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January 20, 2019

G-Spot: 'Sorry' for floods has now lost its meaning

Once again, in a pattern that has become so regular it should be no surprise to anyone, Nairobi and other parts of Kenya were flooded when the long-awaited rains finally came. Lives were lost, livelihoods endangered and time wasted in traffic, and all the authorities could do was say: Sorry.

Sorry, which some have sung about as the hardest word to say, seems to be so easy to say for other people. One would think that clogged waterways, flooded roads and swamped houses had happened out of the blue and that a government official saying ‘sorry’ would somehow make up for all the chaos.

That said, it’s not just the government’s fault. Also to blame are citizens and others who think it’s okay to litter the country with plastic waste and council workers who sweep dust into the roadside drains without a second thought.

But going back to that hollow, insincere apology. It reminded me of an apocryphal tale I was told in my boyhood: Sorry ilivunja vikombe vya mzungu (Sorry broke the white settler’s crockery).

The story goes that there was once a British colonialist somewhere in the Kenyan highlands who, in trying to recreate the Home Counties of his fatherland, decided he would train one of the natives to become his butler. Now, while the duties of a butler back in Blighty might have meant that the young African man, called a boy in settler parlance, would be the senior-most servant in charge of running the household, in the Kenyan highlands, it just meant that the ‘boy’ was entrusted with the care and serving of the master’s food and beverage, and in particular, his tea.

As you may be aware, the drinking (or should I say the taking?) of tea is a ritualistic British practice. The settler had brought with him an 18-piece fine bone china Wedgewood tea set from Berkshire or Buckinghamshire or wherever he was from, along with a complete dinner service with cutlery and crockery, with which he hoped to impress his future guests.

For some weeks, however, the settler’s main mission in life was to teach his ‘boy’ how to pour and present the perfect cup of tea. The first few attempts at teaching him were disastrous, to say the least. The trainee manservant appeared to be exceedingly clumsy, because soon, the wonderful tea set boasted only 12 pieces and the dinner service was looking far from complete.

However, in the never-say-die manner of the colonial settlers, our Brit persevered and eventually, he could say in the manner of Prof Higgins: By Jove! I think he’s got it.

Nevertheless, the course of true stewardship never did run smooth, and as the butler learned more about quaint English customs, such as the fact that the use of the word ‘sorry’ is so casual that it is no longer proof of remorse, he began to take advantage of this ‘get out of jail free’ clause, knowing all he would have to say was sorry every time he broke a cup or a plate and his sins would be forgiven, whether he was truly sorry or not.

A few short months later, as the master prepared to host his first dinner party guests, he found that the situation with the cups was not just sad but absurd. All that was left of his fine collection was one cup, one saucer and one dinner plate, and the echo of the word sorry from his ever-smiling ‘boy’, who maybe wasn’t clumsy but just wilfully engaging in his private anti-settler rebellion.

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