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KENYA: A Country in Magayu K. Magayu’s short story: ‘Do You Know Anybody?’

Any better description of the post-independence Kenya would only come close to Richard Ntiru’s description of the contemporary society in his classical poem, Introduction, that ‘Society is a market stall/And men goods on display/ Where the label is more important than the labelled/ And the price more fascinating than value’. An attempt to contextualize Ntiru’s description in relation to the real Kenya of the 21st century causes tears of agony to flow on absent cheeks.

By metaphorically likening men to ‘goods on display’ and accurately insinuating that ‘the label is (taken to be) more important than the labelled’, Ntiru explains in an overt tone what the contemporary society has translated into. The value of humanity has been substituted with the ‘label’,-their accolades, titles, positions in the government, and worse; their tribes, depth of their pockets, blood relations, and ethnicity et cetra- with little or no attention paid to the means to their fortunes, and to their ends. A society where eminence is revered than its importance to its people in the present and for posterity. Such a society has no respect for the common class (proletariat,), people at production level who genuinely work their way up hard and genuinely contribute to nation building, through the services they render to the state-owned institutions, paying taxes and holding the country intact. Such is the contemporary Kenyan society as carefully depicted in Magayu K. Magayu’s short story: ‘Do You Know Anybody?’

Magayu Magayu

The short story that audaciously and quite coherently articulates the theme of corruption, presents a reality where only a few selected survive; those who are lucky to know or be in relations with ‘somebody’ in a public office. Kimani, the husband to Jennifer, and a high school teacher has his testing final times battling cancer at Mung’etho National Hospital’s Cancer Ward. With his wife Jennifer and their family friend Ngugi so determined to help the situation out, only one thing seems to stand between Kimani and his treatment of this deadly disease, referred to in local parlance as ‘the disease of the poor’: the missing laboratory report. Such blatant incidences where the people, in this case the laboratory attendants, are confident to report that such crucial documents that form part of their daily duties are misplaced is a reflection of the inherent unprofessionalism, expressed by those entrusted to serve in public offices, who work under the motivation of solicited bribes and favors. This is revealed in the bitter words of Jennifer, that ‘Of course it is not lost. They want something’, ‘……..allow me to ask for a favor. Some money to give to the lab people. I have no money’. These sympathetic words represent the voiceless common man in the hands of bribe solicitors, a common practice in public offices; hospitals, public ministries, schools where services are exchanged with favors and nothing less where the common mwananchi is exploited out of their helplessness, yet they have the right to be served. Sadly, the bribe solicitors do not care whether the people they’re pressing to give bribes in order to get services are the have-it or not. For Kimani, poverty has struck his home that to Ngugi, “The poverty that had encroached Kimani’s home as a result of his illness came fresh into his mind and the thought of anyone soliciting for a bribe in the face of his friend’s suffering made him mad”. This, in its covert nature, is a way of dealing a blow to the poor, the proletariat by those in places of authority; an expression of sociology-political and economic dominance by a few, in positions of power. The vice is so entrenched in the society that in response to Ngugi’s question, the nurse confesses, “This place is like that. Unless you know somebody…” suggesting that patriots who know no one can neither be treated fairly nor attended to professionally in a public office, not until they give bribes. As Ngugi would later put it, ‘…it [is] immoral to seek a bribe from a poor woman in exchange of a report on her sick husband’. This was in supplement to his right sentiments, that, ‘the hospital was a public institution, that people paid taxes to maintain it and to pay salaries to the laboratory people which enabled them to feed their wives and mistresses’. This is the reality that many shun and shy away from; the fact that human are interdependent and affects each other’s life either directly or indirectly, and that is a reason enough to exercise justice in executing one’s duties.

Being a high school teacher in Kenya, one has a demanding responsibility of spearheading socioeconomic and political developments, through creation and dissemination of knowledge, and through the creation of an enabling environment for such developments to take effect. By far, this is done through holding the fragments of the country together: learners from diverse ethnic backgrounds, political affiliations, and religious beliefs, through actively transmitting National goals of education and virtues that include; National unity and cohesion, honesty, hard work, fairness and service based on merit inter alia. Apart from covering the syllabus on time, a teacher is expected to engage the learners in extracurricular activities such as cultural festivals, games such as athletics, football, volleyball and so forth that enhance diversity, tolerance and the spirit of patriotism and national pride and facilitate healthy interactions among students, which translates into years of national unity.
This should never be overlooked by a nation that is set to claim stability and a good future for its future generations.

In spite of all these efforts, in Kenya, teachers hardly afford the basic services and amenities that would enable them to lead decent lives, due to poor pay and neglect by the government. This has been evident in the tussles they have engaged in with the government just to be provided with what they deserve by eternal right: medical covers, house allowances in order to afford proper housing, transport allowances to facilitate their commuting to work and their pension schemes. Their agitation has led to job boycott a number of times, yet they are being subjected to this kind of treatment by the government, for really what they deserve. However they have not been all alone in agitating for what rightly belongs to them. There has been the nurses on strike for the longest time ever, followed by a third lecturers’ strike in less than a year.

It is evident with Kimani, that even after spending years creating and disseminating knowledge, guiding learners to taking up higher studies in the fields of their choice out of which they make important professionals such as medical doctors, many dedicated public servants and teachers cannot afford access to proper basic medical services. It is therefore unfortunate to see that these efforts, the contributions made over the years towards building the nation, as for Kimani, goes unrecognized even in the least of the deserving contexts; access of basic amenities. But worse still is to see the state, in its manpower, in this case the doctors bringing down the same architect who built it; the teacher. Eventually, such a state, that thrives by ‘insulting the same hand that fed it’ collapses.

It is not until the remnants of patriotism, whose motivations are not founded on personal gain or interests but the spirit of service stand against this tide shall the community regain its sanity. The society, though stinking in its fabricated nature has not completely lost its savor. Kavisi Musyoka, a clerk in the labs as he identifies himself to both Jennifer and Ngugi, is one example of people who have paid their allegiance to the honest service of the nation, giving themselves out to help indiscriminately, as part of their duty. “See, I do not know you people and neither do you know me. I want to help this lady for I know she has suffered a lot” Kavisi asserted to them. Ironically, though he offers to get the report at no cost, he has to do it secretly, in fear that if the matter is divulged, he will lose his job. “I will pinch the report for you but on condition you do not raise the matter for if you do, I will lose my job”! A society where impunity and evil have reigned that doing the right thing is met with punishment which may even lead to one losing their hard earned jobs! This humiliation of people who chose to do the right thing is meant to create an enabling environment for the vices associated with ‘knowing somebody’ to thrive; the evils of nepotism, tribalism, favoritism, common ethnicity so forth. The consequences of such impunity have proved only to be lethal and to rob the country of what it has labored and invested in for years; the training of manpower, people like Kimani and their placement in their places of work cost the state a dime. But the fact that the state will allow evils that will lead to such deaths, which translates to loss of human resource and labor depicts a sad state of affairs and are signs of a country heading towards the wrong direction. “It is not the cancer that killed him. It is the thought that you knew nobody in this place to help him”, a patient who was in the same ward with Kimani tells Ngugi. Kimani, a family man who dies of neglect and the worry that his fate is predetermined by the fact that his people have no acquaintances in the hospital represents many a Kenyan citizens who cannot afford to pay for private services but rely on public amenities and offices where they meet betrayal at its worst raw state. That in spite of engaging in years of offering services and paying taxes to build the nation, they are only rewarded with neglect to the last minute.

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