How traditional culture may compromise transparency and accountability

By Gitura Mwaura (Author and Development Journalist Working Across East Africa)

The problem of water scarcity affects many areas across the country. Reasons for the scarcity may range from lengthy periods of drought in some of the arid and semi-arid regions to mismanagement in the delivery of water services in the urban areas.

In Kisamis, a small, quiet town in Kajiado County about one-and-a-half hour’s drive from Nairobi on the way to Lake Magadi, water source management is one of the sticking issues requiring urgent attention.

Located in the expansive Keekonyokie Ward, Kajiado West Sub-County, the situation is such that it has bred a simmering conflict that is threatening to tear the local community apart pitting the youth against their elders.

Robin ole Kurenta, a human rights activist working with End Poverty with Justice Initiative (EPJI) in the town, offers an illustration that aptly sums up the history surrounding the issue.

The conflict, he explains matter-of-factly, is symbolised by a water-dispensing point that has scandalously stood in prolonged disuse at the shopping centre.

The town has been experiencing water shortages for a number of years, mainly due to negligence bordering on corruption, as claimed by some residents, including vandalism and local politics.

It was hoped the stalled project would become operational with the re-launch of the water point, marked by the laying of the foundation stone for a permanent structure by the local Member of County Assembly in February 2018.

The now completed stone structure housing the water point appears like a white elephant, standing out like a monument in the middle of the town symbolising the unresolved issues in its idleness.

When I visited the town at the end of September 2018, it was to probe the claimed lack of accountability in the water fuelling the misunderstanding.

My interest was informed by the principle that accountability implicates basic governance issues such as transparency, even at the lowest level within a family or a community-based project.

Youth presenting their grievances to Kajiado West Deputy County Commissioner William Kakimoi.

At the larger ward and sub-county level, it was apparent the local administration was seized of the matter, whom the youth had expressed their grievances and delivered a raft of demands.

This is given credence by the kitty set aside from the ward development fund towards the water project.

This suggested that, if there was an issue stalling the project, the blame lay elsewhere other than merely with the local ward administration.

The apparent cause of conflict was articulated by Joel Shongo, one of the youth harbouring a grievance.

“The problem,” he charged, “originates from the fact that our fathers have denied us a chance at managing the project.”

He expressed opinion that “si mambo magumu yanafanya hii mashida iwepo. Ni mambo ya uongozi (it’s not something so difficult that we should be having such problems. It has to do with leadership).”

For this reason, the youth seek to be accorded responsibility to manage the Keekonyokie water project taking over from a section of their elders, who “since we were born have ineffectively” comprised the management committee.

Though the issue may be about leadership, it is also a bit delicate. Steeped in cultural tradition, the elders’ persistent reluctance to cede the responsibility to the youth becomes apparent, as Robin, the resident human rights activist, points out.

“It’s about our still prevalent traditional customs,” he explains. “Among the Maasai such issues go na kiriika (social stature accorded to age groups). There’s an age at which as youth you cannot question an elder, whatever mistake may have been committed. Doing so may be viewed as a gross cultural insubordination risking a serious curse.”

The residents I spoke with agree with Robin, with the implication being that nothing may dethrone the elders other than death.

With such an explanation it illuminates how, inadvertently or not, and not just in Kisamis but among other “traditional” communities, some persistent cultural mores may compromise accountable leadership and, by the same token, transparency on how resources are managed.

Being denied an opportunity to question a transgression removes the opportunity for dialogue or finding a compromise solution.

I spoke to an elder pointed out to me as a member of the water project management committee. While he did not deny the place of elders and leadership as culturally demanded in the community, he seemed to have a dim opinion of the local youth who he accused of idling in the shopping centre getting high on drugs and alcohol. He did not view them as able to handle serious responsibility.

Pressed to clarify whether it applied to all the youth in the area as “irresponsible”, he conceded that those with the will to take up project leadership should present themselves. This is despite the aforementioned youth demands lodged with the local administration.

Mzee Koitawash ole Olorong’oto, who is not a member of the committee, was more positive. Citing his advanced age as a badge of authority equal to that of his peers, he was insistent the youth be accorded the opportunity to take over the project management.

They have what it takes, he said, if not more qualified given their level of education.

However, the negative cultural hold on the community was further illustrated when I approached local women for a comment, but who declined to speak.

I would later learn that those who had offered to be interviewed and descended from the area had changed their mind after being cautioned by their husbands not to speak on the water issue “or they will face it at home.”

Likewise, though acknowledging the water problem, women immigrants doing business at the shopping centre would also not speak on the record fearing reprisals.

The complexities of trying to resolve the negative aspects entrenched in the culture have clearly also not left officials at the local administration unscathed – more so the chiefs descended from the area.

It was evident the difficulty has somewhat compromised their authority in the whole situation. This is understandable, as applying too strong an authority to force a solution or going about it too quickly may counterproductively unravel the socio-cultural structure that binds the community together.

The delicate situation notwithstanding, efforts are ongoing to find a solution in Kisamis. It, however, remains a matter of urgency for the local residents to have easily accessible and affordable water, as well as quelling the resentment between sons and fathers that continues to deepen the longer it takes to resolve the conflict.

I asked Jeremiah Supeyo, a thoughtful local teacher and youth leader who recognised it as a matter of accountability, about what should be done to find a lasting answer.

“I think it would be best,” he suggested, “if the local administration and the county government gets more involved in this, including involving the women, as well as the media to dig out the issues and highlight the concerns towards a solution satisfactory to everyone.”

Ultimately, it is not all about the negative. The Kisamis experience emphasises that some crucial aspects of our cultural heritage – both tangible and intangible – are still among us even in this digital age.

It also acknowledges the existence of positive mores (such as respect for the elders among other cultural aspects) that could still offer inspiration and learning to address community challenges.

The issue, therefore, is how these may be harnessed for grassroots development, including in transparency and accountability.

The Youth presented the following written proposals to the Kajiado West deputy county commissioner, William Kakimoi.

  • Removal and replacement of the current Kisamis borehole water project committee immediately. The group proposes for the new committee to be responsible in overseeing the current piping project and clearance of the electricity bill by the area MCA through the Emergency kitty from the office of Kajiado Deputy Governor.
  • Local youth to be given priority in employment during the piping works of the water project. That the contractor should only come with the Engineer with rest of the labor sourced from the community.
  • That all clusters propose names to a central organizing committee of 25 people from which, an executive committee of seven shall be elected to run the project for a period of five years which can be renewable.
  • That the theft of pipes by some individuals be reported for possible apprehension and recovery of the pipes.
  • That the pipe to take water from the borehole to the community tank should be 2″ in size and if possible have the plastic roll to contain the stealing of pipes in the future.
  • That an inventory of all water equipment, pipes especially those in the custody of the officials and those in water drinking points be done to facilitate proper water supply to all residents.
  • That a local restaurant they claimed uses the project water, should pay for water they consume as well as electricity.
   The Author will be contributing for Elveza Media