Sunday, February 27, 2011

It’ll take long for Kenyans to change mindset

Sunday Nation 27 February 2011

As a professional working in the mental health field in this country, I am slowly coming to the conclusion that our politicians are cleverer than we give them credit for.

They have their finger firmly on the pulse of the Kenyan populace, and there is nothing they do without being aware of the likely reaction of their constituents.

Our politicians have discovered, and I fully agree with them, that the average Kenyan is addicted to drama. Of course this should be very clear to anyone watching the Kenyan entertainment scene, from traditional acts to more contemporary gigs.

The obsession with foreign (and the newer local) soap operas on television is only rivalled by our voyeuristic ogling whenever something is happening in Parliament.

We spend days on end speculating about the intentions of the President, the Prime Minister or some other tribal potentate, often infusing this analysis with our own prejudicial opinions based on our ethnic heritage.

We are unhappy when nothing is happening that is potentially destructive to our national cohesiveness. In all this drama, we are very clear about our priorities – whoever belongs to our tribe is always right, and anyone who contradicts him is wrong and fit to be burnt at the stake.

For instance, last week, after I wrote in this column about the futility of seeking a deferral of the ICC cases at the United Nations Security Council, an infuriated reader wrote to me indicating that he was “highly disappointed” with me as well as other opinion writers.

He went ahead and obliquely pointed at some “big geopolitical game shaping political events in Kenya”, and rubbished most opinion pieces in this paper as mere “village talk cloaked in grammatical finesse”!

Of course the reader had read and analysed my piece with his own ethno-political blinkers on, and failed to see anything positive in an argument running counter to his own worldview.

The debate surrounding the president’s nomination of four men to constitutional offices followed a similar pattern, and it became relatively easy to tell which side of the fence a person was to be found based purely on their surname.

Observing these traits that are almost universal among Kenyans, including the so-called “youth”, one is left to inevitably conclude that it will take us a long time before we see real change in our country.

We will have to patiently wait and hope that the tribal chieftains we elect at the next General Election will be of the benevolent type with at least a vestigial iota of national interest in them.

Finally, it must be observed that we have also run out of ideas to deal with this problem in our national psyche. A good example is the subterranean campaign aimed at rallying Kenyans to make a declaration of unity at one O’clock on Monday afternoon. A friend of mine has dismissed it as a revolution without a cause – shouting just because we can.

Despite the noble intentions of the organisers of the February 28 event, it will take more than just a declaration of national unity to end our strange fascination with politicians whose only priority is how to grab and hold onto power.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s school of medicine

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The government is taking Kenyans for a ride

Sunday Nation 20 February 2011

Lately, the Kenya Government has been taking us all for a ride. Despite having some of the best legal minds in its service, the government has engaged in a diplomatic blitz aimed at convincing or compelling the United Nations Security Council to seek a deferral of the cases pending at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague.

A few weeks ago, the Vice-President spent millions of funds gallivanting all over the continent ahead of the African Union Summit in Ethiopia, eventually succeeding in having the Summit endorse a declaration seeking just such a deferral.

The VP did this knowing full well that there was no unanimity in government itself about such a move, even if the majority in the Cabinet could be considered to be in favour of it.

World capitals

Subsequent to its pyrrhic victory at the AU summit, the government has embarked on an ill-fated tour of world capitals, even recalling our envoys from key UN members for a briefing whose aim is to lobby the Security Council to approve a deferral.

Few would have a quarrel with this crazy expenditure of public funds if the ends were publicly supported or even remotely attainable. The problem is that they are not.

ICC process

Firstly, the ICC process has not even officially begun. What the ICC prosecutor has done is to ask the Pre-Trial Chamber to issue summonses to certain individuals he believes were the chief architects of the post-election violence that rocked our country after the 2007 General Election.

The Chamber has not made a ruling yet, so we do not even know if there will be cases against the named individuals or not.

What if the Chamber rules that the Ocampo Six have no case to answer? Our money will have been spent in vain, literally flushed down the drain.

Secondly, in order for the deferral to be approved at the UN Security Council, all the permanent members will have to support it. A single veto is necessary to scuttle the entire effort

As if trying to save us much time, money and heartache, at least one permanent member has vowed to veto any attempts to procure a deferral through the UN system.

Where is the logic in spending large sums of money chasing after a mirage?

Hungry Kenyans

Isn’t the government playing us for fools by pretending to pursue a goal that everyone knows will fail?

Wouldn’t the money be better spent feeding the millions of hungry Kenyans who depend on UN agencies and NGOs to get at least one meal a day? Who is this whole charade meant to benefit, anyway?

In my opinion, the government is pursuing a misguided policy in an attempt to hoodwink a few Kenyans that it has the best interests of their leaders at heart.

If the government was truly interested in ensuring that justice is done for the survivors of post-election violence, it would not only support the ICC process but also set in place mechanisms for a local tribunal to fry the so-called small fish.

