Author Archive

Tribalism, bad. Nationalism, good?

March 15, 2008

“Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.” [Albert Einstein]
“We need to put tribalism behind us and remember that we’re all Kenyan” [The leader at my church, in the height of the troubles]

It’s funny how allegiances can look very different in different circumstances. In 1918, after the loss of a generation of Europe’s young men, an unquestioning allegiance to one’s country – so praised in the years proceeding – began to look unmodern, dangerous and ignorant.

Following the crisis in Kenya, it is tribalism that is under attack, and nationalism suddenly seems the hero of the day.

In today’s world where rationality rules, any allegiance is an easy target. For a rational allegiance isn’t an allegiance at all – it’s a contract. And yet, who wants their friendships reduced to contracts? I believe I am a richer person for feeling a debt of duty my family, my friends, my university college, my church, my faith, my fellow red-heads, the first firm I ever worked for and – yes – even my country. Preventing conflict by destroying my allegiances feels akin to creating equality by destroying wealth.

Perhaps who we ally with isn’t what matters. Perhaps what matters is how we perceive those outside the allegiance – the ‘others’. In which case, maybe the solution isn’t less allegiances, but more. Until there are no ‘others’.

What do you think?

Five words please

February 23, 2008
A challenge for you dear reader.  Five words to describe Africa.  Don’t think about it.  Just write them down (you can even post them on the blog if you want to).
I’m serious.  Stop reading go and do it.  I’ll still be here when you’ve finished.
So what did you come up with?   ‘Magical’?  ‘Violent’? ‘Family’? ‘Backward’? ‘Beautiful?’ ‘Corruption’? ‘Community’? ‘Oppression’?
Words are powerful things.  Not least because they reveal how we imagine our world.  And most of our words about Africa spring from two images of this vast continent.
Image 1: Africa as the dark and magical continent
This image paints Africa as a place of mystery.  A place of magic and a place of adventure.  A place where values still matter.   A place where the importance of community and family have not been overtaken by love of ipods and colour televisions.  A place where an elder is respected not shouted at by rowdy teenagers.  A place of beautiful children with self-made toys playing outdoors against a backdrop of big skies and endless beautiful sunsets.  
Image 2: Africa as the dark and dangerous continent
This image paints Africa as a place of fear.  A place of instability and violence.  A place where values are unaffordable.  A place where the importance of protecting your tribe and family against all comers has not been overtaken by enlightened self-interest.  A place where an elder is busy organising election fraud, corruption and coups while teenagers sit on the side of streets out of work and out of hope.  A place of sick children with distended stomachs playing outdoors amidst the sewage against a backdrop of slum housing and endless hunger. 
Now I don’t want to be the self-righteous ass that delights in pointing out how wrong these perceptions are.  Partly because – like all clichés – there’s actually some truth in them.   I also don’t want to be the pompous traveler who tells you that these are massive oversimplifications, simplifications that remove from people here their human complexity.  For what choice do you have?  How on earth are you meant to hold in your head what life is like for 800 million people living in 53 different countries, speaking countless different languages, remembering countless different histories and praying to countless different gods.  Unless you enroll in a PhD in Africa studies, surely the only choices you have is to simplify.
Well, maybe there’s another option. 
For there is a image of life that is highly complex that you hold in your head everyday with ease. An image where you understand that humans – by their very nature – are complicated and contradictory.  An image where no human is reduced to being only magical and pure and no human is completely violent and backward.  It’s the image you hold of your own country and your own friends. 
And here’s the controversial bit.  Maybe, just maybe, – once in a while – we’d be better off when we think of Africa and Africans, starting off by thinking of our own country and our own friends.  And then making the dangerous step of assuming that people in Africa aren’t actually that different.  
At least that way – whilst we may lose critical cultural, historical and religious differences – at least we don’t remove from the African the most human attribute of all – complexity.

