• Irungu Houghton

Amidst the chaos, how we can keep our heads

First published Saturday Standard, November 17, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

Several experiences ran through my head this week. A depressed Police Officer who committed suicide, a human rights defender who is on the run from another Officer and a young widow bravely rebuilding her life after an unlawful police killing. Then there was the television panel that got upset at the state of Africa’s basket-cases, a fake news conference and the Government Donor Forum that spoke about zero tolerance to corruption and then allowed a suspect of economic crimes to speak to it. How do we remain confident that a better day will come?

Kenya tests us personally and publicly every day. If it isn’t the rising cost of living, it is the blatant lies and lack of care for Others. Too many of us are on shut down mode, a tactical retreat from the people and the news that annoys and depresses us. There is some bad news and good news here.

The bad news is we are living in an age of rising social intolerance, huge economic inequalities and crumbling legitimacy for public institutions. The withdrawal is simultaneously an act of self-preservation and a step towards the life of the hermit crab. Hermit crabs are fundamentally lonely creatures, preoccupied short-term and stealing the shells off other crabs. The good news is the rest of the world is struggling with this and we can learn from there too.

In Brazil, newly elected leader Jair Bolsonaro has declared his intention to evict thousands of indigenous people and deforest the Amazonian forest. Donald Trump’s administration is laying miles of barbed wire to stop Central American migrants from seeking employment and refuge. Battered by rising anti-migrant sentiment, one of Europe’s remaining democrats, Angela Merkel has declared 2021 will be her last year. Even Aung Suu Kyi, Nobel Laureate and past beacon of human rights and democracy in Myanmar was called out for failing to protect the Rohingyar.

Our world is not in a good space. Many of us are now loudly muttering that the easiest thing is focus on our personal lives, avoid the politricks and wait out the present unpleasantness. That would be a mistake.

Whether in our homes, counties, Kenya or the world, what all demagogic leaders have in common is the use of fear as the currency to influence us. Fake news is not just lies, it is a way of shaking our confidence in the truth and those who tell it. Exercising fear and lies, these leaders want us to stay in our crab shells. As we mutter in our whatsapp groups, twitter bubbles and WI-FI hotspots, they can tax, divide and rule us. If we do want a better future for ourselves and our world, we need to think and behave differently.

I am often asked the question how I stay hopeful and optimist. The answer is simple and three-fold. I choose my emotions, my emotions don’t have a license to choose me. I don’t allow my reality to define my ambition. Lastly, I don’t entertain complaints much. There is a degree of rational madness here. Remaining unattached to how I feel and the negativity around me reduces the number of upsets and allow me to focus on what needs to get done.

This week, 1,000 matatus were impounded for failing to meet Public Service Vehicle standards. Catalysed by NTV’s investigative story, quack doctor Mugo wa Wairimu was also arrested in Kiambu County after he was exposed on our screens, sedating female patients and sexually assaulting them. Enforcing the rule of law to protect citizens is critical for deepening our faith in public institutions. So too, is demanding this of our leaders and ourselves.

This week, Caroline Gikunda went to lengths to prove this point. She insisted her truck be escorted to and then weighed by two other weigh bridges to prove that the KENHA Mobile Weigh Bridge was calibrated two tonnes higher. Imagine the number of truck drivers that may have been intimidated to bribe their way out of their “mistake”.

In two weeks’ time, the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders shall bestow annual awards on ordinary citizens who have acted in the public interest. They come from all parts of the country, professions and causes.

Among them are photographers, artists, accountants, religious and community leaders who are working against discrimination, extremism, violence and indignity. They and Caroline are the ones that will settle this country and we can do more to support them.

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