“Your Excellencies Gov. @MikeSonko & Dep. Gov @IgathePolycarp, when we moved to Karen, we thought we were climbing up Maslow Hierarchy … But what are kiosks, matatus & mitumba clothes doing here? Where is our Masterplan? Kenya is a Capitalist State. Let Karen be Karen.”
Those words were exhausting to read, mostly because I had just had a debate on a WhatsApp group I’m on about the elitism and disdain for the poor that informs the sentiment that matatus should not be allowed into some (predictably rich) neighbourhoods. No matter that those matatus operate on public roads that we all have paid for and should benefit from.
To justify this unfairness, it was argued that many neighbourhoods do not allow matatus, not just Muthaiga, Karen, Runda and similarly rich areas. It was argued that calling this discrimination was unwarranted and generalizing. It was argued that not allowing matatus keeps the “sanity” in “some areas.” After all, this is the reason people buy property in these areas. It was argued that we love convenience too much as a nation, and that we should be okay with walking a distance for a matatu. After all, ten minute walks cannot kill you. All kinds of straw man arguments were brought in, including that we need to destroy transport cartels first, and that it wasn’t that the people in question feared/disdained poor people, rather, it was the system that was rotten.
So to come on Twitter and see Donald’s honesty about the root of the problem was somewhat refreshing. These sentiments are, to put it simply, elitist. And many people are elitist. It is what motivates most of us in our work. We want to move as far away from poverty and as close to richness as we can. As we do, we develop a disdain (both subconscious and conscious) for poverty. As a result, we do not want reminders of poverty in the nice, clean spaces we believe we have worked so hard for. What are these reminders? Kiosks, matatus and second hand clothes, of course.
We forget that most Kenyans continue to have them as hallmarks in their lives, though. Where do the rich expect their workers to buy their supplies, for example? When someone works from eight to six at your home, where do you expect them to shop? Do you feed your workers? If not, where do you expect them to eat? Do you provide private transport for them to and from your home? If not, how do you expect them to get there and go back to their homes? Is it fair to expect someone to walk four kilometres each day to and from your house, while you have never had to? Is this person still supposed to go back to his/her home and have the energy to enjoy life with his/her family? Given that areas such as Karen, Muthaiga and Runda are (mostly) residential and far from the city, where do the rich expect their workers to buy clothes? And at what time, given that most work round the clock?
Why do we think it is okay to subject people to such treatment, just so that we can forget that some of us are incredibly fortunate while a majority of the country suffers in poverty? Poverty is not beautiful. It is not romantic. This is what it looks like. It is the experience of most Kenyans, and to want to pretend that experience does not exist is elitist. Elitism is short sighted and sanctimonious, as it assumes that the views and experiences of the elite matter more than those of everyone “below” them. It assumes that everyone should aspire to what elites aspire to. Behave as they behave. It privileges one way of being over all others, while ignoring the very real causes behind those other ways of being. It undermines the very fabric of democracy, which emphasizes universal rights and freedoms. People are not poor by choice. No one wakes up one day and decides that they had rather be poor. Yet elitism makes it seem as if this is the case, by excluding others on the basis of this poverty and using it as a marker of the elites’ importance.
Many of us claim to be working hard to change Kenya. Yet, as Audre Lorde said, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. No matter how hard we work hard to change this country, if our actions are informed by any kind of bigotry – be it elitism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, sexism, racism or homophobia – the outcome we create will be similar to what we have now, and it will all have been in vain.