By MAINA KIAI
Some months ago, I flew from Sao Paulo to London on British Airways. The first snack on the plane was nuts produced by the Kenya Nut Company! Wow! A Kenyan company with a global contract with British Airways!
And a few weeks before that, the packaging of the soap in the Geneva hotel where I stayed stated it was made from Fair Trade Avocado Oil from Kenya. I took a picture of it!
I doubt that Kenyan authorities assisted in promoting these Kenyan products globally, but I felt an enormous sense of pride as a Kenyan and for Kenya.
I have been thinking of that feeling since then. I am not linked to these companies or products, except as a sometime consumer of nuts by Kenya Nut Company. So why would I feel so connected to find them simply because of the common linkage to Kenya?
Would I have felt the same way had the nuts or soap been from China, US, Lebanon or Brazil for instance? Clearly not! But had they been from Ghana, Swaziland or Rwanda, I would have felt a tug at my heartstrings, as I felt when I found shirts made in Lesotho being sold in the US.
Part of this sense of pride is from how infrequently we see products from Kenya and Africa in the global marketplace. We don’t expect products in the global market to be from Africa, even when we know the raw materials are African. Thus while the wonderful Belgian or Swiss chocolate is made from Ivorian or Ghanaian cocoa, that fact is not acclaimed in the packaging or marketing.
Kenya has top-quality products but we have limited ambitions. We don’t market or promote them sufficiently, content to think small. There is no reason why Kenyan nuts are not served on Emirates airline, or sold in supermarkets across the world.
Yes, we have moved from the days of the Moi regime, where we were constantly reminded to see the failed state of Somalia as our baseline.
Today we are touting that we are the fourth-largest economy in Africa, despite our unsustainable inequalities. But where are we at the global level? Why aren’t we aiming to be one of the top 50 economies? Why aren’t we marketing what we have globally?
Take Kazakhstan, for example. It got independence in 1991 as a fragile state unsure of its survival let alone development. Today it is about to become an international donor, and aims at being among the top 30 countries in the world by 2050.
And apart from our products we also have human resources that can compete globally. I am still in awe of Victor Owour, a graduate of engineering from MIT, the world’s top engineering university, and also a graduate of Harvard Law School and now a finance specialist.
We have Gerald Mahinda at Kellogs and formerly of Diageo; Lupita Nyong’o, whose success speaks for itself; Binyavanga Wainaina; Ngugi wa Thiong’o; Makau Mutua, who was dean for many years at SUNY Buffalo Law School in the USA; and Calestous Juma at the Kennedy School of Government in the USA, to mention just a few.
The other part of this sense of pride is patriotism, which this regime raises often, resurrecting dialogue that we thought we buried with the end of the Moi/Kanu era. The re-emergence of this talk is a sign of the regime’s limited legitimacy, as it was before. And just like then, they imply that patriotism means accepting the dictates of the regime with no public dissent or challenge: That we should accept and move on.
But that is not patriotism: That is sycophancy.
Patriotism is about pride in the hard-earned achievements of “our own” that make us proud; hence, we celebrate our runners and sevens rugby team. It is not about pride in people simply because they hold certain positions.
And patriotism also means questioning decisions and actions frankly and fearlessly, even on tough issues like insecurity, the approach to dealing with terrorism, corruption and tribalism within government.