Thursday, July 23, 2009

Corruption, poverty and society in Kenya

After being so smug and detailing how I avoided paying a bribe to a policeman, I am ashamed to admit I bribed a parking official in Nairobi’s Central Business District on Wednesday. I paid because my wife and newborn daughter were with me: to go through the dance to avoid paying or to go to City Hall to pay the fine would have taken a lot of time, and would have forced Natalie to take two-week-old Charlotte (and my mother-in-law) home in a taxi with no car-seat or on a bus or matatu. I didn’t want that.

My offence was for a parking violation, committed because I foolishly trusted one of the many self-appointed parking attendants that roam the CBD to keep an eye on the car while we ran a quick errand. When I returned, a few minutes ahead of Natalie and Charlotte, two council employees came gleefully sprinting across to clamp the car.

Regardless of the fact that one of the officials was wearing a bright yellow overall emblazoned with the legend “Corruption is Evil”, the non-uniformed gentleman made it clear that a bribe was required. We negotiated and I paid him, shuttling notes into his eager hands under the cover of the dashboard. He shooed away his assistant beforehand, presumably so he would not have to cut him in for very much. We then pretended to drive off toward City Hall. Before he jumped out the car round the corner, the official shook and kissed my hand and told me he often “helped” motorists in this way.

I felt pretty soiled for paying the bribe. I should have insisted we go through the official procedure and pay the fine. I should have done what little I could to fight the problem that is hamstringing Kenya. But I took the easy way out.

It is no secret that Kenya is mired in corruption. A recent study by Transparency International ranked Kenya as East Africa’s most corrupt nation. Corruption – which undermines virtually every system of governance put in place in Kenya - is the major symptom of the every-man-for-themselves attitude, much of it prompted by poverty. For the majority of Kenya's residents, much of everyday life is about the scrabble for money .

The scores of people who died near Molo earlier this year, when the overturned tanker they were collecting fuel from exploded, would not have been there had they been better off. Those people risked their lives for literally a few dollars. One high-ranking political buffoon blamed “greed” for the incident and several that have followed. He clearly doesn’t know what it is to be poor. For those scraping by in the slums of Kibera, Huruma or Kawangware, a few dollars can mean the difference between feeding your whole family that evening or just the select few. It can mean you have enough to pay the rent for another month or pay the school fees.

The struggle for survival is not good for Kenyan society, however, and the romantic notion of solidarity amongst the poor often doesn’t translate into reality. I have seen two security guards almost come to blows over a tip that was less than 50 cents.

Even the idea of doing a simple favour for somebody out of human kindness has been compromised. If you drop your hat and somebody returns it, chances are they aren’t doing it out of goodwill. They are doing it in the hope that you will give them something. The first time this happened to me, a man chased me to say I had left a bottle of wine on the ground. I went back for it and thanked him, thinking how nice it was to meet somebody honest. He then asked me for money for doing something that should be a basic courtesy. Again I can understand this, although it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. The people involved in such incidents have invariably been clearly in need of the money, and there have also been moments where people have done me genuine favours.

So the poor have an excuse. But what about those who are better off? What about the middle classes? What about the politicians who have a seemingly insatiable appetite for more money and no concern for how they accumulate it, even if it means diverting subsidised maize intended to feed people suffering from a famine? What about middle-ranking public servants, judges or police chiefs, all of whom can be bought for the right price?

Most Kenyans will tell you corruption is evil, but – like me – they will pay that bribe to dodge a ticket, avoid that large tax bill or get that job. They will vote for the guy they think can scoop the most money for their community or tribe, even if that guy is clearly bent. And they will take that bribe themselves given a chance. What many Kenyans mean is that corruption which doesn’t benefit them is evil.

I can’t explain all the factors that have created the “take what you can get” culture. But I do know that society suffers as a result. When the majority is doing little else than chase the dollar, people don’t have time to look out for each other. You just need to look at the chaos on Nairobi’s roads to see this in action: the majority of drivers won’t even pull over for an ambulance, something I have witnessed on many occasions. Why should they when they could just bribe a cop a few hundred shillings if they were pulled over for not giving way? Equally, few people will stop to help a stranded motorist or person in distress late at night, as it could well be a trap laid by carjackers.

I don't want to live this way.

Unfortunately, by paying the bribe to that parking official I am accepting a system that values doing what is right for yourself rather than what is right. Living in Nairobi, amid a culture thoroughly saturated with corruption and a relentless thirst for money, changes you. And that worries me deeply.

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