Parable of Kenyan journalist, monkey and the maize farmer

Thursday May 23 2019

Huduma Namba

Kenyans line up at General Post Office in Nairobi on May 17, 2019 to register for the National Integrated Identity Management System. It is purported that the number will help people access government services. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO
By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO
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So, there we were in the Maasai Mara, at a media confab.

During a walk in the bushes of the camp, a journalist who knows a thing or two about animals tells us how to deal with monkeys.

Apparently, some clever farmers, who live near places where monkeys are plentiful, know this.

It’s a story that — given the dust kicked up by the Huduma Namba issue — speaks to having to get citizens in a democracy to comply with a directive they are opposed to or whose benefits are not clear.

He spoke of animals that are “followers” or “not big thinkers” (like buffaloes and sheep) and the “analytical” ones (like lions and monkeys).

Though many people are like buffaloes and sheep, quite a few like lions and monkeys — they tend to ask “why” and what benefit a Huduma number will bring them.

PROBLEM

If you tell them it will help them access government services, they will ask, “Like which one?” or “I already have an ID number, and I haven’t got any services, how will Huduma Namba change that?” These present a monkey problem.

Now, if monkeys are wreaking havoc on your previous maize crop, he said, you don’t need to chase all of them away or — for the more extreme farmers — try and kill them all. All you need is to capture an older one, which is a kind leader of the group.

As a conservationist, the next part of the story will be uncomfortable reading; you might want to skip it.

What you do is “imprison” the monkey for at least two days, he said, and every day you pinch it hard or beat it enough for it to scream.

“When the monkey screams, the rest hear it and they panic and get stressed about what is happening. They can’t rescue it; they are helpless. And they are scared,” he explained.

HUDUMA NAMBA

Monkeys, he said, have what we might call a WhatsApp system of some sort. So, they will send an alarm in the ‘Monkey Group’ to all others in the neighbouring forests.

The result, he claimed, is that the monkeys will flee en masse to another forest — and maize farm — very far away from where the elder of the group was captured and whacked.

“So, what happens to the captured monkey after the rest have fled the farm?”

“It doesn’t matter what happens next to the captured monkey; the result is that the rest of them will take off, and stay away for years,” he said. You don’t have to kill the monkey.

If Huduma Namba were a similar problem, the solution might be in sparing the monkey.

The authorities could achieve near-100 per cent registration by getting a handful of people to register and reward them handsomely.

NEWS

Journalists are truly clever and remarkable people. To fully appreciate it, ironically, you have to listen to the stories they never print or air on television.

There was a chap who, years ago, said “news is that which is not published”. He couldn’t have been more accurate.

Hearing the stories told during our bush walks and dinner table conversations for the days in the Mara, I got nearly all the answers to the questions raised by all those tales about corruption in Kenya of the past six months.

All those dams and projects that have been “eaten”. All those mysterious dollars found in banks’ private safety boxes. Those forests being cut down and unexplained roads built through them.

The real owners of the billions of shillings reportedly found in homes. The real culprits behind the gold scams.

The fake products doing the rounds in Kenya? The powerful people behind them are known. And, of course, who is sleeping with whom.

The journalists know all that. But none of it will ever be printed or aired on TV.

MEDIA FREEDOM

Where there is ironclad proof, for some of the stories the media is afraid of being harmed in retaliation. For the rest, they fear being tied down in lengthy expensive litigation.

When we talk of media freedom, we usually think of things that are prohibited: stories that could get a journalist and media house in trouble because it will be construed as incitement, endangering national security, revealing classified information or insulting the person of the President.

Listening to the journalists talk, it dawned on me that Kenya has partly entered that strange complex stage, where the biggest threat to media freedom is no longer state repression but an alliance of the Establishment and the elite protecting their interests.

REPRESSION

This was the Mara. So, from the breakfast tent, we could see zebras grazing nearby. There were a few warthogs.

On the first day, I was musing whether the crusading Kenyan journalist was facing a benign zebra or the potentially more menacing warthog.

By the second day, it was all clear — he was like the captured monkey that was killed and the rest had run away from the farmer’s field.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africapedia.com and explainer Roguechiefs.com. @cobbo3

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