Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina vividly describes Kenya’s jolty climb up the development ladder in his Vanity Fair Article, “Generation Kenya” (July 2007, pp. 84-94). His story is insightful for three reasons; he was there on the streets of Nairobi, he is not a macro-economist with calcified views of what should and should not happen, and he is a good writer. I will attempt to recount for you a little of the story he tells, only with less erudition and description.
Wainaina describes a Kenya that in its youth (independent since 1963) was off to a slow but steady start. But then infrastructure collapse, corruption and power-grabbing throttled the nation into tailspin in the 1990’s. Kenya had corporations and established formal businesses that began to tank. Banks became irrelevant to the average person. Education did nothing for earning a good job. Bars were the only places thriving. Then, an influx of upstart traders began vending used clothes and recycled, refashioned plastic on the streets. Soon the economy seemed to be surviving primarily on subsistence farming and these street vendors. The vendors began to organize into markets and the formal retail businesses collapsed. “The informal sector in Nairobi became the engine of the economy.” (89)
The combination of leftover imperialism (foreign corporations operated in a Kenyan’s name) and an unchecked central government meant that most of the established business in the country was a façade or fast declining into irrelevancy. Wainaina describes the effect on the mindset of the people: “We were a kind of mindless soup, waiting for upliftment from the gods above.” (90) A few large companies and just handful of leaders were not taking Kenya in the right direction.
Just as the informal sector of illegal street vendors became more robust, so did the drive of the people to see their nation changed. Elections to choose a new leader (after a president that clung to power for 22 years) provided a burst of empowerment. “The usual tribal chauvinism and crude political sycophancy vanished. Nations are mythical creatures, gaseous, and sometimes poisonous. But they start to solidify when diverse people have moments when aspirations coincide.” (90) On the day of elections, Wainaina observed: “For one day, the idea of Kenya and its reality were one thing.” (90). A new leader was elected. Enterprising vendors developed responsible, self-sustainable businesses from developed-world refuse.
The author is clear in communicating that all of Kenya’s troubles are solved. Graft is insidious, infrastructure is lacking, disease and poverty are rampant, but this new generation of Kenyans put their nation on the road to development. Often these things are all, we as outsiders, can see. But the economy is growing and Kenya is growing into its own.
We fool ourselves too often when we suppose that our outside businesses and aid will be the perfect remedy to restore a nation to growth and development. For Kenya, the established businesses and plantations were not the key. Now, there are thriving businesses that started from absolutely nothing. There are banks that serve the common person with respect and financial help. It is incumbent on us, the outsiders, to encourage such grassroots efforts instead of bolstering our stale, foreign institutions.