Prince Claus Laureate Hollis Liverpool was charged in 1968 by the Minister of Education, Donald Pierre, for drawing emoluments as a performer of satirical ballads in a tent-theatre while in service of the Crown. Liverpool entered the political Kaiso arena in 1966. Kaiso is a genre of music traceable to West African society with cleverly concealed political subtext. At the material time, Liverpool sang ‘Devaluation’. He pontificated on increasing production to avoid a devaluation of the local currency. His other song was ‘Brain Drain’. These ballads along with songs like ‘Three Blind Mice’ were not received with amusement by the establishment.
The Minister like all Lilliputians lived in a land of small things and little people always emphasize the trite and delight in displays of authority and performances of power. Eric Wainaina continues this tradition of social commentary in Kenyan music today. The chorus of one of his popular songs is that ‘a land of small things is a land of small people’.
Liverpool replied to the Minister in 1969 by singing- ‘Reply to the Ministry’. He highlighted several instances of public servants working at more than one job without question. The immeasurable Dr. Eric Williams intervened and the matter was closed. In one of Wainaina’s songs the lyrics unmasked concerns that – money is justice as the plaintiff becomes the defendant in a society in which wealth becomes the evidence. In a land of small things, the police have no vehicles to respond to a burglary and a driving licence can be bought. The price of petrol is prohibitive for the poor and medicine is scarce in Kenyan hospitals; admission to a school requires a donation; losing your national identification card is a tragedy; and if you want soda- drink Fanta.
Kenyan Whistleblower Michela Wrong, in her book ‘It’s Our Turn to Eat’ unveils what makes corruption difficult to eradicate, so sweeping in its scope and so destructive in its impact across Africa. Why is political life reduced to the self-serving calculation of which tribe gets to ‘eat’? Kenya has a youthful population, a dynamic private sector, improved infrastructure and a new constitution. Addressing the challenges of poverty, inequality, the skills gap between market requirements and education, the gap between skills for competiveness and immigration, low investment and low productivity to achieve rapid, sustained growth rates to transform the lives of ordinary Kenyans all remain elusive targets.
In a search for post-BREXIT trade partners, Theresa May visited Kenya in 2018. She guaranteed that public money looted by ex-leaders in simple suitcases and complex financial schemes found in UK banks will be made available for development projects as part of an initiative by Britain’s Department for International Development as they follow the so-called dirty-money. In neighbouring Uganda, Bobi Wine was jailed in a maximum security prison for his songs. His music spears Ugandan politics. Three-quarters of Uganda’s population is under 35 and Wine is a rallying figure for a youth angry at poor job prospects and stagnant politics.
The rituals of rebellion composed by Liverpool, Wine and Wainaina paraphrase Jonathan Swift’s treatment of the treachery of politics in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. The 1726 novel opens with descriptions of Lilliput and Blefuscu- two lands of small things in the South Indian Ocean separated by a channel 730 m wide. The islands are populated by small people who are one-twelfth the height of ordinary human beings with proportionally tiny buildings, trees and horses. Diminutive in stature, but with all the arrogance and sense of self-importance associated with full-sized men.
These kingdoms are ruled by self-styled Emperors who appoint officials using rope dancing assessments. Vacancies in high offices are filled by the winners. But these contests are dangerous. The dancing ropes are 30 centimetres high and are potentially fatal. In Lilliput, political affiliation splits between those who wear high-heeled shoes and those who wear low-heeled shoes. But the Emperor’s son is hard to pin down since he wears one high and one low heel- so no one knows where he stands.
Gulliver marvels that Lilliputians prefer to choose fools for office over wise men, because they want to avoid corruption. Their logic is that it’s less evil for officials to make mistakes in office out of gross stupidity than for them to make mistakes in office because of inducement. But the same mistakes have to be made either way. Swift satirizes actual events of Whig politics in England. His model for Flimnap was Robert Walpole- the first prime minister of England and the most skilful of all the rope dancers. Reldresal was modelled on either Viscount Townshend or Lord Carteret. For Wainaina, the politics of Kenya and Lilliput relate.
Perhaps ‘The God Small Things’ may allow the fog of the future and the hardness of history to fit together like pieces of an unsolvable puzzle. NGOs will remain corporate missionaries that mop up the anger and fold our fears into flowers that women may pin in their hair. But when independent thinking people like writers, painters, poets and musicians blindly yoke their art beneath a flag it is time for the rest to worry.