@ X.N.Iraki

“If you ever taught maths in some girls’ schools, then you know what learnt helplessness is.” (source)

Dear X.N.Iraki,

I thought about the same thing this morning while cleaning the dishes in the kitchen. In fact, I was thinking about why I chose to come to Kenya – and not any other place. The country where clothes become dirty while walking in matope infested areas. The country where I as a white person will always be called “mzungu” in rural areas – and instantly be asked to “weka blllead”. The country where the official school system never really appreciated creativity and ppl are supposed to repeat aquired knowledge instead of looking for working solutions and trying them without fearing the consequences. The country where those who can afford, buy a car – and instantly make sure that everyone will see them inside their cars. The country where almost everyone lives in different worlds at the same time, coping with different jobs and parallel businesses that help to fill up the wallet. The country where every little piece of hygienic article is wrapped in three different old newspapers & plastic bags that eventually end up polluting the environment. The country that hosts the UNEP – this international programme which so often only produces interesting papers but doesn’t even have the powers to implement these fine ideas on national levels…

“We write in the newspapers every day (including this article) on what should be done, but never do it!”

Yes, becos in Kenya there’s always someone else who is “supposed to” do the job. It starts with taking responsibility for yourself, and doesn’t stop by thinking about how waste should be disposed of. Ppl just don’t =think= about it.
Like Matatu drivers. Do they care about their driving styles? Or the loud music being played? Do they ever think about how their driving might affect others?
Or the people who abstract too much water from the rivers or even pollute it – do they actually =think= about their wrongdoings?
Or those who move to urban areas to improve their chances – do they actually realize that they’re adding to the 39%++ of wananchi who are already living in urban areas? How big is Nairobi these days?

Kenya is full of qualified, well educated people. Young people have travelled to the West and East, adopted ideas and have seen how things could work (and how it shouldn’t be done) – but upon returning, many realize that it takes much more than just your own personal opinion on how good everything could be.

“Our thinking is the key to prosperity”, is what you wrote, and I can only fully agree to this. It’s the mindset, the willingness to make a change and to start at least somewhere. It’s our thinking.

So why did I chose Kenya? Becos I grew up here and sometimes feel like being half Kenyan despite of my skin colour and the fact that I will always be a foreigner here? Naaa….it’s BECAUSE KENYA IS A PARADISE in the waiting line. This place could be heaven, and I often think: woah, yeah, this is the uhuru na umoja spirit we always envied the Tanzanians for. This is the start of a new generation.

Just look at the introduction of mobile phones in Kenya and how fast the market has grown. Nowadays, even an old cucu in rural areas knows how to use the menu structure on her mobile phone. Something you will rarely see with old ppl in the West, for instance. Or how this prepaid thing has been implemented and substituted the fragile conventional accounting system. Or how microfinances have succeded in the past. Equity Bank? It works! We even have a (relatively) new emerging Kenyan cultural scene – something that has come from within! There’s no need to repeatedly play Daudi Kabaka’s “harambee harambee” if we can enjoy new songs like Ronald Ontiri’s “Speed Governor” or Ukoo Flani’s “Angalia saa”…

It’s not the experts from foreign countries who will make a change, and neither will it be the KenyaTourists (KTs) returning from abroad who will change this country. It’s all of us – the poor beggar on the street who will eventually realize that the mzungu he has just asked for bread actually hasn’t much more to share than any other ordinary chap; the KenyaRoots (KRs) who have endured here while their friends have left for the West and East; it’s the intellectuals at universities who will reduce their hatred and start turning many of their golden plans into reality; it’s the politicians who will actually start doing something for the money they are being paid by taking personal responsibility for their decisions; it’s the youth that will start demanding more perfomance as it has done so in the past; it’s you, me, your neighbour – everyone. This is why I came back to Kenya. I want to be part of this progress.

“Africa may have all the natural resources, but if our mindset does not change, we shall continue stagnating, waiting for outsiders to solve our problems, some which we can easily solve ourselves. Example; Africa does not need to import water, it is already here! Why then do we have a shortage of fresh water?”

Population growth? Urbanization? Mismanagement? Corruption? Deforrestation? Over abstraction from rivers / surface and ground water? Because we’ve waited for someone / the government to take care of this? For someone who is (was) “supposed to” do the job?

As for me, I never considered the Chinese or Indians underdeveloped just because most of them are living in rural areas. Didn’t they have these fine cultures that date back 2000 years ago? And I never thought people in rural areas might be underdeveloped just because e.g. most of them lack access to clean drinking water. After all, they have their income (agriculture, lifestock, etc.) and have somehow managed to survive. Isn’t it that it’s these people we can actually learn from? Did they depend on anyone to make a living?
For me, (under)development is a state of mind – and not a matter of how many Kenyan households have tv & vcr sets or a car. Something that doesn’t depend on the prevailing political system or the availabiltiy of commodities…

17 comments » Write a comment

  1. I’ve read both pieces (yours and Iraki’s) and I couldn’t agree more.

    We have to change THE WAY WE THINK and, more importantly, have everyone take PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY, not just for their words and actions, but for the collective good of our country.

