Tag Archives: Africa

FOUR LIES PEDDLED BY THE OFF-AIR TV STATIONS AND THE FACTS BEHIND KENYA’S DIGITAL MIGRATION

Kenya’s three leading media houses, (Nation Media Group, Royal Media Services and The Standard Group) have recently voluntarily pulled their TV broadcasts off air after failing to prepare for the digital TV broadcast migration. While independent media is historically vested with the noble duty of impartiality, accuracy and honesty in their broadcasts, the events leading to the said TV stations going off air have exposed how the three media houses can sacrifice facts and objectivity for self-interest and preservation.

According to the three, they are off air because of two reasons: one, the high court ruling in favor of digital migration did not give them time to import new equipment and two, Communications Authority forcefully raided their transmission site in Limuru and carted away their analogue transmission equipment. As a result, they say, ‘over 90% of Kenyans‘ have been thrown into an information-entertainment-education black hole. This, they add, is a constitutional affront on Kenyans’ right to information, Kenyans who are now ‘angry and frustrated’ at the lack of NTV, QTV, Citizen and KTN in their living rooms.

How much time?

To be fair, both reasons for their being off air are true and valid to an extent. However, both are dishonest and  twisted; this is why. The discourse on digital TV broadcast happened in the US in from the early 1980’s culminating into their adoption of digital TV (DTV) as a national standard in 1997. Other developed nations like Western Europe and Japan saw the economic sense of DTV and adopted it about then. For the rest of the world, the International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) Regional Radio Conference (RRC) adopted a resolution in 2006 committing all member countries to the adoption of Digital Video Broadcasting (DVBT) as national standard by July 2015. Kenya is a signatory and therefore adopted the resolution in 2006. Kenya’s enthusiasm with DVBT saw her set her own migration date as July 2012, three whole years ahead of schedule! Kenyan media players therefore had six years to meet the internal migration deadline and a further 3 years to fine-tune any teething problems before the global deadline. Our neighbors Tanzania migrated in 2013.

The 2012 deadline was in fact beaten when Signet, a subsidiary of KBC, went live with Kenya’s first DVBT transmission in December 2009 in Nairobi. The following year Kenya adopted an even better digital platform, DVBT2, to save us the cost of a future migration. The dates remained the same. Again, Signet went live with DVBT2 in February 2012 in Nairobi.  A new company, Pan-African Network Group was live on the same platform in Nairobi in June of the same year. It is instructive to note that all these developments happened in the public space. Tenders were floated and won openly. Standards were set and deadlines announced.

In the meantime, KTN, Citizen TV and NTV kept themselves busy with the 2007 general election and the subsequent violence. They had live events, debates, analyses and all. Kofi Annan’s peace accord was actually signed live on TV. 2012 seemed millennial. These broadcasters either thought the migration was not happening or as happens in Kenya, felt insulated by the right people in they knew in the right places. Either way, they simply had no recourse plans. Having lost a bid for signal distribution following a half-hearted participation in the international tender in 2011, they successfully moved to court in 2013 to compel the then CCK to award them frequencies.The local migration date was then moved to December 2014, more time for them. Meanwhile, DSTV launched GoTV, a new service that would tap into the DVBT2 platform but NMG launched QTV, another channel on the analogue platform!

Another election happened complete with all the media frenzy. Come November 2014, the three moved to court in a grossly belated move to stop the digital migration. They wanted more time! Yes, more time to import decoders and transmitters! Eight years later!

The Law

As a matter of fact, all willing media houses have had more than enough time since 2006 to not only comply, but also chart the path of the digital migration. What is happening at the three media houses is a classic case of economist Joseph Schumpeter’s ‘creative destruction’ theory: new technologies disrupting interests and comforts of entrenched players in an industry while destroying entry barriers to new players. The only difference in this case is that the change has been brought about by legislation rather than innovation and the resistors have failed to garner the political muscle to thwart the change.

History is replete with grand examples of the cost of resisting technological change. Kodak, the inventor of the digital camera, was killed by the same digital camera because they failed to manage changes in the industry occasioned by their new technology. Nokia gave us mobile phones but died after failing to manage changing consumer tastes and trends. Same fate befell the pioneer smartphone maker, Blackberry. Here in Kenya, the then Kencell was a market leader in voice, data, geographical coverage and number of active mobile connections. As the market evolved to low income consumers and gadgets, our mighty Kencell stayed put. Several name changes later, they cannot provide a worthy alternative to the mighty Safaricom.

By law, the three media houses have until March 30th to broadcast in the rest of the country on the analogue format. Their joint decision to go off air in protest and blame it on the Supreme Court and CA is at best a fatuous teenage tantrum. While at it, they surely know a clause exists for the repossession of unused frequencies. CA’s action after the court ruling is not only legal but fair for those who have abided by the migration timelines.

