The day I left office, my phone literally ceased to ring

What you need to know:

  • As vulnerability pushes you towards people you know, most within our culture find it convenient to avoid you.
  • While Lord Sebastian Coe is still relevant in British Athletics, Kenyans hardly remember which Kenyan broke Coe’s 800m record and make him relevant to our sporting industry.
  • Those who made the most money from the public through unscrupulous means are today the most relevant in society, which has led to breaches of ethical behaviour.

Over the past one year, I have been informally doing a unique kind of research, which was prompted by my experience after leaving public service.

I have talked to more than 150 people, including those who retired from high-profile jobs, lost an election after serving the people, retired from athletics, and even those who have either been fired or otherwise dropped from top jobs.

Their responses show a convergence on the experience that their relationships with people deteriorate when their fortunes appear to nose-dive.

The Kenyan culture is such that people attach value to friendship, but their friends value them for their money or influence.

The day I left office, my phone literally ceased to ring. My “friends” had moved on. I found myself checking my phone to establish if I had inadvertently put it off. The phone was fine.

Prior to my departure from office, receiving 30 calls an hour was not unusual.  Although most calls were work-related, there were many social calls from many old and new friends, people you would expect to keep in touch with even when you left high office.  Strangely, such calls cease until you establish a new kind of relevance. 

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The number of e-mails I received dropped from as high as 200 a day to a paltry five, mostly from foreign friends asking what I was up to.

It is this immediate frustration that complicates a smooth transition from a hectic, busy schedule to a normal life.  From the interviews, I came to discover that our culture dictates that unless you are useful, you are irrelevant to society.

Although it is normal to feel indignant, vulnerable, and angry after losing a job, people around you can make a difference. However, as vulnerability pushes you towards people you know, most within our culture find it convenient to avoid you. 

It is at this point that one must take control of the situation by finding something to maintain your spirits. Even though we rarely keep data on this phenomenon, many high-profile public servants in Kenya have died within the first five years of their retirement because they never prepared to deal with a deflated ego. 

'LONELINESS AND ABANDONMENT'

Sharing this kind of knowledge may unravel many critical issues in today’s Kenya. It might even reveal that the reason why leaders want to cling to power, or amass wealth, is related to their efforts to remain relevant. 

Before I get to more complex issues of culture and how it precipitates abuse of constitutional order in Africa, let me start with simpler aspects of this culture. My discussions with athletes have revealed many hidden secrets of betrayal and abandonment.  

Some retired athletes owned up regarding their painful experiences after being abandoned by even those they helped when times were good. 

As long as they made money from their international meets, they were great men, attracting great followership. As soon as the money spigots dried up, “friends” walked away. 

Unfortunately, some of these heroes ended becoming drunkards and depressed out of loneliness and abandonment. The culture of ‘benefits or nothing’ in emergent Kenyan relationships has consigned them into oblivion yet they flew our flag high at the height of their careers. 

While Lord Sebastian Coe is still relevant in British Athletics, Kenyans hardly remember which Kenyan broke Coe’s 800m record and make him relevant to our sporting industry.

Many politicians attempt to salvage their self-image after losing an election by buying as many people as possible, so that next time they can win and become relevant. The fact is that this same politician will want to recover the lost wealth upon recapturing political office.

This renewed wealth will, needless to say, come from the public till. In essence, we have put ourselves on a self-destructive path in which one’s social relevance is determined by money and position.

As culture puts benefits ahead of sustainable relationships, we make many of those close to us to seek material wealth that will give them sustainable relevance to people.  This is where corruption starts.

OVERLOOKING REFORMS

Those who made the most money from the public through unscrupulous means are today the most relevant in society, which has led to breaches of ethical behaviour.

‘Conflict of interest’ is largely a foreign word since everybody wants to make money and remain relevant in this society long after they leave. Greed is the product of fear precipitated by a culture that worships status.

It is such fears that perhaps lead many presidents in Africa into flouting their constitutions in order to cling to power as they search for ways of remaining relevant to their people much longer.

The longer someone stays in the same position, the more likely that they will be overconfident and overlook much-needed reforms to salvage their organisations or countries.

We have seen this in Mumias, Kenya Airways and Uchumi. Economies of countries such as Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Guinea Bissau and others deteriorate when leaders cling to power.  There is much to learn from other countries.

In Japanese culture for example, the country comes first. People will die for their country without question.  Friendship comes second, and people will be willing to die for the sake of their friends.  The individual comes last. 

Some of the theories that arise from Japan rarely focus on an individual. For example, “Kaizen,” a management theory which refers to activities that continually improve all functions, involves all employees from the Managing Director to the assembly line workers.

They trust that their country will always take care of them and a friend will always be a friend, and such assurances mitigate against wanton greed. In most cases, whenever there is such greed, it often appears misplaced.

Africans were more honest when family support systems were intact. However, modernity has destroyed those systems. In recognition of this dire cultural situation, the African Union has developeda Charter for African Cultural Renaissance.

EXPLAINING HOW WE FEEL

In Kenya, there is a debate around the development of a cultural policy and legislation to sustain our cultures.  Prof Kimani Njogu of Twaweza Communications passionately argues that we shall lose much of what used to bring us together as a people if we fail to develop a unifying policy.

While in other parts of the world – where the culture is more expressive – people are able to explain themselves, we struggle to even explain how we feel. 

For example in the US, when someone loses a job and becomes depressed, the doctor could simply say the person has post-traumatic stress syndrome. There is no language in Africa that can explain that condition effectively.  Those who may try may just say amerogwa (the person has been bewitched), which is a way of explaining the inexplicable.

The person’s mental health then deteriorates further and eventually becomes deranged, which serves to confirm the African diagnosis.

In the past, when families were close-knit, these problems hardly arose because there was a social support system.

Even as we work to develop a cultural policy for the country, there is much learning that must take place where the hierarchical systems must be demystified but respected. And as we work towards the revival of our culture, we must bear in mind that there are bad aspects of these cultures.

For example, African cultures must recognise women as part of cultural changes that would give rise to new African cultures.  We must discard retrogressive underage marriages and give everybody the right to education. Culture is not static and we can revise it for our own sake. 

Author Frances Hesselbein once said "Culture does not change because we desire to change it. Culture changes when the organization is transformed; the culture reflects the realities of people working together every day."

We must begin to transform our cultures as a basis of building our future together.

The writer is an Associate Professor at the University of Nairobi’s Business School.Twitter: @bantigito