At the turn of the 19th century a virulent epidemic, which swept the eastern shores of a lake then known as Nam Lolwe, decimated half of my grandfather’s family. Later, a young officer of the British Indian Army discovered the lake and renamed it Lake Victoria.
My grandfather gathered his family and fled death, abandoning the artisanal fishing business. This was an improbable journey. But he was buoyed by the solemn duty to preserve his family. He found a new home for his family up on a plateau to the east of Lake Victoria.
My father was born just before the end of World War II. My grandfather enlisted as an unskilled laborer when the colonists built the first bridge across the Sondu-Miriu River. My grandmother worked the land and raised six children. My grandparents were illiterate but in a changing world they understood the transformative power of education. My father worked on the land and went to school in colonial Kenya. Through hard work and perseverance he qualified to enter a teachers’ training college. During the holidays he worked in the tea fields of Kericho to provide for his family and pay his way through college.
I was born after independence. Both my parents were schoolteachers, folk of modest means. But I had all the joys of childhood; toys, a dog, and the honor of herding my grandfather’s cattle. Like my grandparents, my parents believed that through merit, borne out of hard work, any child could attain their dream. My grandparents are both deceased now. But that their grandson would attend the best schools, attain the highest level of education and write a newspaper column must make their departed souls truly glad.
My story is not unique. It is the quintessential Kenyan saga. It is the story of hope and triumph. My story and that of many families like mine affirms the timeless proclamation made fifty years; a pledge to fight poverty, ignorance and disease. That today no one in my family is poor or illiterate or infirmed by preventable diseases affirms that progress to realize the ideals of our independence struggle are alive and on the march.
But for many of our fellow citizens the dream and promise of independence is a bill of goods. I followed last week’s presidential debate in the naïve hope that it would be a contest of ideas about how hew out of the mountain of national despair, a stone of hope.
Like many of you I was astounded by how little the lady and the gentlemen who seek lead our country knew about what is needed to restore faith in politics and build our economy. I was also awestruck by how unserious moderation could dumb-down a historic national conversation.
Half a century later, the path out of poverty is pretty uncertain for millions of Kenyan families. Mothers and children, infants and senior citizens cannot afford the life saving medicine they need. Our healthcare system delivers not healing but more suffering and debt. Moreover, we are unsafe, in our homes or on the streets
Half a century later, punitive tax and investment policies, an epileptic energy system, decrepit roads, inefficient ports and a moribund railway network all converge to annihilate business and enterprise. Our natural capital is in decline; our hills are denuded and our scarlet rivers foul our lakes. Agriculture is comatose. Manufacturing is dead. We have become a warehouse economy; holding and trading cheap imports from distant shores, spiriting away billions of our meager but had money to create jobs in foreign lands.
Half a century later, our teachers spend more time not in the classroom but on the streets fighting for better pay. 25% of the over 800,000 kids who finished primary school in 2102 will not transition to high school. The path to gaining skills and competing in a knowledge economy does not exist for a majority of our children. Only 6.25% of those entering the job market can find well paying jobs. Inequality is staggering; the richest 10% of households spent on average 14.3 times more than the poorest 10% of households in 2011.
This election must be about delivering the promise of independence. It must be about electing a government that can work on behalf of the many, and not just the privileged few. It must be about a government that opens the doors of opportunity for every child across this land, regardless of their last name, rich or poor. Our politics must be about things we can touch, feel and see.