Maasai women and children in Lemek, Narok County, Kenya. Photo: Lotte Hughes
Devolution was the buzzword in Kenya this week, as more than 3,000 political leaders and functionaries flocked to Kisumu city for a summit to review progress two years after devolution was introduced as part of major constitutional changes.
The sight of bitter political enemies Raila Odinga (opposition leader, whose stronghold is Kisumu on Lake Victoria) and President Uhuru Kenyatta smiling and dancing together at the opening ceremony had the nation agog. It was the first time Kenyatta had visited Kisumu since he was elected in 2013, but he got a warm welcome from locals. As the Standard newspaper put it, “After two years of incessant fighting over the new governance model, the ‘combatants’ meet at ‘communion table’ as one uneasy family finally eager to embrace each other”.
There were some comic touches. Local traders fell over themselves to sell sodas, beer, fish and other goodies to the visitors, and profits briefly soared. Boda boda (motorbike taxi) riders made a killing ferrying people to and from their hotels to the conference venue. While many of the big players had jetted in or arrived in top-of-the-range chauffeur-driven Land Cruisers and limos, other lower- ranking officials were spotted at the bus station carrying heavy bags and loudly proclaiming on their phones that they had ‘jetted in’ using ‘ndege ile ya chini (ground plane), a reference to buses and matatus (the shared taxis most ordinary citizens use to get about).
Devolution has devolved power and resources from the national government to 47 new county governments. But the transition has been far from smooth. Issues include allegations of corruption on a grand scale, attempted impeachments of county governors for malpractice, failure to deliver promised services, the slow pace of transfer of functions to counties, and county demands for more money from national coffers.
Not that you’d guess there were any problems from the pages of glowing adverts hailing the achievements of each county, placed in newspapers this week by county governments. These progress reports flagged up new hospitals and clinics, improved schools, roads and water supplies, electrification, support for farmers and businesses, ‘architectural marvels’, and so on.
In his address, President Kenyatta spoke of ‘the profound economic transformation of our rural areas’. Raila (as he is commonly known here, no one calls him Mr Odinga) declared ‘we are now looking at an economy that is firing on all cylinders’. Education, health, agriculture, roads and development in general were all now in the process of being wonderfully transformed, according to these two. Apparently, devolution has brought public services ‘closer to the people’.
But what’s actually happening on the ground? Let’s take a reality check in a typical rural area. I spent the week doing research in Lemek, a sleepy village in Narok County, some four hours’ drive south-west of Nairobi en route to the Masai Mara Game Reserve. Most people here are ethnically Maasai, together with some Gikuyu, Somali and Kipsigis. Not a limo to be seen. Just severe drought, poverty, unemployed youth, snotty-nosed kids and rib-skinny cattle (many have died because of drought). Pastoralism remains the bedrock of the economy, though people are increasingly turning to agriculture. This year, the maize has failed; the rains came too late and too little.
People are complaining about the inflated price of food and other essential goods. The recent Garissa massacre by Al-Shabaab and heightened insecurity across Kenya has killed tourism to Mara, which many families here depend upon (it pays children’s school fees, for one thing). What about jobs in the county government; surely (I ask) there are more opportunities now? Nah, only if you know someone important, and you grease palms with ‘kitu kidogo’ (meaning something small, but bribes are now inflated, too). Many bright people with some schooling have in despair turned to drink. Others are turning to Pentecostalism, which offers hope and salvation of a different nature, largely in another world.
The house I’m staying in, with my fieldwork hosts, has no toilet, bathroom, running water or electricity – though it is, relatively speaking, regarded as ‘modern’. We make do, with help from solar energy.
The road to Lemek, once you leave the tarmac, is as bad as it was when I was first here 16 years ago doing fieldwork on Maasai history. It’s like driving on the surface of the moon – a bone-shaking, vehicle-wrecking nightmare. Locals have long complained that the state of the road damages the economy, deters tourists, and keeps development at bay. Never mind the fact that, if you need to be rushed to hospital in Narok, the nearest town, you can easily die on the way, especially in the rainy season when parts of the road become impassable. Successive MPs (and now county government big-wigs) have promised to build a new road, if only people would vote for them. They voted, but nothing changed. Their huge Landcruisers can glide over the potholes, why should they care?
Last December a neighbour, Elizabeth, burned her arm badly when she fell in the fire during an epileptic fit. In most traditional Maasai homes, people keep a small open fire for cooking and keeping warm. The local clinic had done its best to dress the wound, but it was still raw and suppurating. She was clearly in agony, though smiling through the pain. A few days ago Elizabeth was at last taken to hospital in Narok, by good neighbourly Samaritans using a matatu, not an ambulance. She’s waiting for a skin graft. The hospital bill will cripple the family, and the neighbours.
Meanwhile, she and other patients have to lie two or three to a bed. Imagine the torture, since she can’t turn over or have anyone or anything touch her arm? Elizabeth, whose husband has left her for a second wife (no stress there, then), has had two more fits since arriving in hospital. She has (finally) been ‘given’ anti-epilepsy drugs, which could have prevented all this in the first place. ‘Think yourselves lucky,’ say the nurses. ‘Now you are comfortable, soon it will be five to a bed!’
A transformation in public services? Bado (Kiswahili for ‘not yet’).