On a recent visit to Washington DC, I was thrown into situations where I asked myself why the West acts like Africa is the land of darkness and yet some of the things which happen in Africa happen right in the heart of the capital of the United States. Case in point…
One evening on my way from a pleasant evening meal I returned to the house where I was staying in North East Washington DC and started walking up the stairs leading to the gate. It was dusk and I could not see clearly but there was a trail of some suspicious looking fluid snaking down the stairs. As I stepped carefully sideways on the last stair to open the gate I noticed that someone had not only peed on the steps but also released the contents of their bowels right there. Now, our front gate steps are right next to the pavement of a busy street and 5 paces away from a bus-stop. The fact that the person accomplished this act is almost a miracle. Disgusted, I covered my mouth to prevent myself from retching and ran into the house. I thanked God that it was not my lot to clean up the mess but sadly this was not the first time this has happened. For years now, my hosts have had to clean up their back gate steps of human feces and the front gate of all manner of trash including used condoms and liquor bottles.
While still trying to process this incident, I was on my way to the World Bank offices in downtown DC. While waiting for the pedestrian light so I could cross the street, a man on the opposite side of the street whipped out his member and proceeded to pee on the street right in front of everybody. His appearance alluded to the probability that he was a homeless wanderer and mentally unstable. However, I have come to learn that for some homeless people in Washington DC, the easiest way to get back at a government that has apparently failed them is to litter the city and do foul acts in public.
That evening I paused and thought of all the places in Kenya where I have had to walk carefully for the fear of stepping on God-knows what manner of waste especially in slum areas and some alleys around town. I wondered how that was so different from the incidents in Washington DC. Why is it then that we look in awe at the accomplishments of the West and hardly think critically about what is still unsolved in their societies? What kind of development is Africa striving for? Are the development indicators set up for Africa realistic or more of an ideology? Does Africa really have to have super-highways and tall high-rise buildings and flats in order for it to come of age? As I look at the exceptions in the American society I am beginning to think that as Africans we should re-define development and in our own terms. To be fair, this is already happening slowly through support of community-owned projects. I strongly believe that just as Africa skipped to mobile phone banking and investment (MPesa and MShwari) we can find solutions to other issues which do not necessarily fit the mould set up by development goals.
As Kenya gears for the elections in March, I lose hope of getting good leaders in place for the next government, however, just like in the West, the good comes with the bad. The story of Marion Barry, first mayor of New York has an uncanny resemblance to the stories surrounding some politicians seeking elections in Kenya today. Rev. Margaret Wanjiru, after lying about her academic qualifications, still commands a followership and also still runs a church which is always crowded on Sunday. Ferdinand Waititu and Gideon Mbuvi have near-hysterical followership despite their more than embellished track records with the law. All this is to say that as Africa we are not perfect but given that the West has not reached perfection either, we can stop beating ourselves for the wrongs in society. We are on the right track. We will make mistakes and we may or may not learn from them. The key is that we have to chart our own development ideals to live up to or else we will get to the pinnacle of our empire state building and realize it was all for nothing. There is, after all, something to be said for the fact that even though in Kenya we have Biometric Voter Registration, it looks like we still cast our votes in plastic water buckets made in China. It’s our own way of getting things done.