I get this all the time. People will ask me: how are we supposed to live in this country? It’s a complete mess. It is corrupt to the bone, and corrupts anyone trying to earn an honest living. Easily solved problems like traffic and power supply and cleanliness are left to fester. Leaders are self-interested and venal. The rule of law is crumbling by the day, with criminal gangs making the ordinary citizen live in perpetual fear.
I have the same answer for that question every time, so let me provide it in writing today.
Please take a piece of paper. On it, write down the name of the country in which you would prefer to live. With honesty.
In the Kenya of the 1990s, the names of many countries would have appeared on your sheet. Indeed, Kenya experienced its greatest-ever outflow in that period, with hordes of young native Kenyans taking off for greener pastures: places where their skills would be appreciated and valued; where it was possible to live an orderly and structured and predictable life. Most of what we call our Diaspora was created at that time.
The world is quite different in 2013. For one thing, there are not that many attractive destinations out there, even for the most mobile, least rooted Kenyan. Europe is a slow puncture, with an ever-aging population driving falling competitiveness. Even America, long the honey pot for swarms of immigrants, has huge structural problems and financial overhauls to complete before generating robust jobs growth.
The emerging nations of China, India, Brazil and Russia? Certainly, they have more going for them in terms of economic activity and demand for skills, but they also have large pools of their own graduates, as well as language and cultural barriers.
Perhaps our rapidly emerging neighbours, whose economic trajectory these days is a little steeper than our own, attract you? Well and good, but you may be surprised to discover how much smaller their economies are compared to Kenya’s, and how much further behind in terms of human capital.
Despite all of that, many of you may still have names of countries you’d rather live in, if only you got the chance to do so. If that is true for you, then here’s some free advice: please make every effort to go there. Find a way. Explore all possibilities. If your heart is not in Kenya, you will not do anything for your nation, nor will it do much for you. Don’t waste your life, get out while you still can. If you keep staying here, you will only find things to complain about and little to celebrate.
And now to the majority of you. I suspect, and hope, that like me you found it quite difficult to write a single country’s name down.
Congratulations. You are a Kenyan not just because it is a great country that will help you in your life; you are a Kenyan because Kenya is yours and you belong here. You see all its failings, but you do not wish to leave it, any more than you wish to leave your parents.
Kenya is where it is in its journey of national development and evolution. It needs to be here for now. It needs to have many more reversals and setbacks before it becomes a proper nation. Everything I wrote in the first paragraph is sadly true, and will remain true for quite a while.
If you’re still willing to stay, then you must be part of the struggle for a better Kenya. You must stand your ground and uphold your values. You must demand better, every day. You must run your own home and organization exactly the way you would like your country to be run. You must be in for the ride, messy and chaotic and dangerous thought it might be, because it’s YOUR ride.