I am writing this from a small town in Meru called Mikinduri where I have met a group of young people donning T-shirts written ‘Meru Youth Network’. I have also learnt that this network has slightly over 10,000 members drawn from Meru County, who each pay Sh200 to work together. Meru Youth Network does local civic education on the constitution, as well as financially supports its members with small loans to enable them invest in self-development activities. This includes buying ‘boda bodas’, investing in chicken, etc.
The young man who runs Meru Youth Network is called Mike Mutembei ‘Makarina’. He suffers from a spinal complication that forces him to operate on a wheel chair. However he has decided to do what he can to ensure the young people in his county learn about their county, its politics and what they require to make their personal lives better.
To do this he is working from within the three key pillars of Vision 2030; engaging in social, economic and political local issues. He tells me that he has especially realized that even if you develop yourself economically and have good social relationships, if the politics around you is bad it does not matter how well you are living.
When one observes Mike in a public setting it is clear there is that calm confidence that is found across the Kenyan middle-class; a confidence that says you can be whatever you want to be, whatever the circumstances you find yourself in. He has chosen to use his middle class background and networks to help as many young people as he can. In the process he has become a recognized opinion leader in Meru County.
I have chosen to share Mike’s story because I need to speak to Kenya’s middle class. In urban centres you tell a middle class person from looking at the roof of their house; does he have a satellite dish? They are also most likely servicing a mortgage; operate two cars; run a minimum two-domestic staff household and more often than not go away on holiday every year. In rural areas the middle class person seats in every local group’s committee; participates in every church development project; and most probably has the best-run farm small-scale farm.
Kenya’s middle class are by default opinion leaders, nationally and locally. This is because the masses aspire to live like them. They are also the fulcrum of our economy because they pay the highest and most taxes. They are the backbone of Kenya’s industry, because they are the managers and technical coordinators of unskilled labor in the market place. They also determine our social interactions as they are key players in social functions; from weddings, to funerals.
Kenya’s middle class Kenyan is plugged in economically and socially no doubt. However they keep avoiding one crucial pillar; politics. Those who venture here only do so if there is a local or national crisis, then immediately disengage and watch from the sidelines, until the next crisis.
In fact, it can be argued that Kenya’s middle class has perfected the art of sitting on the fence and doing absolutely nothing where politics is concerned. They even discourage those who decide to get involved. (Since I joined the Prime Minister’s presidential campaign secretariat nearly everyone I have met in this group expresses their disappointment in my choosing to take a partisan role as we go towards the next general election, rather than continuing to comment from a neutral position. There is a general feeling that this is not ‘cool’).
In January 2008 a group of pretty well off and established middle class young professionals came together under an informal network, to see what they could do to save their country that threatened to go up in smoke. In a relatively short time they had used their social networks to present arguments to both sides of the feuding political wings on how the stale-mate Kenya found itself in would be resolved. They ended up playing a crucial though so far unrecognized role, in ensuring both sides of the political divide were able to navigate through the coalition government discussions and thereafter. Imagine how much a group like this would achieve if they started working before Kenya finds itself in a crisis?
Every time a religious institution has a project, they turn to the middle class amongst themselves and task them with the responsibility of getting such a project completed. The middle class then goes out and mobilizes the masses, as well as brings the required elite on board, around this project. It nearly always gets done.
Kenya has a project; the need for a united nation post March 2013. To achieve this we need a ‘committee’ that will help navigate the coming election in such a way that everyone feels part of the process, and part of the results.
This is the kind of project that needs Kenya’s middle class. Can we step up and get involved directly in the politics that will be played as we head there?
(Wambugu is the Executive Director – Change Associates Trust)