People are often reminded to stick to their lanes, and yesterday, somebody returned me to mine.
“How can you talk about being broke?!?”
“Shut up. I’ve seen the payslips in that place.”
“Hey, I’m in matatu and I’m still paying rent so-”
“Nkt! You work in advertising. You don’t get to complain.”
Maybe my story needs a little context. Someone died. Someone who used to sit next to me at work. He always put a smile on my face, and was such a fun guy. He earned a really good salary, probably drove a really nice car, and lived in a really nice house. He’d travelled all over the world, and worked for the love of his life – both at the office and at home.
Then a bunch of people walked into his heavily guarded house in one of the safest parts of town, cut a hole in the fence, tied up his watchmen, and shot him. They invaded his posh, beautiful, expensive home and took his life away. Yet when I dared to talk about job security, financial fear, the pain of living, I was asked to shut up because I work at an ad agency. Well guess what. My friend worked here too. It didn’t keep him safe.
Sometimes, I envy jua kali workers. They operate from day to day, focusing only on their next meal. Some walk to industrial area, stand in a line with their IDs in the air, and hope to be chosen to carry sacks around all day. They pray for that 200 bob, walk back home exhausted, black out, and wake up the next day to start all over again. Some drag mkokotenis around the city, or ‘babysit’ for 3,000 bob or less.
I know those people are not in my lane, just like the people who live in Runda and import Rolls Royces aren’t in my lane. But that doesn’t make them any more or less human. They worry just like I do. They worry about how they’ll pay their million dollar mortgage, just like I worry how I’ll pay my 10K rent, and just like the watchman wonders where he’ll get the 500 bob to pay his.
They worry about the safety of their children in the hands of limo drivers, just like I worry how safe my baby is in the school bus, and just like the mboch wonders if her daughter is safe from the guy in the neighbourhood kiosk. They wonder if armed thugs will ambush them in traffic, just like I stare at the potential carjacker next to me in the matatu, and just like the factory worker glances sideways at the people walking next to him on Jogoo Road or City Stadium.
Some people get champagne bottles worth 22,000, others share a pack of chips, or a five bob cup of tea. But they all wonder whether this person really likes them, whether they have a sideways agenda, whether they’ll still respect them in the morning. No matter what lane we’re in, we’re all human. And it’s just as cruel to judge me for my payslip as it is for me to judge you for not having one.
You might have heard that between bills and grown-up responsibilities, kids have more spending money than their parents. You might also consider that given how expensive it is to be rich, the Uhurus of the world may have more problems than we do. I saw a quote once, in Cracked of all places. “Some people will always be ahead. You can’t automatically treat what they have as something you’re being deprived of.”
It’s easy to judge the ‘poor little rich girl or boy’ but keep in mind that just because she earns more than you doesn’t mean her life is better. She has problems too, and … shock-and-horror … some of them might be even bigger than yours.
In some ways, that’s how we all live our lives. We look at the problems in our country – corruption, insecurity, fear, violence, crime. We figure they’re other people’s problems. As long we keep our kids in school, put food on the table, spend another night without some maniac with a gun breaking our doors down, it’s fine.
As long as we stay safe behind our laser security systems, or carry so little money that no robber can benefit from us, then we’re cool. [IRN, last week a mugger unzipped my backpack as I was walking in town. He grabbed my cute little leather purse before I noticed and moved my bag. The purse weighed about half a kilo and was full of one-bob coins. Karma is my friend, no?]
As long as we take care of business on the micro-level, we can throw stones at the glasses houses of the ‘middle-class’ and ‘educated elite.’ At the memorial service, the pastor talked about an African country – he wouldn’t say which one – where it’s illegal to build fences that are more than a metre high. It’s said to be one of the safest countries in the world, so fences are for beauty, not security. Apparently, you can easily spot a Kenyan expat in that country, because their one metre fence has barbed wire.
Why can’t Kenya be like that? Why can’t we find a way to make things better instead of attacking anyone who earns more than the national average of 30,000? I’m not saying I have answers. I’m saying that by attacking my ‘middle-class’ salary, whether you do it via social media or by sitting next to me in a matatu, you’re becoming part of the problem.
When you attack me for daring to have my child in a private school instead of developing the neighbourhood City Council school, you’re not improving education standards. By getting mad at me for having a Resolution card while you don’t, you’re not saving lives at Kenyatta Hospital. By calling me names for having an admirer that spends millions on me, you’re not creating healthier relationships.
How about we let go of this obsession with lanes for a minute and focus on solutions that can help everyone, regardless of their tax bracket. I don’t have any answers right now, but maybe, just maybe, if we put as much energy into solving real problems as we did into mocking people’s [lack of] affluence, we might actually get somewhere as a nation.
♫ Haiya ♫ Harry Kimani ♫