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Why we are just consumers

Monday March 17 2014

Bitange Ndemo

Bitange Ndemo 

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If you were a keen reader, you may have noted in one of last Tuesday’s dailies that a significant part of our expenditure goes to importation of horticultural products like bananas, oranges and tomatoes from other countries.  This in my view is an indictment of all Kenyans considering that we pride ourselves as an agricultural nation.  It made me wonder whether we are just consumers of everything from food to educational content.

How did we get here?  To answer this question, we need to step back and reflect on our history.  Our founding fathers fought for freedom and secured it when majority of us were either toddlers or not yet born.  Their immediate objectives were to fight illiteracy, poverty and disease.  The literacy rate at the time was barely 16 per cent.  Today Kenya enjoys a literacy rate of 92 per cent but poverty and disease remain a problem.

Then there were a few who had an education like Ngugi wa Thiong’o who felt that there was unfinished business before we could declare full attainment of freedom.  He sought to wage the war using the barrel of the pen.  Ngugi’s writings, Weep not Child (1964), The River Between (1965), and A Grain of Wheat (1967) were all centered on the struggle for independence, exposing the contradictions of freedom in independent Kenya and largely defied the fact that the country had already attained independence.  His foray into theatre perhaps to demonstrate independence in decision making, with a Kikuyu play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) sent him to detention.

In detention he wrote Detained (1981) and later Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), an essay arguing for African writers' expression in their native languages rather than European languages, in order to renounce lingering colonial ties and to build an authentic African literature.   

Further he argued “Language was not a mere string of words. It had a suggestive power well beyond the immediate and lexical meaning. Our appreciation of the suggestive magical power of language was reinforced by the games we played with words through riddles, proverbs, transposition of syllables, or through nonsensical but musically arranged words...the language of our evening teach-ins, and the language of our immediate and wider community, and the language of our work in the fields were one.”

Ngugi was not alone in defending the African culture.  This was a universal protestation.  In Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel, Soyinka emphasises the theme of the corrupted African culture through the play as well as how the youth should embrace the original African culture.  In Chinua Achebe’s first novel, Things fall apart he describes Okonkwo’s family and personal history, the customs and society of the Igbo, and the influence of British colonialism and Christian missionaries on the Igbo community during the late nineteenth century.  


These literary giants saw the lingering colonial ties, but the political class failed to see any links to development.  This was indeed a new struggle – to liberate us from what came to be known as neo colonialism – and their works served to radicalize students at the time.  The death of J M Kariuki who had distinguished himself fighting for the poor made matters even worse.  Politically leaning radicals, some who had not even read any literary works, high jacked the process and started to agitate for political reforms.   Most of them metamorphosed into young Turks in the 1990’s and eventual bourgeoisie at the start of the 21st century not knowing that the class war they engaged in abhorred illicit wealth.  Decolonization of the mind was abandoned. 

It is now evident that the former young Turks did not even read the new Constitution which they claim is the outcome of their struggle.  In my view, the Constitution in whatever state it is should mark the end of an era – the era of political reforms – and move to the next level.  We must now embark on economic and social reforms.  Whilst Asian Tigers including China dealt with economic reforms first before tackling political reforms, ours is a herculean task of doing it the other way round.  Here is why I think we have some work to do.

In one of my graduate school classes, I asked the students these two questions:  If their close relative was seriously ill and someone put an offer on the table to take the patient to Congo or South Africa or within the country, where would they take the patient?  Virtually all said South Africa.  I repeated the same question with an addition of Britain.  All said Britain dropping South Africa.  How about sandwiches prepared in these countries, which one will you choose to eat? Again it was Britain, South Africa in that order.  While travelling in two other African countries, I asked the same questions to University students and the responses were the same as in Kenya.  It was evident Africans do not generally like African goods and services. 

South Africa features highly because of its large white community that the students perceive to have similar characteristics as European countries.  Majority of the students think Europe is more ethical and openly honest even with their failures.  Many years of foreign content on television, school plays such as The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, foreign books, idioms and food at an early age has destroyed all that is African and the confidence that comes with it.  In high school it is even worse.  I posed these two questions at a prestigious high school:  who discovered Mt. Kenya, and in unison the students answered Ludwig Krapf.  Correct but were there no other people around Mt. Kenya when Krapf came around? Silence and confusion.  Second question, who was Jomo Kenyatta’s father? Silence.

As I write this piece here in South Africa, Africans are not happy with the list of ANC candidates submitted to the Independent Electoral Commission.  Some are saying the list contains some doggy characters while others say the party has missed an opportunity to inject new blood.  Majority in the list are old guard.  My taxi man tells me ANC is behaving like failed countries from the Continent (to most South Africans, South Africa does not belong to the African Continent).  I ask him, if you have two job offers from a White and a Black South African, which one will you take?  In an agitated voice he tells me, “it is obvious man, our black people do not keep the promise.  Only Mandela was different.  See what Zuma is doing now”. 

As part of social reforms, I still think we need to destroy instruments of neocolonialism that encourage passivity and build the confidence that would truly create African renaissance.  Nigeria’s creative economy is on the right path to changing African perceptions.  It needs more positive scripting, move away from stereotypical witchcraft to modernity nurturing assertive behaviour inbuilt with African morals and integrity.  We may never get anywhere near Europe’s reformation but with sustained push for positive local content we may get somewhere.  

On economic reforms, there are many things that need to be addressed including structural ones, but let us first begin with self-sufficiency.  Instead of tomatoes from Spain, oranges from Israel, bananas from God knows where and eggs from South Africa, we should support young people to productively engage in agriculture.  We should leverage on technology to meet global produce standards, encourage local value addition to create jobs.  With our excess labour and land, we can feed the world and enhance our own political and economic stability.  I make these recommendations on the assumption that we cease drinking, eating and dancing politics all the time.

Now you know why we prefer tomatoes from Spain over what we produce in Molo.

A State in the grip of neo-colonialism is not master of its own destiny. It is this factor which makes neo-colonialism such a serious threat to world peace. 

-Kwame Nkrumah.