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Saturday, January 4, 2003

Recently, I had an opportunity to spend some time in Kenya as a member of the commonwealth group of election observers deputed to oversee the national general elections. Even though I had taken on this assignment rather reluctantly, I am really glad that I did, as it has opened an entirely new world and shattered the many unflattering myths we harbor about Africa. Nothing that we learnt as kids about Africa prepared me for the breathtaking beauty of Kenya and the grace and dignity of the people.

Like most other African countries, Kenya also became independent from its colonial rulers in the 1960’s and was led by first generation leaders who had roots in their freedom struggle. Unfortunately like the rest of the continent, the first generation Kenyan leaders also simply looted the country and haven’t allowed either a democratic tradition or good governance to take root and as a result suffered from despotic rule, lawlessness and corruption.

Owing to pressure from the international community, and under the terms of a constitutional amendment in 1992, the incumbent president, Daniel arap Moi who presided over a regime of plunder and tyranny for the past 24 years had to give way. For the first time since independence in 1963, free and fair polls were held and the Kenyan people voted overwhelmingly for change. The ruling party was routed giving a landslide victory to Mwai Kibaki who campaigned for good governance and end of corruption. This is a rare instance of peaceful, democratic transfer of power in Africa and it bodes well for the rest of the continent.

The most striking thing one notices in Kenya is the high level of literacy. Kenya’s per capita income in purchasing power terms is only half that of India. There are some 42 tribes, and people are dispersed in small, remote villages with hardly any infrastructure. And yet, every village or a group of tiny villages has a primary school of good quality. Most schools are run by missionaries, and they have good infrastructure. Each class has a teacher and a room. Compare this with our single-teacher and two-teacher schools, and you will realise how much of catching up we have to do. What is more, Kenyan education is really good. About 75% of people are literate. And every literate Kenyan knows how to read, write and speak two languages – Swahili and English. I have talked with hundreds of Kenyans from all cross-sections. The level of awareness and articulation of the ordinary people with only school education is amazing.

Of course, Kenya has had rotten governments so far, and tyranny and plunder have been synonymous with power. Government did little to promote education, provide health care, or build infrastructure. And yet Kenyan society values education. Even poor people are willing to pay large sums for education in private schools. Part of the reason is the sense of equality, despite the many tribal divisions. There are no hierarchies in society. Every Kenyan has a sense of dignity and self-esteem. There is no feudal subservience. A driver often shares a meal with his employer, and a constable sits in front of his boss and converses freely! They have many challenges ahead, but happily the recent election brought hope, and the ordinary citizens discovered their power.

All of us have disdain for the ‘dark’ continent of Africa. Outside the west, we only recognize two regions – South East Asia, whose rapid growth in recent decades left us behind and envious, and the gulf countries, whose oil wealth attracted many youngsters in search of jobs, including from Hyderabad. But there are many lessons we the ‘civilized’ have to learn from the much-neglected Africa. Our insulation and hierarchies are doing us immense damage. All over the world, determined efforts are being made to improve the conditions. We need to wake up from our deep slumber and focus on things that really matter, if we are not to be left behind.

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