A tale of three countries

January 4, 2008

I want to tell you a story. There once was a small peaceful country on the coast of a large continent. A country where people voted on tribal lines and lived in tribal enclaves speaking tribal languages. A country where violent invasion and occupation defined recent history, where the older generation could remember the fight for liberation. One day recently this country held an election and no-one was sure who had won. In fact no-one was clear for half of a year. And so there was no government in that country. And yet there was no violence here. No fighting. No murders. This country is Belgium.

I want to tell you another story. There once was another country. A vibrant diverse country – full of different tribes and voices. It was a young country still feeling its feet in the world. A country noticeable for its inequality – where wealth and poverty sat side by side. One day recently this country also held an election and no-one was sure who had won. Although, in fact, half the country was sure – they were sure their man had won and the other half were sure that he hadn’t. And for five weeks no-one knew who would rule – and rumours spread of fraud and election rigging. And yet there were no riots, no looting and no violence of any kind. This country is the United States of America.

I want to tell you a final story. There once was a third country, that was much like the other two. It too was a small peaceful country on the coast of a large continent. It too was a diverse country where people voted on tribal lines and spoke tribal languages. Its older generation could also remember liberation day. And it too was noticeable for its inequality – wealth and poverty sat here side by side. Just like the others, one day recently this country held an election and no-one was sure who had won. But this time as the rumours of fraud and election rigging spread, there was violence, there was looting and there were murders. Kenya has now gone 7 days without a fully legitimate government and 300 people are dead.

So what is the difference between these three stories? Why are 300 people dead in Kenya, but none in Belgium. What have 70, 000 Kenyans had to flee their homes, while not a single Gore-supporter felt the need to even move down the road?

The thing is Belgium and America have something that Kenya doesn’t. And – to make matters more complex – it’s not something you can see. It’s not pothole-free roads, schools with textbooks or affordable hospitals (although those sure help!). But it is something you’ve experienced every day of your life. It’s the thing that’s made every group you’ve ever been part of work or not work – whether it’s a marriage, a church or a business. What is it? It’s trust. Why didn’t Belgium become a government-less anarchy? Because the Belgiums trusted each other to get on with their lives in the interim. Why didn’t America fall into a second revolutionary war? Because the Americans trusted the courts to make a decision and everyone else to respect it. The trouble is that trust isn’t built in a day, but it can be destroyed in a moment. And at the moment, Kenya seems to be doing more destroying than building.

News from Nairobi

January 3, 2008
First up, we’re safe. I’m sitting in our flat in Nairobi looking out of the window at a very calm and serene day. Traffic is flowing and people are walking past the window, nearby shops are open and the sun is shining. The only signs that anything unusual is afoot is the fact that there is far less traffic than normal – many Nairobians are staying at home – and that the shops have less food than normal – food supply lines are somewhat disrupted by the troubles.

Troubles feels like the right word – this is not a civil war, nor is it ‘ethnic cleansing’ as I read on the BBC website. At present, what we are seeing is very localized violence in certain areas of Kenya (mostly the cities) and Nairobi (mostly the slums).

The violence is also relatively targeted (well, as targeted as an angry mob of young men can be). It is aimed pretty squarely at members of the Kikuyu tribe, who provided the majority of the support for the ‘winner’ of the election – Mwai Kibaki.

A little history may help to explain what you are seeing on your TV screens. The Kikuyu are the largest tribe in Kenya. As a result, they have held many of the key positions of power since independence. Unsurprisingly, many non-Kikuyu resent this and saw this election – the first for ten years with a non-Kikuyu candidate – as a chance to redress the balance. Predictably, they rallied behind the opposition leader – Raila Odinga (while most Kikuyu rallied behind Kibaki). In the run-up to the election, despite polls to the contrary, many non-Kikuyu became convinced that Raila was miles ahead and that the only way he would lose would be through fraud. In this historical backdrop, the election needed to be cleaner than clean. Unfortunately the government seem to have been reading ‘How not to run an election’. (

