Reflections of an ‘alien’ in Kenya: After six years, I have many reasons to be grateful
Thursday June 29 2017
As of August of this year, I will have been in Kenya for six years. I have been writing for The EastAfrican for this entire period.
As I transition into a new role within my organisation, it seems opportune to offer some broader reflections in place of the short-term, data heavy analysis that has often dominated this column.
I do not know how this will be received: some of my readers may find this refreshing while others may prefer that I stick to the normal fare. I apologise in advance to the latter group.
I want to start by saying something about the way I have experienced Kenya as a foreigner. I have worked in many places around the world, though none for as long as Kenya.
When I came to live here in 2011, I assumed that I would find it difficult to “break into” the space. I could not claim any particular connection to the country (though I had been here before, in 1996, as a volunteer teacher). I obviously would not simply blend in, then or ever.
Moreover, what is broadly known as the “governance” sector, in which public finance work is normally found, is also sensitive: We ask critical questions about the very foundations of society and government on a regular basis, and adopt a normative stance about how things could be improved.
Most people around the world instinctively feel that these types of critiques should be levelled by citizens and not by outsiders, even if they acknowledge that they may have objective force regardless of where they come from.
This instinct is related to a kind of schizophrenia that one observes around the globe, but particularly in “emerging” economies. There is an understandable desire to stand up for oneself and to demand the respect that is due to any sovereign state or long-suffering society. And yet there is also an acknowledgement that local capacity is low and that there is much to be learned from elsewhere.
Managing schizophrenia is difficult, and it is often handled by avoiding situations that bring it into stark relief. So, for example, it is okay for a local to criticise some aspect of society because their general commitment to indigenous self-respect is harder to question. When a foreigner makes the same criticism, however, the possibility that this is done without the proper respect remains open.
Kenya suffers schizophrenia
All of this is simply to say that I expected it to be hard to break in, and it was perfectly understandable why this would be the case. As a result, my actual experience of finding it actually easy has continued to surprise me.
Kenya certainly suffers the schizophrenia I described. And I do not claim to be representative. But I personally have experienced a high degree of tolerance for my pointed questions and genuine gratitude for my work.
Of course, one could attribute this to other factors: Kenya’s warm and welcoming culture, perhaps, or the fact that a white male like myself is still generally offered a certain undeserved deference. But while both of these things are true, I don’t think they fully explain my experience of Kenya.
I would rather point to one of Kenya’s greatest strengths in comparison with many of its peers. While Kenyans are incorrigibly tribal and parochial in their politics, they are exceptionally open and meritocratic in the realm of ideas.
There is a deep comfort with risk and experimentation (far more comfort than I personally have), and an uncanny ability to absorb new ideas, learn from failure, and try again.
I have found that, where I have worked diligently to put something on the agenda that people find useful, they are ready to engage with my ideas and questions, regardless of the fact that these ideas and questions are coming from, as my national identification card used to say, an “alien.” This has been endlessly refreshing to me, and is among the reasons I have stayed much longer than I initially expected to.
Of course, as with all things, there was a dose of good luck as well: I came to Kenya in 2011 when the zeitgeist was one of experimentation.
There was a new Constitution to implement, and in those days, we did not leave the house without our copy for fear of needing to reference it throughout the day. This undoubtedly made many Kenyans even more open to new thinking, hard questions and vigorous debate.
By 2016, much of this euphoria had passed. But the willingness to experiment and learn by failing remains.
And while my work has often been frustrating, I have rarely been treated as though I could not claim a seat at the table to discuss the challenges facing the country. For that I am, and will always be, grateful.
Jason Lakin is Kenya country director for the International Budget Partnership. E-mail: [email protected]