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Calling Wanjiku

Volume 12, Issue 3  | 
Published 01/03/2016
  |

‘The role of editorial cartoonist is to talk truth to power’ Gado

Wanjiku is a common female name among the Agikuyu of Central Kenya. It is, indeed, one of the names of the nine Agikuyu clans that form the bedrock of this community’s heritage. However, the name Wanjiku has, over the last two decades or so, taken on a totally different meaning and ceased to be just a Gikuyu name but one that Kenyans from all communities, creeds and religions identify with.

The new meaning of this name was coined in the late 1990s by retired President Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi in relation to the debate on constitutional review. In that period, when Kenyans were getting increasingly tired of the one-party dictatorial rule, political activists agitated for a review of the constitution and insisted that the process had to be people-driven; that Kenyans’ views about the constitution needed to be collected systematically and incorporated into the revised constitution. Moi was clearly exasperated by the calls for a change in the constitution, and even more by the insistence that ordinary Kenyans be involved in the making of the most revered document in the country. He blurted out that Wanjiku, meaning the ordinary Kenyan, could not be involved in the constitutional review process because she is ignorant. Moi meant this as an insult but political activists and the civil society turned the name Wanjiku around and made it a symbol of constitutional activism and an ever present feature of social, political and economic debates.

Wanjiku gradually took shape and was popularised by cartoonist Godfrey Mwampembwa (Gado). While the pictorial representation of Wanjiku is female, it is understood that she is symbolic of all Kenyans regardless of their gender, tribe, occupation, religion, educational background, or any other fields of identity formation and definition. Wanjiku represents the worries, concerns, disappointments, dreams, hopes, aspirations, and joys of Kenyans across the country and beyond. She speaks a language understood by all and expresses our collective joys and pains. Moi’s Wanjiku may have been ignorant but today’s Wanjiku is very much aware of her rights. She has a language, a voice, and the courage to express herself without fear. After all, she knows that the constitution, which she very much participated in revising, grants her certain inalienable rights and freedoms. Gado has continued to present Wanjiku’s reaction to the goings-on in the country and to show what she feels about the state of the nation today.

How does Wanjiku rate Kenya 53 years after independence? What kind of scorecard does she award Kenya 13 years after Moi’s KANU left power? Moi’s Wanjiku may have been ignorant but today she is not only exceedingly conscious of the gradual degeneration of the country in the hands of greedy political elite, but is also aware of her constitutional power to unseat those who are bent on destroying the country. A look at Gado’s presentation of Wanjiku over the years will confirm that Wanjiku has become very discerning and political and other leaders can no longer afford to take her for granted.

Top among Wanjiku’s concerns today are issues to do with greed, corruption, insecurity, shaky devolution, education system, public healthcare services, unemployment, shambolic implementation of the constitution, and related matters. Every day, Kenyans wake up to stories of massive corruption in government, both at the county and national levels. ‘Chickengate,’ NYS, wheelbarrows, bridges, hospital curtains, election malpractices… the list is endless. It is as if elected politicians and their comrades-in-crime will not rest until Kenya is on her knees. What is the motivation for this senseless stealing of public funds? The result is a declining economy and the first victim is Wanjiku – after all, she does not have money stashed away in Swiss accounts. Are we surprised that the level of poverty keeps increasing? That talk about Kenya becoming a middle-income economy is just that – talk. The truth is that there is an increasing number of Kenyans who live way below the poverty line.

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Corruption goes hand in hand with greed. It is greed that drives one person to try and amass outrageous amounts of wealth. How much money or land does one person really need? The wanton greed exhibited by some so-called leaders reminds one of Wanjiku wa Ngugi’s novel, The Fall of Saints, in which some voracious businessmen/women are so shameless in their wealth seeking that they resort to hiring wombs to produce as many babies as possible, who are latter sold to childless couples in Europe and America and to laboratories for stem cell research. The message in this novel is that greed drives people into ridiculous acts and such people do not care about the consequences of their actions. This would explain why there are increasing cases of land scandals. School land is being grabbed shamelessly, as was the case in Langata Road Primary School a few months ago or the case in Nairobi South Primary school where an MCA’s office is said to have been constructed inside the school. There is no difference between someone who steals land meant for use by school children and one who sells children as described in The Fall of Saints. These are public schools which serve the children of the ordinary Kenyan – Wanjiku – as wealthy Kenyans take their offspring to elite private schools whose playgrounds and relaxation lawns are well protected. Well, Wanjiku is not sitting pretty and letting these crooks get away with it. In Lang’ata and Nairobi South school cases, children and parents respectively made enough noise against the greedy grabbers and the cases were resolved. Wanjiku may not have money or guns but she has her courage and social-political consciousness.

