If I look back at my writings these past three years, the pendulum keeps swinging back to the same set of comical characters. Miguna Miguna, Mike Sonko, Kamlesh Pattni, and Pastor James Ng’ang’a are just some of the people who have made multiple appearances here. What do they have in common? Other than their tendencies to court controversy, they are also all part of Kenya’s nouveau riche.
That’s what the French derisively call the newly rich. All the names, I previously mentioned are self-made men. They made their wealth all on their own. They are first generation millionaires.
Kenya’s nouveau riche have certain characteristics. They love to obscenely flaunt their wealth. Okay nothing special about that. Even the Queen of England herself likes to flaunt. The upcoming royal wedding is a prime example. The vestments and regalia expected to be worn are as much a symbol of nationhood as they are about cementing the House of Windsor’s social position as one of the world’s wealthiest families.
The newly rich have not yet mastered how to flaunt wealth with grace and style. The governor of Nairobi might be a wealthy man, but he is a fashion disaster. Sonko’s gaudy outfits are high crimes against fashion. He is one of the people that the Duke of Kabeteshire, Charles Njonjo would classify as beneath him.
Njonjo in his proper Saville Row cut suits would not deign to invite them for a cup of tea even if they were his next door neighbours. Old money does not need to scream to announce its arrival, it merely whispers with dignity and everyone knows its there.
The newly rich are insecure in their wealth. Hence, they take great pains to remind everyone that they are rich, and not just rich, but filthy rich. They were not always so arrogant. On their way to the mountain peak, they had to beg and cajole. Back then, they knew how to compromise and be humble. A younger Miguna would probably would have been thought a monk for his sheepish ways.
The humility still stayed when the nouveau riche earned their first million shillings. They behaved properly as they drove out of that dealership with a brand new Toyota Corolla. They had manners when they graduated from the streets to a brick and mortar church.
The problem came when they hit the Sh10 million mark. I am going to adjust for inflation, and say in today’s dollars 50 million shillings. My cast of self made millionaire’s made their wealth in the nineties and 2000s. Back then 10 million shillings was the threshold for mega wealth status. The humility vanished with a gallop down the hill after they purchased a Benz and built a mega church. More next week on the nouveau riche.
—The writer is a management fellow at the City of Wichita, USA