There is a psychologically insightful word in the German language that has no precise equivalent in either English or Kiswahili. This word is “schadenfreude”.
One translation has it that it refers to “pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.” A more elaborate definition specifies “the experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another”.
Anyway, from what I have seen over the past couple of years, this word just about defines what some Kenyans feel when they look at America, ever since American voters, in their wisdom, elected Donald J Trump as President. It would seem that — at long last — Americans have given Kenyans a president they can laugh at.
And the laughter is not even confined to the extravagant antics of President Trump, as reported faithfully in the US media. A lot of it is directed at ordinary Americans.
Perhaps I should explain this a little: If you have spent any time in the US, or even just spent time in the company of American expatriates here in Kenya, you will at some point have had to endure the condescension of the average American towards you, as a citizen of a developing nation.
Of course, many Americans are far too courteous to speak bluntly to a relative stranger. But if they consider you a friend, then there will often be an unending flow of condescending questions: Why the constant shortages of water or electricity? Why so much crime and filth? If the new Thika road is a “superhighway”, then what would you call the far more elaborate multi-lane highways in the US or Germany or China? etc.
But most condescending of all are the questions that will come up when the Auditor General releases his reports with the latest horror stories of massive looting of public funds. The questions then will be along the lines of: How can you expect to make any progress when you vote for such crooks? Why do you fail to hold your leaders to account? When will you guys ever get over this insane tribalism? I must emphasise that it has been many years since I personally heard an American talk in this way. Nonetheless, I am confident that there are plenty of expatriates — including Americans — right here in Kenya whose idea of a serious conversation is to lament the follies committed by our leaders.
In any event these expats do have a point.
The fact is we as a country would be doing much better, if not for the devastating impacts of rampant mega-corruption, toxic tribal rivalries and general managerial incompetence. For these can derail even the best-laid plans for economic advancement.
If not for such incompetence and corruption, our beloved Thika Superhighway would be merely one of several modern roads within Kenya; the streets of our major cities would be safe even at night and cheap electricity and clean water would be something we all took for granted.
But thanks to President Trump, we no longer have to defend the folly, corruption and incompetence of our own leaders — at least not to Americans. In response to any criticism — direct or implied — we only need to point out to what is happening in their own country.
For hardly a day passes, but there will be something the American President has done or said which gives many of us — as that definition of schadenfreude so nicely puts it —“the experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another”.
Personally, I have too many American friends and, when travelling in America, I have been treated with great kindness by complete strangers, far too often, to share in this schadenfreude.
But I can fully appreciate why to many Kenyans, the arrival of Donald Trump at the White House came as a gift. Looking at the American President, his Cabinet, and others around him, Kenyans can now ask their American friends: “How can you expect to make any progress when you vote for such crooks? Why do you fail to hold your leaders to account? When will you guys ever get over this insane tribalism?”