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Monday, July 14, 2008

The country where everything is done in reverse

Everything happens in reverse in Kenya. Take, for example, the recent ban on matatus entering the central business district of Nairobi. In most other cities, an efficient public transport system is seen as the key to easing congestion in the city centre, and people are encouraged to use this form of transport to get to work. Those who insist on using private vehicles have to pay a penalty. For instance, in London, people who bring their private vehicles to the city centre are charged a congestion fee.

But in Kenya, the rich, with big gas-guzzling private cars, are given priority on our roads; pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users are penalised for being poor and for using environmentally-friendly transport options.

The recent ban on smoking in public places is another example of how Kenya misinterprets the global war against smokers. In most countries that have adopted laws to curb smoking, smokers are allowed to do their thing in open spaces, which usually means on city sidewalks. But in Kenya smokers have to go into an enclosed space – a public toilet, restaurant or a vehicle – to smoke because most open-air spaces are no smoking zones. Meanwhile, matatus and trucks spewing noxious carbon monoxide and other poisonous gases are allowed to roam freely on out streets.

And for some strange reason, there seems to be a total silence on another addiction – drinking – that is ruining the lives of many Kenyans. Excessive use of alcohol not only damages the health of the consumer, it all also deeply scars family members of the alcoholic, who are a times deprived of school fees, food and other necessities so that the alcoholic can indulge in his or her addiction. Families of alcoholics are also deeply affected emotionally, and it is not uncommon to see children of alcoholics suffering from depression and other psychological illnesses. Yet, our bars are allowed to operate 24 hours if they like, and there is no limit to how much alcohol can be consumed by a patron.

Then there is the whole question of who is entitled to a work permit, visa or citizenship. Recent queries on the issuance of work permits to foreigners with dubious credentials have brought to the fore an issue that deeply disturbs all those Kenyans who dread the prospect of applying for a new passport at Nyayo House. The situation in Kenya is such that white foreigners are given all kinds of permits and visas to remain in the country while those who are born here often have to part with money to obtain what should be their birthright – a Kenyan passport. For some strange reason, Immigration officials look the other way when it comes to foreigners with white skin, but get all hot and bothered when the foreigner is black or has a Muslim-sounding name.

All that white-skinned foreigners need to step into this country is enough cash to pay for a tourist visa at the airport. Some of these “tourists” find jobs or start businesses; they do not bother getting a work permit. Others even find high-paying jobs in fields where there is a surplus of local talent. There are no mechanisms in place to monitor their activities. For instance, they don’t have to undergo any interview at the airport to determine the nature of their business in Kenya. Their records are not kept or scrutinised at Kenyan embassies abroad. They are not subjected to stringent conditions when applying for a visa to this country, as Kenyans often are when applying for visas to other countries. Nobody fingerprints them or asks them to provide proof that they can support themselves financially while they are here. No, we are Kenyans, and we are a hospitable people. We just smile, and say, “Karibuni Kenya! ”

So people with the most dubious credentials end up in the country. Paedophiles, drug and human traffickers, mercenaries, and even terrorists – are warmly welcomed at the airport, no questions asked. But only if they are white. Black Nigerians or brown Pakistanis with dubious credentials are often held in the airport cells and deported – unless, of course, they are well-connected, in which case they just breeze through immigration control.

Why do Kenyans behave in this strange manner? Is it because we were colonised and therefore see all white people as superior? Or is it because we have become accustomed to the indignity that comes with subservience and corruption? Maybe it’s because those who are now in charge of creating policies were once poor themselves, and having escaped poverty, want to keep the poor out of sight so that they are not reminded of their own poverty.

If we are to emerge as a middle-income country in the next 20 years, we must learn from other once-poor countries. Successful economies such as Malaysia and Thailand got that way, not by ignoring the poor, but by integrating them in national development plans.

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