There is a picture taken in drought-stricken northern Kenya circulating on social media. The picture shows two children on all fours drinking from a murky pool.
The children, no doubt, are risking contracting deadly waterborne diseases. But they are so desperate for a drink that death from disease in the future is an abstract idea. To the children, it would seem, death from thirst is the more immediate and concrete reality.
The picture is profoundly disturbing for many reasons. First, one wonders, why would anyone in the 21st century have to face such a terrible choice: To die from thirst or from disease.
Second, the situation, as in other natural or manmade emergencies over the years, did not have to come to this deadly point. The picture of the children drinking potentially poisonous water while on all fours like animals also captures in graphic and painful fashion the unequal worlds in which the super-rich who govern the country and its poorest citizens inhabit.
The nationalists who came to power at Independence claimed equity and justice as the basis of the new state. But the rhetoric was a hoax. At a rally soon after Independence, Jomo Kenyatta would jeer at those still insisting on an equitable and just society.
One of them, Bildad Kaggia, would bear the brunt of the president’s mockery. What have you accumulated for yourself, Mr Kaggia? Kenyatta berated him. The president, like a teacher speaking proudly of his best students, gave examples of former freedom fighters who were now busy accumulating wealth. To lead by example, Kenyatta himself would go on to accumulate fabulous wealth.
Thus was created a classical class society in which the super-rich and the desperately poor live side by side in an unlikely arrangement of shared nationality. This arrangement, with all its mindboggling contradictions, has continued to hold.
But these contradictions come to the fore during times of emergency and, for a brief moment, people question the foundational values of the Kenyan state. They ask, explicitly or implicitly: Does the political class (in government and opposition) have the moral authority to govern? And to what end their exercise of power?
These questions are asked, with varying degrees of explicitness, in columns, on TV shows and in political forums every time the government mishandles an emergency.
This happened during the terrorist attack at Westgate Mall, where the situation was not only terribly mishandled, but security forces were captured on camera looting shops as well. It happened after the Garissa University attack. Then, the Nation newspaper, in an angry write-up, accused the government of having let down the students in life and even in death.
It happened again when heavily armed police gassed children and parents trying to protect a school field from being grabbed by a senior politician. It happens every time the citizens of northern Kenya and their livestock perish from droughts that experts invariably warn about way before they occur. In the one currently ravaging the country, there were early warnings last year, but just like in all the previous occurrences, the government proved unprepared.
This time, however, government was not only unprepared, it was otherwise engaged. As TV crews showed dead livestock littering dry landscapes, as residents trekked for miles looking for water, as the dead were buried, as the children abandoned school because of hunger and thirst, leading figures in government (and opposition ) were aboard their helicopters. Not to assess the extent of the disaster.
They were on frenzied vote-hunting missions, trying to gather enough tribal votes to ensure victory in the upcoming elections.
Catholics bishops, desperate to focus attention on the deadly urgency of the situation, have called on the government to declare the situation in northern Kenya a national disaster. Perhaps this call by the bishops may jolt the conscience of the tribal vote hunters. If they hear it at all, that is.
That a government has to be reminded of its duty by religious leaders shows the disconnect between power and the responsibility that should come with it.
Kenya ina wenyewe (Kenya has its owners). This is a phrase spoken in frustration by citizens when they see the disconnect mentioned above, when they realise that pursuit of power is really in order to advance, not their interests, but those of the political elite.
So Kenya will remain an incongruent arrangement where children drinking disease-carrying water like animals will coexist with a fabulously wealthy helicopter-hopping tribal elite.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political and social commentator. E-mail: [email protected]