But of course as long as some potential suspects continue holding high positions in this government, we should just get used to its disjointed, incoherent policy as far as justice for the PEV survivors is concerned.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s school of medicine

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Education system sickening our children

Sunday Nation 13 February 2011

This past week I have had real cause to fear for the future of our country. At the referral hospital in Eldoret, we saw several children suffering from a psychological disorder called conversion disorder.

This condition is part of a broad range of mental disorders known as somatoform disorders, and is characterised by symptoms suggesting neurological impairment whose cause cannot be found even by the most sophisticated tests available.

Generally, this condition occurs among people with a lot of psychological distress but who are unable to express it because they lack either the language (as is often the case with children) or the opportunity to express it for one reason or another.

Among our young patients, most of the distress could be traced back to the school environment, and we could not help but conclude that many of our schools had become terrible centres of torture.

One of the primary school children we spoke to indicated that the main focus in her school was punishment. The children would be caned severely for dropping in position or scoring lower marks than in a previous examination.

They would be caned if another school or class performed better than their school or class. Indeed, the young lady informed us that their school had target marks for “important” subjects such as Mathematics, English and Science, and anybody scoring below these targets would be caned.

Lower classes

Even children in lower classes are not spared. At one kindergarten in Eldoret town, the children are given so much “homework” that many often fall asleep while trying to complete it at home.

Many kindergartens do not even have a curriculum, and the babies spend inordinate amounts of time trying to master relatively complex principles, including mathematics and long sentences.

Another parent lamented that her son in Form Three in a public school had just been forced to repeat the class because he had not scored the “minimum grade” to move to Form Four.

She is now wondering how she will finance the extra year in school, given that she is a widow surviving on the goodwill of relatives and friends.

The upshot of this is that we are creating a highly stressed population that will in future spend a lot of resources managing chronic physical and psychological illnesses.

In my opinion, the biggest problem is that we have absolutely no idea why we take our children to school.

Many parents take their children to school so that eventually, they get good jobs and elevate the family from the ever-present threat of poverty. As a country, it is not clear whether we have a philosophy underlying our education policy, and if we do, then it must be a horrible philosophy that should never be proclaimed aloud.

National aspirations

Hopefully, as the education “experts” meet to refine our education system in line with the new Constitution, they will examine the underlying philosophy and ask themselves if it faithfully reflects our national aspirations.

If there is no philosophy, let the education ministry ask scholars to help formulate one and policy that will guide all educational institutions in our country.
Alternatively, let us build and equip more mental health centres, and train more mental health workers in preparation for our children’s bleak future.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s school of medicine

Monday, February 7, 2011

Why Kenya can’t go the Tunisia or Egypt way

Sunday Nation 06 February 2011

Events in North Africa and the Middle East have excited comment from all over the world.

Youthful demonstrators have poured into the streets demanding the resignation of their governments, and especially of their despotic rulers.

The demonstrations have been packaged by most press outlets as being spontaneous uprisings as a result of popular frustration with governments that have failed to translate economic growth into tangible benefits for the common mwananchi.

This characterisation is not strictly true. A WikiLeaks memo from as long ago as December 2008 indicated that the US Government was in contact with a leader of the April 6 Movement in Egypt, and had even arranged for him to attend a meeting dubbed the “Alliance of Youth Movements Summit” in Washington DC.

While there, he had managed to hold meetings with government officials, congressmen and members of various American think-tanks.
Among the sentiments expressed by the April 6 Movement were calls for Hosni Mubarak’s ouster and replacement by an interim government pending elections later this year.

The movement was also noted to favour a parliamentary democracy, and was asking for support from the US Government and others to help Egypt on the path to democracy.

Although the US embassy staff in Cairo considered many of the movement’s demands to be unrealistic, after the April 6 movement’s intimate involvement in organising the demonstrations across Egypt in the past few days, it is clear they may have the capacity to influence Egypt’s political future.

It would also be difficult not to see the hand of the US Government in these protests, given the rather close contact they have maintained with the youth movement over the years.

In Kenya, the US Government continues to fund multiple youth groups with objectives similar to those of the April 6 Movement in Egypt as far as democratisation is concerned.

Our politicians, many of them in the same age-group as Mubarak and other African despots, have raised the alarm and asked the US ambassador to stop funding and organising youth groups in the country.

Many have even suggested that the US Government is attempting a “regime change” through these youth groups. After studying a lot of evidence available in the public domain, one would be left in no doubt that one of the US Government’s goals in our country is to effect a leadership change to a genuine democracy where ideas sell more than individual attributes such as tribe and age.

As to whether these efforts will bear the same fruit as they did in the North is, however, debatable. One could argue that those efforts are doomed to fail in Kenya for a variety of reasons, the most obvious of these being the question of tribe in our politics.

It is virtually impossible to galvanise Kenyans behind an idea, no matter how noble, without taking tribe into consideration.

Anarchic coalition

For instance, if one were to organise a popular uprising against the Kibaki-Raila anarchic coalition, we would start hearing exhortations about protecting “our sons” in government and tribal alliances would quickly emerge to prevent widespread expressions of discontent.

Of course we see this kind of tribal balkanisation every time the government feels threatened, so it would not be anything new.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer, Moi University School of Medicine