“You could hear women lamenting, children crying, men shouting. Some were calling for parents, others for children or spouses; they could only recognize them by their voices. Some bemoaned their own lot, others that of their near and dear. There were some so afraid of death that they prayed for death. Many raised their hands to the gods, and even more believed that there were no gods any longer and that this was one last unending night for the world. Nor were we without people who magnified real dangers with fictitious horrors. Some announced that one or another part of Misenum had collapsed or burned; lies, but they found believers. It grew lighter, though that seemed not a return of day, but a sign that the fire was approaching. The fire itself actually stopped some distance away, but darkness and ashes came again, a great weight of them. We stood up and shook the ash off again and again, otherwise we would have been covered with it and crushed by the weight. I might boast that no groan escaped me in such perils, no cowardly word, but that I believed that I was perishing with the world, and the world with me, which was a great consolation for death.”
I have long been a reader of the Roman civilization’s documented history, and in a recent examination of the letters of Pliny the Younger’s description of the destruction of Pompeii by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, I could not help but be reminded of the daily Kenyan struggle, displayed in a rather extreme fashion by the flooding in Nairobi on major roads and in neighbourhoods. Only that the destruction of Pompeii happened in 79 AD, while the flooding of Nairobi happens in 2016 AD. And, that one happened at a time when there was little that could be done to predict such a disaster and save lives, while the other happens at a time when flooding continues to be caused by rains we know are coming meeting infrastructure we continue to build poorly. Only that one is a natural disaster, while the other is man-made.
The images of flooded roads stay with me, as I remember the six storey building that collapsed in Huruma due to these rains, constructed in ways that defied logic. The collapse killed at least 45 people, with 55 still missing. It is described as an accident, but how was the building constructed and inhabited without the knowledge of relevant authorities, such as the county government, the National Construction Authority (NCA) and the National Environmental Management Agency (NEMA)? It is easier to believe that the authorities were complicit, as shown by the existence of an audit report drafted in 2015 that recommended that residents of structurally unsound buildings be evacuated and the buildings classified as dangerous, which has yet to be acted upon. This was no accident.
As I sit with these thoughts, I am met online by images of police brutality meted out against protestors who are demanding for an overhaul of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) in solidarity with Raila Odinga and the other CORD principals. This is what we are up against should we have the courage to question our government, or any of its agencies – a boot to our heads and necks.
Yet what is baffling to me is that we continue to think of these moments as glitches; flaws in the system that runs Kenya, as opposed to proof that it is working exactly how it was designed – to keep the majority poor, hungry and desperate, never with enough time to realize that their dignity is inherent; that they are deserving of rights; that it has never been about tribe, but about class and power, and that ultimately, the power was always theirs to use and give. We continue to sacrifice our nation’s most vulnerable at the altar of corruption and anyhowness, and we can only get away with it for so long.
Unlike Pompeii, this is no wrath of the gods (a common way to explain things we cannot understand, to this day, is to attribute them to gods). This is our very own disastrous masterpiece. This is a state whose leaders and powerful people elect daily to take the path of a weak/failing state, where they do not deliver goods and services. Where we have been on the brink of civil war (the Molo clashes, the 2007/08 post-election violence) but still, we do not implement the recommendations of the Truth and Justice Reconciliation Commission (TJRC). We remain very angry, and very violent, as shown by the police. Where institutions destroy, as opposed to support, political freedom, and where the path to economic prosperity is unclear to many. Where there is no control of the environmental public good(s), and medical services, water, electricity are a joke.
We continue to have signs that we are not globally competitive (increasing our chances of failure) such as restrictions on the free flow of information, the subjugation of women, the inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure, having the extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization, domination by a restrictive religion, a low valuation of education, and low prestige assigned to work. All these can be changed/reversed.
States do not just fail. People, sometimes an individual, and many times a group of people, fail the state, leading to its collapse. World over, we call these peoples our leaders, more so in Kenya. But a weak/failing state does not necessarily spell doom if there is political will to fix it. It usually begins by providing security to the people, and moving on from there. Our government needs to make sure Kenyans feel safe, especially from/with it, for us to move from here. But are they ready to do the work? Are we?