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Why Uhuru speaks Kikuyu to his elephant

In the context of Covid-19, the President and the national response team are the riders, and we the masses are the elephant.

In Summary

• President Uhuru Kenyatta. He was interviewed on three radio stations that broadcast in the vernacular Kikuyu language.

• This technique  — towards coronavirus messaging —was lauded and condemned in equal measure.

President Uhuru Kenyatta during a live radio interview with three local FM radio stations — Kameme, Inooro and Coro FM — on Covid-19 pandemic at State House, Nairobi, on Tuesday, April 7, 2020
President Uhuru Kenyatta during a live radio interview with three local FM radio stations — Kameme, Inooro and Coro FM — on Covid-19 pandemic at State House, Nairobi, on Tuesday, April 7, 2020
Image: PSCU

One day a rider set off on a long journey through forests, hills and valleys.

His mode of travel was highly unusual. It was an elephant. Every so often, the elephant would stop and feed on the lush green vegetation that surrounded the path to their destination. When night fell, the rider would dismount, and they would both sleep until the first crack of dawn when they would proceed on their journey.

This routine repeated itself for a couple of days until one morning, when the elephant refused to get up on its feet. The rider tried every trick that he knew to get the elephant moving again. He kicked the legs, tugged at the tail, pricked the sides with a sharp stick, and shouted in the elephant’s ears. He even tried pushing the elephant. But all was in vain. The elephant simply wouldn’t move. The weight imbalance accorded the elephant a six-tonne advantage over the rider, thus rendering him powerless.

 
 

Exasperated, he sat down to catch his breath. While at it, a thought came to his mind. He wondered what would happen if he switched his techniques from force to persuasion. Inspired by this idea, he got up once again and walked towards the elephant. But this time instead of threats, he cajoled the elephant. He stroked his underbelly and gently rubbed his trunk, all the while humming softly in his ear. Before long, the elephant stood up, picked up the rider with his trunk, put him on his back, and proceeded with the journey.

Often times, the elephant will follow the rider’s directions. When the rider pulls the reigns, it communicates to the elephant which direction to turn, to stop or to proceed. However, there are times when the elephant defies the rider’s instructions. The rider then has a choice to threaten or coax the elephant. To continue with the journey, the rider resorts to tapping into the elephant’s emotions and doing whatever is necessary to allow for easy progress.

Psychologists tell us that the human brain operates with two systems  — the rational and the emotional. On one hand, the rider represents the rational system. The rider plans, analyses, makes decisions, solves problems, and determines actions and their corresponding consequences. On the other hand, the elephant represents the emotional system. He is unpredictable, irrational, strong-willed, opinionated, argumentative, and erratic, but has the energy and drive.

With the onset and onslaught of the coronavirus, we are living in unprecedented times. Governments the world over have resorted to employing every means possible to curb, manage and mitigate this pandemic. In Kenya these have included information through regular national briefings, requiring everyone to wear a mask in public spaces, sanitising, social distancing and ring-fencing the capital city for the next 21 days, except for essential services.

One more additional technique was used this week by President Uhuru Kenyatta. He was interviewed on three radio stations that broadcast in the vernacular Kikuyu language. This technique was lauded and condemned in equal measure. Those that took exception with this technique reminded him that he is the President of 43 nations, and, therefore, a symbol of national unity; while those that approved reminded us of the President’s bilingual skills, which he had appropriately applied with full cognisance of his audience.

The jury is still out on whether this technique was ill-advised or not.

In the context of Covid-19, the President and the national response team are the riders, and we the masses are the elephant. To win this war on the coronavirus will require a complete change in our behaviour, systems and lifestyles, failure to which, many lives and livelihoods will be lost. To achieve this transformation, the leadership has tried to inform, educate and threaten the masses, while making the necessary preventative measures available for use. They have been appealing to our rational part of the brain hoping that the knowledge will bring about the required behaviour change. But this has not been fully successful.

 
 

I do not hold brief for him, but I suspect that the President, decided to add an additional measure; that of appealing to the emotional part of our brains. He decided to use persuasion.

It is not in doubt that leadership is the art of persuasion. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, framed this best when he postulated that there are three appeals of persuasion; ethos, pathos and logos. Effective leaders are alive to the fact that to persuade your audience, your discourse needs to engage them using a dominant triad, but interspersed with the other two. The intention is two-fold; one to solidify or sway the audience’s opinions, and two, to make the audience act in the speaker’s favor.

Logos is persuasion by use of reasoning. This includes critical cognition, analytical skills, good memory and purposeful behaviour.

When the President holds a press conference on the coronavirus status, he largely employs logos. He appeals to the nation’s logic by offering empirical evidence and facts to support his remarks and actions. In using logos, his presentation is purposeful and choreographed to include when to pause, when to make eye contact and when to emphasize a point.

The ethos appeal involves convincing your audience that you can be trusted and that your message is for their ultimate good. The use of ethos is an attempt to convince your audience that you are fair, concerned and reliable. The intention is to earn your audience’s faith and trust. To do so, the speaker offers an argument that is deemed credible.

In applying the ethos triad, the President recently held a teleconference with two patients that had recovered from Covid-19, and some of their health caregivers. This was broadcasted nationally with the intention of increasing credibility that the measures his government was taking, were effective.

Pathos seeks to engage an audience emotionally. When speakers use pathos as the predominant triad, they carefully choose words that carry appropriate connotations, use a language their audience identifies with, and communicate using cultural proverbs that their listeners can identify with. They use pathos to sway their listeners to their desirable emotional action. Their intention is to kindle passions that enlists their listener’s unwavering support.

And what better way to ignite emotions than with your own, whom you share a cultural identity with. Culture has a profound impact on how people display, perceive and experience emotions. And knowledge of how people culturally react to certain paradigms, equips the speaker with oral ammunition on how to persuade them, particularly towards a certain behaviour change.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is precisely why President Kenyatta chose to address his elephant in Kikuyu. This was smart leadership. And there is no reason why others in different leadership positions cannot take his cue.

Finally, my unsolicited advice is to Mutahi Ngunyi and David Ndii; we cannot sit and squabble on the quality of water when our house is burning down. Likewise, when reason fails, try persuasion. Not exchanging barbs.

Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument – Desmond Tutu