Kenya’s president from 1978 to 2002, Daniel arap Moi, was widely detested for corruption and political oppression. During his term, Kenya slipped from the 133rd to the 155th country in the world in economic prosperity. There might not be that many more countries.
Moi’s successor, Mwai Kibaki, was elected on an anti-corruption ticket – hence the badge campaign in Mombasa. But when I asked Kenyans during our visit what they thought of Kibaki – they were unanimous. ‘He’s the same as all the others,’ they said. ‘Corrupt, just like the rest of them.’
Yesterday’s declaration of Kibaki as victor in the Kenyan elections, despite a string of exit polls indicating firmly that he had lost to Raila Odinga, serves only to confirm that view.
Corruption. It might be Africa’s biggest problem. Certainly it’s the one trotted out by people who don’t want to help the continent. ‘There’s no point giving money, or aid,’ they say. ‘It’s unlikely to end up with those who need it.’
But this trip, I began to understand corruption, just a little. Not the kind of barefaced electoral swindle which threatens the whole practice of democracy, but rather the day-to-day variety. The siphoning off the top of just a little, and then more and more goods and money, so that finally they don’t arrive at all.
Why do people do it, and how can they so mindlessly deprive the needy ? That’s something I’d never come close to comprehending before.
It started soon after we arrived at our hotel. We started making enquiries to find an orphanage in the area. ‘We’ve brought some things for the children there,’ we explained. ‘And we’d like to take our children, to see for themselves.’
The news got around. Guests in the hotel who had things to give away. A quiet word from the waiter. A tactful suggestion from the lady at the pool. An outright request from the taxi driver, when we arranged our ride to the orphanage.
‘If you’ve brought some things with you, then please give them to me. Because my kids are starving.’
At first I found it shocking. Cynical. Appalling, even. Just imagine, if you were taking a bag of old clothes and toys to the charity shop at home, and someone asked you if they could rifle through it first. It would simply never happen.
But the more I dissected it, the more I realised that’s just how it was. Yes, these people had jobs, but they didn’t earn much. The hotel didn’t always pay them on time, and sometimes it didn’t pay at all. They dared not complain, for fear of being sacked on the spot. Such is the labour market, when there are millions unemployed and millions more starving. The hotel staff were all desperately thin, and desperately doing their best to feed their families on very little. The whole village was living from hand to mouth, and from day to day.
For the taxi driver, it was harder still. He came from Malindi, half an hour up the coast, and he had three kids of his own to look after, and two more he’d taken in from sick relatives, too. He had absolutely no money – I had to pay him at the start of every journey, so that he could buy petrol on the way out of town. His financial arrangements didn’t even run to purchasing fuel for his taxi.
And when he asked for our help, it wasn’t that easy to decline. Because those kids in the orphanage – in material terms, they were luckier than most. They had food on the table, and a roof over their heads. They had health care, and schooling, and clean water, and beds and mosquito nets. They wanted for little, except a parent of their own.
So we gave our taxi driver a few children’s clothes from our cache. And we found toys for the twin girls of the lady by the pool, too – it was no trouble to us, since we weren’t taking any of those things home.
But that series of events – it set me thinking. It wasn’t the existence of such poverty. It was the nature of it, and the scale.
Slowly it dawned that the social rules that we live by – well, they might not work here. When everyone around you is starving, the niceties of tact are irrelevant. Because, yes, the orphanage kids need assistance, but you might need it more.
And in a second, I could see life here quite differently. European or American values didn’t apply so straightforwardly where existence was a raw and Darwinian struggle for survival. You had to ask for what you could get, and you had to get it somehow.
Suddenly, the whole issue of corruption began to make more sense. Which is the more important human right ? A man’s right to property, or his neighbour’s to life ? In our world, that choice rarely arises. But in vast parts of Africa, it’s a question of life or death every day. If a man has money which he can live without, and which you need to survive, then the reasons for taking it become much clearer to see.
I’d never condone it, but I could begin to understand it, for the very first time.
To keep body and soul together, then at a certain level, any ruse will do. And if you do survive, even then there are no guarantees that will continue. You have to keep on eating, and keep on acquiring, to distance yourself further from the abyss. And so corruption and theft continues long after it’s a mortal question.
In that world and in that culture, that’s just what people do, and how the moral realities apply. And for ministers and government officials, with the status and financial benefits which are offered to them, the temptation to hang on to power and the wealth that goes with it might be even more compelling.
In Africa, that adage is true. The man stole the money, but society was to blame.
To change that culture, Africa needs much more than anti-corruption laws and enforcement. We have to alleviate the hardship and suffering which lie at the root of this crime in the first place. Money is even more desperately needed if it might not all get through. Because in the long run, kindness is the only cure.
Into dicatorship, anarchy and bloodshed. Exactly as we’ve seen in Kenya today.
168. Kenya 4: on the orphanage, and AIDS
164. Kenya 2: The dusk behind the beach
161. Kenya 1: The road to Mombasa
124. Exploring Africa with Bono
166. Kenya 3: Masai Mara – the last wilderness