27 May 2002

Kenya: Did Our Children Deserve the Sack?


The Children's Cabinet is dead. Should we go into 40 days of mourning? Not if we were to pay heed to Mr Sammy ole Kwallah, the director of the children's department.

In disbanding the Cabinet last Friday, he dismissed it as illegal and a "mascara" outfit representative only of Nairobi. Don't ask how eye make-up comes into it or how Mr Kwallah knew the group was unacceptable to the majority of Kenyan children.

Just take it that Mr Kwallah knows the mind of young Kenyans better than your average bureaucrat based at headquarters - that will be Nairobi, for all purposes.

Sixteen or 17 is rather young to be put out to pasture, but this was always going to happen to members of the Children's Cabinet. Childhood and youth can only be a short phase in anyone's life, albeit one prone to being shaped by the influence of significant adults. The world of our children can only ever be a reflection of the realities of our adult world. Nothing illustrates this better than the late, unlamented Children's Cabinet.

The writing has been on the wall for Florence Ndalu and her team for some time: Consider the controversy that attended the question of which children to represent Kenya at the recently-concluded Children's Summit in New York.

Not only were there complaints that only "elite" children were selected to go on this unique mission, but we were also confronted with accusations of nepotism, favouritism and all manner of "isms" after the conference that broke new ground in ways of viewing children's ability to understand the crises generated by the adults in their lives.

So what's new? This is a Kenyan ritual that is repeated before, during and after each international conference. We have agonised in the same manner through each women's conference and "resolved" the matter by sending bloated delegations at the expense of the taxpayer, only to turn around and dismiss the entire conference routine as a waste of time.

We are out of luck. Unicef Executive Director Carol Bellamy reportedly underwent such a Road to Damascus experience during the May 8-10 event in New York that she said she could never imagine ever again holding a conference on children without the children themselves. Prepare to live though this representation circus ad nauseum.

I cannot honestly claim to understand the thinking behind the ole Kwallah development. All I know is that members of the Children's Cabinet have been pretty active on the public relations front since they were "appointed" at a national workshop on the rights of children last year.

For an illegal outfit, these children certainly pulled off quite a number of remarkable stunts - even getting Attorney-General Amos Wako to host them to lunch at The Stanley after he stood them up at a meeting in his office.

The last I heard of them, these very same children had managed to reach a consensus with a parliamentary committee that the controversial Trust condom advertisement should be removed from our television screens. Immediately.

For a moment there, it seemed that the sky was the limit for these young people - at best only goodwill ambassadors of their agemates, at worst an adult creation meant to score points. Now the bubble has burst and they have been sent back to their "privileged" lives in disgrace, seemingly because they have been "irresponsibly misguided" by a former journalist, who exchanged deadline pressure for the joys of social activism in the non-governmental world.

The worst crime yet of the Children's Cabinet, it would appear, was to write "directly" to the East African presidents and mayors in the region. We can only hope that, like the typical fallen adult politicians, they will come out of retirement one day to disclose the true story behind the abrupt ending of their foray into public life.

It should be this simple to get rid of the adult Cabinets that Kenyans have been lumped with through the years. If only the average Kenyan could get rid of this-or-that minister with a single stroke of the pen!

This is hardly the forum to go into detail on the shortcomings of members of our very adult Cabinet, but I can certainly think of a significant number who would fail the test of probity should any Kenyan seriously want to impeach them.

The supposed similarities between the offending Children's Cabinet and the adult version do not end there. If it was an elitist grouping, so are the adults.

Some of the men who have guided our national policy since independence may have began life in very humble circumstances, but the majority had polished up their act so much by the time they became national figures, they could have had very little in common with the average Wanjiku in rural Kenya.

The current crop of party elite, for example, all appear to have been born with silver spoons in their mouths - those who did not inherit massive wealth have quickly made up for it in less than transparent circumstances.

Yet no one has ever questioned their capacity to represent some of the poorest and most backward constituencies. Indeed, the dirt poor are hardly likely to get elected anywhere in this country - even by their own.

Sure, not all success is legitimate. But isn't it somewhat hypocritical to keep trotting out the "elite" argument every time there are choices to be made? Not only do we run the risk of turning success into a sin, but it is a contradiction in terms. I don't think there is any parent who does not want a better life for their children, yet we have literally conspired to turn the pursuit of it into something to be ashamed of. We send our daughters to school and then claim they cannot possibly understand or represent the concerns and needs of lesser endowed sisters.

It's hogwash. You do not necessarily have to be poor to know that sleeping on an empty stomach or on the pavement is a painful way to spend the night.

What we do need to watch out for, though, is to ensure that democracy prevails in any situation of choice and that one's station in life is not the key determinant of whether or not one shall become a leader. Leadership is not about money or going to a high-cost school; it is about being able to empathise with other people right where they are.

There is no doubt that the Children's Cabinet is a great idea. How Mr Kwallah achieves an acceptable balance is his headache. Bringing children's voices into the national debate is long overdue. We can politicise the issue and destroy the chance of instilling democratic principles in our youth. Or we can do the honourable thing by our children. Long Live the Children's Cabinet.

Ms Oriang' is the Deputy Managing Editor, Daily Nation

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