Information Black hole

It is simply not true that 90% of Kenyans are now groping in the dark following this voluntary shutdown. TV ownership in Kenya stands at 30% of the households. That aside, we are in 2015. It means there are new media for accessing information, entertainment and education. The proposition that these three media houses provide material that would be deemed educative is one that is best not interrogated so as not to give it undeserved currency and in the interest of our comely friends in Nigeria and Latin America. For the 50% of Kenyans with internet access, this forms the main source of information and entertainment. The simple reason is that internet is mobile and individualized. You have it in the bus, in the club, at home, in the office, at school and everywhere else.

This lie is even made more interesting by the fact that the broadcasters went off air but continue to upload their programmes on YouTube. Obviously, they understand that we have alternative media. It is really their loss. No one pays viewers to watch advertisements on TV but free-to-air (FTA) TV runs on advertisers’ money. The intelligent thing would be to quickly comply, even compromise today’s profit, but maintain their respective viewership. The law requires that all FTA’s must be carried by all content providers free, subscription or otherwise. Therefore, GoTV, Startimes, Bamba TV, Zuku and the rest simply comply with the law by carrying the local FTA channels. Going off air does not punish them or the viewers; neither does it save or earn NTV/Citizen TV/QTV/KTN any money. In fact, less than 0.5m Kenyans have internet good enough to view a newscast.

Angry and Frustrated

We are supposed to be angry and frustrated that we can’t watch NTV/Citizen/QTV/KTN! Patriotism means I will not make an honest description of what I really think of the quality of content of these TV stations. Granted, they are the most popular in Kenya. Advertisers want numbers; the quality of those numbers may not matter. Two thirds of Kenyan households do not own TV’s for various reasons. Why would they be angry and frustrated? For their neighbors!

In summary, these TV stations have had over eight years to prepare for the migration. They still have a month to broadcast in analogue in the rest of the country and can reach viewers with compliant devices through digital frequencies they currently own. They must be included on all decoders free by the law. Kenyans have multiple other sources of information, entertainment and education and are therefore neither ‘angry and frustrated’ nor in ‘darkness’ at the absence of these stations on their TV screens. The law must be obeyed by all without undue exceptions and on this, the three have shown an inflated feeling of entitlement to special treatment and dishonestly tried to shape the facts in their favor. It’s little wonder when else these broadcasters willfully ignore facts and objectivity in pursuit of vested partisan interests.

In a country where top businesses thrive on political patronage rather than competitive and technological innovation, NMG, RMS and SG obviously feel lost in the absence of a political compass. They have been forced to play by the rules for once and are clearly unprepared. This may not be the cleanest of all government processes neither is digital TV Kenya’s pressing priority, but there were time and avenues for that discourse. It is my wish other government bodies emulated CA and that the politicians let these bodies work. Most importantly, Kenyans need to see our leading media houses for what they really are; brokers.

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Failure in Governance Fails Women, Not Lack of ‘Morals’.

For the eleven years I have known mukimo, I have never been able to gather enough interest to want to taste it. The sight, colour and presentation of all mukimo I have encountered have been such that none of my physical senses was appropriately excited into an inquisition. Pale green, mushy, steam-like aroma and served as an idle mound on a plate. My prejudiced contempt for mukimo has reinforced over the years so much that when I later saw its Mexican look-alike, guacamole, I was instantly repulsed. I would be reluctant to even try an improved edition of the meal. Nevertheless, I have numerous friends who get visibly excited at the mere mention of mukimo and relish the dish with admirable delight. It would be uncouth and uncivilized of me to revolt at their love for mukimo merely because I do not share in their choice. Similarly, they would be mistaken to show angst at my distaste for their choice meal.

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A version of mukimo decorated with three gains of maize to resemble the Mercedes-Benz star.

When we were hunters and gatherers, conformity was a matter of survival. A tribe member who could not eat gazelle meat brought in after an arduous group hunt had two options; hunt his own choice animal or starve! There was little choice: all men were destined to be hunters, eat what everyone else ate, walk like them, and use the same paths, same survival techniques and so on. Dissenters from tribal norms were summarily dealt with by a mob as they endangered the security and survival of the entire tribe. These norms were unwritten and learnt by induction or coercion.

Diorama of Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherers
Early man going through the paces of life oblivious of clothing and the men quite in control of themselves.

The advent of civilization saw the emergence of among other features: governance, specialization, social stratification and the written language. The greatest of these is writing; it enables the accurate conveyance of ideas between individuals and across oceans and generations. With greater development, societies realized that not all men were destined to be great hunters. Some were better trackers, others butchers, roasters, farmers and so on. Specialization diversified labour and defined roles for everyone in the society. Obviously, some roles were perceived more important than others were thus the emergence of social classes. Cobblers and masons were not in the same social league as healers or priests. Neither were men and women. To cap it, an elite class of governors emerged. These were the leaders upon whom tribes vested authority to maintain social order. In the cave days if one stole your hunt, it was your sole responsibility to go after them, recover your hunt and mete out severe deterrent punishment. If a tribal member went against the norms, anybody sufficiently irked would mete out punishment. Society was not organised and life was a narrow shallow rut.