  2. Agreed with the above. Personal change is what will eventually bring about societal change.

  3. If an airhead like X.N. Iraki (I shall *never* understand on which Kenyans valuable and covetted academic grants are wasted…) can inspire you to such a warm-hearted and spirited article, then he is indeed good for something… :-)

    Seriously, in your row of semi-rhetoric questions, don’t forget the no. 1 national characteristic of Kenyans, almost regardless of tribe: HYPOCRISY. It sadly answers many of your questions and exasperations…

    Regards, Osas

  4. Well Written JKE.
    I concur with you and all that our mindset does indeed warrant change.
    KT Here:)
    When i went back home i realized that my perspective was partly informed by the fact that i left for awhile, I will call it “Outside looking in” – in part, this gives us (US being those with the good fortune of traveling and having a more global view) a vantage point to realize what great potential and indeed what solutions there are right in front of us. I think there is the perspective of “Inside looking in” which is what you refer to, where solutions are to come from without…I want to ask…how do we inspire others with this mindset to see change within? If i were back home and thought in the “inside looking in” way, would i see your point? IMO, one of the practical things i see for one and all..is to keep DOING something personally.

  5. I have read Iraki’s piece, and i am uneasy with that quote about teaching at girls math schools… It is somewhat condescending, I dont want to say that he is right or wrong, but it makes me feel like crap and i dont like it, but i do realize that i would have to come up with a more substantive argument than…’its crap’ :)

  6. True, AfroM, the comparison with teaching girls some math is something he didn’t choose wisely enough. Especially as there are so many other examples that could have explained this point (~ learned helplessness being this state of mind where ppl just learned to blame failure on certain conditions, etc.).

    I think there is a lot of undiscovered potential, hence the Safaricom example. A new technology was introduced, and since there was a high demand for communication technology (given that there are only ~300.000 land lines in Kenya), it quickly succeded and helped to boost the economy. Heck, i wouldn t be able to write these lines if it wasn t for the GPRS connection now. And that’s not the end of the story – just imagine what mobile banking will bring for Kenyans in near future.
    Now of course it isn’t the communications sector alone that looks promising, but it – to me at least – clearly shows how things suddendly speed up once someone makes a move and introduces something a lot of other ppl will benefit from.

    I am also with Osas on this to some extent – the exasperations sometimes help to get the message across. After all, isn t this exactly what our dear King from the Lake aka Agwambo does in his speeches and actions? Who went to Mathare Valley to “collect” voters?

    As for inspiring others – sijui. I just know that there are some ppl out there who have inspired me, so I sometimes try to give back what I’ve received. I know it can only start with me, doing something on my own that will eventually have a positive impact on others. Sounds naive, but isn’t. I think education is an important key, and an informed public that will start demanding more perfomance and – out of this demand – will do something where they’ll benefit from (just as “development aid” is on a win-win-basis these days). Just look at M and Ory and their Mzalendo website – this isn’t multipartyism as of 1992 & “democracy kitu gani?” expressions by retired Presidents anymore, but an electorate that has learned to ask before voting. I like that attitude.

  7. The observation on Girls school was in good faith, and Iam sorry if i offended anyone.

  8. Excellent work from Iraki and yourself – poor choice of examples aside.

    You know what learnt helplessness is?

    It is when you sit in the matatu, listen to the makanaga tell you that the fare from the City Center to Kawangware is Kshs 100 instead of Kshs 20 because it is raining.

    Learnt helplessness is when you go to the hospital and sit waiting for 3 hours bleeding to death or with a broken limb while the nurses and doctors drink team.

    Learnt helplessness is when we, as parents, pay teachers Kshs 500 a month to give our kids tuition Saturday mornings while they could not be bothered to teach THE VERY SAME KIDS Monday to Friday.

    I could go on but you get the drift. Iraki is right, we need to step up and start taking care of business for ourselves, demand our rights and demand the services and products we have not only paid for but also need.

    And the fight is on.

    It starts with demanding accountability from those charged with responsibilities. This is what sites like Mzalendo are doing. It is also happening in other places, from all the Commissions of Inquiry we are seeing to the sacking of individuals implicated in wrongdoing. Its not happening fast enough for many but it it happening. Rome was not built in a day.

    We just need to keep the momentum going.

    And keep stepping up to fight learnt helplessness.

    – Steve

  9. @ XN Iraki – By and large your piece was of value and thank you for making it clear that your comment about math and girls was in good faith. :) JKE already found the counter argument i was needing, plus steve just added some examples of learnt helplessness that you could use in your piece. Its all good. Do you blog? Where can we read more of your work?

  10. Will soon start blogging…but most of my work…is published by the Daily Nation, East African standard(every Sunday) and g21. Has largely been freelancing…

  11. Yeah that’s the difference – ppl are acually paying 35 bob/day to read your opinion, whereas blogging is without any income. Just make sure it will be copyrighted enough so that others just don’t copy it 1:1 and publish it in their newspapers.

    Ntwiga, thx for the good examples. I understand the list could go on and on…

  12. J,
    I agree with you that most of us always ask ‘who will do it?’ as opposed to ‘What can I do?’ – and as with AfroM says, being on the outside looking in shows you what is wrong, and as a person who is looking in while in at the moment, I suppose its up to me to stop griping at the things I can change and if I can personally do something then its up to me, right?

    AOB:
    There is still a tusker with your name on it around here somewhere. Care to come look for it?

  13. As a former Math dunderhead, i can understand when Iraki is coming from.

    Anyway not all girls are math dunderheads and i realized too late that all i needed was to do a lot of reading and practice

    As a KR who is probably headed towards KT’ism hopelessness is not something yu wish on anyone

    The books i most read are written by Americans and other western world guys. what i know for a fact is most of us are thoroughly demotivated by our surroundings.

    Like for example it is raining, it is muddy and there is traffic jam all your way to town. How do you expect my feelings of hopefulness to arrive. I go through that everyday.

    And mind you..i am not half way down.

  14. Shiroh,

    My observations on girls and maths was from reality, teaching a real girls school…