Restoring Nobility to Professions that Matter the Most in Our Lives

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Down the road from home in the village where I grew up, there used to be a young man who ran a clinic. The tall, dark, and introverted guy mostly dispensed Aspirin, and did nothing complicated. He certainly had no license. He was a quack, but he was widely respected, and we affectionately called him Daktari.

Later as an adult, I learnt that he was an abortionist, a taboo subject but the village kept him around to deal with unwanted pregnancies, which were all too common, especially for school going children, the reason I was not surprised by the annual updates about teen pregnancies.

Not too far from this ‘nurse’s clinic was a notorious traditional medicine man. The man was dark, thin, scarily wide-eyed, and he too catered to a certain class of villagers who could not afford Aspirin, or who had faith in herbs and some utterances of mumbo-jumbo. Whatever.

Later as an adult, I also learnt that he was an abortionist, and used even cruder means, including sleeping with the girls, lying to them that it helped hasten the process. Abortion is such an essential service in any society, and where the church and the government pretend otherwise, quacks abound.

But what I remember about these two men is the respect they commanded in the village, despite their lowly qualifications. For the qualified nurses in various dispensaries, or who ran more professional clinics or chemists, the respect bordered on reverence.

The respect was not just for nurses, but teachers. Even those untrained (university graduates or those who passed KCSE) but had the ability to teach children were accorded great respect. Actually, most civil servants who offered essential services were respected and the public did their best to cooperate with them. I remember times when even government Agricultural Extension Officers and Education officers roamed the villages advising farmers and checking the state of schools. People respected them both because they feared the government they represented, and the value of their expertise.

Ironically, the pay was not as good across board, but these men and women did their job with utmost devotion, despite sometimes operating under the worst possible circumstances.

***

After high school, I lived with a relation who is a nurse in a place called Chepkunyuk, the toughest, most hidden corner of Kericho County. People walked over 20 kilometres for treatment and in our walks after work around the village, my relation and other government officials were treated with utmost respect. And the respect was not about the ‘elitism’ that came with their jobs.

Over the years, this respect has been eroded, and every few years, civil servants, chiefly teachers, and those in the medical profession have taken to the streets to protest bad pay and poor working conditions. The police too have had silent strikes, since the nature of their work makes unionization impossible; they cannot  carry placards and demonstrate, but we know they work under challenging  circumstances.

It is always a sorry sight when professors carry placards in the streets, being teargassed, and nobody gives them audience. Doctors had their historic strike in much of 2016, with  sensible demands. However, these demands were politicized, and doctors were portrayed as unreasonable and the government was thought to be well-intentioned when it pushed the doctors back to work. Without all the articles of the comprehensive bargaining agreement being met.

***

When did we start disrespecting our professionals? Recently, we saw Machakos Governors mock our scientists (for not being proactive looking for the Coronavirus cure), and for a man with a doctorate, his lack of context in his criticism was baffling, even when factoring political expediency.

One can compare Dr. Mutua’s contempt towards doctors and professors to politicians’ disdain towards professionals in Chinua Achebe’s 1966 masterpiece, A Man of the People. In the prophetic novel, the protagonist, certainly Achebe running a commentary on the appalling turn out of events after Nigeria gained her independence from Britain bemoans a scene that unfolded in parliament one afternoon. The main party was facing the general election, but there was a big slump in coffee prices and coffee farmers were the stronghold of the party. The Minister of Finance, a qualified professional, outlined prescriptive measures, not unlike what Dr David Ndii has outlined for the Jubilee government on several occasions. But the president, unwilling to lose an election, ordered for more money to be printed and be given to the farmers. It is then that the president and opportunistic scoundrels turned their rage on the innocent Minister of Finance, insulting him and telling him to go to hell with his education.

Throughout Africa, that has been the fate of most educated folk. Some were assassinated, others had to flee the continent in the wake of the unprecedented brain drain that swept the continent much of the 1970s and 1980s. Africa was not a place for scholars or good brains.

To date, the African political elite send their children abroad, and if they must go to local schools, they prefer those that have an international curriculum (British or American) to the local often messy and continuously experimental curriculum.

When African big men fall sick, they prefer hospitals in Europe, America or shamelessly in Asian in countries that were at the starting line with us some 50-odd years ago.

Public education and healthcare systems in much of Africa are in appalling neglect, as we lose money to corruption or to mega projects that often mean little to the ordinary folk.

***

Collectively in Africa, ordinary citizens have had a moment of chutzpah, toasting to justifiable schadenfreude as the pandemic unfolds in Africa, having surpassed the 1 million mark, with over 20,000 deaths.

If it was a poor man’s disease like cholera outbreak, or something they will escape to London or Berlin, the African elite will cut tickets, first class, no less, out of the continent and leave the masses to die on their own.

Still, as the diseases accelerates towards a peak, all our critical resources are stretched to the limit, the elite will die undignified deaths just as their voters. Death is a leveler. But coronavirus-related death will be a leveler at a different level.

