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It was rush hour in Nairobi, and I was squeezed in a matatu, which was stuck at a particularly crowded intersection, when I received an unexpected sociology lesson. One of Kenya’s most talked about injustices, and the one that receives most of the blame for Kenya’s problems, is summed up in the “C” word: corruption. I always find it interesting the places and conversations this topic comes up, and that evening sitting in a traffic jam, I witnessed a very concrete example of corruption in action.
As I gazed out the window at the mess of matatus and buses all headed into the city, I saw one particularly delinquent matatu attempting to cut across all four lanes of traffic. While the driver maneuvered his vehicle into a position perpendicular to the direction of traffic, the driver’s friend jumped out onto the road and tried convincing the other drivers to allow him to pass. But since everyone was at a stand-still anyway, they couldn’t let him through even if they wanted to.
My interest was piqued most, not by the rebel matatu, but instead by a man who tossed the driver of my matatu a pack of peanuts. It was common enough to see street vendors selling their wares through bus windows, but I had never seen a driver eating on the job. Then I noticed that the bus driver next to us was also taking advantage of the stalled traffic to eat some peanuts.
Suddenly, with a knowing wave from these drivers in the direction of the matatu driver cutting across traffic, the knot of vehicles seemed to dissolve, and the matatu slipped through the cracks the others had created for him. In the next instant, we were all moving again toward our various destinations.
Slowly, it dawned on me what had just happened. The matatu driver who wanted to make an illegal turn had appeased the other drivers by buying them all peanuts. In return, they gladly let him pass. As we sped toward the city, I asked the driver, just to be sure, “So the peanuts were a gift?” Yeah, he nodded. “From the other driver, so he could pass?” Yeah, he nodded with a grin. “That’s a pretty good idea, I guess.” “Yeah, it’s a good idea.”
And that is how systems “work” in Kenya. Harmless enough when it deals with peanuts and traffic jams, but the mentality of corruption also translates into extortion by militia groups in the slums, police bribes at security checkpoints, and MPs who look the other way when illegal settlements threaten to destroy “protected” water catchments and forests.
The most recent case to make the news was President Kibaki’s unprocedural re-appointment of his friend and high-profile government official, Aaron Ringera. Ringera eventually resigned from his position (with its exorbitant salary) in response to harsh public criticism. The ironic part? He was the head of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission.
So why is corruption so widespread in Kenya? I know that graft is not a foreign concept in the US by any means, but it seems to be genuinely part of the fabric of most public and private exchanges here.
One reason behind corruption in the government is patronage politics; this is the rationale that once “your people” get into power, “it’s your turn to eat.” Those in authority are expected to spread out the benefits to those who got them into lucrative positions. For example, when Obama was elected President of the US, many Kenyans expected him to naturally channel some favors in the direction of his father’s homeland.
In a more literal example of the “it’s our turn to eat” principle, the government is currently organizing an emergency food distribution program for starving people in the drought-stricken region of Marsabit. The problem is that most of the relief food is not reaching the families, but instead ends up on local store shelves to be sold for a profit.
But this example, along with the peanut-passing matatu incident, demonstrates that corruption in Kenya goes beyond politics. The problem really comes down to popular attitudes toward authority and justice.
On a cultural level, authority is often viewed as a force that must be appeased in order to secure favor. Some Kenyans say that this mindset finds its roots in traditional religious beliefs that spirits control circumstances according to their feelings rather than principles or morals. If the difference between prosperity or catastrophe depends on making the gods happy, whether they are spirits, MPs, or your boss, then appeasement makes a lot of sense. Just pass them some peanuts and move on.
As entrenched as this worldview seems to be, however, I have seen creative attempts from some progressively-minded churches to bring positive change to Kenyan culture.
First, Karura Community Chapel is taking a grassroots approach by conducting a 10 week “spiritual campaign” that explores the church’s mandate to engage in holistic development of society. Everything from sermons to small group curriculum is focused on developing the understanding that God upholds justice and truth and intends to use the church to overturn injustice. At the end of the campaign, small groups are planning to sponsor their own social justice projects in each of their respective neighborhoods.
On the other end of the spectrum, Mavuno Church, with a huge congregation of mainly young professionals, hopes to change the corruption culture starting from the very top. They are planning to train as many as 120 emerging leaders to run for Parliament on an anti-corruption platform. The initiative already has over 40 recruits, and if they meet their goal of winning at least 15 seats in the 2012 elections, they could really usher in a new era of integrity in government.
Personally, I see the most hope for transformation in Kenya in the individuals I’ve met who refuse to tolerate corruption in their daily lives. Take Pam, for example, who agreed to go to court for her traffic violation rather than pay the cop in cash to let her go. Then there is my friend Sereti whose job in the energy industry frequently leads to offers of free lunch and other perks from buyers. When I asked her if the line between a kickback and a kind gesture was ever fuzzy, she promptly replied, “Oh, for me it’s very clear. I never accept those offers.”
So as much as Kenyan culture excuses those who take liberties with the law for short-term gains, there are those who choose to live according to a long-term vision of justice. Changing public perception to adopt this mindset may seem like an uphill battle, but I see leaders who are taking that challenge head-on.
- Pray that candidates preparing to run for Parliament on an anti-corruption platform in 2012 will be able to withstand the pressure to engage in "politics as usual."
- If you can get your hands on it, read It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower by Michela Wrong, whose brutally honest portrayal of corruption in Kenya led the current administration to ban the book.
- Watch The Untouchables (1987) for a look at corruption in 1920’s Chicago. As one friend put it, "Looking at how far Chicago has come since then gives me hope for change in Kenya."
About the Author: Jessica Shewan is a journalist with World Next Door. She graduated in 2009 from The University of Evansville with a bachelor's degree in History. She loves making new international friends and is passionate about seeing the global church pursue justice and peace!