Persuader or chastiser? The problem with Kagwe’s speeches

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Photo credit: Ondari Ogega | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • In the words of one linguist, he is a class prefect on steroids; quick to reprimand and censure but slow to motivate and convert.
  • In the 130 statements, Mr Kagwe makes an attempt to reassure Kenyans of the government’s control of the pandemic but hardly discloses the details of how that control is practised.

  • Language expert Ben Kojwang’ also notes that Mr Kagwe likes using the communication style of personification


Words, like strings to a basket, are the stuff that weaves together great messages.

Their choice is important, their arrangement significant, just as the choice of strings is central to the determination of the quality of a basket.

So, how has Mr Mutahi Kagwe, the colourful Cabinet Secretary for Health, fared in this regard? Have his speeches on containing or beating Covid-19 met the threshold of quality? What tone have they adopted, and to what effect on the country’s entire communication approach to the war on coronavirus?

These are some of the questions the Sunday Nation has been grappling with in recent weeks, and to get answers to them, we have spent days poring over every speech Mr Kagwe has made on Covid-19 since March 13 this year, when he announced the first case of coronavirus infection in the country.

We have analysed every word – all of the 324,558 linguistic expressions in his 130 statements to two weeks ago – and examined its place in clauses and sentences, then pitted those expressions against proven communication approaches to gauge the efficacy of Kenya’s communication on Covid-19.

And the verdict is out; Mr Mutahi Kagwe, Kenya’s unlikely hero in the Covid-19 era, is an admonisher and chastiser, and scarcely a persuader. In the words of one linguist, he is a class prefect on steroids; quick to reprimand and censure but slow to motivate and convert.

And, ominously, in every health communication book, those are not the traits of a persuasive person seeking to influence long-term behaviour change.

Public statements

But, to give credit where it is due, Mr Kagwe, despite his chilling admonitions on TV, has maintained a constant conversation on coronavirus in the country and became the greatest, most visible change agent when dialogue around the virus had not gained pace.

So forceful were his public statements at the beginning of the pandemic that The Wall Street Journal described him as “Kenya’s unlikely coronavirus hero” and likened his postures to those of America’s top infectious diseases expert, Dr Anthony Fauci.

But it is when you get to scientifically examine his speeches that you realise Mr Kagwe might be losing his audience, if he hasn’t already. Kenyans initially made fun of his tone, facial expressions, and choice of words, but with time they have started to shut him out, to see him more as a vexatious, irksome pain in their collective necks rather than a messenger of hope and faith. Reactions to his speeches on social media have followed this trajectory.

To study Mr Kagwe’s 324,558 words, we adopted a two-pronged approach: a qualitative computer analysis of the words he uses most and least, and a logical and lexical semantics inspection of them by a panel of linguists.

The text analysis software NVivo filtered out his top 30 words, which we then scrutinised manually to establish their positions in clauses, sentences and paragraphs, and then asked our panel of language experts to examine their lexicographical roles in those positions and whether moving them around or dropping them completely would have changed the intended meanings.

In the 130 statements, Mr Kagwe makes an attempt to reassure Kenyans of the government’s control of the pandemic but hardly discloses the details of how that control is practised.

Flouting curfew rules

By far, the most recurring word is cases, used 350 times by the last count, mainly when the minister is reporting the numbers of those infected, those who have died, or those arrested for flouting curfew rules.

Save for health, Mr Kagwe’s top 10 words – disease, one, county, country, tests, national, coronavirus, and Kenyans — are used in the context of instructions to the public on measures such as social distancing, and in directives to county governments. His 10 least used words are embrace, endeavour, grateful, fought, funerals, immoral, healthy, heavy, late and enjoy.

These words indicate human connection. Even when uttered in negative connotations, they are about something people can connect to; why it is immoral, for instance, for a young man to expose himself to infection then go home and inadvertently infect and kill his parents.

Dr Pamella Oloo, chair of the Department of Linguistics and Literary Studies at Maseno University, has observed how differently the minister and his administrative secretaries Mercy Mwangangi and Rashid Amman communicate.

“The words cases or health, for instance, are also used by both Dr Amman and Dr Mwangangi, but the only time you hear complaints about scolding is when Mr Kagwe utters them, because words only take another meaning when tone and facial expressions are added,” says Dr Oloo.