“Lax, ad hoc and ineffective governance tends to drive citizens back to cave tendencies.”

Civilization reversed this with written rules known to everyone, defined roles for police, leaders, citizens, judges and acceptable dispute resolutions mechanisms. Citizens had to give up their selfish primal instincts to government appointed law enforcers and judges. Needles to add, governments are only as effective as their citizens are willing to give up these base cave-survival instincts for common good. However, governments must in turn always act by the letter of the law and consistently punish defaulters to the written pact. Lax, ad hoc and ineffective governance tends to drive citizens back to cave tendencies while strong predictable and fair governance establishes a virtuous cycle of increasingly civil citizens. Compare the citizens of Switzerland and those of Somali vis-a-vis their governments.

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Women dressed as best for them.

Ripping a woman’s clothes in public by self-appointed non-existent-law enforcers shortly-turned jury and executioners is not a debate of morals or anything else but a crime due to a failure/weakening of governance. There was no written law against the woman’s dress at that place or time. Even if there were, the men who enforced this law clearly trespassed her personal space, illegally arrested her, tried her in an unfair hearing and meted out a punishment outside our penal code. This is simply criminal! It did not happen because she was a woman nor because they did not like her dress. It happened because those men’s civilization is still in the mail. They do not subscribe to a governance system in which the rest of us recognize a written constitution/penal code for rules, police for enforcement, and judges for arbitration. The irony of it all is that these cave-men are incensed by style of clothing yet in their era, clothing had not been invented and their fellows had much more self control as regards nude females. It is a failure of governance because in all likelihood, at least most of them will get away with their barbaric attack.

This failure in governance manifests daily. We have lost over 100 state appointed law enforcement officers at the hands of civilian bandits this year alone. Not a single arrest made! Ordinary citizens are robbed, raped and maimed daily by fellows who have confidence the state structure for law and order will remain off their backs. Grand corruption tales have numbed us into silence for the ease with which perpetrators walk off. These daily infractions on citizens’ lives embolden even lowly touts to take a bite at the sordid cake of impunity in disregard of due process. The losers are the civilized lot who have chosen to turn their backs on cave-survival modes in the increasingly false hope that government will bear upon the rest to uphold the respect for law and order.

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A woman in a miniskirt minding her business.

I will probably not eat mukimo soon but I recognize my taste as unique to myself. Many other citizens enjoy their real and figurative mukimos: miniskirts, tank tops, leggings, homosexuality, cigarettes, churches and mosques, and that must never offend, arouse, provoke or whatever me. As long as no written law bans mukimo, it not up to anyone to determine the ‘whats’ and’ hows’ of another’s mukimo. Your ill-defined taste (or lack of it) cannot be the gold standard for people who do not even want to know you! And if it hurts you so much, be civil, come with us into the 21st century and follow due process. That said, state organs for governance must reaffirm their monopoly on violence. State power to arrest offenders is a sum of our individual capacity for violence given up on the understanding that the state would exercise it in our defence at our time of need. Consistent failure to offer this protection only erodes our civilization as each seeks to protect themselves. No one should commit a crime and walk scot-free.

Globalist or Statist, Ebola is a Health Systems Issue

As the world holds its breath on how the latest Ebola outbreak in West Africa might evolve, a clash of statist and globalist approaches has been evident all through; from media analysts, to International NGO’s to governments. Statist approaches have their reference point as the state/country and tend to view health risks as security concerns while globalist approaches have the individual as the reference point and tend to consider health risks as human rights issues that know no borders.

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A map of West Africa detailing the most affected areas by the EVD.

In classical statist responses, the government of Zambia has banned entry from or travel to any of the four most affected countries; Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Neighboring Ghana and Ivory Coast have suspended flights within the region while Guinea, itself the epicenter of the outbreak, has closed borders with her neighbors Sierra Leone and Liberia and even declared a state of emergency! The latter three countries have deployed troops at their borders to help enforce movement restrictions. Similarly, many Americans, in the wake of Dr Kent Brantly’s airlifting, voiced reservations at their government’s decision to import the virus onto US soil. In fact, retired famous Neurosurgeon Dr Ben Carson is on record recommending that the two infected Americans should have been at best treated abroad. Back home, many Kenyans are apprehensive and concerned that the virus might make its way into the country aboard the national carrier Kenya Airways, a major carrier connecting West African countries to Kenya. A suspected case late last week (Aug 9th) threw panic across the city. Thankfully, he tested negative. These measures are reminiscent of the early days of HIV/AIDS when fear and panic rather than sound medical principles informed most reactions.

