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Ideas & Debate

Inequality is a big knee on the necks of Kenya’s poor

learning under a tree
Pupils of a primary school in Baringo learning under a tree in 2018. PHOTO | CHEBOITE KIGEN | NMG 

Inequality of opportunity for economic self-advancement remains one of the biggest knees on the necks of Kenyans.

For instance, while the children of rich and middle class families have been attending classes on Edmodo, Zoom, Blue Jeans and such other digital platforms, the children of the poor have been herding goats in rural savannahs or playing hopscotch all day in urban slums, with grey rivulets of mucus tricking down their nostrils.

Yet, at some point, they will all sit the same examination, which will determine which schools or universities they will transition to.

And although there is insufficient infrastructure in public schools to support such measures as social distancing, the Ministry of Education yesterday signalled that it will only allow children back to school once the institutions put in place mechanisms to provide for a maximum of 20 children per classroom.

Even if the children were to observe social distancing in classrooms under acacia or baobab trees, where will the teachers to handle them come from given the already existing shortage?

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Similarly, the measures to restrict movement and the closure of some businesses have hit the poor hardest. For instance, low cadre workers in the hospitality industry have been sent on unpaid leave or lost their jobs altogether.

Businesses, especially micro enterprises, have been hit by depressed incomes because the Covid-19 restrictions have reduced customers' purchasing power.

Which means that when schools re-open, children whose parents have been adversely hit financially by the measures will struggle to re-adjust to learning either because their tummies will be running on empty or their parents do not have the wherewithal to keep them learning productively.

That is why, even as we join the rest of the world in campaigning for the recognition and respect of the rights of black people in America, China and other first world countries, at home, we must also check whether there are logs in our eyes that prevent the poor from realising their full potential on account of the bottlenecks that our economic policies and political structures have put in their way.

Growing up, I remember the women who used to make busaa would allow us to scoop the fermented flour on our way to school before it was taken to the river for processing into a recreational beverage. That simple act of generosity kept our bellies full and our bodies warm for hours.

In the evenings, and on weekends, we would be nourished by wild berries, maize stalks and all manner of roots and tubers, all of which ensured that one way or the other, we eventually ended up having both full stomachs and balanced diets, which are important for learning and physical development. Today, only legends appreciate the advantage these gifts of nature gave us.

Now, due to climate change, wanton destruction of natural habitats and lack of regard for our traditional medicinal heritage, our children cannot enjoy these benefits that nature offered gratis. Instead, we are happy to keep them home. That way, they will not catch infections from their peers in school.

If they don't catch infections, we will not need to take them to hospitals, the same hospitals that are admitting coronavirus cases. We are happy to make them study at home and to post their homework online. And life goes on.

Which is all very good, but what does it say about the society that we are building when some children's lives have not been disrupted while others have gone back to 19th century pre-occupations such as herding, hunting and fetching firewood in "the jungle"?

My friend Boniface Mwangi once tweeted that Kenya's middle class is a phone call away from poverty. You only need one relative with a terminal illness to call you and in an instant, you slide down into poverty.

Which means that we are all living in a "snakes and ladders" society in which you can climb up one minute and slide back down the other.

Once, while on a trip to Europe, a fine woman asked me whether I was American.

"No. I am African," I said proudly.

"But you are not black. You are chocolate!" She chimed. I almost believed her.

Think about it. The middle class in Kenya is like that. Just because our finances are chocolate, we assume they will never be black. That is why we need to think seriously about safety nets for vulnerable workers who are at risk of sliding into mid-life poverty on account of their jobs being afflicted by Corona.

And while at it, we also ought to develop policies that will cushion small and medium enterprises from short- and medium-term economic shocks caused by the pandemic. The men and women who run these outfits are the major drivers of employment.

Rather than threaten them with the big club of the law, policy makers, the taxman and county governments should consider training them to be compliant. Many of them understand that complying is cheaper in the long run.

However, corrupt enforcement officers benefit from extorting those who fall off the compliance wagon. As such it is not in their interest to encourage compliance. And so, we perpetuate the vicious cycle.

The upshot is that we all end up paying a needlessly high price of sustaining the economic inefficiencies caused by corruption and made worse by inequality.

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