After decades of a multicultural life, there are only two things I can name that are so normal in Kenya that we have all adapted our behaviour around them, but which simply don’t happen elsewhere - to the extent that they prompt dropped jaws and incredulity beyond our shores.
The first is our take on traffic lights. Almost everywhere else in the world, driving past a red traffic light will probably cost your life and almost certainly your driving licence.
Yet, on our own streets, to stop at traffic lights is to cause irritation, and possibly some car scrapes. Indeed, across our capital city unused traffic lights bought by donors stand as monuments to cultural blindness. Yet the donors had reasons for providing us traffic lights, in saving costs.
Instead, we pay, funding hundreds of traffic police from our overstretched tax revenues that could instead go on extra rural clinics. And we pay in greater traffic congestion and time on the roads, causing wasted salaries and lowered productivity across thousands of jobs every day.
And all those extra costs come back to our triple pillars of impunity. We don’t have laws with stiff penalties. And we don’t have operational police or courts to enforce the law we do have– both being hopelessly corrupted and buyable, thereby preventing any legal enforcement.
So why bother with traffic lights? Put simply, and to capture the Kenyan condition, without the law and without the police and courts as enforcers of the law, the result is lawlessness.
Our second uniquely Kenyan ‘breach’ is borne of that same triple pillar too, and relates to employment contracts.
For, all of the bottom end of our professional staff and manual staff - all the ones, that is, who will never need a reference in future, who are short-sighted, and who cannot compute consequences - skip notice.
For these employees, a resignation is simply an email sent to say they won’t be back. This causes mayhem, but is so predominant it has earned its own Kenyan contract clause, whereby leaving a job without serving notice forfeits the outstanding salary dues. I have never seen a clause like that anywhere in any employment contract anywhere else in the world.
The clause doesn’t work. It just means the no-notice quitters wait until pay day and then resign with no notice the next day. The extraordinary thing is that they had planned to do it, they could just as well have told the company and served notice, allowing their employer to post a job ad, seek a replacement, and ensure a smooth handover.
Maybe, some just got a job offer the day before for an immediate start. But most do not. It’s just exactly the same as refusing to stop at a traffic light. ‘Now’ is all there is, and we live in the impunity world. So it’s no notice. Why bother with agreements or contracts?
But it bites back. One of my peers had an employee quit with no notice to stand in the 2017 election. He then didn’t get elected and asked for his job back – which was so absurd after the damage he had triggered that it became a sub-sector apocryphal tale. Had he served notice, even two weeks to stop his employer being stranded, he would have been happily re-employed.
And while no-notice quitters tend to understand references are no longer a good idea, they very often still put their two years or four years or whatever with the company on their CV – prompting any classy prospective employer to ring the company for a reference.
Most will walk away from a candidate on knowing they left with ‘immediate effect’. And for all those employers who recruit someone encouraging them to skip the notice from their previous job, they get someone who doesn’t observe contract, who then, in time, sends them ‘the email’ too, leaving work half done, and projects crashed.
However, that our traffic gets messed up, that all our companies and many of our projects get poleaxed, that our taxpayer funds get wasted, it’s not so bad really as the consequences of being a lawless nation. At least our homicide rate is low.