alexa Our big problem, tax money thieves, hiding in plain sight - Daily Nation

Our big problem, tax money thieves, hiding in plain sight

Thursday March 21 2019


An in Nairobi on May 31, 2018. PHOTO anti-corruption protest in Nairobi on May 31, 2018. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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This, would you believe it, is really not about Boogaloo Shrimp.

My desk-mate in Form Two, Mwangi, is the 1980s equivalent of the modern-day celeb. He was from Buruburu, in the city of Nairobi. The average boy, such as Rugendo Mbaka, was from some unmentionable places in Chuka. Butsy Mucee was from the back of beyond in Ciakariga. Another boy was from Central Division — which he pronounced “Sendral Dibi-shen” — in Kitui.


Yet another, from Kianjokoma, couldn’t speak English and drove Mr Mariene, ‘His Excellency’ the Deputy Headmaster and English teacher, to threaten to strip and show us the “bushy beards you can’t see”, by attempting to participate in lessons in Kiswahili.

Mwangi was a chubby boy with a big stomach but he was athletic and flexible; he was a breakdance champion. He smelt nice too — a mix of tobacco, he was a smoker, and grown-up cologne, while the rest of us smelt of Rexona and juvenile anxieties. And he had what no other boy had: Chest hair. So, on a hot Mbeere day, he would open his shirt to his navel, pour water on himself, as we all did to cool down, then stare into the eyes of Ms Githuka, the inter-galactic school heartthrob, and blink rapidly, hoping, by eyelash morse code, to communicate the depth of his feelings.

Above all, Mwangi was media-rich in an age of great media poverty. This was before DVDs and audio cassettes. This was before the modern, portable computer. The school had landlines and, in the course of the four years, I took a call or two from my father in the bursar’s office. But there were letters, lots of letters, some in pink livery with lots of love hearts from girls schools.


But in terms of mass media, there was a radio and a TV in the dining hall, which we were allowed to watch on Saturday nights. And it was a single channel, KBC, which showed a single movie, Weekend Movie, and a bit of Football Made in Germany. We watched every single drop of it until the station closed at midnight. On most nights, news revolved around the calendar of His Excellency President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi. The region between Thuchi River and the distant borders of Abyssinia was a media blackhole. No TV signal; the region was in the shadow of Mt Kenya and the technology was poor.

My friend had access to magazines and cinema. He had watched Breakin’, starring Boogaloo Shrimp, and could re-enact the movie, blow by blow, including the dialogue (“It’s too late, they kent stop us now”) in what, to the village ear, sounded like the most authentic American accent. I don’t expect you to know who Boogaloo Shrimp is but I give you my word: When I was in Form Two, Boogaloo Shrimp was very big among Buruburu people.


Mwangi spoke with an affected lisp, which appeared to mangle his sibilants in a very posh manner and which I assumed was only to be found among people from Buruburu. I have since encountered the same lisp among many other city boys, many of them now in their 40s and 50s. I have also since encountered many other types of “authentic” American accents, the most pronounced being among village folk who have never left the country.

For all his Buruburu sophistication, Mwangi never really fitted in our school. We listened endlessly to his stories, we attempted to copy his walk, we even experimented with his lisp, but he really did not belong in Stanley Ndeke’s Siakago Boys High School deep in the deserts of Mbeere. He had joined in Form Two, having been expelled from some place else, and he didn’t stay for too long. He just disappeared one day, perhaps expelled quietly.

We were clever children, ours was a science school after all, and we took academics and sport very seriously. We obeyed school discipline without question: We cleaned the school obsessively, we ran when were told to do so, we kept time, we went to bed, we woke up, we went to the chapel, we obeyed the bell. It was an orderly, structured school with discipline firmly enforced via the whip by a strong-minded headmaster.

I was confused and bemused when my desk-mate copied my tests. He was never caught, I think, because no one expected a student to copy another’s work. He stuck out like a sore thumb: He didn’t do cleaning duties, he missed prep, he made noise in class and he was bold in his futile lust for female teachers. Here was a bad boy, hiding in plain sight, and it took a long time to realise that this was a guy with serious problems.


Which brings me neatly to the point of this piece, taking off from a brilliant contribution by Michael Kuria in the Daily Nation recently and an audit principle which I took away: Assume fraud until genius proven.

In JKIA, there is a long line of gleaming private jets costing hundreds of millions of shillings, gathering dust in the sun. Many folks have palatial upcountry homes costing hundreds of millions of shillings. Until they can show us the chip they invented or the Samsung they built, these are thieves.

All our misfortunes — from war to massive looting — have had the same cast of characters. We have blamed the Constitution, tribalism, illiteracy, greed and other complex excuses. Our salvation lies in seeing with clarity what, or who, our problem really is. We have to see through the celebrity and fake kinship.

It’s Boogaloo Shrimp all over again.