The danger of putting new wine in old wine skins

One of the stories I remember most vividly from my early history classes is about a man called William Wilberforce who was pivotal in the abolition of the slave trade and slavery.

My primary history teacher at Ikumini Primary School used to tell us that, besides the personal crusade to end slave trade, William Wilberforce had a second goal in life, namely, to reform the manners of men.

A basic issue at the heart of implementing our new Constitution is whether it would be too much to expect Kenyans to become a better mannered people just because we have a new law.

Let\’s put this question plainly, choosing three categories of errant groups that thrived under the old Constitution: What does the new Constitution mean to the uncouth matatu driver who spends the greater part of the working day breaking every rule and requirement of the Highway Code?

What does building the new Kenya mean for the journalist with an extortionate mindset and agenda, who sells the truth for 30 pieces of silver to destroy reputations, careers and families?

What does it mean for the bribe-taking traffic police officer who subverts justice and police motto Utumishi Kwa Wote (service for all) collecting enough bribes to build himself a maisonette?

On paper, the new Kenya should mean that we are moving towards a better society with many more ways of doing things right, fairly, equitably and more transparently. What are good manners and what are our benchmarks?

Kenyans are well-known and acknowledged around the world for hospitality. But is this otherwise positive trait only skin-deep and only trotted out on display for tourism and hard-currency purposes? Are we equally "hospitable" in the tourism low season as we are when it\’s high ?

We can have all the superhighways and digital techno-polis hubs that the rolling out of the Vision 2030 infrastructure projects entails. But if we are still spitting and relieving ourselves along the streets, still littering, still indulging in road rage, excess alcohol consumption and smoking in public or using foul language so full of four-letter words and scatology, we are getting nowhere in our endeavour to build a new Kenya.

Tens of thousands of Kenyans now reside more or less permanently in Britain, the former colonial power, many of them only coming back home for funeral and related events. In their sojourn, they routinely tell relatives and friends of a country where common courtesies and civility are observed almost to a fault.

Cheerful greetings even in terrible weather, "thanks" rendered as simply "ta" and unmanned newspaper vending machines whose operators trust the British public enough to be assured they will find the money paid for each newspaper picked.

British and American road manners and notions of fair play (the phrase "it\’s not cricket" is iconic as a demand for fairness) are better by far than anything to be found in Kenya.

The Japanese are well known and regarded as a nation of superlative manners and scrupulous cleanliness, a reputation that goes a long way in boosting Brand Japan.

In America, the International Project for Manners and Civility actually celebrates a National Manners Month annually, an event that is increasingly popular with schools and youth camps. The Manners Month is a celebration of civility and respect by families, communities, businesses, schools, sports teams, churches, temples, mosques and synagogues.

As we move forward, branding and attitude change will become key ingredients to the realisation of the new Kenya. We must, therefore, endeavour to communicate Kenya as a country of people who are proud of themselves, have respect for themselves and others.

The media\’s role in transforming manners and mindsets is going to be all-important. The worst pitfall of the old Constitution is captured perfectly in the aphorism coined by the 19th Century French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, "plus ça change, plus c\’est la même chose" (the more things change, the more they remain the same). The media, as one of the most trusted institutions in Kenya, has a duty to ensure that we do not again lapse into complacency and ill manners, that it is never business as usual again in this country.

(This article by the Director of Information and Public Communications was first published in Kenya Today)

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