The selfishness of the elite in Africa, whether political or corporate has been the bane of good governance. Closer home, the Jubilee government came with a special brand of mediocrity that for the first time we saw people dying because hospitals have not stocked anti-venom1 .

***

In 2003, when Mwai Kibaki came to power something profound happened to our economy. Overnight, our economy opened and new opportunities arose in media, banking, real estate, ICT, civil society and other areas, that meant for the first time, we had individuals who started earning salaries that were impossible to dream in the twilight hours of Moi’s disastrous rule.

The beneficiaries of this economic boom were mostly in the private sector. To make matters worse, for public education, Kibaki unveiled the much-vaunted Universal Primary School Education. Enrollment levels doubled, but there was no corresponding fiscal and infrastructural support to the teachers, the most vital cog in the education system. Teachers were overwhelmed by the number of students, that were way above the UNESCO recommended 1:40. In some places, it was as high as 1: 85.

Teaching is such an engaging activity, and the best way to get value out of a teacher is to ensure maximum engagement with students. But teachers are only human and have their pressing needs that their meagre salaries and poor working conditions cannot adequately meet. The quality of public education was badly compromised. The teachers were not motivated in most places, poor teachers turned to alcohol, and those with some slight ability, started a side-gig, usually farming, running a shop or a matatu. That is how respect for teachers was gradually eroded and education became increasingly commercialized. For those who could afford, they transferred their children to private ‘academies’ and the poor were left to fend for themselves.

In between the indecision from the Ministry of Education and other stakeholders where policy directives are issued upon a hodge-podge of feelings and decisions made out of feelings, not sound research, teachers are shuffled and treated like children. Teaching used to be such a noble profession, but most teachers would quit if they had an option.

Presently, especially with children at home, parents can appreciate the role that teachers play and hopefully, next time the teachers hit the streets, parents will understand why the need better conditions.

***

In April 2019, my cousin, Steve Bikundo, got run over by a speeding matatu along Outering Road. Both of his legs were broken. As it happens with most hit-and-runs, the culprits will never be brought to book, despite installing one of the most expensive surveillance systems on the streets of Nairobi. He was taken to Kenyatta Hospital. But the casualty department of Kenyatta National Hospital is the last place you want to be taken to, God forbid, if you are involved in an accident. It is simply overwhelmed and no matter the severity of your injuries, there is no way of getting preferential treatment. Most people die awaiting treatment, or treatment comes too late. That is where Swahili novelist Ken Walibora died a year later, after he was taken in following an accident along Landhies Road.

So, there was little chance that my cousin will get proper treatment. By the time the family decided to transfer him to a private clinic, it was too late, and he succumbed to what was probably avoidable. It is one of those losses you take knowing that you should have done better, if not you, the country.

Most public offices are appallingly understaffed. And the medical field has the highest brain drain in the country. Recently, we saw the United States of America, being opportunistic and wanting to hire medical professionals to help fight corona on the other end. There were debates on Twitter about the morality of such, but the consensus among Kenyans was that if you are a medic and you get the  chance, take the fastest flight out of the country and go where your services will be valued and well remunerated.

Most public hospitals lack fundamental supplies. Not because we can’t afford, but because procuring them is mired with unnecessary bureaucracy that is not meant to save the public, but to enrich the technocrats in the Ministry as we have seen recently where Corona has made our new class billionaires.

Doctors in public hospitals are underpaid and overworked, and usually treated as if their job is not essential. We saw recently in Kisii County, a doctor was sacked for fearing to attend to a patient because he didn’t have enough personal protective gear. Worse, our government can never ever admit where they are wrong. It is PR, optics and chest thumping, even when they are clearly on the wrong when an apology and the promise of doing the right thing can suffice. Kisii County and others have not paid doctors on time, since the year begun.

For the medical profession, chance to profit from private practice has attracted top talent to the private practice. But there are so few doctors going around that they must split time between the public and private practice. We all know who is winning now.

For starters, the working conditions in private hospitals and clinics are far much better than the mess we see in public hospitals where you can be shot while trying to admit an accident patient.

What the Coronavirus is reminding us!

Doctors have the riskiest job in a pandemic. It reminds me of Dr Matthew Lukwiya, the Ugandan doctor who risked his life to save people dying of Ebola in Gulu, Uganda in 2000. Dr. Lukwiya did succumb to the disease, but that is because the medical profession is dutybound to save lives in a dire situation. But for them to do their job, it is not too much to ask for certain protective measures, because we can afford, and of course they are human, flesh and blood, with families to raise and provide for.

The Kenyan government has always had a unique way of dealing with crises. If a building collapses and the public is doing their best to save lives, the General Service Units usually arrives with batons and tons of tear gas, and soon we discover part of their training does not include rescue missions. They are either too late, or with the wrong equipment. Where a shovel would do, they come brandishing an AK47. This is especially dangerous in a government that believes that it is infallible.

This pandemic reminds us that we must go back to basics. Where a doctor, a teacher and a policeman did their job and the society respected them.

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