This article was published in the Daily Nation on 29 September 2011. You can link to the original here
What do you want to become when you grow up, Moses?” I asked the little boy and cocked my head to the side, waiting for his response. He was only about 12, but he looked mature for his age. His face was taut, and his lips looked parched. I wished I had a bottle of clean water to give him.
The village in which he was growing up had no electricity and no running water. The dusty, sleepy village with its dilapidated market, crumbling houses and makeshift primary school was his world. Out there, beyond the unclear geographic boundaries of this forsaken community, there is another world — a world of real choices; a world where little boys like Moses are not welcome.
I had asked the question casually, expecting a childish answer, but the little boy’s reply made me pause and wonder what was going on in his head. “I want to be like my dad,” Moses said with a seriousness that took me by surprise. I knew the boy’s father fairly well — an unskilled, casual labourer who always smelled of cheap booze and was always hitting people like me for money. What in the world did this child admire in his father? And what was it that he wanted to emulate?
My conclusion was both disturbing and challenging. Moses was looking up to the leader in his life; the role model who would effectively shape his future. Moses, I reasoned to myself, was on a path that would see him become a nuisance to society and an enemy of the “other” world.
His innocent eyes would, over time, become hardened by the harsh realities of deprivation. It doesn’t matter that the new Constitution speaks about human dignity and promotes basic human rights like the right to life and liberty, the rights to a decent standard of living, the right to work, and the right to education.
As I began my journey out of the village, I wondered why little Moses was in that hole and not me. I also wondered if I was perhaps living in a dream world to think that KenyaNairobi cityscape could, on its own, reorganise itself for the sake of Moses and other raggedy little boys and girls growing up with no hope of ever enjoying the freedoms that some of us know.
Is the new Constitution really an anchor of safety and security for people like Moses, or is it just another document for intellectuals like me to discuss and debate in plush hotels in the capital city? Something is missing, I said to myself. Something is seriously wrong with a country that boasts of economic growth and celebrates almost 50 years of independence, and yet looks on helplessly as Moses and his generation hurtles down a path of despair and self-destruction.
The number of deaths reported in 2011 alone from young people drinking illicit alcohol is mind-boggling. Those of us living in the other world have watched with mouths open as fires consume “stupid” youths siphoning fuel from overturned tankers. And more recently, we were astounded by the horror of 95 people losing their lives when a fuel pipeline in a Nairobi slum burst and residents attempted to fetch the fuel.
The Sinai slum, where the incident occurred, is one of nearly 190 informal settlements in Nairobi where people like Moses end up when they migrate to the city in search of the freedoms and opportunities enjoyed by the “other” world. I felt a deep sadness for little Moses. And then the hard truth struck me; Moses would most likely end up in a slum in Nairobi, unless I did something about it.
I cannot solve the problems of the millions of disillusioned young people strewn across the country. I cannot pretend to have a simple answer to the curse of poverty that has been thrust on more than half of our population.
I cannot change the attitudes of politicians who use young people to get votes and then trample on them like dirt. adult holding child's hand But I can do one thing. I can give hope and a future to one little boy — one raggedy little boy called Moses.
Pete Ondeng is the founder and chairman of East Africa Leadership Institute (Pete@eastafricaleadership.com).
by Jim Taggart
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