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An electron micrograph of the Ebola virus

The common theme through statist approaches is the definition of disease as a security threat to the nation akin to an invasion. As a result, nations tend to go onto the defense and shut borders, ban flights, expel victims, declare states of emergency and at the bottom of the list, even deploy propaganda. Granted, the socio-economic disruption across West Africa as a result of this outbreak is indeed a threat to the stability of the most affected nations. While in certain instances some or all of these interventions might be helpful, they are seldom successful of their own. Purely statist approaches, beyond securitizing the health threat and evoking a pervasive sense of fear, often overlook the actual necessary interventions.

“The bottom line with Ebola is we know how to stop it: traditional public health,” US CDC Director, Dr Tom Frieden.

In the case of Ebola, a viral infectious hemorrhagic fever of which there is fair medical knowledge, proper hygiene and isolation of symptomatic victims seem to help forestall further spread even as a cure remains elusive. At best, only about a third of infected patients may be nursed back to health. That said, Ebola outbreaks remain either an indictment or appraisal of a health system’s infection prevention and control mechanisms, sensu lato.  This outbreak has therefore merely put to the fore an underlying and long prevalent rot: health systems that are weak from the foundation up.

In as many Sub-Saharan hospitals as homes, clean running water remains a luxury rather than the basic commodity it ought to be. Further, basic and cheap protective gear like gloves and facemasks are frequently out of supply. It is no guess whether these institutions would have enough of costly supplies like intravenous fluids and colloids for the medical support of potential Ebola survivors or management of other conditions. The last nail on the coffin that such a health system represents is surprisingly not the prevalent biting shortage of qualified personnel nor the mismanagement of the few available skilled hands, it’s the population!

“Ignorance and poverty, as well as entrenched religious and cultural practices, continue to exacerbate the spread of the disease,” President Ellen Sirleaf, Liberia.

Many Africans are yet to adopt the germ theory of infectious disease. Developed in the mid 1800’s, this theory remains the most plausible explanation for infections: that tiny living matter (bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc) must physically enter a susceptible host through a particular mode (air, food, blood, etc) in sufficient numbers to cause a disease. With this knowledge, people are forewarned and therefore forearmed on ways to avoid known infections. For Ebola, this means limiting if not avoiding all unprotected contact with infected individuals and bodies of victims and washing up adequately when such contact occurs. Sadly, many individuals still believe diseases like Ebola are curses that need exorcism or just prayers. The sick and bodies of the dead are handled casually every day; Ebola or other disease.

As more of Africa opens up to itself and the world, future outbreaks might be more complex and widespread in the absence of significant systemic changes on the public health platform. However, this threat also presents hope. The growth that is opening up and connecting Africa might come with more medical workers in the unreached areas, greater economic strength for adequate stocking of facilities with essential supplies and greater population knowledge and practise of basic hygiene and sanitation. Additionally, improved communication networks mean future outbreaks maybe detected earlier and aid to stricken populations availed sooner.

Globalist approaches to public health crises know no borders. They view health risks anywhere as a health risk everywhere in cognition of the inherent value of human life, right to a dignified pain-free existence and the interconnectedness of humans. These approaches therefore focus on open borders for collaborations, funds, skills and supplies to affected areas, advocacy for action and open reporting of events. An Africa seeking greater ties within itself and with the rest of the world will have to adopt more globalist approaches to our numerous public health perils.

“African states must do more to promote conditions for a dignified human existence within their borders.”

Finally, even though investment in proper health systems is one sure way to healthy populations, these efforts must not stop at the hospital level. The bulk of health dividends will be reaped from investment in other sectors. It is ignominious that 50 years post-independence, many African countries have yet to supply their people with adequate clean water, clean energy, safe public transport, adequate food and enough relevant knowledge. Globalists and other non-state actors will continue to play  a role in this respect but the long end of the buck lies in the hands of our respective states to do that they were set up to do: promote conditions for a dignified human existence within their borders.

Learn about Ebola

Life (online) After Death

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One of the fastest growing technology platforms today is the internet. Not only are more people getting connected through the now ubiquitous mobile device – cell phones, tablets and wearable gear – and innumerable social media outlets – Facebook, Twitter, Weibo, Instagram, etc -; devices themselves are connected more than ever. In Africa, internet access has grown nearly 500% in the last decade; largely driven by the mobile phone. This is twice the global average. Elsewhere, particularly in Western Europe and the US, the so-called ‘internet of everything’ is experiencing a near-similar growth. Fridges, TV’s, printers, cars, houses, streetlights, car parks and virtually anything we use in our daily lives are now online. With cloud computing taking root everywhere, the virtual world is getting only larger.

