Give the young hope in Kenya

by Sunny Bindra on September 6, 2009 · 3 comments

in Sunday Nation

Last week this column looked at the issue of nationality and patriotism as seen in world sports championships. I suggested we would lose many more of our athletes to richer countries, simply because we are not making this an attractive country for young people to be in.

Do we ever stop to ask ourselves: why is it that so many young Kenyans are willing to become toilet-cleaners, road-sweepers and kitchen assistants in the western world? Many of these youngsters are degree or diploma holders, and should be hopeful of landing junior managerial or clerical positions here in Kenya. Still they want to leave and engage in menial labour. Why?

The answer does not lie solely in inferiority complexes. Some unkindly suggest that Africans find all things western superior, and will trade a life of dignity here for indignity there. That does not even begin to scratch on the surface of the problem. The real issue is this: the Kenyan becoming a clerk in Nairobi finds it difficult to see a way to advance, and fears being trapped in a low-income prison for the rest of his life. The Kenyan sweeping roads in Atlanta, meanwhile, sees this indignity as short-lived, a necessary but temporary hardship until he can leap up to better things.

America, you see, can offer the promise of betterment based on your own hard work. Kenya struggles to do so.

This may appear to be an exaggeration to those of you in Kenya who are examples of personal advancement through dedication and thrift. It seems not to sit easily with the observation that there are still many expatriates from all over the world who yearn to be posted here, and once installed, never want to leave.

Don’t ever forget, even for a moment, that there are two Kenyas. There is the Kenya of lawns and swimming pools, servants and sunshine, malls and holidays. And then there is the Kenya of slums and menial casual labour, of eking out a living from arid tracts, of unaffordable food and services. In the first Kenya, inhabitants earn world-class incomes and live lives of relative ease. In the second, frustration and lack of hope rule the day.

Look at the numbers, people. We may have 40 million people here, but we can only provide ‘proper’ jobs for 2 million of them. The rest of the workforce is condemned to ‘jua kali’ or ‘kibarua’ work, pastoralism or very basic subsistence farming. Even during our recent ‘mini-boom’ (2004-2007) we were unable to grow the proportion of modern jobs in the economy.

The children of the rich and the quite-rich are very happy and comfortable. The children of the rest would leave at the first opportunity. That is the polarised society we have created. And it cannot last.

A government worth its salt would be taking this very seriously indeed. A country where the vast majority of its coming-of-age generation is disillusioned and lacking in hope has no future. What gives young Kenyans hope in America but not in Kenya? Simply the fact that it remains possible in America to rise up through your own efforts, to raise capital, to make your way up the system. In Kenya, your way is blocked by many things: corruption, tribalism, nepotism and a culture of shortcuts.

This very serious problem demands redress. We have to invest a great deal of time and money in improving the vocational skills of our youngsters. We have to give tax breaks to companies to employ more people below a certain age and train them on the job. We have to put up proper covered and serviced market facilities. We have to formalise the informal sector with great urgency, giving it infrastructure, facilities and property rights, and bringing it into the tax net. We have to design and encourage large-scale employment initiatives, private and public.

It is not that we don’t know what to do, or that no one has tried to do it in the past. The problem is that we just don’t do it properly! And the reason for that is simple: corruption. Whenever we have a youth or women’s entrepreneurship fund, questions are raised about where the money really goes. Whenever we try to plough money into opportunities for the young, some fat stomach somewhere trousers it. Whenever we try to build facilities, the project is lost in a cloud of accusations and recriminations.

For how long are we going to do this? Young people are fed up of being ignored. They are fed up of being patronised. They are fed up of being led up the garden path by one noble-sounding initiative after another. If the leaders of this country really care about the future, they must stop comparing motorcades. They must design a small set of high-impact initiatives for the young, and they must ring-fence and protect these from all possible abuse.

Related posts:

  1. Kenya’s biggest problem: its young men
  2. We will have to re-imagine Kenya
  3. It’s good to be young – but better to be effective
  4. A time for hope – and vigilance
  5. When Linet Masai and I became siblings

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 RKhan September 6, 2009 at 10:35 pm

As the co-founder of Revlon once said, ‘“In our factory we make cosmetics. In the store we sell hope”.

What the ‘developed world’ has long been attractive for is hope. People are more willing to live an insignificant life with hope of a better future there, than live an insignificant life with no hope, here in Kenya. Kenya has gone wrong in so many places, not that it has no positives, but these positives seem to be a reserve of the well-connected.

Prices of products keep on rising but the middle-class income has maintained a stagnant position for a long time. It seems like a second case of ‘India Shining’, only at a worse level, since we don’t even see that high development of industries. One problem I have realised during my studies, is that Kenya’s money is controlled by a very few number of people and this has led to a great difference in income and therefore inequality. This is turn leads to frustration and thus the huge number of people willing to leave the country for ‘better’ opportunities abroad. I don’t look down on the athletes leaving for the Arabian countries, but instead I applaud them for taking the initiative and taking the opportunity.

This is serious matter especially when people start finding it hard to afford basic necessities, food, shelter and clothing. I do not honestly know if we have any person who can do something, but I surely will do everything I can, in whatever small way I can. As my English professor once asked, ‘Do you think the next general election will bring about a change?’. His answer: In the next election, who’s going to be fighting for the top jobs? The same people? Then do YOU think there is going to be any real change?. I don’t see any leader who can bring any real change.

[Reply]

2 Constant Cap September 7, 2009 at 6:58 pm

Very interesting.
Another thing that I’ve heard of are people in ‘big’ positions who do not put extra effort and then when they see people below them in the ranks, they work hard to get rid of these hard workers!

[Reply]

3 Sunny Bindra September 7, 2009 at 7:15 pm

CC:

Yes, there is a breed of blockers that doesn’t want anyone dislodging it from below.

[Reply]

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