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‘Defying the image of Kenyans as a parasitic nation that would gladly stand by and watch fellow citizens die’, Kenyans of various backgrounds have raised ‘in eight days ten times what the Kenyan government had pledged to put towards food distribution to the drought stricken areas,’ writes H. Nanjala Nyabola. Shouldn't the government be doing more?

In an impressive show of solidarity, Kenyans have harnessed the media and various communication platforms and managed to raise a staggering 105 million Kenya shillings towards the alleviation of drought in the North Eastern region of the country, less than a week after the appeal was officially launched across these platforms. Defying the image of Kenyans as a parasitic nation that would gladly stand by and watch fellow citizens die – an image so grotesquely constructed around the post-election violence – Kenyans of various backgrounds have rallied and pulled off an extremely impressive feat, raising in eight days ten times what the Kenyan government had pledged to put towards food distribution to the drought stricken areas. As perhaps a more stern critic of my country than most, it was encouraging to see that even in the leanest of times, the ordinary mwananchi (citizen) was never too hard pressed to forget their compatriots.

There are two stories worth telling here. One, is that it is further confirmation of the complete lack of faith that Kenyans have in their government, that they would rally around a fundraising drive overseen by private cooperation while writing the most scathing critiques of the government in the press and on the blogosphere. Two, there is the untold story of the generosity with which ordinary Kenyans have responded to the crisis, a generosity that remains relatively uncovered in the UK and US press who instead focus on raising the profile of UK-led appeals. The first story is the heart of this analysis.

In his work on ‘Development as Freedom’, Amartya Sen raised the issue of droughts and famines as products of institutional incapacity or lack of will rather than simply a lack of food. Sen raised important questions about the way in which food distribution structures are shaped not only by structural constraints like the state of the infrastructure or the agricultural sector in the country, but also the agency of individuals that run these structures, thus the will or intent of government agencies and representatives to actually make these structures work for the people of that particular country.

The work of Sen has been hinted at if not explicitly discussed in various assessments of the current drought in Kenya, and the callousness of the Kenyan government in dealing with this issue seems to confirm this assessment. In a statement to the press last week, government spokesperson Dr Alfred Mutua gave a semantic and rather flippant assessment of the situation in Kenya, going to great pains to point out that ‘no one in Kenya had died of hunger’ (the Kenyan media would to differ on that point) and that most of those who died ‘were Somali refugees’. Mutua goes to great pains to emphasise that the famine situation in Kenya is an invention of the ‘Western media’ that is completely disengaged from the actual situation in Kenya and using this as a platform to perpetuate a negative image of the country.

While I myself am not a big fan of the Western media’s coverage of this issue, it is wrong for Dr Mutua to completely mischaracterise a grave situation in order to further some shadowy agenda. The government that cannot distinguish between Kenyan Somalis and Somali Somalis when undertaking security operations in the North East and then turn around and make such distinctions when deciding who is genuinely dying and therefore worthy of assistance over the other.

Dr Mutua is quite right to point out that several journalists covering the situation in Kenya fly in and out as some kind of emergency-tourism but Mutua himself is preaching his message from the very comfortable pulpit of being one of the highest paid government officials in the country, in the comfort of his plush office and not from the heart of the North East. When it comes to being ‘on the ground’ with regards to the situation, Kenyans have no reason to believe that the man who would stare a camera in the face and boldly declare that there Kofi Annan flew into Kenya for a cup of coffee during the heart of the post-election violence is any more appraised of the situation in the North East than those Western journalist ‘drinking tea in Yaya’.

Dr Mutua invites Kenyans contributing towards the successful food drive to give towards the construction of infrastructure and logistical support to the drought stricken areas, leading anyone with any kind of sense to wonder why Kenya needs a government at all if such tasks are to be performed by the public. Something tells me, Dr Mutua, that this isn’t what economists had in mind when they were discussing public funding, and a man of good conscience would or should be ashamed of even suggesting such a thing.

It is beyond the scope of this piece to unpack the complex issues surrounding the food crisis in North Eastern Kenya and Somalia, ranging from the Al Shabab’s war on common sense and human decency to the chronic neglect of the region by successive Kenyan governments, not to mention global warming and the increasing pressure on an already foreboding environment. Yet, considering the inadequacy of the Kenyan government’s official response, it’s hard to argue with Sen, and we are left wondering how a nation that has time and time again proven itself so incredibly generous could be stuck with such an avaricious and callous government.


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