In this ever-complex web of connections are multiple media owned and shared between us human users. These digital assets range from bio data, photos, music and books to emails, blogs, posts, tweets, reminders, directories and addresses. Beyond the soft assets, our phones, tablets and laptops are now so personalized they are actual extensions of our living selves.

However, unlike our physical lives that certainly end at some point, our digital side presents a rather new and unusual phenomenon. A photo online, blog-post or tweet acquires a life of its own and could potentially outlive its owner. How then do we manage our online digital assets upon demise? What happens to a deceased’s Facebook profile, email account, phone or even laptop? Moreover, how should we handle digital connections and linkages like phone-book entries, Facebook friendships or emails from friends gone yonder? Is deleting these ‘dead entries’ more viable an option than letting them ‘lie in state’?

I recently lost a friend from my college days in a road accident. There had been no physical contact between us since college but we kept tabs on each other via Facebook. I, like many other friends of his, learnt of his sudden and tragic demise on Facebook. His wall froze in time; the only new postings being our messages of condolence. Days later, still shocked at his demise, I stumbled upon his contact details while scrolling through my phone’s contacts list. Suddenly, the loss was all fresh once again. Images of our college days flipped through my mind in that brief moment of trance. Then the big question popped: to delete or retain the contact?

Social-media

Many have been at this crossroads. I chose to keep my friend’s contact details on my phone for no good reason. And his joins many others whose owners I know are no more. Friends and relatives I once had close relationships with. Like mementos, these contacts act as – if fleeting – psychological links to people with whom a physical reach is no longer possible. A probably greater reason for keeping these contacts is the avoidance of the guilt-feeling of throwing away a once treasured contact.

Certainly, opinion is divided on this. Others feel a sure part of the healing process is cutting out unnecessary reminders like phone entries. Further, service providers will re-issue such numbers and the startling possibility of a shocking call from a long dead contact may be unwelcome. It may be easy to simply tap ‘delete’ and do away with the digital links with our departed fellows but the more complex part arises at our own demise. Our online footprints will linger indefinitely; on social media, game accounts, subscriptions and so on.

Just over half of today’s internet users are younger than 35, as such, death and its consequences on their online assets are the last thoughts in their minds. Our lives are increasingly moving online and the question of what happens to this digital other life continues to gain currency. Already multiple avenues are available just in case. Many are subscription services that offer to delete or memorialize one’s accounts and online resources upon demise.

Facebook, Twitter and Google offer free such services free upon request. Other third party providers (see a list at the digital beyond) have recently come in to fill the void. Even then, a different individual nominated by the subscriber must do the notification of one’s death to these providers. In other circumstances, an unreturned regular inquiry by the service provider is presumed for the subscriber’s death and initiates the after-life-management process. Legal challenges and gaps exist though as the transfer of login details or personal online digital assets to third party entities remains outside the scope of most End User Licence Agreements.

Whichever way these new services and the socio-legal environment evolve, it is worth giving a thought to our posthumous online footprint. For those grappling with digital memories of long gone friends and relatives, there’s really no right way of handling these. The common call is for each of us to only go online with what we would not mind losing or surviving us. What’s your take?

Home Abroad: Language

It has been one whole year since I left Kenya for my studies in Europe. A lot has happened in this period. Some occurrences had me think of myself as a Johnny-come-lately into this Western world (and I was) while others had me feel so sorry for my hosts.  The 10-country tour has been a most thought provoking period for me. In all, I have learnt a lot outside the lecture rooms than I anticipated but I also remain with several unanswered questions; some older than myself and others more recent.

To begin with, I suddenly was without a language on arrival in Amsterdam. My main language of communication, English, is only spoken spatteringly and unenthusiastically by the locals. All signs, products and general conversation are in Dutch. It felt awkward to me that these people did not need to learn a language to transact their lives. A number of my friends take pride in their mastery of what they call the ‘Queen’s Language’. Here I was in a land with her own Queen, her own language and whose citizens frowned upon having to speak in any other language. All the 16 million of them! My own native Luo instantly found a new relevance in my mind. Unfortunately, 9000 miles away, I could only converse in my Luo in my mind. It was a fleeting pride, all in the mind. With great difficulty, I learnt to do my shopping using the graphics on the products as my only language. Bees on a jar would mean honey and pastures on a tetra-pack would mean milk. On many occasions, this never worked right. In my quest to keep the relevance of Ugali in my life, I severally bought packets with maize graphics only to realize they were other maize products like cornstarch, which do not make Ugali. This language barrier followed me in every country I went and in every sphere of life; in public transport, at the airports, in restaurants and even once at church.

