The rain must never beat us again

By Ezekiel Mutua

In today\’s Breaking-News world, complete with computerisation, the Net and all their convergences, we know that the rain is about to beat us even before it has made up its mind to do so.

It is always gratifying to hear of former newsroom and media board­room operatives who run successful rural newspaper enterprises and are contributing to national development by influencing social change at the grassroots level.

Muthuuri Nyamu, a former senior editor at the now defunct Kenya Times newspaper and a one-time Deputy Managing Director of the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), is one such operative; Martin Masai, also formerly of the defunct Kenya Times newspaper, now heading a leading local vernacular station, is the other.

But it is Muthuuri Nyamu who is the sub­ject of my musing today. For almost a de­cade now, Nyamu has brought out an in­credible paper – the Wembe, in the Greater Meru region, complete with enormous advertising support. In the latest edition, Wembe has an editorial devoted to the war on corruption and in which he delves into the management dynamics of the devolved government as envisaged in the new consti­tution. A moot question raised in the pieces goes thus:

The youth of Meru and of Kenya generally have grown up asking their parents where the rain began to beat the nation after independence. When did the first Kenyan African policeman take a bribe? Ditto the first magistrate; doctor; news reporter; bank manager; politician; cabinet minister?

This is an enormously significant point that Mr Nyamu is making and it is much more than merely rhetorical.

Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe\’s great phrase about \’where the rain started to beat us\’ is quite fittingly the epitaph of the first 50 years of African independence, which have been analysed at length \’but with little or no depth\’ by the Western media throughout 2010. What\’s the epitaph of Africa\’s second half-century of independence going to be?

With the promulgation of the new constitution Kenyans will be all eyes to see who tries to derail and defeat the new order and with what agenda. And, unlike the independence period when only rudimentary media and public communications sectors existed, this time we are equipped for the rain in many more ways.

When the rain first began to beat Africa – including Kenya – and turned the great ex­pectations and high hopes of independence into a bitter harvest of chaos, blood, sweat and tears, African media and other pub­lic communications channels were mostly either still-born, born deformed or hope­lessly scattered at various stages of arrested development.

Entire generations of Africans grew up listening to the BBC World Service, particularly such programmes as \’Focus on Africa,\’ or French and German radio, just to find out what, really, was going on in their own countries and regional neighborhoods. They trusted neither their State broadcasters nor the private commer­cial press in their own countries and neighborhoods to offer them a true picture of events and the way forward.

But that was before the Internet, mobile telephones, laptop computers, multiparty general elections and new constitutions. The Government is currently putting in place a National Communications Strategy which will among other things address the questions of freedom of information, flow of information and access to the same.

For the first time information held by public officials will no longer be treated as state resource or state secret. Under the new constitution, such information is now a national resource. This was inconceivable in Kenya as recently as 10 years ago, but it is coming to pass.

Among other things and the most beneficial impacts, this will also mean that the government can no longer continue to be perceived as \’siri kali\’ (top secret). If the rain of state secrecy, where paper cuttings were classified as confidential, begins to beat us, this time both the nation and the media are better equipped with the analytical and dis­seminative tools and software to know exactly what is happening.

We are also equipped to know who is perpetrating it, to what nefarious ends and what op­tions are available to thwart them and haul them before the courts both of public opinion and the law.

The media in Kenya have quite simply come of age. Vast distances have been traveled by media in this country since as recently as the end of the post-election violence (PEV) in 2008, with deep lessons quickly and expertly learnt in terms of, for instance, conflict coverage and com­mentary.

In the infancy of Kenyan and other African media, news about the yearning for truly transformative change moved at such a snail\’s pace that it was registered first in novels like Chinua Achebe\’s A Man of the People, Ayi Kwei Armah\’s The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born and Ngugi wa Thiongo\’s Petals of Blood. In a continent without a reading culture even these great writings and many others – left hundreds of millions out of the loop.

Little wonder then that Africa came to personify disjointed carnage, including genocides, and remain the basket case among the continents.

In today\’s Breaking-News world, complete with computerisation, the Net and all their convergences, we know that the rain is about to beat us even before it has made up its mind to do so. A better informed public is an empowered one and is able to prevent many calamities, including natural disasters.

The world of public communications is also the arena of politics and of advocacy, including civil society and international non-governmental organisations. Before the twin revolutions of democratisation and computerisation, these worlds of public communications existed and operated in compartments and at cross-purposes. This is no longer the case.

Yes, this time we will not ask where the rain began to beat us – we will know, we will know on time and we will be in a position to do something about it.

(The writer is the Director of Information and Public Communications of the Republic of Kenya. email:emutua

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