kenyas next political class looks a lot like the current one

Plied properly with a litre of cold beer, Murage will tell you politics in Kenya, “Is all about the yacht.

Plied properly with a litre of cold beer, Murage will tell you politics in Kenya, “Is all about the yacht.”

A column I started writing about the lanky 20-something with a drawn, sagging face, has sat half complete for months, as if I knew it wasn’t worth my time.

But I wanted it to be.

Here was an eloquent, motivated, philosophical Kenyan, educated in England and from a family with money, but full of disdain for Western perks — “I don’t take coffee because Kenyans can’t afford coffee,” he said when we met — who was using his talents, it seemed, to fight for the poor.

We met as I researched intellectual property rights in Kenya (there aren’t many) after I realized foreign companies have been trying, and succeeding, to patent an increasing number of indisputably Kenyan things, such as the kikoi, a traditional fabric, and even a rare elephant’s genes.

Murage had a website dedicated to the subject. He’d also started a group that met to discuss ideas on intellectual property.

One day, he took me on a tour through some manufacturing shops in a bleak industrial section of Nairobi, where the tribal beads, sandals, drums, wallets, giraffes and other knickknacks tourists snap up here by the hockey-bag full are made in slum-like environs.

The workers there, poor but not starving, treated him with indifference as he preached about the scourge of ignorance among African artisans who were losing the right to sell their products abroad.

Still, it was a day of ideas in a country mostly absent of them — in politics, anyway.

When he told me he intended to run in the elections in 2012, and had even started his own party, I was hopeful.

He seemed to grate the very people he said he was trying to help. But perhaps they just didn’t understand him, I thought.

And yet there was still something a bit off. I could smell a rat even though I didn’t want to.

People didn’t like Murage. I had to admit, I didn’t like Murage.

While he talked of fighting for the poor, he would break a thought to notice a fancy car and then tell me how rich his father was.

Then Murage would let me buy his drinks, food and bus rides and never said thanks, though he rarely shut up about himself otherwise.

All of these aches came back to me as I sat across from him at a coffee shop on Saturday evening.

We’d run into each other and decided to hang out. He let me buy him a coffee and I quickly fantasized of leaving.

We, but mostly he, talked of the election and how so much of what had happened was labelled incorrectly as ethnic violence.

He told me the “differences” between the Kenyan tribes; how he is a Kikuyu but hates Kikuyus because they’re “greedy.”

“I can never take my car to be fixed by a Kikuyu,” he said. “Only to a Luo. A Kikuyu will steal parts.”

His arguments didn’t quite jibe, but I attributed this to the coffee, of which I was sure this was his first.

Then his friend John walked past, came inside and sparked the mood.

“Let’s go get some Tusker (Kenyan for beer),” said John.

“Sounds like a plan,” I said.

Now, I’m not some cowboy who judges the worth of a man with feats of strength, but I have found a reliable gauge of one’s character to be the difference between their bravado talking about beer and their ability to drink it.

The bigger the gap, the bigger the jerk.

With his big talk registered, Murage was on beer number two and already slurring.

He’s been working for the government and is being groomed for political leadership, he bragged, his tongue loosened by booze.

He lives in a house in a fancy suburb paid for by a former Rwandan politician who has sought exile in the US, he said, as John nodded with a hint of shame.

And the only reason he’s working with those poor artisans is to build a constituency. Once they’re in his pocket, he’ll use them for their votes then leave them suffering, he said.

“That’s how politics works here.”

It was the cold, calculating way by which Murage said this that bothered me most.

“What about your principles? What about democracy and helping people,” I asked, with typical Canadian naivety.

“Africans will always survive,” he said. “They will eat beans and survive. You build a borehole (a water well) for a Masai and next week they’ll go inside it, take the metal and make jewelry to sell. Nothing changes.”

I sipped the beer and reflected on what this country has gone through over the past month.

Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, and Raila Odinga, a Luo, have fought a very public spat to be president following a clearly rigged election, but they have let the poor and desperate kill one another to pressure the other side to capitulate and allow them to rule.

I turned to Murage and told him as much.

He laughed.

“First, I’ll get into politics, then I’ll get contracts, and then I’ll get my … ya … uh, what do you call that boat thing?”

“A yacht,” said John, who was at this point barely tolerating Murage.

“Yeah, a yacht. It’s all about the yacht.”

In a country where everything requires the grease of government to exist, where MPs earn $150,000 a year and get a free Mercedes, the only way to own a yacht is to become a politician.

This cynical system requires the poor to be exploited for those in power to rise. Many will tell you what’s wrong with it, but few have stepped up to change things.

Murage is well on his way to his boat.

And it’s a shame.

 Tim Querengesser is a former Yukon News reporter now writing in Kenya.