(Hey peeps, this week Friday has come super early. The thing is, I am going out of town for a quick vacation, and won’t be back till Sunday. So let’s do this today. Call it Wednesday Treat).
When I was born, Kenya had two presidents: the First President, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, and the President, Daniel Toroitich arap Moi. This was drummed into your head from the moment you were born. In the labor ward, the moment you showed your head from inside your mom’s womb, the Chief Midwife would shout:
And because you were born…sorry, conceived a patriot, your first cry in the world would be:
By the time Daniel (sounds wrong to call him that) became President, the seat had acquired that aura, because of the efforts of President Kenyatta Snr. By that time, Sir Njonjo, the Duke of Kabeteshire, had already declared that it is a treasonable offence to even imagine the death of the President. I wasn’t born then, but from the way I hear older folks talk, it seems Kenyatta and Njonjo were quite capable of reading your mind to see if a thought had fleetingly passed whereby you imagined the President dying of old age. And you would be sentenced to death, because that is the penalty for treason.
The first image you saw on TV was not Tarzan. It was the President. Every day, for about ten minutes at every 15 minute news bulletin, you were told where the President took breakfast, went to church, etc. People talked about him in whispers. Okay, so you sang the popular song in 2002:
“Yote yawezekana, bila Moi, yote yawezekana oooo bila Moi!”
But it never occurred to you what that meant. So 2003 caught you by surprise. ‘President Kibaki’ sounded wrong. Because the word “President” always went with “Moi”. That is how it had always been since you were born. To make it worse, Kibaki was in a wheel chair. You didn’t know a president could fall sick. Even the First President died peacefully in his sleep, you were told. Like the angels came, bowed at His Excellency, and ushered him into a Chariot and off they went to the land yonder. So the idea of a President being in a wheel chair was just wrong.
Those were the days when you saw a navy blue Land rover and scuttled into the bushes. You didn’t even wait to see whether the number plates were GK or not. If you saw a cop you went the opposite direction. Not because you had done anything wrong, it’s just how you found everyone behaving. They even told you that GK means “Gasensi Kaugwatwe” (Stupid fella, you are being arrested).
You wondered how Mr. Moi (sounds off again) was coping. I mean, without the roads being cleared from Nairobi all the way to Karatina, way before he even woke up, leave alone think about the harambee in Karatina. Without his words sending shock waves across the country. Without all public officials carrying radios to meetings in order to catch the 1 O’clock bulletin, to be sure they still have their jobs. What was it like, hearing minnows insult him publicly yet there was nothing he could do about it, when previously even bigwigs cowered in his presence? How was it like, for Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda to be arrested by his successor Fredrick Chiluba? And who are his friends now? Like, where does he hang out?
To be fair, I think once President Moi left office, he re-invented himself admirably. But many are not able to do that. I think the mistake many of us make is losing our identity to an office. I have found myself time and again fighting to shield my identity from whatever position I am holding. Because it is easy to morph into the title and it becomes you. Many times we get into positions of whatever kind and lose our identity to those positions. Like we merge with the position and it becomes us. It defines us. And once we lose the office, it feels like we have lost ourselves. Reminds me of a school captain we had in high school. He took the job so seriously, he forgot he was a student (and a teenager) like us. His words were always orders like:
“We have decided that because it is World Cup time, you can watch some of the matches. We know you love football. But you must compensate for the lost prep time on Saturdays. We will not let you lose academic time.”
We meant the school principal and himself. You was of course the misguided, hormone-disturbed teenagers that were us, whose feeble imaginations did not go beyond the weevil infested school meals. Needless to say, he did not have any real friends in the school. And the teachers couldn’t exactly be his friends.
I have found myself always struggling to retain my identity whenever I am appointed to a leadership post. And it is not easy because there are societal expectations to fight. I was the CU Chairman in campus, and also the Regional Chairman of CUs in Northern Nairobi. Now, Parklands is a small, free-style campus. So I generally moved around campus in a short and a T-shirt. I had a red short and a black T-shirt that I particularly liked. After all, I was in UoN, not Strathmore. In my hand always was a mug of coffee. And I need to point out that the mug was gifted to me by my then deputy, Valarie, because in her opinion, I was embarrassing the Union walking around with a plastic cup. Parklands is like a really tiny campus, you can go round it in 3 minutes. So all this was not a big deal.
Then it happened that one Saturday I was hosting a meeting of CU officials from the region. One of the regional officials came early to my room. So after talking and taking tea, we were ready to join the others in the hall. I stood, refilled my mug and started walking out. He was horrified.
“You are going like that?”
“Yea, why?” I asked. I didn’t see what the problem was. It was a Saturday, and all these officials were students just like me.
“My brother, hapa Parklands mnakuwanga free style sana. In some of these places like KU and JKUAT, the CU chairman is always suited up. Weekend or not. So they expect their Regional Chairman to fit the bill,”
I didn’t see that coming. I mean, I am the chairman, suit or not, right? But I had to agree he had a point, and so I put on a pair of trousers. But the T-shirt stayed.
The previous year, when I had been nominated the CU 2nd Vice Chair, one of the girls in the Executive committee walked up to me after the very first meeting.
“I had been wondering why they chose you to be 2nd Vice, but now I know,”
I was puzzled.
“I mean, you are this loud person, always laughing and not taking anything seriously. I didn’t think you could make a leader, leave alone 2nd Vice. But in the meeting you were this serious person I had never seen before,” she said.
I didn’t know how to respond to that. I wasn’t even sure whether it was a compliment or not. So I just laughed. But she wasn’t done.
“So which one is the real you?”
That threw me off balance. I thought she was kidding. But she still stood there, waiting for an answer. She wasn’t even smiling. She was just gazing at me with these round, inquisitive eyes.
“Both, I guess,”
“Like you have a double personality?”
Oh well. I don’t think so. I think I am just a simple guy who just does what has to be done. Out here I am loud and easy. But if I am chairing a meeting, and I need a decision made, I am unlikely to be smiling. So it is not about me having a double personality. It is about me trying to be effective in discharging my responsibilities, without losing the core of who I am. True, I make concessions. But only in superficial matters like dressing. Not in character, or how I perceive other people. But the truth is, vanity and pride creeps in slowly and subtly. So I have realized it helps to have a small circle of real friends who can easily tell me when I am going off the mark. They keep me grounded.
We allow status to change the core of who we are too easily. We get a few coins and can afford a flashy life, then we expect the world to bow at our feet. We attain celebrity status, and we think the world should be eternally grateful that we were born. We become MCAs and we think everyone was born to serve us. Just because we became CEO of some loss-making parastatal, we do not want queue and act like everyone else there is an illustrative mannequin. And if the attendant tells us to queue, we start throwing tantrums. Do they know who we are? We ask, feeling insulted. Like really. I think people should respect us for who we are, not because of the status we hold in life. And generally, people will respect anyone who behaves like a mature, responsible and reasonable adult. Otherwise titles are fleeting. After all, even Obama will be a private citizen in about three months’ time, come January 20.