The Most Metal Wins

A minibus stormed past me this morning as I was running by the side of the road. It was accompanied by thunderous engine noise and a stormcloud of black diesel exhaust. As it neared my shoulder it let out a terrifying trumpet of motorhorn blowing. I kept running, but only just.

Of course I was expected to leap into the bushes. The rule of the road, here in Kenya, is that he with the most metal wins. Motorists don’t so much give way as back down. Vehicles and, by extension their drivers, are arranged in an hierarchy depending on how much metal there is in their vehicles. Pedestrians and joggers are at the bottom.

The hierarchy seems to be a very kenyan thing. In a tradiional family, the father is boss. In a village the chief is boss; from what I can tell he effectively tells everyone what to think. There are stories (told among development workers) of development workers approaching villages with (most likely unsustainable) schemes to sink bore-holes and such. When they approach individual families within a village either all agreed or all rejected the idea because, basically, the first one went to see what the chief said and then it was settled. The cheif tells people what to think. I don’t know if these stories are true, but its an interesting perspective and could help explain some of my classroom problems. Suppose you don’t **need** to think, because you are used to someone telling you what to think? Then when someone like a teacher, someone higher up the hierarchy than you due to their age, education and status, comes into your classroom, well, you don’t need to think do you? You just memorise whatever they say and regurgitate that since, like your chief, it is the teacher’s role to tell you what to think.

Another example of the importance of hierarchy in this society comes from a recent conversation (with other volunteers and not with Kenyans) about Edward Clay, the ex British High Commissioner who described certain Kenyan politicians as Eating lik gluttons until they vomit on their shoes. Strong words indeed, but its interesting to put it in context a little: Another European diplomat gave a list of Kenyan sayings that he dislikes. Among them was “its our time to eat”, which is, apparently, used by some Kenyan politicians to justify their seemingly excessive lifestyles. But when they say it they are completely serious. From what I can see, tradition here suggests that when you are a kid, you are at the bottom of the hierarchy. When there is meat on the table it is given first to the adults (men first, of course) and children are given plain ugali despite theire greater nutrition needs. As those children grow up they have a strong sense of where they fit int the hierarchy. If they are fortunate enough to become politicians (and remember the whole political system here is more closely tied in with the traditional system of tribal rule) they are effectively elders of great standing. Of course **now** it is their turn to eat, and to eat meat.

I have heard of, though sadly not read, an article in the newspaper wherein a Kenyan politician was being criticised for buying himself a Honda instead of a Mercedez or some other high-status car. All this despite recent criticisms of Kenyan officials wasting huge sums of money on their cars. We might thing this economical man should be applauded for his moderation. But, so the story goes, he was criticised for not taking advantage of the privilige that was rightfully his: his time to eat. Everyone expected him to take a car with more metal.


  1. will Says:

    I had thought about that as well. I think power should be given to children for them to get used to it, so when they grow up they will not abuse it. Children who get to make their own decisions and understand the consequences of such decisions tend to be less abusive when in power over others.

    "it is our time to eat" is a logic which manifests itself into different languages and phrases on various continents. Perhaps ultimately we need some Kafka logic, in one of his stories he wrote about a society where all politicians should be executed at the end of their terms so they would have no incentive to be corrupt, since they never get enjoy the fruits of corruption. The public execution takes place with great deal of festivities celebrating a politicians willingness to serve the public.

    Perhaps that is a solution for Kenya. hahaha

  2. Mark Says:

    Since a term in politics **is** supposed to be in public service, there would seem to be some sense in making sure the politicians don’t take advantage of their positions. Of course they might be able to enjoy their time to eat while they are in service and would have considerable incentive to do so. I can’t help thinking that something a little less drastic might be more appropriate however.

    Taking advantage of one’s position is what I was writing about in the previous entry.

    Now you ask what my plans are post VSO. Surely I will be sumarily executed at the end of my service to prevent me from taking advantage of the considerable social — not material — advantage that voluntary service has given me. 😛