Britain is not to blame for Kenya’s endemic culture of political corruption and sleaze. Yet its credentials are far from unblemished. This is one of the conclusions that British author and journalist Michela Wrong reaches in her latest book “Its our turn to eat: the story of a Kenyan whistleblower”.
The West’s late twentieth century policy on international aid, heavily emphasising the need to disburse large amounts of cash to African countries in the name of eradicating poverty, ensured that the tradition of politicians using government as an institution through which to line their pockets and help their fellow tribesmen, was studiously ignored.
The book traces the life of one John Githongo, a Kenyan, who having privileged from a comfortable upbringing and an outstanding education, decides to turn on his fellow tribesmen, the ruling Kikuyu elite, and make public one of the biggest money scams the country has been subjected to since it acquired Independence in 1963.
Githongo is not particularly rewarded for his efforts and by stepping down as Kenya’s anti-corruption paladin, is forced into a lonely British exile. When after more than a year abroad, he finally decides to spill the beans, many of his countrymen view the fact that he went as far as to secretly record public officials as they openly claimed to be defrauding the nation of millions of dollars, as an act of extreme betrayal.
Wrong looks at the rise of tribalism in Kenya, and shows how, like in many other African countries, what started out as a fluid form of identity, was defined and classified by colonisers as a way of keeping the population under control and creating a manageable division of labour.
She describes the ease with which the Kikuyu, who during the Emergency had made up both the extreme Mau Mau fighters but also Britain’s staunchest allies the Home Guard, took power straight after independence. She also shows how Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, set up the framework of political patronage based on tribal lines that was to be Kenyan politics in the decades to come.
In the final pages of the book Wrong watches in dismay as, against all predictions, the country erupts in widespread violence which sees neighbours raping neighbours and schoolchildren killing their classmates.
Grievances brought on by the tangible inequality suffered by many non-Kikuyu, are ruthlessly manipulated by calculating politicians in the name of tribal alliances.
The book benefits from no happy ending, with Wrong quietly musing over the fates of different whistleblowers across Africa. Yet her message, in a twisted way, is one of hope.
According to Wrong, the fight against graft in Africa is one that will continue to be fought for years to come, little by little, one individual at a time. Change will not come bounding through the door but this does not mean that it will never come at all.
As attitudes towards corruption evolve and people decide to no longer tacitly accept it as the way of things, the system will eventually see itself straightened out from within.
Michela Wrong. Original Trade Paperback, 2009: “IT’S OUR TURN TO EAT. The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower”
By Katy Fentress,
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