on 22 March 2009
In the early `90's I used to travel frequently on business to Africa - but primarily West Africa and usually Nigeria. I enjoyed it (mostly) and learned a great deal and met some wonderful people - but I did find it extraordinarily stressful. It was always a relief and relaxation to make a trip to Kenya. Warm, friendly, educated people living in a truly beautiful country. I only had the most superficial view/experience of it but it did seem to me to be a largely successful country which sat outside the stereotype of African countries.
I thoroughly enjoyed both of Michaela Wrong's early books - particularly the second about Eritrea and so was looking forward to this. It is a painful, shocking and illuminating read. Other reviewers here have commented well on the contents. What struck me by the end was the complicity of the British in a thoroughly corrupt political process - with a few notable exceptions such as Sir Edward Clay - and, indeed, worsening it through the totally mistaken implementation of DfID policies under Hilary Benn. When I read those splendid statements about our government's commitment to relieving poverty and strengthening democracy in Africa - I had no idea of the reality on the ground.
I thoroughly recommend this book - it should be read by every government minister - past, present and future - and by anyone interested in Africa.
on 1 March 2009
For anyone with an interest in Kenyan politics or recent African history, John Githongo's whistle-blowing story is not news in March 2009. The story first broke in January 2006 and caused something of a small storm in the pages of newspapers in the UK and a hurricane across Kenya's intelligentsia. It was, therefore, with bewildered curiosity that I approached reading "It's our turn to eat". I wondered why Ms Wrong thought Githongo's story - about being a corruption-excoriating journalist , to government anti-corruption czar, to frustrated fugitive in fear of his life - was not, by the standards of this insatiable journalist worth any more than a column in a sensibly selected liberal newspaper or political journal. But, no, Ms Wrong felt this story and its context to be so important that she chose to use it as her third vehicle in (what I see as becoming) her treatise : "Africa, a dysfunctional continent".
Having read her first two books with much enthusiasm, I was puzzled. Kenya is a much photographed and written-about country. It is instantly familiar to people throughout the world mostly for its sandy beaches, volcanic lakes teeming with birdlife, vast savannas and snow-capped mountains. I couldn't see what there was to write about in Kenya for a fearless journalist who was physically present braving bullets at the collapse of the Mobutu regime in the then Zaire and who managed to dig into the entrails of Eritrea's tortured history. Surely, I thought, there were more interesting, more challenging places to investigate than Kenya. After all, even taboo subjects like Mau Mau had been picked over and exhaustively examined by Westerners like Caroline Elkins and David Anderson. I was hopelessly wrong.
In "The Godfather", Don Vito Corleone instructs his burly lieutenant, Luca Brasi, to investigate a potential business partner with circumspection. "See what he has under his fingernails," says the Don. This is exactly what Ms Wrong has done with Kenya. In her research into the country, she refused to take anything or anybody at face value. In so doing she managed to unearth truths about the country which will make uncomfortable reading for most Kenyans and their many friends. She paints a picture of an unremarkable African country in thrall to a tribal community with ideas well above its station. A country stupidly refusing to accept that it is teetering ever more precariously on the edge of a vast abyss from which there can be no return.
John Githongo - a close friend of Ms Wrong who will, I am sure, have winced at her description of his sometimes uncaring dismissal of her time (the expression she uses for being ignored by John is being "Githongoed") - turns out to be the unlikely hero of Kenya's long ignored masses. Unlikely, for Githongo belongs to a significant minority of Kenyans: its Kikuyu middle class.
Despite being repeatedly Githongoed, Ms Wrong gets underneath the fingernails of this self-important mass of people and learns things about them and their country which have, until now, been conveniently ignored. What she is able to capture in "It's our turn to eat" is the thing which escaped President Kibaki and his clique of "wazee" (old men) when they chose to select Githongo - a man whose own credentials were beyond reproach - as their disguise; the clean face to show the world while they carried on "eating" behind the scenes.
In assuming that Githongo thought like they did, the wazee forgot a fundamental point. The education and lifestyle John Githongo's parents had afforded him set him well apart from them; he thought in ways they would never understand. His generation did not grow up in a village running about barefoot. They were weaned while watching Rupert the Bear on television, learned to read through Ladybird's Janet & John, swapped Enid Blyton novels in primary school with their friends and were more likely to look upon Biggles than Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi (a Mau Mau warrior) as a hero. Githongo's parents (and their contemporaries) might have done the best by their children but in so doing they had ensured that forever more their children were not like them.
