Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Disaster and Vulnerability

Tomorrow evening, if all goes well, I'll get a bus from Nairobi to Mwanza, arriving there some time the next morning. I'm very sad to leave Kenya and even Nairobi, although the city can be trying at times. The last three months have flown by but I have heard and seen many things, good and bad.

On the positive side, there are the people working to improve the lives of those around them, people working in organisations, often small and under funded organisations, also some people working on their own. There are so many ideas and initiatives and some people have the motivation to put them into effect and the determination to keep at it. And this despite the fact that much needed support can be a long time coming.

On the negative side, I have heard of politicians, police and others in positions of power abusing their positions. The results are all around us, millions starving, millions with curable diseases, millions more facing starvation and disease; and a handful of very rich people in big cars who appear on TV every evening to promise to make everything better and to blame something or someone else, lest anyone think they may have been responsible.

A recent haunting image on TV was that of a child scraping the remains of ugali off a big pot and eating it. There is a shortage of food in some areas, partly blamed on the post election violence, climate irregularities and various other things. But it has been known for a long time that famine is not just due to a shortage of food. Some of the food imported to alleviate the shortage just disappeared; some farmers are holding on to their stocks because the shortage of food may well continue, etc. This has all been building up and, like all disasters, it has multiple causes.

But one of the most awful things I have seen, perhaps in my whole life, is the film of the Molo fire, taken by someone on their mobile phone. In fact, it was less a matter of what you could see in the film and more a matter of what you could hear: people screaming and shouting, close by and far away. There were harrowing accounts in newspapers of the things people did to alleviate their suffering. I was so moved by them that the sight of a dead body (killed in a road traffic accident, yesterday) lying on the side of the road had little impact. It only made me think of the blackened bundles that marked the place where some people burned beyond recognition near Molo.

Incidentally, Molo is one of the places that suffered very badly during the post election violence of last year. If you drive through Molo Junction, you will see many charred remains of houses and premises and blackened squares and rectangles that were once buildings. There are still rows of tents nearby to house some of the many people displaced in the violence. But areas scarred by multiple problems are not rare, they are the norm. They are the areas where the most vulnerable people live.

One politician, George Saitoti, Minister for Internal Security, said publicly that the people who got burned had learned a lesson. Lucy Kibaki, the wife of the president, asked how people could have learned a lesson if they are dead. But another question is, who most needed to learn a lesson? The government is aware of the problems with the country's roads and emergency services, in particular. This is not the first disaster caused by such neglect, nor is it the first time that the ability to react to disaster was hampered for the same reasons.

The remark reminds me of a woman interviewed a few months ago because she had written a book about HIV with a provocative title, The Wisdom of Whores. She concluded that there are serious HIV epidemics in some countries because some people do stupid things. But she's wrong; people in all countries do inadvisable and risky things.

It's risky to have unprotected sex with someone you don't know, even with someone you do know. And it's risky to siphon petrol from a crashed tanker. But many people know they are taking risks, so it's pointless to tell them, especially if you don't offer them an alternative. If you need money, you will consider even the riskiest ways of getting it and the same may go for any other opportunity that arises.

In Kenya there currently crises (and scandals) relating to food, water, fuel, energy, health and many other things. But none of them are new. There have been warnings about all these issues for decades. Fires like the ones in Nakumatt and Molo and the lack of resilience that followed them can be traced to cutbacks at least as long ago as the 1980s, before many of the people who died were even born. The country’s health problems relate to similar cutbacks.

In contrast, all the politicians and many other powerful people around today were also around in the 1980s. It is they who should have learned lessons. Perhaps they, including George Saitoti, didn't learn lessons because they are not the ones who have suffered any of the painful consequences?

Saitoti shouldn’t be sacked because he could have prevented those two terrible incidents of last week but because he and his colleagues have spent several decades refusing to put in place the conditions under which accidents like that do not happen. He and his colleagues have failed to improve access to health, education, infrastructure and other social benefits and thus created a population of highly vulnerable people.



HNG said...

Your post clearly is NOT about HIV, hence my comment... Watching Kenyan politics is like watching kids at play--they argue and argue and in the end resolve nothing. You have a bunch of "corruptocrats"--as they've been tagged by an American right-wing columnist--ruining a once-promising nation, and yet those of us outside government who have ideas about how to do things better are unable to do anything about it. "Vote out the scoundrels," someone might shout, but as we saw last year, elections don't work either.

Simon said...

You're right, it's not about HIV. But HIV is importantly related to other surrounding circumstances, such as gender relations, economics, politics, education, health, infrastructure and many other things. You could say that HIV is not just about HIV, really.

As for ruining a once promising nation, US policy towards Kenya is based on Kenya's long time support of the US during the cold war and the present 'war on terror'. Sadly, Kenyan politicians are very well connected.