Charles Onyango Obbo

Restless Ear-to-the-Ground goes on the road; journey to rediscover Mother Africa

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, May 14  2014 at  01:00
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This is a watershed column for me. It is the last one I am writing as a member of and insider in the Monitor/Nation Media Group (NMG) family.
From next week, I will be writing it as an outsider because I am moving from NMG to join Mail & Guardian of South Africa. I will be editor of its new Mail & Guardian Africa, a digital-only pan-African media outfit that will be headquartered in Nairobi. And, last year, I sold all my remaining interests in the Monitor. I thought that was necessary to give me the emotional freedom to explore new frontiers.

So Africa will it is, for me. Over the years, my thoughts about the continent have been evolving, and now I believe I need to unlearn many things I thought I knew about it, and re-examine many views I held.
Of course, there will be obvious and juicy things that a journalist can’t pass; the fact that there is hardly an election African politicians won’t steal, the corruption, the mediocrity, all those are easy shots.
But there are things that run deeper, and that offer more useful insights about the continent than the shenanigans of its politics.

For example, I remember some years in Nairobi, the Society for International Development (SID), held a two-day brainstorming meeting on East Africa in Nairobi. The late Eriya Kategaya was there, so was Richard Sezibera, now the Secretary General of the East African Community (EAC).
We were a small group, so there was enough time for everyone to have their say. And because we were few, the chances of annoying people because of a controversial view was considerably reduced.

In the room was a gentleman I was meeting for the first time – Prof Richard Obudho of the University of Nairobi. He is a specialist in urban matters.
Several people around the room had argued that a future source of instability in the EAC region was the growing slums, and their attendant poverty, social tensions, name it. We were shown some scary numbers about just how big slums in East Africa will be by 2030 or so.

Obudho spoke up; he disagreed. Slums, he said, were “good” because they were transition points between the village and city. The transition of citizens from struggling peasants to workers in the city, he said, was a “good” thing from a modernisation point of view.

Because living in slums was very cheap, and it had better people support systems than, say, Kololo (because ironically everyone is in everyone’s business), it is the only place most people with little or no money, can afford to live in as they work their way up.

And, one could argue, that there is something hypocritical about middle class intellectuals and activists railing against slums.
Middle class lives in Africa’s cities; with a nanny, house help, and driver, are partly possible because of slums. Because these people are paid so little, the only way they can afford to live is to rent a house in the slum and eat from the local night food market there.

Don’t misunderstand Obudho. He still thinks slums are a problem. His bigger point is that we should appreciate what social, political and economic functions they serve. They are not useless or hopeless places.
I became more attentive and open-minded about many urban issues after the encounter with Obudho. I realised that a lot of popular culture and art in Kenya, actually starts in the slums before the middle class kids appropriate it. A group of kids in the slums will develop an interesting style, but they don’t have the money to buy instruments and never get in the media. A rich kid with modest talent gets it, and in a few weeks is performing it on a TV breakfast show.

I have looked at the adoptions of communication technologies in Africa, and they are driven by uncertainty, crime, and mistrust. For example, one of the famous apps developed in Uganda is Mafuta Go, which tells motorists about availability and prices of fuel at different pump stations. However, for it to be meaningful, there needs to be fuel shortages.

The success of mobile money in Africa needed poverty, and its spectacular record in Kenya required it to have high level of mistrust. If I fear that my relative will steal the money I have given him to take to my mother in the village, what do you think I will do if I have an opportunity to send it to her directly via mobile money?

The more I looked around Africa, the more it became apparent that it is an onion, with layers, and layers to peel. So the next few years, it will be a journey of discovery around Africa. And the ear, for sure, will be on the ground.

cobbo@ke.nationmedia.com & twitter:cobbo3