The violence that has followed is a mixture of the immediate outpouring of frustration and anger, an attempt at violent revenge against Kikuyu, an attempt by non-Kikuyu to force a recount and opportunistic looting. In many ways the puzzle the media back in the UK should be trying to explain is not ‘why so much violence’ but ‘why so little’ (

Local people dancing local dances

December 23, 2007

Acumen talks a lot about the importance of listening to the poor. One of the reasons they believe in a markets-based approach to development is that the fear of going bankrupt is a pretty good incentive to listen to your customers! But what if a market-based approach can’t work everywhere? At dinner the other night a new Kenyan friend who works for a local NGO said something that brought to life how difficult ensuring the poor are listened to can be:

“Donors preach to us a lot about involving local people. But they make our deadlines so tight that all we end up with is a spot at the opening ceremony where local people dance local dances in local dress. What worries me most is that I’m not sure that anyone really minds.”

Show me the goat

December 18, 2007

Here are some things that make my blood boil. (1) Genocide. (2) Corruption. (3) People who say ‘bartering’ when they mean ‘haggling’. Seriously how hard is it? Just follow this simple test: Ask yourself, “Have I brought a live goat with me?” Not so much? Then you’re probably not bartering!!

While we’re on haggling though, I have a question:

In Nairobi I haggle for food. All food. Religiously. “10 pence for a mango. How about 3 for 20?” [Obviously I need neither the extra mangoes, nor the 10 pence saving!]

Back in the UK, I buy fair trade food. “Guaranteeing the grower a fair price”

Am I being massively inconsistent?

Vote for me!

November 30, 2007

It’s election time in Kenya. Through the smog of the city on my long commute home I can make out smiling faces of politicians on large bilboards. “Raila – One Determined Man” reads one. The newspapers are full of opinion polls and political intrigue (the latest story is about a supposed secret deal between the main opposition candidate and the Muslim community).

And on December 27th, the country will vote. They will decide whether the President who has overseen the recent upturn in economic growth has done enough to rule for 5 years more. One thing is clear, it is going to be close. And everyone’s votes suddenly matter, including the million or more living in slums in Nairobi.

mathare-visit-022-1.jpgOn Wednesday last week I went to visit a slum in Mathare, on the East of Nairobi. On the side of the road I saw women queuing up to collect water from a standpipe. “It won’t be here in two months time”, one of the locals announced. “I beg your pardon.” “It won’t be here in two months time. The government put it in place a month ago. Once the people have voted them back into office, they’ll just take it away again.”

By all accounts, corruption in Kenya is much less than ever before. And this tale is in fact very Western – the only difference is that in the West, the government buy votes with tax cuts, rather than running water.

I intend to return to Mathare in two months time and see if the water is still running. I hope I have to write the government an apology.

What not to read on a Kenyan matatu

November 22, 2007

Can I recommend that if you decide to read a book called ‘The White Man’s Burden’ you don’t sit on a Kenyan matatu (another name for minibus) with it on your lap face-up. “White Man’s Burden. What’s that about?” “Well – um,” said I, trying to hide the cover which includes the title in bold and then a picture of Africans queuing for free healthcare. “It’s about development. It’s written by this guy who was at the World Bank for years and became convinced that giving poor countries lots of development aid to implement grand ‘save the world’ plans didn’t actually make them any richer. In fact it just helped bad government stay in power while making rich donors look generous.” My smartly suited questioner is beginning to think I might not be a closet racist after all – just a big geek. “Yeah,” I blunder on, “he thinks it would be better if the money went to support lots of bottom-up less-glamorous things.” “What sort of stuff?” “I don’t know really. I guess stuff a bit like the organisation I am working for does. Like lending people in slums money so that they can earn a living selling fruit. It might not make the front-page of the newspaper, but over time it might actually change some lives.”