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As a true Kenyan believer, I quickly found my SDA church within the month. My first attendance was marked with the joy of being in familiar company for the first time in many days. Nearly 100% of the congregation was African. Ghanaians made about 80% of the nearly 100-person congregation. A significant portion of the rest were Nigerians. The remaining few were I and a few Dutch associated with the rest through marriage. The language thing reared its head in a strange way. All the children in the congregation only spoke Dutch. Nearly all the adults spoke Dutch too but in addition, the Africans also spoke Ibo and Twi. Twi is one of the main local languages in Ghana and was the official language of communication in this church. What I thought would be a normal church session turned into a mini UN Conference. The children had their service separately in Dutch since they did not speak any other language. The main service was in Twi since they were the majority. A translator was available to translate Twi to Dutch which nearly everyone at the congregation understood anyway. And as if it was not already too complex, there were booths with translators into English, French and Spanish! I have never been back for nothing else but the logistics of language.

At my apartment, my next-door neighbors are two African brothers. Immigrated to Holland from Angola at the height of the civil war as children, the two brothers have been in Holland for 12 years. Naturally, I was glad to have someone from ‘home’ close bye. In my elation, it missed me that Angolans speak Portuguese. So here I was with my wonderful neighbors who only spoke Dutch and Portuguese. Friendships know no languages, so they say, but conversations become rough and hard when half the time all you do is nod and hum at each other. It was not until much later that I met a Kenyan and a South Sudanese classmates who both spoke Kiswahili. My classes and faculty were all in English, for the avoidance of doubt.

I was however to be confronted with another novelty. The ‘personal space’ here is a hallowed possession not to be intruded, or so I think. Coming from a country where I would initiate and reply to tens of greetings a day, I was to rudely learn that things don’t always stay the same. I have met really cheerful people, black and white, who received and said greetings and other social pleasantries like any Kenyan does. However, many are the times I got the cold shoulder for my pleasantries. Grudgingly, I learnt to keep my distance and silence. It became a really cold world of my known friends and acquaintances only. I started wondering how it is that Kenyan strangers in a bus, on the street, in the shops or in a pub could strike a conversation and hold on so easily. I questioned my social skills and my general outlook. Was I repulsive or was it them? While my language handicap limited how interactive I could get, I realized this general coldness had little to do with me as an individual. In the buses, as everywhere else, it is standard fare that no one talks to the other. People almost fear each other. The silence is louder than the bus’ huge engines. The distance is vast and the coldness is biting. Everyone comes with their friends to all public places and leaves with them. A large number just come alone and leave alone.

In this silence, I always raised questions in my mind. How is for Africans who move over to settle in this environment? How do they manage the transition? I am lucky to have travelled back to Kenya thrice over the last year but I know of colleagues who never did. How forlorn did they get? On chit chat with my Angolan neighbors, I asked them how it had been to be away from their family in Africa for 12 years. It was obvious they were grateful to have escaped the war. They felt safe and had a chance at that tender age to attend school and grow like kids. However, I felt empathetic at the sadness in their tones when they recounted the difficulty of being torn away from loved ones all those years. It was most difficult knowing their parents and siblings were in certain danger while they were safely away.  Having no family or friends in a foreign country and culture was a tall hurdle they had jumped. 12 years later, they still do not feel part of the Dutch social fabric despite having mastered the language and many other aspects in between. The one thing they cannot change about themselves is their African appearance and that has put a distance between them and their hosts. When one brother visited Angola last year, the changes that have happened since were too much to handle. Starting life all over again in Angola is a task too herculean with their subsistence wages in Holland. The assumptions back home do not help matters either. They are therefore caught between two worlds. An Angola that accepts and loves them but which they do not understand and a Netherlands that they very well understand but in which they have hit a glass ceiling in all spheres. Their plight makes me cherish my Kenya. She does not match many European countries in many aspects of convenience but I have learnt that being in one’s country is in itself a reason for pride. There is an inexplicable feeling of home and contentment in one’s own country where you speak your first language and buy your food with certainty.

Celebrating Kenya @ 50: Who’s Hosting?

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In colonial Kenya, long before I was born, the government was a foreign entity only domiciled in Kenya. It came with its structures and practices from yonder and paid little courtesy to what the locals felt or thought of its ways. If anything, the government’s goal was to subdue locals so the protectorate could advance the Queen’s agenda. That is how the fertile highlands were settled by the rulers and not the locals. To ensure the locals remained on their knees, the government decided what activities anyone could do. For instance, locals could not grow coffee or tea; Kenya’s black gold back then. If a local got within the white man’s circle, it was for their role in keeping their fellow black man subdued. We therefore had chiefs and askaris who were meaner to African Kenyans than the supposed-oppressor White rulers were.

At independence, for some strange reason liberation carried with it the animosity that existed between the privileged few and the masses. The police continued to be agents of torture and repression. The average public servant was not accountable to the ordinary citizen but to the new black “white” man. Colors changed but the relationships did not. Citizens were liberated but were still supposed to remain in their pre-independence clothes. The rulers meanwhile conveniently grabbed the white man’s wardrobe and did not care to turn out in the white man’s best attire.

