Revisioning Kenya ? not your problem? by Arno Kopecky

Date: 10th August 2009
Venue: RaMoMA gallery

“Revisioning Kenya,” hosted by RaMoMA gallery on a sunny Friday afternoon and billed as the highlight of Kwani Litfest 2008 (with stiff competition from the cocktail party at US Ambassador Michael Ranneberger’s house), was a climax of highs and lows. We arrived to find organizers Dipesh Pabari and Shalini Gidoomal scuttling around with a hunted look in their eyes, as though this were January 2008 all over again and we were in Kibera, not Parklands. But they sorted out the electrical snafus that threatened to nix the whole show at the last minute, and about seventy of us crammed into the presenting room to listen to fifteen ‘visionaries’ from every field of endeavor talk about the future.

(The idea came from Bill Gates, who a while back invited the most innovative thinkers on earth to Arusha to give him an eight-minute presentation about their next big idea.)

Unlike the previous day’s event at the University of Nairobi, almost nobody stuck to their time limit. Sometimes we didn’t notice, like with Judy Kibinge’s movie Coming of Age, which took us on a moody romp through post-independence Kenya – starting with the early Kenyatta days, “when a carjack was a thing you used to change a tire”; through post-coup Moi, when Kenyans learned what it was like to live under a dictatorship: “at night, people drew the curtains shut and whispered rumors about rumors in the dark”; following the euphoric “second liberation” of Kibaki’s election in 2002, and finishing with his stolen victory last year, when “Kenya began to burn, and we wondered, what is democracy? Do we even want it anymore?”

Same kind of roller coaster that characterized our little event. I hate to hate, but in the spirit of constructive criticism I can’t help wondering why Alfred Omenya, who actually is a visionary architect, felt it necessary to talk about himself for eight minutes before getting round to the subject at hand. By then, moderator Wambui Mwangi had no choice but to yank the mic on him. And John Kiarie, the former Redyculass comedian who these days is trying to prove Beth Mugo rigged him out of victory in the race for Dagoretti’s parliamentary seat – great speech, John, we laughed and cried, but where were the new ideas?

Rob Barnett, Kwani?’s first sponsor back in the day (thanks Rob) gave an interesting talk about Diffusion Theory, basically, how do bright ideas take root in society and become widespread? I’m all for spreading the love, but can’t help wondering about the NGO-esque philosophy underpinning the concept: ‘we know what’s good for you, now LISTEN.’

But that’s what Revisioning Kenya was all about after all – if more of us listened to the good ideas stored in the minds inside that room, maybe Kenya and the world would be a better place. For instance why is it, as former Olympian Ole Munyai asked us, that Kenya’s pyrethrum farmers are only earning $16 million in a world market that is making $600 million off their harvest? Why don’t we set up a distribution company in the US, where most of the global trading takes place, and channel Kenyan pyrethrum through that? As Ole said, “we could pay our farmers five times what they currently earn and still make a profit.”

Now that’s what we came to hear. More good stuff came from Kevit Desai, who talked about the potential for ICT to improve just about everything, and Dr. Moses Musaazi, who broke down the alternative technologies we have at our fingertips (ranging from solar water heaters, which everyone’s heard of, to papyrus sanitary pads, which I bet you haven’t). Tony Mochama represented the poetic outlook, and though I’m not sure exactly what it was he said, I know it wasn’t bad.

The best came last. Ishmael Beah, the child soldier from Sierra Leone, stirred us up with some of the lessons learned by his country’s civil war. He finished by describing a village tree where he and his fellow soldiers used to kill prisoners. Back then, its bark had been hacked up by overzealous machetes and blackened by the blood of so many victims; but when Beah recently revisited the spot, he found “the tree had healed completely and now bloomed a bright, clean green.”

Tough act to follow, but Ambassador Bethuel Kiplagat did so tremendously. Looking like a 70-year-old version of Ishmael Beah, Kiplagat is the kind of fellow whose dignity fills the whole room. So does his deep bass of a voice. He described for us the battles he’s fought not just for Kenya, but all of Africa over the course of his illustrious career. “I realized one day that all these problems this continent suffers are not just political, they are my own personal problems,” he said, leading up to an admonishment against reliance on foreign aid. “Don’t ever let anyone take your problems away from you, because then you will not devote every last minute and mobilize every resource you have to solving it.”

In 1984, Kiplagat became Kenya’s Permanent Secretary to the department of Foreign Affairs. “I looked around the region and the continent, and I decided then that I would do what I could to bring peace to our neighbors.” There’s a long ways yet to go, but as Kiplagat pointed out, some signs of hope have bloomed amidst the rubble. Take, for instance, the fact that only two African nations are left in the hands of a military regime, quite an improvement from the time Kiplagat entered Foreign Affairs. “That was 1984,” he said, and although he’s held various positions in government since, he’s still working at the same goal of peace. Twenty four long years, good people, “and do you think I’m going to give up?”

Arno Kopecky is a Kwani? editor.

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