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January 24, 2019

Stop Faking It, Start Making It Instead

A month ago, despite having failed to qualify for the biggest party on earth, members of Kenya's hapless national soccer team had a reason to smile.

They were, after all, joining the other 32 national squads in Brazil 2014 courtesy of the (hopefully personal) generosity of President Uhuru Kenyatta. It was meant to be the stuff of dreams.

For any football player, taking to the field for a World Cup game in his country's colours can be the highlight of a career. However, the Harambee Stars had to settle for a seat in the stands the closest they have ever been to joining the spectacle.

Last weekend, that little joyride didn't seem to have done them much good as lowly-ranked Lesotho bundled them out of the 2015 African Cup of Nations.

The spectre of Harambee Stars coming from the World Cup only to suffer humiliation at home is a fitting metaphor for Kenya’s obsession with symbolisms and the terrible realities these symbolisms are employed to mask.

Think of development. What really is it? What do we mean when we speak it? Is it having tall buildings, roads with multiple lanes and standard-gauge railways? For many, this is what it signifies.

Former President Kibaki is regularly feted for having presided over the construction of the Thika "SuperHighway" and Uhuru is busy promising railways, ports and laptops.

But is this really, what development is? One would assume that it is about solving problems. But when, in a nation that primarily walks to work, or indeed to anywhere else, one must wonder about the obsession with roads but not walkways in the city. Who are they for?

Now, this is certainly not to say that we do not need roads or railways. But it is meant to question the rationale for them. Throughout much of our history as a nation, we have been treated to herds of white elephants, each one trumpeted under the banner of development and few delivering any tangible benefits to the populace.

There is little public discussion about the benefits and costs of “development” and for whose benefit it is carried out. So Governor Alfred Mutua rolls out 70 ambulances and we don’t bother to ask what’s in them or where they’ll be ferrying the patients to.

Or we take a massive loan and employ 5,000 foreign workers (in addition to 30,000 locals) to build a railway that the World Bank says we don’t need. Or pledge laptops to children who have to row across hippo-infested rivers or have to risk death on makeshift bridges to get to school.

At independence, like many newly-liberated African “nations”, we rushed to acquire the symbols of nationhood and assumed the substance would follow. “Fake it till we make it” seemed to be the national ethos.

So we got ourselves a flag and an anthem and our President got a limousine and outriders and entourage. We built monuments while the people starved and worshipped the growth of something called GDP even as they were impoverished.

And so we have carried on to this day. It is why our politicians fight for the right to be called “Your Excellency” or to sport a flag on their car. Why the governor of the poorest county in the republic thinks it a good idea to spend Sh115 million on his mansion and another Sh50 million on “entertainment” while his subjects starve. Why Evans Kidero spends Sh437 million on traffic lights and cameras that don’t work. It is all about the symbols and not the substance.

And like the Harambee Stars, we soon discover that pretending to eat at the cool kids’ table will only get you so far. When we refuse to do the real work of thinking through and questioning what our governments tell us, when we allow our rulers to replace policy with politics and our journalists to pretend public interest is the same thing as what the public is interested in, then we are, inevitably, setting ourselves up for disappointment.

However, last week did bring a small ray of hope. Julius Yego, who taught himself to throw the javelin by watching YouTube videos, became the first Kenyan athlete to win a Commonwealth title in a non-track event. Yego’s win demonstrated what is possible when we put in the work. When we stop faking it and actually get down to the business of making it.

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