Ms Wrong picks this up expertly. She is cannily able to identify that people of Githongo's ilk are more relaxed having a conversation in English than Kikuyu, more likely to switch television channels to the BBC than listen to a heavily Kikuyu-accented minister like Chris Murungaru and more desirous of a holiday in New York than a sojourn in Muranga. The purple prose employed by former British High Commissioner, Sir Edward Clay, would not have been lost on the likes of John Githongo. He and his friends probably sniggered into their sleeves while the wazee cringed at Clay's cheeky employment of his version of A.A. Milne's "The King's Breakfast". This is the perfect whistle blowing generation. And it took a muzungu (white person) journalist to pick this up. Shame on Kenya!
This book has more in common with her first, "In the footsteps of Mr Kurtz", than it does with her second, "I didn't do it for you". Unlike the latter, a scholarly historical work, this book is about capturing a moment in time, attempting to place it in its historical context and imagining what the future may hold for a country.
Best of all, Ms Wrong, much like she did in "In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz", peppers her work with vignettes of personal experience: she was one of the journalists warily present at the chaotic victory celebrations in Nairobi in January 2003 and was there when Nairobi, Kisumu and Eldoret exploded in January 2008. In reading her book, one gets the feeling of watching a pot of explosive ingredients slowly bubble away. By the last chapter, the lid has blown off the pot and Kenya is engulfed in flames.
I would hate to describe Ms Wrong as a Jeremiah but if this book is not taken seriously, there is no telling what may happen to Kenya.
on 15 December 2009
I have been visiting Kenya many times over the last 5 years doing a community nutrition project. have been familiar with the term "it's our turn to eat" from the very beginning. Have friends that have suffered from being the wrong etnic group and have seen the consequences of the riots during the elections in 2007 and I have had to pay my way through customs etc.I just had to read this book. I knew that the corruption is a big problem, from this book I learned how big a problem corruption is and from this knowledge I can see how ordinary people suffer from this. Whatever you do it cost you some extra - in banks, public offices, police and on you have ti pay "kitu kidogo" a little something. Otherwise life becomes very hard for you, maybe even impossible. I feel so sad for all the struggeling people in Kenya. It seems like whatever they do their government seem to do their best to prevent the people to get out of the pit of poverty that they are in.
I took my book to Kenya to read during my stay not knowing that this book is not allowed sold in Kenya. Left my book there since many would like to read it.
Would you like to learn more about how corruption works in Kenya and in any other country I guess, this is the book to read.
on 23 February 2009
The book is excellently written and the exhilarating narratives touched a few chords in me. The author's artistic talents, her brutal honesty as well as her reflective and stinging humorous style of writing have won her my respect and out-and-out approval. I have come to learn that Ms Wrong knows Kenya and Kenyan politicians very well. I hope the story will help Kenyans and other Africans like me ponder over the affliction of corruption in our continent. As far as I am concerned, the book is also an important signpost to donor nations.
John Githongo, the main character in the book, who is brave enough to face the corrupt leaders of Kenya, deserves to be nominated for a major award. I wish him all the best.
on 2 June 2009
This is the first of Michela Wrong's books that I have read and I enjoyed it immensely. I have never been to Kenya (although my father was born in Nairobi en route to India) but I could almost smell the trash in Kibera slum and touch the grandiose hardwood furniture in State House just from reading it. Michela's earthy prose certainly shows that it's not one big game park but a modern African country grappling with the transition from a largely agrarian Shamba economy to a bustling,commercial hub underwritten by aid flows. Change of that sort is difficult thing to manage and all to often the promised improvements of development never actually occur for many people. Well researched, warmly if rather dramatically written, it would have been an interesting book in my view even if it wasn't about John Kithongo. I also think that it brings a welcome and not very flattering spotlight to bear on the opaque world of Dfid, the World Bank and their methods and procedures.
on 2 May 2010
I spent a decade in Kenya from the mid 80s to 90s and was keen to know what has happened since myself and Moi left!
I was unable to put the book down.
I found Wrong's view erudite, well written and enlightening. I have many friends in Kenya some of whom have been able to work the system and some who are victims of it, an inequality which one day I hope will be addressed.
The west's collusive relationship with which ever political party happens to be in power is shameful. It was time someone wrote about how those whom we place our faith in to spend our taxes wisely have an agenda which typically has only self interest as their primary goal. I would have liked to have read more about David Munyakei, it's heartening to read that their will always be some, who are willing to stand up for what they believe in, no matter what the cost.