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February 23, 2019

Keeping it real in Kenya: The power of Mkokoteni

The other day I was driving across the city for an appointment hoping to make it back for an event I had been invited to. On the way, on a road now boasting a series of impressive new bypasses, I found the traffic had slowed to a crawl stretching back a long distance. When I eventually made it to the front I realized the jam had been created up a young man, shirtless and sweating heavily, who was pulling his Mkokoteni grimly along. No one hooted. Drivers would simply wait for a break in the oncoming traffic and overtake his Mkokoteni.

Despite our rapidly modernizing society the Mkokoteni has remained an ubiquitous feature of the Kenyan road and one that is accorded an unique respect. We don’t generally hoot at them even when they slow down traffic. However, we are quick to manifest an episode of road rage when a matatu or another driver misbehaves in traffic. On roads where courtesy is a rarity the Mkokoteni is special in that it brings out the patient in us. This is slightly similar to the way drivers make way for hordes of workers who trek to and from work in the suburbs to the informal settlements. They head out early in the morning, often before many of us lucky ones are awake, and trudge to work. In the evening, tired and too poor to afford public transport they literally stumble back home to a meal of ugali and sukuma. You see them, still walking quickly in a kind of stupefied exhaustion, crossing the road in groups so big that drivers are forced to stop and let them pass. Often they step into the path of oncoming cars with an attitude that almost says, ‘Hit me and you’ll see.’ It is only over the past few years that roads have started to be built that include space for cyclists and pedestrians.

The Mkokotenis and hordes who stumble home every evening in many ways represent the real spirit of Kenya: striving and entrepreneurial. There is a certain purity to them and their labour that is perhaps the subliminal reason drivers cut them so much slack. I don’t know. All that is clear, however, is that they represent the great informal sector that is the country’s primary employer. They are also an expression of the fact that Kenya is one Africa’s most unequal societies. On the ground this income inequality wears a regional and ethnic face that to an important extent informs the volatility of our politics. This is in part because there hasn’t been a regime in Kenya with the wits or will to tackle this issue head on.

The prevailing ideology is that the economy will grow and the goodies trickle down to the masses. It has also created a type of political mobilization that is dependent on keeping the masses poor and dependent on patronage. Devolution has done much to interrupt this but more as an unintended consequence than the result of a coherent strategy by the elite. Clever drafters of the constitution knew what they were doing though. Indeed, the centralizing instincts of the ruling elite are to sustain and deepen inequality keeping entire regions literally hostage to the whims of a small cabal where the delivery of development is concerned. But as I said, devolution has done much to start tearing down this edifice. This explains why the deep state in Kenya is instinctively and aggressively opposed to devolution. The ferocity with which the poor majority in most of the country, especially in the historically marginalized regions, defends devolution is informed by this reality.

I was privileged to spend a couple of months earlier this year in California in the utterly impressive Stanford University campus at the heart of Silicon Valley. It was one of the richest places I have ever visited. Not only rich, but also fit and health conscious, environment friendly, liberal, enterprising and innovative – a pretty good snapshot of what keeps America strong and ahead of the game. One of the new health foods that’s all the rage is vegetable I saw everywhere called kale. Upon closer examination of this and other similar – and expensive – vegetables that have become so popular I realized they were versions of our very own sukuma wiki. In the wealthy municipalities around Stanford one was hard pressed to find fast food franchises like KFC, Subway and Jack-in-the-Box. These were long deemed too unhealthy for those who can afford to make the choice.

One of the ways Kenya’s burgeoning middle class feels they have arrived is by munching up the fast foods the West is rejecting as unhealthy. Newspapers celebrate the arrival of these fast food chains as signs of ‘development’. But we pay as much for the junk as the Americans pay for sukuma wiki! There a deep and rueful irony in this that again speaks to the purity of the Mkokoteni’s labour and life.




John Githongo is active in the anti-corruption field regionally and internationally. email: [email protected]




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