Sunday, September 25, 2011

Why the buck must stop with victims of disasters


Sunday Nation 25 September 2011

Kenya has experienced a number of mishaps in the past few days. The fire at the Sinai slums seems to have marked a turning point in our nation’s fortunes, with a series of bloody crashes on our roads resulting in a mounting body count that one member of Parliament likened to casualties of war.

Scores more died when a house they were putting “finishing touches” to collapsed in western Kenya, while in central Kenya others continued to succumb to the effects of poisonous liquor.

In the midst of all this, stringent voices have been heard exhorting Kenyans to repent and “go back to God” in order to stop any further calamities. Almost all these events are being referred to as “accidents” and a lot of the responsibility is being laid at God’s door. Of course others are going hoarse pointing fingers at government functionaries and officialdom without much effect.

When columnist Macharia Gaitho suggested that average citizens carry a significant proportion of the blame for some of the misfortunes that befall them, enraged commentators came out accusing him of being insensitive to the plight of slum-dwellers. Some argued that one cannot understand the life of the poor unless one experienced it first-hand, a classical case of insisting that one must be a chicken to criticise an egg.

No matter the level of indignation, the blame must be laid squarely where it belongs.

Proximity to the pipeline

The reason the Sinai fire tragedy happened is that poor people are living in close proximity to the pipeline, and when there was a leak, many rushed to collect the flammable liquid right from the source as it were. Buildings are collapsing because they are poorly constructed; people are being killed by liquor because they are drinking poisonous stuff; drivers are causing road crashes because they are not obeying traffic rules, are too tired, or are intoxicated and should not be allowed to drive in the first place.

The buck does finally stop with the individuals who put themselves at risk. Last week we watched on TV as a man who lives in a slum on the approach path of aircraft at Wilson Airport said he will not move despite being warned of the dangers he was exposing himself and his family to. It would have been easier to commiserate with him if he had argued that because of poverty he is unable to find alternative accommodation. His argument that “if the government wants us to build stone structures they should just say so and we will do it” was proof of the cynical impunity that pervades all strata of our beloved country.

Poverty has been made into the stock excuse for all the criminal activity we carry out, and we are bringing up children with a sense of entitlement that enables them to forcefully ask for handouts while warning us that the alternative is a life of crime.

Call to prayer
The call to prayer from all religious denominations will probably change nothing if past similar appeals are anything to go by. Kenyans will congregate and pray, and then go back to their daily routine. Instead of asking Kenyans to pray harder, is it not time our clergy embarked on a project to inculcate in their own congregants values such as fidelity to law and order and respect for human life?

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

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