Today, 50 years later, your average public officer will easily lose their job if they went against the grain of the establishment. Even when their action was in public interest! We still cherish the GSU for their ability to reign terror on fellow citizens. We still clothe our tribal demigods in the colonialist’s garbs; irreproachable, benevolent and with a free will to tread over us as they may please. The ordinary citizen has remained at the same spot he was at independence; unwilling to upset the leadership with uncomfortable questions, unquestioning when called to vote and always sorry for his own sad plight.

In the last week, two events got me thinking of how stagnated our society has remained in leadership and accountability. On Wednesday 14th, former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr and his wife were both sentenced for what in Kenya would be called corruption. Jackson was sentenced to 30 months in jail for stealing Ksh 65M of public funds. While that may not be big news in Kenya, the news is that these public funds were donations by the public to Jackson’s election campaign kitty. Now that would get most Kenyan politicians and citizens in serious thought trying to contemplate what the offence was! And as if that were not strict enough, his wife got a sentence for falsifying tax returns to hide the theft. The Jacksons were condemned and chastised for what in Kenya would never be known in the first place. A man once touted as potential president climbed down the public moral altar in disgrace courtesy of greed and public accountability.  Jackson displayed a kind of greed we are not strange to in Kenya. He spent the money on a Rolex watch and few other little luxuries at a time when his family’s combined annual earning was over Ksh 26M. In essence, Jackson stole money he already had to spend on things he did not need. The Kenyan public sphere is replete with supposedly honorable men who steal money they have for things they do not need but get away with their impropriety. Sadly and oddly, the ordinary citizen is firmly stuck to his colonial mindset; not asking questions and worse, swearing support when tribe is appropriate.

The second event was in Germany. An 8-year old boy was bitten by a turtle while swimming in a small lake. The boy sustained an injury but nothing life threatening. However, what followed is unimaginable in Kenya. The entire lake was drained and residents and firemen searched for the single 40cm turtle in the mud all weekend.  Such is the value of human life. And such is the epitome of public accountability. It saddens that we lose thousands of innocent productive citizens in Kenya in such senseless ways as road accidents yet nothing is done about it by the responsible public officials. The idea of public officials serving the public is still a far cry. The colonial mentality of serving a boss has held our leaders from recognizing the dignity and potential of our own people. Instead, all decisions must conform to the interests of the establishment first before those of the citizenry.  This is why we will still cherish the GSU for their batons, fear the police for their handcuffs and hold leaders in awe for their positions. In the meantime, nobody will move to fix the carnage on the roads, the want in hospitals and the disarray in schools. All this while, the public remains firmly seated in their role as subjects rather than employers of the leaders. The few who try to make a difference are just that, few.  In Mandela’s words, it remains a long walk to freedom.

Is Universal Health a Public Burden in Africa?

The WHO has a long convoluted definition of health as is typical of most organizations of its stature and mandate. To the average person, African or not, health is subjectively defined in simpler terms; a state of wellness and ability to cope with the daily demands of life. The similarities end here. What counts for normalcy in Western Europe and North America is literally worlds apart from the same in Asia or Africa. While the per capita annual spend on health in the US is about $8000 and $3000 in Western Europe, every African individual spends only about $85 towards their health annually! This comparison, at face value, is damning. Indeed health care in the West is highly specialized and commensurately expensive; in great contrast to the African context where healthcare largely involves basic primary care. The expenditure gap is therefore a result of the size of the health ‘shopping cart’. This cart is significantly small for most of Africa with just a handful of goods while our American/European counterparts have a large cart bursting with goodies. Looked at differently, the African public sector is unable to push the ideal health cart and has chosen to keep only as few goods in it as it can push. This beggars the question; is health a public burden in Africa?

KIDCART

In his book ‘Why Africa Is Poor; And What Africans Can Do About It’, prolific author, researcher and international expert Dr Greg Mills goes at great lengths to demonstrate the central role the health of any nation has on its ability to grow from poverty to prosperity. Health is the very foundation of productivity and growth. A population afflicted by disease and illness spends less time in the production of the goods and services it needs. Complementary to good health is education; the skills to produce, and leadership; the organization of priorities. All developed economies have had to make deliberate provisions for the health and skills of their people to be where they are today. Other factors are subsets of these three pillars. Is it thus plausible to argue that leadership is wanting in Africa for it not to have prioritized the health of her people? The statistics all point to a sector in wanton neglect and crying for attention; life expectancy at birth of 56 years (against 80 in developed countries) and unacceptably high all-cause mortality and disease rates. Viewed against investment in health and other social services, these grim figures are proportionate to the dismal investments in these sectors. However, Africa is a vast territory of 54 nations; each unique in its own right and internally very diverse. A sweeping statement like this may not fly but remains valid for the most part. Analyzing individual countries paints a more accurate if grimmer picture than these continental averages.

