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Intellectuals and the media need to shape narratives

Saturday December 7 2019

West Pokot landslides

Residents watch as excavators unblock a bridge on the Serbit River in West Pokot County on November 25, 2019. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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The US government representatives at the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid last week were unmoved by the passionate pleas by the UN secretary General Antonio Guterres to the world to effect “rapid and deep change” in the way it handled the grave crisis of climate change precipitated by the global warming that is now triggering devastating weather patterns the world is not prepared for.


After all, the US is formally exiting the 2015 Paris Global Accord that imposed specific targets (of how much and by when) the US and China should meet on carbon emission if the rate of global warming is to be gradually brought under control. President Trump, an unapologetic globalisation revisionist, has shredded that accord and effectively anaesthetised any progress in this space as long as he remains President.

The Democrats will, in all probability, reverse this churlish decision by Mr Trump if they win the US elections in 2020. But it is a big IF given the surprisingly strong support Mr Trump enjoys among right wing Americans who want America’s interests at the top of any global agenda. With the riveting impeachment drama in Washington, the Brexit charade in Britain and fresh French riots grabbing all the attention, the Madrid summit flashed by. Back home, unseasonal rains came down with a tragic abundance, choking many parts of the land unused to such generosity from the skies. Starving rivers woke up with a ferocity that shocked Pokot, raptured the earth’s skins and left many gaping wounds, and dead bodies.


The response was hardly surprising. From Governor Sonko’s bizarre tweets as he sat in his gold-plated dining room, to the helpless look on Governor Lonyangapuo’s face and the opportunistic helicopter ride of Deputy President William Ruto to tour the disaster areas, the script was familiar. Even the really pathetic food and relief materials distribution by government ministers was properly choreographed.


But even this tragedy could not distract the divided country from its latest heart-throb – the Building Bridges Initiative report launched a week ago. The political implications of the report many have dismissed as a romanticised commentary and diagnosis of the country’s social and economic challenges has eclipsed critical debates on issues around how our actions (and inactions) on issues like the Mara and environmental degradation. 


This is Kenya’s real tragedy. Intellectuals and we in media seem unable to successfully mediate public discourse to give a comprehensive and nuanced view of what is happening and why it is happening. We are not adequately explaining the almost inevitable link now between what is happening globally and what is preoccupying the lives of common mwananchi. There is also a historical context that is all-too-often forgotten.

By missing these linkages, our narratives treat each activity as an isolated event. The cause and effect relationship is replaced by episodic perspectives that cast our Wanjikus as forever victims at the mercy of “hero” rescuers. The repeated reinforcement of this image has generated one of the most slavish statements of this generation whenever it confronts adversity: “Tunaomba serikali . .” (“We beg the government . .”)

American politics, the UN decisions, tribulations and opportunities at regional blocs all matter to wananchi. Why should Kenya want to join the UN Security Council at this point and how do decisions at that level impact our lives?


There are those that argue that the educational system must also re-introduce the critical thinking approach that was sacrificed with the indiscriminate expansion of tertiary education. It is one strand on the many that we need to orchestrate to help nourish and emancipate the imagination and thinking of our people.

Those privileged to have platforms that interphase with the public must change this narrative.

Mr Mshindi is the former editor-in-chief of the Nation Group and is now consulting under Blue Crane Global. [email protected], @tmshindi