So who wields real power? I found answers to this question in the most unexpected manner.
Some time back, at a funeral in the village, the bereaved family banned speeches at the burial of their loved one. If anyone so wished, they were free to privately condole with the family.
Through the ceremony moderator, the family also announced that there would be no harambee. All associated expenses had been settled.
The announcement caught the gathered mourners by surprise. It completely destabilized the waheshimiwa who had crowded the makeshift kibanda – the section usually reserved for a category of mourners who classify themselves as more important and entitled. All others of a contrary concept of self will instinctively occupy the open-sky grounds at such events.
In Kenya, politicians, especially incumbents and those aspiring to unseat them make it a point to make appearances at every burial ceremony in their constituencies. They are roundly called waheshimiwa, which means the ‘honorable.’ You would think they know and are connected to everyone that dies in their electoral areas of interest.
At funeral observances, the mission of waheshimiwa is not so much to condole with the bereaved family but to make political pitches and engage in verbal, even physical duels with their opponents.
Political points and blunders are usually made in equal measure through self-promotion speeches and cash donations – ostensibly to ease the burden of the bereaved family. This way, death is a potent political mobilization tool and burials a platform for campaigns.
Individuals that interpret their material possessions as leadership potential will use burials to either launch or cement their political careers. Routine has made politicians assume entitlement to campaign at funeral and later hand petty cash to the bereaved family. In return they expect cheers and even win a few more supporters.
Our politicians’ speeches at burials seldom have anything to do with the deceased and their families. Suddenly, with microphone in hand, the politicians’ faces brighten up and switch to carnival mode. They seem to say: Now forget about the bloody dead!
Displays of masculinity, however flawed, are perfected and they freely flow out of itchy, frothy, unguarded mouths. Opponents, real and perceived are threatened, insulted and humiliated.
The waheshimiwa get carried away in their bigheadedness and navel-gazing. They love listening to their voices. They work hard to outshine one another. The more humorous and abusives ones usually get away without giving as much petty cash.The less entertaining ones compensate for their inexperience with slightly higher cash donations.
But this was a different funeral observance. Those in charge of the program had ruled out speeches of any kind. The only exceptions were the parents of the deceased, one sibling to speak for the rest, the priest invited to conduct the requiem service and a relative who would give a vote of thanks at the end. The rest were to be silent, prayerful and honorably condole with the bereaved.
When the courteous but firm moderator announced this, two things happened simultaneously: stifled laughter and murmurs of support from the congregation and low-toned protestations from the kibanda group.
One politician loudly sold out on the real intention of the waheshimiwa by questioning why else they had come if they were not allowed to address wananchi. More self-crowning dignitaries averred in measured defeated murmurs.
The still calm moderator emphasized with a brief: “Waheshimiwa every family and gathering has its rules. We hope you will respect the desires of this family. Or you are free to leave.”
Embarrassed cackles of laughter from the kibanda and muted but firm agreement from the congregation followed. And then silence. Even engrossed contemplation and a mournful melancholy. Just how interments ought to be.
The requiem service was conducted in a record 45 minutes and the representative of the family thanked all for coming. This lasted about three minutes. The graveside rites were soon completed and people were free to leave at their convenience.
Only two of the waheshimiwa sought private audience with the bereaved family. Most walked off to their cars and sped off, their gusto punctured. The common swagger of invincibility and arrogance had fast sublimed. The manipulative allure of money had been rendered irrelevant; flat and useless when there are no takers.
From a distance many of the politicians appeared to be in intense consultations with their confidantes. I overheard a conversation where one mheshimiwa wanted to know who among his opponents might have enlisted the services of the moderator to humiliate ‘leaders’ in public. There were several offers to investigate.
A simple harmless action, from an ordinary struggling family, and an effective communicator, easily and quickly had outclassed and beat patronage at its game. The sense of entitlement by politicians to say anything, anywhere and in any way had been challenged and disrupted without any elaborate project with money allocated for civic education.
Later I spoke with members of the family about their decision. The crisp narrative came from the father of the deceased:
“We did not want the so-called leaders to abuse the memory of our beloved with their motives for power. They can call for rallies if they have anything to tell the people. Our respect for our son is bigger than the money they could have brought. We did not want them to violate that with their campaigns.”
Money, which politicians often use to manipulate the deprived and cement a patronage culture failed to work at this village event. A simple, yet strong message had been driven home to the waheshimiwa that their personal interests and money are not the only factors that validate their presence and participation in the lives of their impoverished constituents.
Away from somber spaces like burials, citizens are slowly withdrawing their support for patronage. This is shaking up those in public offices that have for decades taken ordinary citizens for granted.
I remember some time back, a senior politician, then serving as Vice President of Kenya was shown on TV beseeching a roadside crowd he had been addressing to clap for him for a remark he had made. The crowd didn’t think the remarks deserved applause. But the mheshimiwa Vice President a felt entitled to their claps. Just like that. They corrected him with their cold, unmoved stares and silence. And that was leverage by citizens.
Citizens can weaken patronage by withdrawing common favors they often feed politicians and public officials. Favors like abandoning daily work to listen to irrelevant speeches at forums where they are not allowed to ask questions; dressing up to entertain corrupt public officials with song and dance; allowing ill-mannered speeches at social ceremonies like burials and weddings; and accepting harambee donations from officials and business people tainted by scandal and abuse of office.
Political patronage should be among the most telling external signs of official weakness rather than power. Citizens can make quick gains and defeat it if they ignored its promoters and withdrawing their consent to feed their cravings for attention.
Once patronage is beaten back, power-shifts begin to take place. Political leaders and officials begin to take citizens more seriously. New power relationships start emerging – paving the way for greater opportunity for improvements in governance, public accountability, service delivery and higher quality experiences of citizenship.
Patronage is dead weak. It can be easily defeated when ordinary citizens decide to wield the real power in their minds, hearts and minds.
Nairobi, February 1, 2017