Where Nothing is Sacred

A man called Alex Madaga died a cruel and unnecessary death, but the nation will move on. As it always does.

There was some measured outrage when Alex Madaga died on Friday. He had been in two different ambulances for close to a day, being shuttled between hospitals by his frantic wife and the ambulance crew. At the Kenyatta National Hospital, Kenya’s referral hospital and biggest public health institution, there were no ICU beds, and no one would do anything much to help him. Two of the three other hospitals denied the dying man admission because his wife, Jessica Moraa, could not raise the 200, 000 shillings ($2000) required. The third lacked an ICU and equipment necessary to do much.

Madaga’s death was a clear and cruel violation of his rights as a human being and a patient. Even more, they pointed towards something bigger that ails Kenya as a society, that nothing is sacred.

You can be sure that behind the fact that a referral hospital has less than 30 ICU beds are stories of money diverted to private bank accounts. It has become so common now that stories of the plunder and looting of the nation’s coffers no longer make astonishing headlines. In how many ways can you describe the very simple ways that anyone in a position to eat, eats?

The dilution of the impact of the looting of public funds comes from something else, a kind of disconnect that has now become a national pathos. We would want, for example, to lay the death of Alex Madaga on the doctors and nurses who denied him admission when he most needed it. It would be easy to blame them because they were the commanders in the field, and the decision of whether Madaga got a proper chance to live or not, which he didn’t, lay with them. But that is only one end.

The Kenyan society we have created in the last century is one with one of the highest tolerances for bullshit. There’s no other plausible explanation than a genetic coding that has allowed us to be completely subjective and ignorant of how the scum we give public office are killing us, everyday. The money they steal is meant to do something, for us, and that it doesn’t get done means a basic service will most likely suffer. It might not be the lack of a bed or medicine at a public hospital, it could be the pothole that finally kills someone you love. It is a disconnect that the elite, political, social and economic, have been all too happy to exploit. They know for sure that we think of things like fleas, not seeing how the headlines of billions missing will affect how and what we get.

It is a surprise that we have survived this far as a country. It speaks partially to our ability to meekly take bullshit while pretending to care, only to ‘move on’ a day or so later. It also comes from the culture we have haphazardly meshed into what being Kenyan is. We are a selfish, disconnected people who care shit about others. A lady died a month or so ago after an accident on Thika Road, an hour later, because the people who huddled around her declared her dead even before her heartbeat stopped. The one man who tried to do something couldn’t find an ambulance, and the police dismissed him. Everyone else stood there, doing shit but whispering to each other as the lady cried out in pain and finally died. An entire hour. Sixty whole minutes where people stood around her and did completely nothing to ease her pain or at least try save her life. This weren’t doctors or nurses, they were simple folk on their way home, thinking of no one but themselves and the stories they would tell tomorrow about the woman who died on the side of the road.

It was the American comedian, George Carlin, who refused to complain anymore about politicians because “Well, where do people think these politicians come from? They don’t fall out of the sky. They don’t pass through a membrane from another reality.” To paraphrase the next part “They come from Kenyan parents and Kenyan families, Kenyan homes, Kenyan schools, Kenyan churches, Kenyan businesses and Kenyan universities, and they are elected by Kenyan citizens. This is the best we can do folks. This is what we have to offer. It’s what our system produces: Garbage in, garbage out. If you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you’re going to get selfish, ignorant leaders.”

…and that is exactly what has happened here. We don’t care. We really don’t. We sometimes pretend we do, because it is good manners and we want to appear like good-mannered people. But we don’t. Not at all. We are an ignorant and selfish people, who will steal and kill each other while making excuses borne of self-preservation that our mothers will understand, and we produce politicians, doctors, lawyers and everyone else exactly the same.

Funny enough, this disconnect we have stems from what seems to have been a decision. Every other nation around us has known war in some sort, even Tanzania with its squabbles with Amin. Uganda has had enough, Rwanda had 1994 and the Congo conflicts, South Sudan is burning, as is Somalia. The fires of the DRC burn still, Ethiopia has known war with Eritrea, and so on and so on. Countries born out of conflict are the ones that have the kind of trauma we have. They are excused somewhat into battling this national PTSD. Yet we haven’t. We have known little war, and despite the pains of the North (which we have never care about, again), the 2007/8 PEV (which we couldn’t care less about), the State of Emergency in the 1950s (which largely affected one community and we know shit about), and post election violence in the 1990s, we have little trauma to remember. But we live like people who do.

That makes us easy to scare because we are known for our high threshold for all things bullshit. You can steal from us, kill us, drive over us, slap us, do anything to us. We must be the easiest people to rule because we know in our hearts we do not have the minds for a revolution. We love the status quo too much, even when the status quo is fucking us to poverty and misery, and death. We have a comfort in the known, wishing for a return of Moi, the tyrant who wasted three decades and bled the coffers dry, because we think we need a firmer hand. Like toddlers in a classroom. As if we do not have minds of our own to understand that we have the fate of this nation in our hands. Devolved corruption means you now see your friends and relatives move up the wealth ladders while nothing happens around you.

The death of Alex Madaga will probably be forgotten in under a week. We will pretend we have moved on, and yet we never really do, because it is human to want to solve problems. We will run away from his shadow, and those of the man who killed himself because he owed 12000 bob ($120 bob) to a hospital, and many many others whose stories go untold. We will convince ourselves that perhaps the only way out is to know the right people and get the right tenders, and eat too. Then we will get home and kiss our kids goodnight, and look at them with a straight face and convince them they can be better people than we ever were.

This is our national pathos, that nothing, absolutely nothing, is sacred. We can piss on anything.