The one-legged cyclist

November 20, 2007


Jamii Bora provides loans to some of the poorest people in Kenya.  Often – over time – these microloans help them to transform their lives . Below is a recent email from JamiiBora’s founder, Ingrid Munro, with one particularly inspiring story:

Dedan was a street beggar as a child and teenager. But a car ran him over when he was still a young child begging in the streets and his right leg had to be amputated. Dedan then had to learn to survive in the streets with only one leg. I first met him in 1994 when he was 14 years old. I talked with Dedan and his friends every time I passed them at the Kenyatta Avenue roundabout downtown where they used to beg from motorists. Dedan finally agreed to go to an informal school to learn how to read and write. However, Dedan was a difficult student and often ran back to the streets. It took a lot of convincing and counseling to keep him in school even for a few weeks at a time.
When Jamii Bora started as a Micro Finance institution in 1999, Dedan and his friends formed a small credit group called the Uhuru Highway Self-Help Group. They were all young beggars in the streets of Nairobi and, like Dedan, many had severe physical handicaps. Dedan tried to start several small businesses with loans of Ksh 1,000, Ksh 1,500 and then Ksh 2,000 (about US$12-25). Sadly, all his business attempts failed and Dedan kept slipping back to begging.
But the Jamii Bora staff never gave up on Dedan and kept encouraging him to try again. They feared he would be one of the few Jamii Bora members who never worked themselves out of poverty. Then one day Dedan came to the Jamii Bora office on a bike! He wanted to see me and show me a prize he won in a recent small bicycle competition. We were all stunned but happy to see him so proud and even organized a little ceremony to celebrate his success. After that day Dedan came often to get help to buy bicycle spares or just to talk about his new dreams.
Then a few weeks later Dedan returned with his bicycle and proposed that Jamii Bora employ him as a messenger. That would help us in Jamii Bora, he would have some income and at the same time he would spend his days biking and developing his strength and skills as a cyclist. As Dedan was already so well known and so well liked in Jamii Bora, we agreed to his surprising and innovative proposal. So Dedan became what is likely the only one-legged bicycle messenger in Nairobi and possibly worldwide. Dedan is now a skilled, reliable and fast messenger as well as a proud and charming member of the Jamii Bora staff.
Today is another big day for Dedan and Jamii Bora. This evening Dedan is leaving Kenya to fly to Colombia to qualify for the Paralympics in China next year. Dedan and his friend Ibrahim Wafula aim to represent Kenya in this prestigious global competition. So yet another Jamii Bora member has proven that not even the sky – or having only one leg – is the limit for what our members can achieve.
                                                                                    Ingrid Munro

Housing a Fellow

November 19, 2007

So with the investor gathering behind us I find myself in Nairobi where we need to find a place to live! Thanks to the immense generosity of a friend of Catherine’s (a fellow fellow), Lisa (my wife) and I are all staying for the first two weeks in an apartment near the centre of Nairobi. But come December we need to find a place of our own.

Catherine, Lisa and I went house-hunting today. It’s proving surprisingly complex. We’re trying to find a place which is safe, with internet access, within our relatively limited budget and with reasonable public transport links to the places we work. The most complex bit however seems to be working out how comfortable is ‘too comfortable’. We don’t want to be in a place that feels too grandiose – some of the early apartments we were shown felt a bit like four-bed mansions! At the same time, there is clearly something a bit rediculous about these consideration. There is a slight danger of us becoming like ‘Gap’ year students who take delight in living in the most-run-down place we can find so that we can say that we ‘lived with the poor’. It is also clearly rediculous for us to pretend that by living in a two-bedroom flat in a walled compound rather a four-bedroom one we are just like the people we are here to serve.

On another note, I have noticed again (sorry Lisa) how clumsy my wife is. The score for today: one bashed head and three minor trips. She swears that she wasn’t like this until she met me! Having almost wet myself last week watching Catherine bend down to pick up a piece of paper and almost knocking herself unconscious on the table she was sitting at, I feel a competition between the two of them may be in order.