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Kenyan Pundit, Live from Nairobi

Ory Okolloh – Kenyan Pundit – is one of the people I’m happiest to have met through blogging. She’s a brilliant law student at Harvard Law and a passionate and critical observer of news and politics in her native Kenya.

A few months ago, I asked Ory to help me understand why she was so upset with Kibaki, Kenya’s 3rd president, in power since late 2002. Like many westerners who know a little, though not a lot, about Kenyan politics, I took many of Kibaki’s statements about ending corruption at face value. (After all, he must be an improvement over the notoriously bad Arap Moi, who he replaced, right?)

Ory’s done a great job of clearing up my confusion with an excellent set of posts during her time home in Nairobi for the holidays, where she is working for the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. From her reports, it sounds like Kenya’s getting better, but it’s doing so very slowly, and far too slowly for a generation of young Kenyans who want to see the country take a leadership position on the continent. Some observations from recent blog posts:

December 28, 2004:

The weather in Nairobi is lovely and things have generally been festive over the holiday season. Kenyans have an innate ability to “kula happy” or enjoy life even during the worst of times. There is, however, a palpable sense of frustration with the country’s direction. Everyone I’ve talked to is disappointed and based on the stories I’ve been hearing it seems as if corruption is back in full force across all sectors. The one bright spot, apparently, is the judiciary…informed sources tell me that they are determined to reassert their independence after the infamous purge.

January 3, 2005:

I also linked to the story on the growing frustration that Kenyan parents who have kids in public school are experiencing, because it points to the glaring/growing crisis of income inequality in Kenya…I don’t think I’ve ever seen it this bad, there are clearly two worlds in this country…at some point something is going to have to give. How can kids who go to schools where there are upto 80 (yes 80 students in one class) compete with kids in the so-callled private schools? The free primary education system was obviously poorly thought out, it’s time the government starts making moves to address the growing pains and do things like increase the number of teachers available. One of the local radio stations had a call-in session on this issue. Everybody who called in expressed their frustration, one teacher spoke about how impossible it was to even attempt to cater to 80 students let alone know them individually. The Minister of Education, however, claims that the standards in public schools haven’t deteriorated since the free education policy was initiated…what BS.

January 10, 2005:

Random observations for the day:

* One of the Ministers in the Kenyan Cabinet drives a car worth $200,000.

* Did you know that staff members of the Weekly Review were not allowed to accept gifts from anyone – no calendars, pens, even crates of sodas (Coca-Cola sent every journalist a crate of Fanta Passion during its launch and this newbie journalist at the Review was almost fired on the spot for accepting the sodas).

Ory’s not the only one who wants change to happen more quickly in Kenya. The Economist, in their Christmas issue, ran a story on Kenya entitled “Where graft is merely rampant: If only the president were more vigorous”. It reads, in part:

In the first few months after Mr Kibaki took over, officials did indeed behave more honestly. Whereas in 2002, Kenyan policemen demanded bribes during 96.9% of encounters with the public, last year the figure was only 82.1%, according to a survey by Transparency International (TI), a Berlin-based anti-corruption watchdog. And immigration officials improved their score from 94.3% to 89.6%.

In TI’s latest league table, corruption in Kenya was found to have improved from “highly acute” to merely “rampant”, prompting local newspapers to demand to know why foreign companies were not flocking back to set up new ventures in Kenya.

The answer is that “rampant” is still not quite good enough…”

Ory, thanks for the view of what’s going on in Nairobi, and safe travels back to Cambridge.