Mary Walker: At the expense of the people
August 11, 2011
Steamboat Springs — Editor's note: Clark resident Mary Walker volunteers at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya. The center was built in 2002 and provides a safehouse for Maasai girls who have escaped or been rescued from female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage. Walker's updates from Kenya appear periodically in the Steamboat Today.
Kenyan primary and secondary schools are on holiday for August. There was talk that many schools would actually have to close early because cash shortages threatened food supplies for students. This was brought on in part by a reported 4 billion Kenyan shillings missing from the Ministry of Education. With pressure mounting on the government to do something concrete about the latest in a long line of mishandling of public funds, officials announced that indeed they could release money to schools to supplement their food stocks until the normal closing date. Coincidentally, the government is promising to hire 10,000 teachers to reduce the estimated 60,000 teacher shortage.
These kinds of gestures are quite common here at a time when the "wananchi" (the people) are under constant and severe financial stress while their government officials are living the high life. The cost of basic staple foods has increased by 300 percent in the past couple of months. Most of the members of Parliament are refusing to pay taxes on their pay of 850,000 Kenyan shillings a month (at current exchange rates that's about $9,500 a month). They claim that their government salaries are so tied up in loans and mortgages that they don't have the cash to pay taxes. The housekeeper where I stay in Nairobi is paid about $27 a month.
The half dozen folks who hope to run for president next year have made a grand show — and photo ops — of paying their taxes. According to something I read a couple of years ago, Kenyan members of Parliament are the highest paid government officials per capita in the world. I hope that all of this is quite absurd for readers in light of what is happening to a reported 10 million people in Somalia and northern Kenya who face imminent starvation. And for those who don't see the connection between "aid" and profit — note that the tents provided to the refugees sport a very visible "UNHRC" (United Nations Human Rights Commission) logo for all of the donors back home to see on TV.
A recent poll here in Kenya showed that more than 60 percent of the members of Parliament would not be re-elected if the elections were held today. There is to be an election in 2012, but no one knows the date yet as the different wings of government quibble about the implementation of the new constitution. National ID cards have not been available for more than a year now, meaning that all of the young people of the country who have completed high school recently will be shut out from being able to vote. It is not lost on anybody that this demographic is almost precisely the 60 percent who would throw out the current Parliament.
Under these conditions, the government must routinely throw a lifeline to the people to preserve the very acquiescence and subservience that characterizes life here. Recently it was this miraculous finding of funds for schools to buy food for the remaining week of school; at other times it was a government announcement that it would honor its agreement made three years ago but never fulfilled to raise the basic salary for government-posted teachers, or that the government would step in and control the cost of petrol, maize and potatoes by cracking down on unscrupulous middlemen.
Supposedly, the seven public universities will have a "double intake" this fall in order to absorb tens of thousands of deserving students who have been waiting for over two years to receive their government-subsidized place in school. I read three of Kenya's leading national newspapers every day, and every day there are articles of pronouncements of what the government has planned as their promises to improve the state of education here. Most of the pronouncements come from task forces, study panels and working sessions held at posh resorts in Mombasa or Naivasha — all, of course, at the wananchi's expense.