We are our own enemies of progress.
Over the Christmas holidays, a prominent Kenyan professor posted a photograph of himself and his family on a beach holiday in Malindi. Of course, Kenyans spewed vitriol and venom directed at the man, his family, his holiday and many other things regarding his person. However, the most recurring comment was, “Why are you spending so much money on an expensive hotel and yet many Kenyans are sleeping hungry this festive season?”
This comment annoyed me! Was the professor responsible for your lack of food? Was he obliged to feed the masses? The poor guy was just taking a long-deserved break from his year-long toil, spending quality time with family and creating lasting memories for his children!
The sad thing is that this annoying sense of entitlement is not the preserve of keyboard warriors. Dear reader, I am sure you have experienced this from relatives, friends and even strangers, turned enemies. They think that you should spend your earnings on them, before you can do something good for yourself. They believe that you should not advance yourself until you first raise them up to your level.
In December, when I was in the village for the holidays, Khisa, a family friend drove into our compound with a strange request.
“Can I park my car here for the night?” he asked.
“Why?” I asked. “Is there a problem?”
Khisa was a self-made artist. He had dropped out of school because of lack of school fees, gone to the city and worked odd jobs while at the same time developing his talent in fine art. Finally, he had landed several good deals to illustrate text books and children’s story books for some publishing houses in Nairobi. He had done really well for himself and could finally afford to buy himself a car.
So this December, he decided to drive his family to the village in his car as part of their Christmas treat. However, on arrival, he did not receive the enthusiasm he expected. He had hoped his parents and siblings would at least be proud that one of their own was at last an owner of a car. But No! They were angry and upset and so were all his relatives and friends.
“Your cousin’s son is lying in a hospital bed half dead and here you are wasting money on useless things like cars,” his aunt said angrily, immediately declaring herself one of Khisa’s enemies.
Khisa did not know this cousin or her son and he made this known to everyone.
“Really,” said his sister. “You are now denying your own blood relatives because you have some little money?”
Khisa was confused. What wrong had he done?
“You had better sell that car and pay the hospital bill for your cousin’s son,” said his aunt.
So the next day, Khisa, in the company of his aunt, mother and sister, went to the hospital to visit the said cousin’s son. They found the boy admitted in the hospital ward. However, he was not half dead. He was, in fact, recovering well and was very cheerful at his imminent discharge from hospital. The boy’s mother informed them that he had suffered a bout of malaria but was pulling through.
“How much is the hospital bill?” asked Khisa.
“It is very high,” the cousin said. “But some people are busy buying cars instead of helping the sick.”
News really did spread!
Khisa ignored her comment and asked, “How much is the bill?”
“It is seventeen thousand shillings,” lamented the cousin. “They will lock him up in this hospital because we cannot pay this bill. I have to go home and sell one of my cows in order to get him out.”
“I can settle the bill,” volunteered Khisa. “When will the doctor discharge the boy?”
“So you will sell the car and settle the bill?” asked his aunt. “Hallelujah! The Lord has answered my prayers. Jesus is Lord!”
“I don’t need to sell the car in order to settle the bill,” said Khisa. “I will settle the bill from my little savings.”
“So you will settle the bill from your savings and then what will we eat over Christmas?” asked his sister. “Will we eat your car?”
“Forget it,” said the cousin to Khisa’s sister. “We don’t want his money anyway. That must be devil worshiper money that just keeps flowing. There is no way you can buy a car and then just have money to settle bills and buy food unless you are a devil worshiper!”
“The devil be defeated!” said his aunt. “You had better return that devil car before it brings more evil to this family.”
“That must be why your boy fell ill,” said his sister. “The devil is demanding blood from this family to pay back for the car.”
Khisa just walked out on them, went to the accounts office and settled the bill. He then drove directly to our compound to park the car there until the next day when he would drive his family back to Nairobi. He was not going to spend his holiday with people who thought that he worshipped the devil!
On my return to the city, I narrated this story to my friend Sally. To my surprise, she told me that she had suffered a similar attack from family and friends because she bought an apartment.
