahead of me spewing unimaginable smoke that completely darkened the entire three-lane road.
I could not see ahead but stayed back as I rolled up my windows. The traffic in front slowed the matatu. The wind cleared most of the smoke into Nyayo Stadium, allowing me to move forward on the next lane.
I decided to politely ask the matatu driver to have his vehicle towed instead of putting so many people in danger.
He looked at me as though I was an alien. Inside the matatu, some smoke smouldered. Frightened passengers quietly inhaled the fumes.
The tout told me, “Bwana Bitange, hii ni job” (Mr Bitange, this is my job). I told him that he might not make money from burning such an amount of fuel. "My friend you are burning at least one litre of gas every 10 metres when you can do 15 km per litre," I said. He replied, "Hiyo ni hesabu ya wadosi" (that is math for the wealthy). As the traffic started moving, and as though the matatu had itself felt the shame, it took its last gasp of fuel and went silent.
This little chat left me thinking as I drove on. Perhaps these matatu crewmen wanted a few shillings to buy their families food, I thought to myself. Their irresponsible behaviour could be explained by circumstances beyond their comprehension. The unemployment rate in Kenya, for example, is in excess of 40 per cent. Some well-educated young Kenyans sleep on the streets.
With so many economists in this country, I ask myself, are we incapable of finding a sustainable solution? What did other countries do to get their people into employment? On reaching home, I was still bothered when I decided to peruse through the New York Times online edition.
I landed on a piece by Nick Taylor, the author of “American-Made” (2008), a history of the Works Progress Administration. After reading the story, I called two editors to consider republishing the article in our dailies. But as we wait for the request, here is the link.
Some of you may not open the link, but the following quotes can help you get the gist.
“By 1932 the unemployment rate had soared past 20 per cent. Thousands of banks and businesses had failed. Millions were homeless. Men (and women) returned home from fruitless job hunts to find their dwellings padlocked and their possessions and families turned into the street. Many drifted from town to town looking for non-existent jobs. Many more lived at the edges of cities in makeshift shantytowns their residents derisively called Hoovervilles. People foraged in dumps and garbage cans for food.”
Even as the suffering continued, the incumbent government at the time stuck to theories of economics.
As Taylor writes, “President Herbert Hoover, a Republican and former Commerce Secretary, believed the government should monitor the economy and encourage counter-cyclical spending to ease downturns, but not directly intervene. As the jobless population grew, he resisted calls from Congress, governors, and mayors to combat unemployment by financing public service jobs.
He encouraged the creation of such jobs, but said it was up to state and local governments to pay for them. He also believed that relieving the suffering of the unemployed was solely up to local governments and private charities.”
Hoover lost the election to Roosevelt, a more pragmatic leader. As Taylor writes, “Roosevelt faced a banking crisis and unemployment that had reached 24.9 per cent. Thirteen to 15 million workers had no jobs. Banks regained their equilibrium after Roosevelt persuaded Congress to declare a nationwide bank holiday. He offered and Congress passed a series of emergency measures that came to characterize his promise of a “new deal for the American people.”
The legislative tally of the new administration’s first hundred days reformed banking and the stock market; insured private bank deposits; protected home mortgages; sought to stabilize industrial and agricultural production; created a program to build large public works and another to build hydroelectric dams to bring power to the rural South; brought federal relief to millions, and sent thousands of young men into the national parks and forests to plant trees and control erosion.”
In the end, “The Civil Works Administration employed more than four million men and women at jobs from building and repairing roads and bridges, parks, playgrounds and public buildings to creating art. Unemployment, however, persisted at high levels. That led the administration to create a permanent jobs program, the Works Progress Administration.
The W.P.A. began in 1935 and would last until 1943, employing 8.5 million people and spending $11 billion as it transformed the national infrastructure, made clothing for the poor, and created landmark programs in art, music, theatre and writing. To accommodate unions that were growing stronger at the time, the W.P.A. at first paid building trades workers “prevailing wages” but shortened their hours so as not to compete with private employers.”
It is incumbent upon us all who read this piece to get your Member of Parliament to read it and use the Constituency Development Fund to replicate some of the projects here.
We cannot have high unemployment, and at the same time import clothes from Sri Lanka or mitumba, when we can grow cotton and make our clothes. We must defy economic explanations on what works and what does not work. If we deployed thousands of youth digitizing land records, we would reduce caseloads in courts, become more efficient, and create more wealth to grow our economy.
The defiant behaviour on our roads by matatu drivers is more of a protest than impunity. The cure to protest is what Maslow ably defined as ensuring basic physiological needs (food, shelter and clothing) are met for every Kenyan.