The Art of the Con

Brenda Wambui
28 March ,2017

Like many other Kenyans, I find myself constantly wondering about the hold our political class has on us, and why they continue to hoodwink and oppress us with impunity and consistency. We have analyzed our systems, institutions and approach to governance for close to four years on this website – yet somehow I still find myself coming back to this.

I was walking in downtown Nairobi this past week, and saw a game of karata (three card monte) near a bus stop. The game usually works like this: you are probably walking by when you see a man being told that if he can spot the money card after the dealer shuffles the card around, his money will be doubled. As you watch, this happens, and the guy is given his money and walks off overjoyed. So you go over and decide to try your luck. And you do win. So now you are confident that this works. Before you leave, the dealer asks: “Hutaki kujaribu tena? Unaona umeshinda, unaweza shinda tena.” So you think about it for a short while, and ask why not. Say you put down 20 bob initially. Now you have 40 bob. You put it all down. This time, you do not pick the right card. You are not so lucky. You lose your money and walk off dejected. It just wasn’t your lucky day.

I observed all this incredulously, because this trick has been around since the 15th century, yet people still fall for it. I wondered: who doesn’t know how this works? Then I remembered that derisive saying – a fool is born each minute. Then I remembered that I am Kenyan, and that as a people, we fall for cons every election cycle, and walked off with some humility, wondering if we are all fools, or just the perfect marks for high level political cons.

In The Confidence Game, Maria Konnikova describes the stages of the con as such:

“The confidence game starts with basic human psychology. From the artist’s perspective, it’s a question of identifying the victim (the put up): who is he, what does he want, and how can I play on that desire to achieve what I want? It requires the creation of empathy and rapport (the play): an emotional foundation must be laid before any scheme is proposed, any game set in motion. Only then does it move to logic and persuasion (the rope): the scheme (the tale), the evidence and the way it will work to your benefit (the convincer), the show of actual profits.

And like a fly caught in a spider’s web, the more we struggle, the less able to extricate ourselves we become (the breakdown). By the time things begin to look dicey, we tend to be so invested emotionally and physically, that we do most of the persuasion ourselves. We may even choose to up our involvement ourselves, even as things turn south (the send), so that by the time we’re completely fleeced (the touch), we don’t quite know what hit us. The con artist may not even need to convince us to stay quiet (the blow-off and fix); we are more likely than not to do so ourselves. We are after all the best deceivers of our own minds.”

Our current political system is a con if I ever saw one. What makes us the perfect marks (victims) is more a matter of context than character. When people feel vulnerable, isolated or lonely, they are more likely to fall for a con. According to Konnikova, people going through job loss, serious injury, experiencing a downturn in personal finances, and people concerned with being in debt (or those who already are) are particularly vulnerable. When people are desperate, they make the perfect mark. I would argue that most Kenyans are, which is why gambling has taken root here as well.

So how would your average politician/conman approach the situation? He identifies the mark – the people who are most likely to buy his con. Is it a certain Ward? Constituency? County? Then he sets up the play, which in this country is sadly easy. He will go to his chosen location, dance with the residents there, give them salt and sugar (with his face on the packets) and rally them against his competitors, or against bogeymen of other ethnicities. All in the quest to make them feel that wako pamoja.

After that, he drops the rope, along with the tale and the convincer – the usual lies about how the region will develop under his watch, as opposed to the incumbent (or his competitor) who does not have a development record. This is where they promise to build unfeasible stadiums and dams, or convert Uhuru Park into a matatu terminus. If you are lucky, you get free money from candidates who want you to vote for them, and they undertake some minor infrastructure projects at their own cost (such as building small bridges, churches and footpaths) to show you that they are capable of doing the job.

So you buy it, and vote for them. They get into power, and the breakdown begins. Each time you attempt to protest or point out their theft, lies and corruption, your rights and freedoms are infringed upon, and you are intimidated by the police, or thrown into a cell. So you choose silence and hopelessness – you accept and move on. You come to believe wholesale that things cannot change – that they may always be like this. You tell yourself a story about how it’s better that you’re being screwed over by a guy from your ethnicity or village. That he is working, he just needs time. That the other ethnicities are just bitter they don’t have power. We do the conman’s work for him, and five years later, he’s back for another round.

This would be funny if it weren’t so sad and damaging to our country. I find myself reliving the same feeling I had that day in town as I walked past the karata game. A feeling of woe, mixed with incredulity and humility. We have got to be more discerning.

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