ECONOMIC INEQUALITY

Kenyans’ collectivist mindset

'We refuse to let you run so far ahead, since you are leaving us behind.'

In Summary
  • What it amounts to in the African context is a profound rejection of economic inequality;
  • and its core feature is an expectation that if there should be any new prosperity, then that prosperity will be shared.

A Ugandan friend once told me this story about her ancestral village:

A farmer who had somehow acquired an advanced knowledge of hybrid seeds and the use of fertilisers, put this knowledge to practical use and worked diligently on his farm for months, ending up with an exceptionally abundant maize crop.

You only had to compare the size of the individual maize grains (still on the cob) and the number of such cobs per stem, to know that this was no ordinary crop of maize. It was clear that this farmer would in time harvest at least four or five times what his less scientific neighbours could expect from their farms where the same old traditional methods of planting had been used.

 

Then a month or so before the formal harvest season was to begin, this enterprising farmer woke up to find that, overnight, his entire crop had been chopped up and trampled in the field. One day he was this clever farmer who was expecting “the mother of all maize harvests”; and the next day he was a ruined man, trying to salvage what he could from his totally messed-up small farm.

Clearly this damage could only have been done by local villagers. And further, such extensive devastation could not have been the work of one or two of these neighbours, but rather of at least a few dozen strong men working all night.

And here is the really odd thing: My Ugandan friend told me this story not as a shocking revelation of the vicious malice of these neighbours, but as an object lesson on the consequences of this farmer’s short-sightedness. In her words, “he should have known better”.

I was then given to understand that the proper thing for this enterprising farmer to have done – as far as the local community was concerned – was to have shared his advanced knowledge. To have called his neighbours over to his compound one evening; maybe offered everyone a cup of tea; and explained that he had come across this new miracle maize seed (or new fertiliser or whatever his secret formula was) that could greatly increase the productivity of each of their smallholder farms.

He should then have offered to share his knowledge with whoever was willing to try out this new maize-growing technology and then leave it to the neighbours to decide whether or not they too would follow the new farming method.

And if he had done this, then even if none of his neighbours had accepted his guidance during the planting season, when the harvest season came and it was abundantly clear to one and all that he was onto a good thing, they would not have had the slightest thought of destroying his massive harvest. They would have rejoiced with him and waited for the next planting season to learn from him.

Despite my Ugandan friend having told me this story as a real event that had taken place just a few years earlier – and that could be expected to take place again if any farmer in her ancestral village was so stupid as to not share valuable knowledge on improved farm yields with his neighbours – I found this story so disturbing that I repeated it to another of my friends.

 
 

To my amazement he said that although he had not heard of any such malicious destruction to a villager’s harvest in his corner of rural Kenya, there was a saying in his mother tongue which suggested that his tribesmen had much the same philosophy as those Ugandans, even if they failed to act on it.

The saying went something like this: “We refuse to let you run so far ahead, since you are leaving us behind”.

There is a term for this in sociology. It is referred to as a “collectivist mindset”.

What it amounts to in the African context is a profound rejection of economic inequality; and its core feature is an expectation that if there should be any new prosperity, then that prosperity will be shared.

Next week I will go into the implications of this mindset for Kenyan politics.