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January 22, 2019

Our leaders do not allow us to move

“Tulia”; “Kaeni Chini’; “Haya! Karibu tuanze”; are common phrases that one will hear at any political rally, indeed at any gathering, because one thing that we as a society do not do well is keep time. It is not that we do not want to keep time, it is just that there are different standards of time keeping for different strata of society. Important people are always fashionably late to a function. This is necessarily so. Their job is to talk to you, you have to be there in order for them to talk to you, so they must make sure that you are there before they can begin to do their job. The only way for them to do their job effectively, it seems, is therefore to ask you to come much earlier than they intend to be there.

The assumption always, is that what they will say is important, after all meet any leader and they are always in a great rush to go somewhere. So even going to a function where they will be late, having kept people waiting for several hours, they will rush there in order to arrive with great fanfare. Novice leaders make the mistake of apologising for being late, explaining that they were held up blah, blah… but those experienced know that the audience are privileged to get a nugget of wisdom and insight from their leader and so on arrival often speed up the proceedings to enable them to leave to their next appointment. The two contrasting lifestyles of the leader and the follower have emerged out of African traditions, where followers bow to leaders and leaders lead unquestioned. Unfortunately like so many of our African traditions applied without modification to a changing world, this tradition is killing Kenyans.

Research from England in the 1950s demonstrated that London bus drivers had two times the risk of a heart attack when compared to bus conductors. The underlying risk factor was identified as lack of movement. The bus driver sat all day at the steering wheel, while the bus conductor walked up and down the bus collecting fares, rarely sitting down. Modern living is associated with sitting down. It is estimated that the average adult spends at least 60 per cent of their time doing something while sedentary. Think about it, in a 24-hour day at least eight hours is spent lying down sleeping; a further two hours is spent eating. If you live in Nairobi another one-two hours is spent commuting to work, which is more sitting. Most of us have jobs in the service sector, which involves sitting; if you are senior enough it is not just sitting but meetings. And so the day is over. A privileged few will spend an hour every other day visiting a gym, where 30 minutes of exercise will be accompanied by 20 minutes in the sauna, seated, followed by some minutes catching up with friends. Even younger people when they move, walking might be a strong term to use, do so at a pace that makes snails look really good. Our cultures have many sayings that advice against rapid movement of any kind.

Further more recent research has identified a sedentary lifestyle as an independent risk factor for chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes. That is it is not enough to sit all day then head to the gym for an hour to avert the onset of these conditions. You also have to look at how still you are during the day. The word ‘sedentary’ has its origin in Latin meaning ‘sitting’ and is used to describe animals that move little or are attached to something or someone accustomed to sitting a lot with minimal energy expenditure. People who watch a lot of TV, about six hours a day, have three times the risk of developing diabetes compared to those who watch little, less than an hour a week. The risk factor is the long periods of inactivity during which the major muscles of the body are not active and so glucose metabolism is affected. If you are to do a body scan at that point perhaps only isolated bits of the brain and some parts of the stomach are active, the rest of the body might as well be hibernating.

Time spent on TV, computers and phones might appear to be extreme examples of physical inactivity but bus drivers and by extension matatu drivers who appear to be working physically are also at higher risk. So where would we place people who spend several hours, sometimes every day, at functions waiting for their leaders to address them? They have to sit patiently in some hotel conference hall, snacking off some carbohydrate and fat rich diet in order to earn their allowances. What about those who are exhorted to attend political rallies every weekend and sit patiently while they are advised who the bad guys really are? If leaders kept time it might help reduce the prevalence of chronic conditions.

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