Take Kenya for instance, a country with a per capita GDP (PPP) of  just under $ 2000 spending a meager 4% of her GDP on healthcare. Two thirds the citizens live on less than $ 2 a day and predominantly rely on the state-run health system for their health needs. The health system is mainly funded by central government taxes (direct and indirect) in addition to co-payment into a largely voluntary national insurance scheme that covers nearly two million of the 40 million citizens. Those not covered, an overwhelming majority, are expected to share costs with the state in the form of user fees at points of care. These direct fees amount to 60% of all the national health spend. There is no explicit provision for the care of the worst-off in the society; the elderly and the extreme poor. Where provisions exist, like for children under five, free treatment is often negated by a lack of an assortment of supplies including drugs which patients routinely have to buy out of pocket. In addition to the direct costs of healthcare, majority of the population bear disproportionately high indirect costs in accessing health. Transport costs are highest in the rural areas where physical access is lowest and poverty highest. The opportunity cost of time in seeking care also tends to be higher for the worst-off of the society; they make no income when sick and have to pay to get back on their feet. As though not already overburdened, the poor further face a silent hidden cost: counterfeits and illegal practitioners. Illegal practitioners take advantage of the unmet health needs of those disenfranchised by the formal system. It is here where counterfeits are passed off for genuine drugs and overall quality of care much lower than anywhere else but at a fraction of the direct monetary cost. This situation is not unique to Kenya: across Africa, millions of poor peasants have to make the choice between their health and food or work. While it is obvious that productivity is lost with every episode of illness, most African governments have failed to embrace this rather simple fact that a good health status is the basic unit of productivity; even ahead of education/vocation.

A sad irony is that while majority wallow in poor health, a small middle class in Kenya (like in other African countries) has access to fairly comprehensive employer-financed health covers tenable at some of the best health facilities around the country. These people do not lose much income (if at all) for their sick-time and do not have to pay for their health costs at the point of care. This sad state of affairs ensures that only a small subset of the nation enjoys good health and subsequent productivity and therefore carries the resultant burden of the sick and less productive. This further widens inequalities and keeps entire nations stuck in poverty, disease and underdevelopment; a reality so prevalent across Africa and within nations.

On the contrary, Germany spends 12% of its GDP on healthcare with direct private fees amounting to only 25% of the total health spend. The health basket in Germany is certainly larger but it is important to note that the bulk of the financing for health is prepaid. Public funds shoulder nearly one quarter of the health budget with the rest covered by prepaid compulsory universal health insurance into which employees and employers contribute. Further, the government makes payments for those out of employment or otherwise unable to make an income. This single feature creates a system in which ability to pay is not a determinant of access to health services. Efficiency and collaboration between private and public players in financing, service delivery and research into healthcare is high and the overall result is a system that meets the health needs of all citizens including the less fortunate. Needless to add, the dividends of a healthy nation are self-evident; greater productivity, longer lives and greater quality of life.

However, a good national health service is not by itself a guarantee to improved national health status. The health service is only one of a retinue of factors that determine the health status of individuals. Commodities like food security, water and sanitation, education, clean energy and social cohesion achieve greater health benefits and savings than the health service itself. It takes leadership to define programs that integrate these individual components into a system that delivers health to the nation. This demands an awful amount of political capital and ownership for any meaningful success. Africa must begin making homegrown decisions for her people. The introduction of user fees in hospitals and state divestiture from several key public sectors (including water, electricity and transport) can be remembered by all to have been a top down condition by the Bretton Woods institutions in the infamous Structural Adjustments Program era of the 80’s. Today, fragmentation of healthcare in most African countries amongst disparate donors with as many interests has made sure that only modest gains have been made in the improvement of healthcare. The presence of these programs if for nothing else is testimony to the fact that our health systems are not functional as presently constituted. A conscious effort must be made to ensure the attainment of universal population coverage as the first step in achieving universal health care. To ensure a meaningful health package, the financing of health – as a necessity – needs to be prepaid rather than at the point of service. Mechanisms must also be placed to ensure the most disadvantaged of society are not disenfranchised from the health system by way of fees. And more importantly, there must be efficiency at every level; collection and pooling of funds, purchasing of health goods and services, management of the health workforce and research. This calls for closer mutual public-private partnership and for emphasis; leadership. Only then shall we begin to have a healthy enough population that can engage in production and economic and social development. Fortunately, these developments are already taking place in countries like Ghana, Rwanda and Burkina Faso with steady and remarkable results. It must remain alive to us that universal health is a public burden; not to be shunned, but one to be borne by everyone in a way that especially seeks out the most disadvantaged in the society.