The lecturer, who is currently researching the government’s communication of Covid-19, says Mr Kagwe may not be aware of it, but his lips “take a different shape” when he answers questions about the speech he has just read, or when he adds his interpretation of what was written.

“The pictures of him on the Internet make you wonder whether photographers just wait to capture the moments when he is sneering,” says Dr Oloo.

The speeches also show that the minister often expresses pride towards healthcare workers (more than 80 times) and declares how much he is committed to protecting them (roughly 50 times).

Careful and strategic

Where a disease is categorised as “emerging” and “novel”, such as Covid-19, various communication models have a commonality on the two things that people want to know: assessing the risk of the disease, and what will become of them if they get infected.

In assessing the disease, the public often looks to ministries of health to answer questions such as: “How likely am I to become seriously sick?”, “What is the high-risk group and am I in it?”, and “Are there places that I should avoid?”.

Salome Bukachi, professor of medical anthropology at the University of Nairobi, says success in managing and answering these questions depends on people’s behaviour, which “will introduce them to a disease, make them survive it or die of it, and pull them out of it eventually, so you really want to be careful and strategic in what you tell them”.

When he was appointed to office in the middle of a pandemic, Mr Kagwe was tasked with the challenge of changing Kenyans’ behaviour. This involved getting people to not only practise social distancing, but also wear masks, sanitise their hands, and do it for a long period of time.

Unfortunately, he and his communication advisers adopted the first rule forbidden in the checklist of persuasion: telling people what to do.

Directives aren’t particularly effective in driving sustained behaviour change, because when others try to influence people’s decisions, people tend to push back, says Prof Bukachi. Biology and psychology kick in and our innate anti-persuasion radar raises our defenses, and we even go as far as counter-arguing the messaging, conjuring up all the reasons why what the communicator suggests is untrue.

To this defiance, Dr Oloo adds, is Kagwe’s lack of differentiation between what it means “to be sick” and “to be ill” of Covid-19.

“When you say people test positive and you want them to be careful, but then they are okay and still taken to isolation centres where they are seen dancing, people start wondering whether this disease is something to be afraid of at all,” explains Dr Oloo.

It did not help that Mr Kagwe’s stern tone came around the same time security forces descended on the public, beating people up and arresting them for flouting government restrictions aimed at controlling spread of the virus.

The tone by the CS and the violent arrests “turned Covid-19 into a security matter to be solved with arrests, not a health one to be managed with medicine and behaviour change”, says Dr Oloo.

This week we turned our attention to Mr Kagwe’s rhetorical communication strategies, which, we must admit, he has used quite effectively. He uses slogans and rhymes, words that might breeze through some people but still inspire advertisers. Billboards now have furniture and loan offers that are “abnormally” priced, and the deejay on radio is promising his listeners that he “can gerrit, you can gerrit, we can gerrit”.

Language expert Ben Kojwang’ also notes that Mr Kagwe likes using the communication style of personification — giving human attributes to inanimate things — and that through it he has successfully made Covid-19 appear as a dangerous humanoid that should be fought off.

In a pandemic, however, language should be used less as a way to signal power or inspire rhyme and more as a means to persuade people to embrace behaviour that can save their lives.

The World Health Organisation’s outbreak communication planning guide recommends that the first step before a word is uttered by health officials and ministries of health is mapping the public’s “understanding, demographics, literacy levels, language as well as socio-economic and cultural backgrounds”.

That indicates that Mr Kagwe and his communication advisors should largely be informed by Kenyans’ fears and attitudes towards Covid-19, because this affects how they receive and interpret his daily briefings.

Another linguist and communication expert, Dr Florence Indede, notes that she has never seen Mr Kagwe smile during his press conferences, but then rhetorically asks: “Knowing how Kenyans behave, do you think they would obey information passed to them gently?”

“I see a man who is at pains over why people do not care for themselves and those around them,” says Dr Indede, adding that “given a chance, Mr Kagwe would whip Kenyans”.

Dr Kojwang’ shares Dr Indede’s sentiments, describing the Health minister as “quarrelsome” but categorical, with no sugar-coating of what is at stake. He has also noticed Mr Kagwe has a penchant for using the word you to indicate individual responsibility, but less of the collective we. “This means the onus of preventing and controlling Covid-19 lies with each Kenyan at the individual rather than community level,” says Dr Kojwang’.

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