When Sally was in her second year of university, a modelling agency discovered her potential. Her modelling career took off and she managed to save a tidy sum. By the time she graduated from university, she was able to purchase an apartment. Jared, her college boyfriend (who is now her husband, by the way) moved out of the university hostels and into the apartment with her.
After about three months, they decided to have a house warming party. They invited family and friends and Jared planned to take advantage of this gathering to propose to her. To their surprise, their family and friends were not happy with her owning the apartment.
Her mother pulled her aside from the group and said, “So you are fresh out of college and the first thing you do is buy an apartment? You do not even care that your father and I are still living in a small house that is now collapsing over our heads.”
“You did not tell me the house had problems,” said Sally. “We can get it fixed.”
“It is too late,” said her mother. “You have already sunk your money into this useless place.”
Disappointed, Sally left her mother and joined her friends in the living room.
“We have been planning a post-university trip to Zanzibar forever and have not been able to go because of lack of funds,” said one friend. “You keep pretending you also don’t have funds to go. Why didn’t you just pay for our trip before you bought this place?”
“I have been doing a funds drive to pay the hospital bill for my sick pal like for six months now,” said another friend. “Instead of contributing to this you were busy buying apartments. How do you even sleep at night knowing someone is dying because of lack of money for hospital care and you are here sinking your money in irrelevant projects!”
“You should have thought twice before you bought this apartment,” said a third friend. “See how it is on the third floor. How will you and Jared climb these stairs in your old age?”
Sally was lost for words. She had not said that this was their retirement home.
“And it is only two bedroomed,” continued the third friend. “Where will your children sleep? And the location of this place is terrible. You have to board two matatus from town to here. Who will want to rent this place when your family expands and you decide to move to a larger house? You would have been better off helping us pay off our university loans instead of throwing money away into this unwise investment!”
In the meantime, Jared’s sister had called him outside for a private conversation.
“So you bought this apartment with your money?” she asked. “Where did you get this money?”
“It is Sally’s apartment,” Jared said. “She bought it with her money.”
“Where did she get this money?” his sister persisted. “You need to interrogate these things. These girls sleep with old married men who give them cars and apartments in return. Watch out before her sugar daddy comes and finds you here. He will surely kill you.”
“There is no sugar daddy,” Jared said, defending his love. “She worked as a model throughout campus and was able to save some money.”
“Those are the stories they tell,” said his sister. “And you know in our culture it is not right to live in a woman’s house. You will be cursed, and you will not get children. My advice, leave this immoral woman and get a proper girl to marry.”
Jared was angry at his sister but kept his cool so as not to create a scene.
“Advise her to sell this house immediately to avoid curses,” the sister said. “You are busy living in lavish apartments in leafy suburbs and yet your younger siblings have no money for their school fees! Why didn’t you direct her to pay their school fees first instead of buying an apartment?”
“She has no responsibility to pay fees for my siblings,” said Jared. “We are not even married and yet you are already demanding that she takes up baggage that is not hers?”
“So now your family is baggage?” the sister said. “This is what this girl has turned you into. A hater of your own family. Just remember my words, blood is thicker than water!”
It turned out to be a very tense party and they were glad when it was over, and all their guests had left. Two months after that failed house-warming party, they moved out of that apartment, leased it out and used the rental income to pay rent for another place. They did this to diffuse family tension.
“But,” Sally said to me in conclusion. “We have learnt our lesson. I have never told family or friends that we own this house we are living in here at Hekima Estate. I tell them that we are paying rent. When they ask us for financial help, we never quickly jump to their aid. We don’t want to show that we have disposable income. Instead, we whine about how the economy is bad and how we are struggling to make ends meet. It seems to make them happy to hear this.”
“So you can’t treat yourself to any luxuries?” I asked.
“Even if we do, we don’t tell,” Sally said. “For example, if we travel to the village for Christmas and we go by air, we maintain the narrative that we came by bus. Even the children have learnt to tell these lies.”
“We are passing the wrong message to our children,” I said. “We are essentially saying that success is not to be savoured. It is like an evil thing that needs to be kept secret and enjoyed under the cover of darkness!”
“If you want peace of mind, you have to maintain this narrative,” said Sally. “Or else, you should be prepared to spend all your earning on thankless people!”