The incessant stealing of public funds has led to a near collapse of the education and public health systems. Teachers, doctors and nurses are persistently calling for an improvement of their remuneration and working environments but the county and national governments do not seem to think that these are vital sectors of the country. At the beginning of the third term of 2015, for example, public school teachers went on strike for a month demanding higher salaries. The government’s response to this crisis was confounding to say the least – the Cabinet Secretary ordered all schools to be closed! Who ever heard of a government closing down schools? Teachers were not making unrealistic demands and the salary of a teacher can be justified for this section of Kenyans offers the country a very noble service. Not so the salaries of politicians, some of whom possess questionable educational certificates. As pupils and students in public schools stayed at home or remained in schools without proper supervision, children of privileged Kenyans, who attend private schools, continued with their studies uninterrupted. The sad thing is that Wanjiku’s children, who were out of school for weeks, will sit the same national examinations as those in private schools. Doesn’t Wanjiku have reason to call for the sacking or resignation of the stubborn and lackluster public servants in charge of the education system? Teachers went back to the classroom empty-handed and since the government refused to pay them their September salaries, they were reduced to beggars. There were reported cases of teachers who slid into depression and others who committed suicide due to financial wretchedness. Isn’t Wanjiku a representative of Kenyan teachers who have been insulted and betrayed by the government? Teachers, I am sure, having realized that the government does not care about their welfare, are polishing their voters’ cards in readiness for 2017.

The situation in public health facilities is so bad that Kenyans have no hope of getting medical care if they do not have money. A few weeks ago a young man named Madaga died after spending 18 hours in an ambulance because the largest referral hospital in Kenya could not admit him, citing lack of ICU beds. The man, who had been seriously injured in a road accident, was allegedly turned away by private hospitals because he could not raise the mandatory Kshs. 200,000 deposit. Who will come to Wanjiku’s aid? Why did Madaga have to die? How can a country that pays millions in politicians’ and senior public servants’ salaries lose its citizens in such senseless situations because public hospitals lack facilities to care for patients? Who will take care of Madaga’s wife and children? For how long will Wanjiku and her children continue to die of curable diseases because those charged with the responsibility of providing health services are not doing their job? Why would a country keep shouting about her sovereignty when her citizens live and die like rodents?

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The current state of insecurity is worrying. It is even more perturbing to see that the concerned authorities do not seem committed to dealing with it. Kenyans are not able to go about their businesses for fear of being attacked either by the ordinary type of criminals who pounce on businesses or motorists or by terrorists a la Westgate, Mandera, Mpeketoni, or Garissa. Following the attack on Garissa University College, for instance, parents with children in local universities are constantly worried about the safety of their children. Some of these parents are Kenyans who have had to sell family property and sacrifice their comfort to send their children to school only to receive bodies of their young sons and daughters. What is the government doing to assure Wanjiku that her children in local institutions of learning are safe?

Due to the rising insecurity the tourism sector in Kenya is in a pathetic state. Western countries keep issuing travel advisories against Kenya because they cannot guarantee the safety of their citizens. Some tourist hotels have closed down while others are reporting acutely reduced numbers of guests. The situation is exacerbated by increased cases of poaching, clearly facilitated by well placed Kenyans. Surely, we cannot be expected to believe that rhinos and elephants are being killed by some small-time criminals.   As one of Gado’s cartoons on Wanjiku shows, the only Big Five remaining in the country today are greedy politicians. Who is bearing the brunt of a weak tourism sector? Employees who have lost their jobs in tourist attraction sites and hotels. These are ordinary Kenyans who depend on this sector for their livelihoods and now have no idea how to go about raising their families. There exist, therefore, hundreds of families whose livelihoods have been destroyed yet nobody seems to care that this section of Kenyans cannot feed or educate their children.

