With all our degrees, why are we scared of answering official communication?

A graduation ceremony at the University of Nairobi on December 5, 2014. FILE PHOTO |

What you need to know:

  • It is not too difficult to work out why the Kenyan workplace is now full of officers who are allergic to answering official letters.
  • Let us remember that omission and neglect of duty are equally debilitating forms of corruption.

So you have written to your bank, insurance company, or the Lands office, making a query or drawing their attention to some discrepancy in your account. You wait for seven, 14, even 20 days, but receive no response to your letter.

Reluctantly, you leave your own work and go off to the relevant office to ask for a response to the letter you wrote. As soon as you finish explaining to the person you are directed to why you have camped in their office, s/he asks, “What was the letter about?”

You gasp in disbelief because as s/he asks this question, s/he is staring at the very letter you wrote. Is it that they cannot read, did not read, or will not read?

You paraphrase your query slowly and finish off by asking, once again, for a response to your letter. “Oh, hii iko sawa”, s/he says.

What? What is it that is alright?

Your letter contained at least three questions plus a column of figures that needed to be reconciled against the records of this office that is now giving you a terminal earache. So which one of these questions is this officer answering so casually?

Why hasn’t anyone in the organisation actually written back to you all this time, even if it is to give this inadequate “hii iko sawa” response?

Why, in this day of cellphones and multiple digital communication platforms including email, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and telegram, must you burn precious (wo)man hours sitting before some half-interested officers struggling to draw official answers out of them like an entomologist battling to draw blood from a fly?


It is not too difficult to work out why the Kenyan workplace is now full of officers who are allergic to answering official letters. Clearly, the massive expansion of the education sector over the past 15 years has created some very unfortunate outcomes.

One of these is a corpus of graduates who are immobilised by the written word on paper or are utterly incapable of making a decision. Not even the decision to pass on a difficult query to people more senior and experienced than they are.

Another outcome of the growth in the number of graduates might very well be that in these haki yetu days, someone told organisations that the quickest way to avoid a lawsuit is to ensure that there is no paper trail — so, do not respond to letters.

Pretty dumb advice as far as rights and responsibilities go, but then this is the country whose 194-page Constitution carries 252 references to the rights of citizens, 18 references to the responsibilities of government (and government officers), and zero reference to the responsibilities of citizens.

Still, you would think that one of the obvious responsibilities that an employee has is to get the job done.

How does that happen when the whole institutional culture seems to be chronically averse to written communication?

Regardless of how mediocre the education we are churning out might be and whatever rights we are guaranteed by the Constitution, the riddle before us now is this: how do we optimise on efficiency from staff who neither read nor respond to correspondence? 

Is it the levels of on-the-job training that must be increased and improved or do we revise the curriculum in our primary and secondary schools?

Should looking people in the eye and writing thank you and apology letters be incorporated into the madrassa and Bible study courses that Kenyans now spend so many hours attending, or should we ask one of our celebs to sing a song that teaches the spiritual value of answering the question that one has been asked?

How do we get past this flippant, almost laissez-faire, culture in the workplace and start behaving like an educated population?

There are now enough graduates per square kilometre of tarmac in Kenya to rival any in the developed world. So why is our behaviour not equal to this staggeringly high number of degrees? Why do we persist in feet-shuffling, time-wasting rituals of orality in an age when communication technology has cut every task by half?

As we fight the corruption of those who syphon millions from our public coffers, let us remember that omission and neglect of duty are equally debilitating forms of corruption.

Dr Nyairo is a cultural analyst. [email protected]