What occurred somewhere in Kenya the other day – when tens of citizens perished in what Shakespeare would have called “one fell swoop” – was, of course, a disaster. But was it also “national”? That depended on the mood on that day of the individual officially domiciled at State House, Nairobi.
That is why many Kenyans have publicly urged President Uhuru Kenyatta to declare that event a “national disaster”. The only question is: So what if he does? What will happen after our President has declared as “national” the present disaster?
By what we know from the way in which Kenya’s political elite has brandished such other Kiswahili words as Harambee and Nyayo, we can take it that a “national disaster” is a very good thing for members of Kenya’s ruling elite. For the term Nyayo was popularised during Daniel arap Moi’s presidency to serve certain extremely narrow political interests.
It was one of the ideological institutions adopted during the fertile-minded but completely empty “Nyayo era” with the purpose merely of popularising Mr Moi’s young presidency.
However, the fact that, so long after the Nyayo presidency came to an end, people still long for that charade continues to raise thorny questions.
What, for instance, is a “national disaster”? The answer: A mere name. No, in Kenya, a more useful question would be: Exactly what happens whenever the Government declares an occurrence a “national disaster”? The answer is self-evident: Nothing ever happens. In our country, such a declaration serves merely to christen such a tragedy.
Through the immersion in water that European Christology introduced to us as baptism, the event immediately becomes the proud possessor of a second very holy name.
From a merely fatal accident, it immediately qualifies into a “national disaster” and usually inspires a great deal of money to be collected in its name.
As an editorial technician, I grew up and matured during the shooting of the Nyayo cinema – starring Daniel arap Moi and co-starring Nicholas Biwott, Joseph Kamotho, Hezekiah Oyugi and others – in which the newspaper sub-editors automatically capped the initials of such terms as “Harambee” and “Nyayo”.
Today, however, that practice might raise eyebrows. It might occasion at least one other highly significant question. Why does a drought need a second name?
How does a mere road accident benefit society if you christen it into a “national disaster”? The answer is that, in those days, the second name never failed to give the national and international publics the impression that the government of the day was exemplarily humane.
Upon every disaster, the government immediately called a national Harambee (a voluntary fund-raising meeting) in which the President and every one of the political stars in his celestial orbit contributed “very generously” and handsome cash was immediately available for the funeral and other expenses of the benefiting family.
Harambee is an old invocation by which East Africa’s coastal communities traditionally came to the assistance of a needy person or family either through voluntary labour or through cash.
That was why, at independence, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta adopted and popularised that call as a means of rallying the new nation into tackling together any problem that might confront it in what the Grand Old Man called “nation building”.
Indeed, it was through Harambee that hundreds of dispensaries, roads, schools and other such social amenities went up all over the country.
The only problem was that a large number of individuals became filthy rich by dipping long fingers into Harambee kits. Rapacity and graft were characteristics of Kenya’s educated elite right from Day One. They remain the most important roadblocks to our national econo-social development.