Unemployment is quickly becoming an unmanageable problem in the country. A large number of young Kenyans are not in any gainful employment. What we have is a huge percentage of dissatisfied youth who are easily seduced into crime and drug abuse. We stand to lose an entire generation who seek engagement in illegal or dangerous activities because they lack honest ways of earning a living. It is disturbing to see that politicians do not, for instance, see the irony of having thousands of young people attending their political rallies on weekdays. How would so many young people find time to attend such meetings if they were otherwise engaged? For the politicians though, these sons and daughters of Wanjiku serve them better when they are unemployed and idle because then they can swell the crowds at political rallies and be called upon to heckle others when necessary. Is it surprising then that young men and women are joining proscribed groups and abusing drugs? As this happens, the same politicians send their children to study abroad and later give them seed money to start businesses.

Seven years after the violence that rocked parts of the country after the 2007 general elections, the victims are yet to get justice. Families lost their relatives, others were raped or maimed, property was destroyed, and people were evicted from their homes and land… all because of greedy politicians who messed up the elections. Today, families still live in tented camps as internally displaced persons yet their farms and homes are being occupied by other people. There are children who have been born in the camps and do not know the stability of living in a proper home. Some of the suspects who had been charged at the International Criminal Court for allegedly planning and funding the violence have been freed. Some Kenyans celebrated when these people’s cases collapsed, which is well and good, but what about the other problems that bedevil the country such as insecurity and unemployment. More importantly, what about the victims of the violence? Who will compensate them for the loss of lives, homes, jobs, and land? In the recent past, politicians have been criss-crossing the country purportedly to pray for the collapse of the remaining cases at the ICC. There is nothing wrong with prayers – after all, we are said to be a very religious nation. However, as Wanjiku rightly observes in one of Gado’s cartoons (8th December 2014) why do Kenyans forget so quickly? When will these hypocritical politicians call for prayers for the justice of the victims? Kenyans seem blind and do not put the government to task over important national issues; they conveniently ignore the real problems like the victims of the 2008 violence and instead focus on non-issues. The elected leaders, very consistently, would rather waste time debating the need for their spouses to have diplomatic passports, governors’ demand to fly the national flag on their cars, increase of mortgage and car grants for MCAs, battles over the control of CDF between governors and MPs, and mileage and sitting allowances for Members of the National Assembly.

Wanjiku is tired of broken promises by an uncaring government and other elected leaders. A look at her responses to various problems affecting the country will show that she is increasingly perceptive and has realized that leaders are largely disconnected from the people that they are elected or appointed to serve. She clearly understands that the leaders cannot fix the education system because they take their children to private schools. They are not bothered about the ailing public health sector because they can afford private medical insurance. They ignore the chaotic transport system because they travel in private cars. They pay no attention to the deteriorating security because their homes and work places are guarded by private security firms. Where does that leave Wanjiku? She only has her constitutional right as a voter to rely on.

In the mean time, as part of trying to change the status quo, Wanjiku hopes that the government can change the operations of the public service to ensure that those charged with the responsibility of ensuring the smooth running and effective service delivery do their work. In one of Gado’s cartoons (11 August 2014) Wanjiku is presented as having proposed a new public service act. She believes that the act would ensure immediate improvement in key public services and infrastructure by requiring all elected officials and senior public servants at the national and county levels to: get medical treatment only in public hospitals; put their children only in public schools; use only public transport or private transport without motorcades; use only public garbage collection services; rely only on public power supply in their offices and homes; ensure that their salaries never exceed 20 times the minimum wage; pay tax just like those who elected them; and never overlap in traffic jams. The question is, would the parliamentary select committee concerned with the public service accept Wanjiku’s proposed act or would they shred it into pieces and trash it?

Wanjiku’s scorecard for Kenya does not look good. She is displeased, disappointed, and distressed. Leaders ought to be aware that with each passing day, and with increasing aggravation, Wanjiku knows that she has been taken for granted for far too long.

Dr. Jennifer Muchiri

Teaches Literature at the University of Nairobi.