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January 20, 2019

Kenyans lack practical maintenance culture

There are three types of Kenyans. The first kind is the first generation formally-schooled Kenyan. Educated in a mission school, this Kenyan has a strong sense of duty. His relatively few possessions are well maintained; in his actions is meticulous, walks with a bearing and is well groomed, with touches of class here and there. They tend to be of the older generation, when things were built to last and nobody asked questions such as do you want the one of China or..? During their peak years, the first 15 years of independence, price of goods remained fairly constant, car designs remained the same forever and ministry of finance spent most of its time working out the price of beer in time for the annual budget. The auditor general’s job was not too difficult.

Then there is the middle generation, confused about their place in the world. Coming into adulthood in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they tasted the remnants of what seemed to have been an idyllic life of the earlier generation. The first generation to be mainly locally trained with toppings of overseas education, they tumbled into a changing world with deregulation of the currency, price instability, massive inflation, massive scandals such as ‘Goldenberg’. Unable to figure out the future they became either daily demonstrators or accumulators at any cost. Since you never knew if things would last, the best thing to do was to use it until it finished, then complain. It is during this period that the Europeans and Americans stopped making things, transferring such tasks east to Asia further confusing these Kenyans who now did not know who to emulate, the Asians making poor quality stuff, but growing rapidly wealthy or the seemingly wealthy western countries able to survive without making anything.

Finally there is the current youth generation. Growing up in a ‘me’ world where a sense of community has changed from your immediate neighbours to a more global social networking definition. The standard of life is not necessarily that of where you live but those you connect with. So even though much of the basic infrastructure is missing, this is leapfrogged and much later technology is acquired. Better to have a smartphone than running water and a proper sewage system. The problem is that when a smartphone goes wrong it is not really meant to be repaired. You are meant to buy the next version. So we have the latter two generations of Kenyans who the idea of maintenance or repair is alien. A tailor or a cobbler is an anachronism to be sought only when there is an emergency.

Yet any system requires maintenance and repair, especially if it is one under daily and constant use like your gastro-intestinal system. The GIT system starts at the mouth, descends into the oesophagus, lands in the stomach then begins to wind through the small intestines, back round into the large intestines, the big upside down ‘U’ shaped part of the system before finally slowing down and narrowing into the rectum in the back and terminating as the anal canal where valves regulate what comes out when.

In an adult, the gastrointestinal tract is about nine metres long and is made up of four major layers. The innermost layer is the mucosa, which encloses the space where food passes through. It is the layer responsible for secreting various enzymes and absorbing food and water. Surrounding the mucosa is the sub-mucosa, which consists of dense irregular connective tissue, like scaffolding with networks of large blood vessels and nerves running through it with branches terminating in the mucosa layer. Around the sub-mucosa are two layers of muscle, which run at right angles to each other. The circular and longitudinal muscle layers prevent food from going backwards pushing in a co-ordinated fashion for food to move forwards.

As you can imagine, and it does happen all the time in the normal course of digesting a meal, the gastrointestinal tract lining gets scratched and damaged as the food winds down. Abrasions are kept to a minimum through the activity of specialised cells that secrete mucus to lubricate the lining. Even then there is still damage. And here the body has a remarkable repair unit. When a pot hole or any kind of damage occurs, the damage cells signal by releasing some calcium and instead of the general mucus secretion there is a specialised mechanism for local mucus response and repair of the wound. Viable cells bordering the damaged area migrate by sending out projections to cover the damaged area. This process is rapid and repair is accomplished within 15-60 minutes. Neighbours just need the signal that there is damage and they swing into action. In this way minor injuries are quickly sorted out before a major leak springs up. Nothing to do with when or where you were educated.

Imagine now if your gastrointestinal tract relied on the system Kenyan society has come up with for repair and maintenance. Getting a mucus supply would be some corrupt deal with suspect quality delivered if at all. Cowboy contractors would have messed up small projects eventually requiring total reliance on foreign contractors for any kind of quality work. In between bureaucratic insensitive procurement processes taking inordinate amounts of time and expense, that small repair would become a major piece of construction requiring admission to hospital, which is kind of how we operate as a country not investing enough in public health but clamouring to build expensive hospitals.

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