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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sdiq's thoughts: The illiterate councilors in NEP - Kenya

By "the incredible" Sdiq Baqad
There are only a handful of magnificent architectural structures in Garissa, the capital of North-Eastern Province in Kenya (NEP). And, one of these buildings is the Catholic Church in the town. You might wonder why the presence of a church would be very conspicuous in a majority Muslim town. However, this has everything to do with the quality of the councilors we have in the province – the elected local government officials. The public library in the town is also outstanding and is actually rumoured to be the best in the country.

Due to the poor pay associated with such onerous but important tasks, most of the elite shun these junior political positions. They instead prefer the other more prestigious occupations that come with the money. Politically, the least they accept are parliamentary positions, which in Kenya are known to pay very well - and tax free salaries at that. This, therefore, leaves some, mostly illiterate, persons to take the local governance jobs. And, that’s where our problem stems from.

In addition, town planning is usually done at the central level - in the state capital. Technocrats in Nairobi are the ones tasked with planning for the whole of Kenya. It is these groups that draw maps for all towns in Kenya. Though there is nothing wrong with these surveyors, cartographers and other similar professionals being adherents of a particular faith, the maps they draw usually come with a wrong assumption that everyone in Kenya is a Christian. Thus, they fallaciously indicate ‘church’ on the maps rather than leave this option open, or write 'place of worship' instead.

And, this is where our ill-educated leaders come in. For some reasons, they take the word 'church' literally, not realizing that the proposed church land is in fact a space meant for the majority of an area to establish their own place of worship. Thus, if the residents of a region are predominantly of a certain faith, say, for example, Islam, then it is a mosque that deserves priority in such an area. Conversely, if the same region was predominated by Catholics, then a catholic church should be given precedence over other houses of worship.

It is for this reason that you will find almost all mosques in Garissa, and by extension in the whole province, being built on privately acquired land. A Muslim could, for example, buy a plot for the purpose of an Islamic worship centre, or offer a piece from their own parcels. This, sadly, makes most of the mosques in the region to be squeezed on some small plots. Expansion of the same, or the establishment of a madrassa within the compound of the masjid, thus becomes an impossible feat. On the other hand, the minority Christians in Garissa enjoy the prime most areas for their churches, and on relatively expansive plots.

The Somalis never see this as a problem though. As long as they have access to some place they can go and do their worship, then there isn’t a dilemma, regardless of the quality of the same. This effectively denies the Muslims in this region enough spaces for their other religious needs, and notably, madrassas.

Whereas this setback is primarily caused by the experts in Nairobi, the councilors aren’t infallible too. They do also contrive to deny residents of other social amenities. You will be surprised that there are whole sections of Garissa that are inaccessible by road. Apart from some school playgrounds, the town also does not have public recreation facilities. All these are solely as a result of the illiterate officials that locals elect every so often.

Now, the residents of NEP have to pay a price for the ineptness of the central government combined with the idiocy of their local officials. You will be surprised though if you contrast what happens in NEP and the reality in other parts of the country. Muslims in other parts of the country, or even adherents of other faiths, are primarily considered if they form the majority in a given place. A good example would be towns in Central Province like Thika, Muranga and Margua - places I have visited before.

Luckily, the newly promulgated Kenyan Constitution devolves a lot of the power initially concentrated at the central level to the county level. This would, therefore, make all developmental decisions, and other issues regarding the advancement of the citizens, to be deliberated by the locals themselves. Also, many educated youth are now eyeing these junior political positions, mostly out of desperation for unemployment is very high in the region. Therefore, and as a result of the above two, the future seems to be very bright.

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