By Lydia Chagema
Changing a culture of corruption can feel trying to move a mountain.
One of the factors that made previous anti-corruption efforts in Kenya and around the world fail is the fact that certain corrupt practices have become so normalised that people cannot imagine their world working without them.
They have no faith in the solution, and this can end up bringing the whole attempt crashing down. People are cynical, sometimes for good reason.
I was buying bread the other day when I overheard a conversation about the investigations into corruption claims at NEMA. The shop owner, a talkative man, was very positive. He thought it was definitely a sign that times are changing. But his customer was less sure. “Puh!” he said. “It’s only so they can eliminate the competition and build their own buildings there. You just wait and see…”
Now I know each of these people enough to know that they are both good people and valued members of the community. They are both intelligent. So why have they both come to totally different conclusions about recent events?
Well, one has faith and believes that together we can move mountains.
And the other is cynical. He believes we cannot move mountains. Perhaps, he admits, we can move illegal buildings, but only so that some other corrupt person can put them back again when we’re no longer watching.
When the mindset of corruption is so entrenched in a population, it makes change very difficult to achieve. Often, the public is ignorant of their rights. So, they do not even realise how life would be better with these rights being enforced. They are cynical about their chances of changing anything because they have seen attempts fail in the past that have quickly died down and returned to nothing. Worse, they fear reprisals if they speak out. What if the status quo suddenly returns and they end up in trouble themselves?
Better to stay quiet they think. Better to stick to what they already know. Oh, ye of little faith!
It is this attitude that must be overturned in order to drive change.
To do this we need to address the problem of cynicism head on. And the most important weapon in the battle against cynicism is good faith.
President Uhuru is leading us in what he has called the War on Graft. Now, unlike most language that talks about corruption, this is positive language. The phrase makes the problem appear worthy of a great battle, worthy of our attention and our struggle to confront it. Most countries, including ours that have problems with corruption use language to do the opposite – to make the problem seem smaller than it is.
In Indonesia, they have KKN (short for corruption, collusion and nepotism). The Indians call it riswat, bribery of public officials. Georgians call it chackobili and in Egypt, you are simply paying ‘facilitation fees.’ The Filipinos have an even more cynical term for it – Kalakaran – which simply means ‘way of life.’
It is easier to get motivated to fight a war on graft than it is for it to fight a ‘way of life’.
Language is important.
In Kenya, we have also tried to pretend that a big problem was such a small problem that we shouldn’t even notice. Just like the Italians say ‘spintarella’ to mean a bribe, (a little push), when we use the diminutive to make a bribe seem small and harmless (kitu kidogo anyone?), we make the problem of corruption seem trivial and not worth fighting.
Now, when we talk about the War on Graft, everybody knows what we are talking about.
The graft is a big enough problem to need a war. And Uhuru is a big enough man to lead us to victory.
As citizens, it is our duty to support this war with our good faith: Faith that corruption is an important problem, faith that the war on graft is a war worth winning and faith that together we will win it.
With just a mustard grain of faith between us, faith will conquer cynicism and nothing will be impossible for us in the New Kenya.