Today I take you to Russia and share with you one of the best ever written short stories, The Overcoat, by Ukrainian-born Russian author Nikolai Gogol, published in 1842. I will then make an attempt to relate it to our present day Kenya. Here is the story as summarized in Wikimedia.
The story centers on the life and death of Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, an impoverished government clerk and copyist in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg. Akaky is dedicated to his job as a titular councillor, taking special relish in the hand-copying of documents, though little recognized in his department for his hard work. Instead, the younger clerks tease him and attempt to distract him whenever they can. His threadbare overcoat is often the butt of their jokes. Akaky decides it is necessary to have the coat repaired, so he takes it to his tailor, Petrovich, who declares the coat irreparable, telling Akaky he must buy a new overcoat.
The cost of a new overcoat is beyond Akaky's meager salary, so he forces himself to live within a strict budget to save sufficient money to buy the new overcoat. Meanwhile, he and Petrovich frequently meet to discuss the style of the new coat. During that time, Akaky's zeal for copying is replaced with excitement about his new overcoat, to the point that he thinks of little else. Finally, with the addition of an unexpectedly large holiday salary bonus, Akaky has saved enough money to buy a new overcoat.
Akaky and Petrovich go to the shops in St. Petersburg and pick the finest materials they can afford (marten fur is unaffordable, but they buy the best cat fur available for the collar). The new coat is of impressively good quality and appearance and is the talk of Akaky's office on the day he arrives wearing it. His clerk superior decides to host a party honoring the new overcoat, at which the habitually solitary Akaky is out of place; after the event, Akaky goes home from the party, far later than he normally would. En route home, two ruffians confront him, take his coat, kick him down, and leave him in the snow.
Akaky finds no help from the authorities in recovering his lost overcoat. Finally, on the advice of another clerk in his department, he asks for help from a "Very Important Person" (sometimes translated the prominent person, the person of consequence), a high-ranking general. The narrator notes that the general habitually belittles and shouts at subordinates to make himself appear more important than he truly is. After keeping Akaky waiting an unnecessarily long time, the general demands of him exactly why he has brought so trivial a matter to him, personally, and not presented it to his secretary (the procedure for separating the VIP from the lesser clerks).
Socially inept, Akaky makes an unflattering remark concerning departmental secretaries, provoking so powerful a scolding from the general that he nearly faints and must be led from the general's office. Soon afterward, Akaky falls deathly ill with fever. In his last hours, he is delirious, imagining himself again sitting before the VIP, who is again scolding him. At first, Akaky pleads forgiveness, but as his death nears, he curses the general.
Soon, Akaky's ghost (Gogol uses "corpse" to describe the ghost of Akaky) is reportedly haunting areas of St. Petersburg, taking overcoats from people; the police are finding it difficult to capture him. Finally, Akaky's ghost catches up with the VIP — who, since Akaky's death, had begun to feel guilt over having mistreated him — and takes his overcoat, frightening him terribly; satisfied, Akaky is not seen again. The narrator ends his narration with the account of another ghost seen in another part of the city.
Nikolai Gogol’s home, Ukraine is in turmoil. Its citizens are in streets protesting President Viktor Yanukovych’s strong arm tactics. Although it is the third largest grain exporter, the country has largely been a closed society. Old habits don’t seem to change. It takes centuries to change culture.
There are similarities between Kenya and Ukraine strikingly similar to Western Europe in the 18th and 19th century. Like Akaky’s experience, we lack respect in the 21st century. Sample this. You are queuing in a bank to be served only for a VIP to walk by and get the service at the expense of your time. You are driving in a jam when a Matatu drives on a side walk zooming past and disrupting pedestrians. A friend calls you for an appointment at your home at a particular time and when the time comes, he is nowhere. When you call to find out if he is lost, you first get a lengthy laughter, "Hahahaha, eeeh I travelled to Mombasa". No apology. We build mansions but we forget a toilet for the watchman. We build mansions with imported tiles and carpets but the servant quarter has a rough cement floor. Many VIPs give appointments even when they know they will be out of the country. We steal even from the church as we condemn corruption from the pulpit.
How low shall we sink? When Western Europe found themselves in our situation today, the Protestants led by Martin Luther and John Calvin started the Protestant Reformation in 1517 entrenching the protestant ethic. Many writers attribute much of Western Europe’s economic success to protestant ethic and Britain’s puritanism. Although the core motivation behind these changes was theological, many other factors played a part, including the Western Schism which eroded people's faith in the Papacy, the corruption of the Curia, the new learning of the Renaissance which questioned much traditional thought, the rise of nationalism. On a technological level the invention of the printing press proved extremely significant in that it provided the means for the rapid dissemination of new ideas.
Our current religious groupings lack the moral nerve to mount anything near reformation. Politicians too cannot lead such reforms. Current political reforms are hurting citizens through taxes. More than 70 per cent of the allocation go to personnel emoluments meaning that little is left for development. We may never reduce poverty if most of taxes go into salaries of a few. It is for us now to start a process of heightened consciousness to transform the thinking of the people. People are waiting for nonexistent jobs but through digital platforms we can help create the elusive jobs. For this to succeed, we must start from the premise that we have all sinned and begin to respect each other. We must aim to exploit each and everyone’s talent and create a society that ensures food, shelter and clothing for all. Spending fortunes to build fortresses around ourselves is no solution. We are caging ourselves when we must lift the lives of those in despair.
If the printing press was the driver of reformation, let social media be the driver of renewed consciousness. For no one knows what happens after death. May be some of our ghosts just like Akaky’s will come to haunt the souls of those who disrespect others. Let us think inclusively for this is the only way we shall destroy poverty from our midst.
Dr. Ndemo is a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Business School, Lower Kabete Campus. He is a former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication. Twitter: @bantigito