I went from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam earlier this year, on a three day work assignment. I made quite a few new acquaintances, as one does, of whom almost all have since been forgotten. However, a South Asian gentleman whose job it was to manage the premises in which the forum I attended was being held, still comes to memory, in the context of this column: ‘Name-Withheld-In-Respect of Privacy’ spoke with that distinctive lilt and embarrassingly superior range of vocabulary, at least to non-coastal Kenyans, that are the hallmarks of Tanzanian Kiswahili. There was enough self-revelation between us for me to discover a great trauma in his life. ‘I am from Kenya too,’ he told me. ‘But they took away our family business. We were forced to leave when I was little, a few years after independence, and to start a new life here.’ Who ‘they’ were, precisely, remained a mystery. But he made it clear that they were ‘powerful people.’ ‘Do you know Ngara Market?’ he asked. And when I replied that I did, he proceeded to describe, in some detail, just where he had lived as a small boy. I pretended that I could visualise the place clearly, although, in fact, I couldn’t. That part of our conversation ended by his urging me to look up a relation on his behalf, once I got back. There followed another elaborate set of directions and I said that I would try. ‘He is very good man. You will like him,’ he assured me as he gave me a phone number.
Now, in the curious way that the mind associates ideas, I have since thought about that man as being representative of all minorities, everywhere, inasmuch as his life was marked by heightened vulnerability and helplessness. In the particular case of South Asians in East Africa, it is the vulnerability that saw Idi Amin give them a deadline to leave Uganda in a matter of days. In Kenya, it is the vulnerability that led to ‘Asians must go!’ being an election campaign slogan at some time. But, surely, you would say, all this is a thing of the past. Times have changed.
After all, doesn’t the new Kenyan Constitution, ‘one of the most progressive in the world,’ set out an impressive list of rights and fundamental freedoms? And after the 2013 elections, is it not a visible fact that minorities, however we may choose to define them, are being increasingly represented in the various arms of government?
True, perhaps. However, if I were to see myself as a member of a minority, I don’t think that I would be convinced that my rights and freedoms were being defended daily, for the better. As a person with a disability, I would still see high rise flats being constructed without lifts or wheelchair ramps. As a woman, I could still be stripped naked in the middle of town because a group of men thought my way of dressing overly provocative. As a businessman, I might find that it was considered quite acceptable to dispossess me of land I had bought legitimately because my name was Shah, or Patel or de Souza. As a Somali, I could be rounded up with others like me, forced onto a huge truck and driven to quarantined in a football stadium for days on end, on suspicion that I was an accomplice to terrorist activities. As a child, I could be abused at will by a marauding, sexual predator who would bribe himself free from censure– for such folk are generally male, and continue to pursue his evil ways. And, at a tangent, if I were amongst a minority in the animal kingdom, an elephant with ivory tusks, for example, I would resign myself to extinction, despite the spirited campaigns being waged to ensure my survival.
To my mind, minority representatives are letting the side down by giving the impression that, because they are elected national leaders, they need not be spokespersons for minority issues. As a result, they are content to toe the party line and to add colour and/or femininity to the group photographs outside party headquarters or at mass rallies. When we read our papers or watch prime time news, we register them aligning themselves, unthinkingly, to conservative, political expediency rather than to visionary, social imperative. How then, to use the jargon phrase, can they be expected to ‘add value’ if their lament is that the established order is so rigid that it is impossible to effect change from within. That’s no excuse.
Therefore, just as we are working towards the devolution of powers in our country we should also be working towards the devolution of responsibilities. So that those who are vulnerable and helpless can point an accusing finger not at an amorphous entity called ‘the government’ but at specific individuals responsible for their plight. The new, minority slogan must be: ‘No election without representation!’
In this regular column a teacher, writer and media personality starts from personal anecdote to present an outsider’s reflections on the experience of a different community.
The views expressed are entirely his own.
His website: www.facebook.com/johnsibiokumu