‘It’s Our Turn to Eat’ by Michela Wrong

books-our-turn-to-eat-300

2009, 368 p.

Amazon preview here.

Before I went to Kenya my son told me that I had to read this book in order to understand Kenyan society and politics.  Already rather anxious about his two-year stint in Kenya, I was not encouraged to find that a book that I expected to be about politics and history had been catalogued by my library as ‘True Crime’!

“Our turn to eat” refers to a Kenyan view that when you’re in a position to take advantage, you should do so because others have done so before you, and will do so again once you are no longer ascendant.

The book is written by a British journalist who sheltered the Kenyan whistle-blower John Githongo when he turned up on her London doorstep in 2005 after abruptly leaving his position as the Permanent Secretary for Governance and Ethics.

As the head of Transparency International, Githongo had been appointed to the position by President Kibaki, who had been elected to office on an anti-corruption platform.  He found that  instead of being empowered to challenge corruption, the position muzzled him.  Once safely in England, he blew the whistle on Kenyan corruption, most particularly the Anglo-Leasing Scandal  which, although started by an earlier government, was carried over into the new administration as well.

I was vaguely aware of the 2007 election violence and the international nervousness that it would be repeated during the 2013 election.  (It wasn’t).  Kenya was catapulted in Western consciousness with the Westgate Mall terrorist attack last year. [ John Githongo has written an interesting article about the official response to this attack, which draws on his arguments that are presented in this book.  It’s worth a read here.   ]  He argues that underlying the newsworthy, big-headline events Kenyan politics is a longer-running and more disturbing story of corruption that continues almost irrespective of the political party in ascendance at the time.  Because “it’s our turn to eat”, parties that campaigned against corruption in opposition will themselves embark upon it in the sure knowledge that they have only a short window of opportunity to do so.

Although  Githongo is the main character, the book is clearly written by Wrong and is  fast-paced, compelling  and very easy to read.  It provides a wealth of historical and social history about the tribal divisions in Kenyan society which were played out in the  violence that followed the 2007 elections.  It also presents a very pessimistic view of Kenyan politics: that corruption is endemic, and that there is no end in sight.  The fault lies with Western countries as well (particularly Britain) which turn a blind eye to money laundering and facilitate ongoing corruption through their banking, procurement and insurance practices.

As the epilogue explains, the book was boycotted by booksellers which  almost guaranteed its success.  The boycott was circumvented by a PDF version made freely available on the internet and an  NGO which gave away copies of it.  Apparently even today the book is not often found on the open shelves of Kenyan bookshops

After reading this book, I found myself more able to make sense of the politics that dominate the print media and news reports in the Kenyan public sphere.  I must admit, though, that it didn’t really reassure me. Perhaps it’s not the best book for a young ex-pat living in Kenya to recommend to his mum.

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