Kenyan corruption: Love the tea, just not the tea

February 13, 2014 | 11 a.m.

Opinion | Sarah Boadwine and Grace Ellison for The Clarion

Tea is an essential aspect of daily Kenyan life. As classmate Kathryn Eurman so aptly described our Kenyan experience: “Tea. Everyday, all day.” Of course, none of us begrudged the three to five cups a day, because Kenyan tea is delicious. We testified as much by the fact that none of us left the country with tea-less suitcases.

But there is a different tea in Kenya that is just as much a part of the culture. Also called “soda,” “lunch” or “appreciation.” This tea refers to bribes.

Sarah Boadwine records her brush with Kenyan “tea” while job shadowing at The Daily Nation, the Kenyan equivalent to The New York Times:

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One thousand shillings equals about $11.63 in the U.S., a seemingly harmless amount, but one that is now engraved in my mind as evidence of corruption in Kenyan government.

On the day of my job shadow, I was pessimistic about the amount of real life experience I would gain, as my time was being filled with newspaper-reading and pencil-tapping. My mood took a turn for the better when my reporter told me we had to go out on assignment.

The press conference was held by the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture and focused on food safety. This is not the most exhilarating topic, but one that I was happy to observe. There were around 40 reporters in the room. All of them were from different media houses and wanted any detail they could gain over their opponents. This seemed like any other press conference.

After the minister of agriculture was done speaking, it was time for all the reporters to leave -- but not without a cup of Kenyan tea and 1000 shillings to boot, which was offered to us by the Ministry itself. In the U.S. there are strict rules that prohibit journalists from accepting gifts from their sources. Even receiving tea would not be acceptable. This was the first moment that I began to notice the corruption that was taking place around me.

When we were about to leave the room, the reporter that was with me leaned over and asked, “Will you accept the appreciation from the Ministry?”

My automatic answer was a firm “no,” but I soon realized that that would not be an option. My reporter informed me that if I did not graciously accept the Kenyan government’s bribe, I would not be allowed to leave the room any time soon.

My experience with corruption in the Kenyan government is minor in comparison to the dishonesty that takes place every day in the country. One thousand shillings gains value when it is a representation of a lack of freedom from the corruption that Kenya experiences.

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I’m not sure if the 1000 shillings made a difference in how the journalists reported the press conference. We were told by a Daystar professor that the brown money-stuffed envelopes were commonplace in the industry. Do the journalists consider it a bribe and report it accordingly, or do they merely accept it as a courtesy? What would they do differently if they didn’t receive the envelopes? What would the Ministry have done to Sarah had she refused the “appreciation?” All questions to which I haven’t the answers, but which prompt a look at the scope and state of corruption in Kenya.

During my three weeks in the country, no resident with whom I spoke voluntarily brought up the topic of corruption. Perhaps because they thought I wouldn’t care, or because of national pride, or because they thought they would be wasting their breath. So I brought it up. When I brought up the topic with the RA of our Daystar dorm, Florence Mwaiseghe, she smiled, shifted her weight and said, “Yes…corruption is a big problem.”

I brought it up with missionary Chip Kingsbury, whose comment was, “Corruption is like the weather: everyone talks about it but nobody does anything about it.”

His daughter promptly asked, “Well, what can people do about the weather?”

“Well, what can people do about corruption?” he replied.

While at Daystar, students read the book It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower by British journalist Michela Wrong. It covered a presidentially appointed man’s fight against corruption in the Kenyan government even through its involvement in the Anglo-Leasing and Goldenberg scandals.

Though three weeks’ exposure and one book hardly make me an expert on the topic, one thing I learned about corruption in Kenya is that it goes beyond blatant greed. It is a system fueled by injustice. In the government, corruption is particularly tied to tribalism and an “it’s our turn to eat” mentality.

When I brought up the idea of tribalism with Mwaiseghe, she shook her head and jumped in to say that no one really paid attention to tribes in Kenya anymore. In her book, Wrong identified this attitude as that of the “Sheng generation”— young people, particularly from Nairobi, who have blurred the tribal lines through slang and whose identity comes less through their tribe and more from their nation.
No longer Kikuyu, Luo, Kelenjin or Luhya, but Kenyan. This is a hopeful idea, but it is punctured by events like the 2007-2008 election violence, when injustice brought on devastating tribal violence.

In a post-Westgate article, NPR’s East African correspondent Gregory Warner reported, “Kenya’s top officials have now vowed to root out corruption….But current and former security officials say real reform means putting aside entrenched tribal politics and reversing a longstanding brain drain.”

In naïve theory, corruption can be simply resolved—hire anti-corruption officers, create a corruption-reporting website, promote investigative journalism to expose government scandal, make laws, punish policemen for accepting bribes and the list goes on. But pragmatically, ridding the country of corruption is like ridding the country of tea.

Even if it could be done, it would disrupt in the Kenyan way of life. Kenyans are against corruption. From the president’s men to the goat herders, no Kenyan wants to hear that the nation is ranked 136 out of 177 of surveyed countries in Transparency International’s latest corruption perception index. But the question remains: What should be done about it?

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