By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
The New York Times
April 6, 2007
For decades, the world has asked: How do we free Africa from its yoke of poverty, disease and misgovernance? In asking Kenyans that question, I’ve been struck at the simple, common-sense solutions they offer. Four in particular stand out: transparency, telephones, Tergat and Kotex.
Naisiae Tobiko is a 28-year-old dynamo who grew up in Kenya’s Masai region. She runs a public relations firm, but when we met all she wanted to talk about was Kenya’s shortage of sanitary napkins for girls. Here’s why, she explained: Her family could afford to send her to school, where she thrived. As she got older, though, she started to notice something about the less well-off girls — they missed four days of class every month, “and I could not understand why.” When she finally asked, they confided that they did not come to school when they were menstruating — because their parents could not afford sanitary napkins.
“They would say, ‘How can I come to a place when I am bleeding?’ ” she recalled. “Some were using rags or soil or mud.” Because of those lost school days, many eventually dropped out. So Ms. Tobiko recently teamed up with the Girl Child Network and other N.G.O.s here and started a project in the countryside to distribute free sanitary napkins. They have targeted 500,000 girls, and so far have reached 189,000. More school days means more educated women and better mothers.
“We’re keeping girls in school,” said Ms. Tobiko. If women get education, “we want nothing else,” she added. “We will fight our way into every field, but we need the main key — which is education.”
Kenya first began holding multiparty elections in 1992, and its next national election is slated for December. (By the way, Kenyans love the fact that Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, is running for president of the U.S. since, they joke, someone from his Luo tribe could never get elected president of Kenya!) The field here is already crowded with presidential wannabes. But the most revealing conversation I had on this subject was with someone not running.
Vimal Shah owns an oil services company in Kenya, Bidco, and he was eager to tell me that with eight months until the election he had decided to make a big investment to expand his business. So what? I said. “People here never invest in the year before an election,” he explained. The fear is always that the new guy will change all the rules — often for his cronies. But Mr. Shah, like others here, believes Kenya’s evolution to democracy, with more transparent rules, has now reached a point where “even if the government changes, it won’t change the rules. The politicians can’t stop this.”
It is striking how just the little improvement in governance here can start a torrent of cash flowing in. But so could more cellphones.
Rose Lukalo Owino, a Kenyan author, told me this story: “I was recently in Ngutani, east of Nairobi. I was reporting for a book and interviewing these women who raised goats.” The women complained that for years they had been swindled by middlemen who would get them to sell their goats for a pittance, because the women didn’t know the price in the Nairobi markets. “But when I interviewed them, these women were holding so much money,” said Ms. Owino. Why? Fourteen villages got together and bought one cellphone, which they now share to check the market prices in Nairobi for goats before they sell. “They were talking to me about opening a microlending bank with their profits,” she said.
But Africa doesn’t just need more phone models. It needs more role models. I met one of the best here — Paul Tergat, the great Kenyan distance runner who’s earned five world cross country championships and two Olympic silver medals. Mr. Tergat recently won a contract from the government to promote anticorruption themes. For starters, he organized some of Kenya’s greatest distance runners to carry a torch from Mombasa to the Ugandan border. The torch represented a spotlight on corruption. Kenyans turned out to cheer them all along the route.
He used Kenya’s runners, Mr. Tergat said, because unlike politicians, when they win a medal it “is open, and genuine, and clean, and they practiced for 10 years to get it. The message is to say to young people, ‘Look here, you don’t have to be corrupt. You can do it if you are patient.’ ”
Add all this up and you have what impresses me most here: the way Kenya’s emerging democracy is unlocking Kenya’s best minds to find Kenyan solutions to Kenya’s problems.