Politics of ugali: Sad irony of Kenya importing her staple food

Chinua Achebe's critically acclaimed memoir, 'There was a Country', is a personal reflection on the Nigeria-Biafra war. The father of African literature begins with the popular idiom drawn from an Igbo proverb: "A man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body."

Every seasoned Kenyan social commentator has at least used the phrase once: "When did the rains start beating us?" as a fitting African embodiment to lament over a broken country. Half a century after her independence, Kenya in many respects, resembles the shattered dream of a prosperous Nigeria that Achebe mourns in his powerful memoirs: "There was a country but it is a country no longer".

Kenya's basic staple food, ugali is now an overpriced commodity. The price of maize flour has risen to unprecedented levels. It is the talk everywhere I go these days, even at funerals. There are jokes doing the rounds on social media, showing how eating ugali has become a status symbol.

Some are funny and worthy of a chuckle. However, the laughter is a mask for the anger repressed inside. I am well aware that for many Kenyans, humour is how we cope with the collective trauma that systemic corruption at all levels of government has visited on our personal lives.

When things get bad, laughter is the best medicine. Chinua Achebe captured the sentiment succinctly in his novel 'Arrow of God', when he said: "When suffering knocks at your door and you say, there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool".

With a packet of refined white maize retailing above Sh150, the Kenyan staple has graduated into a luxury food and a privilege that the masses are struggling to afford. It is no surprise that ugali has become a key election issue and Kenyans are politely reminding their leaders that they cannot eat "politics on an empty stomach".

The opposition has latched onto it with popular rhetoric, but to the jaded citizens weary of empty talk, politicians are all part of a ruling class and the eager puppets of big business looking out for their own self-interests. Politics is supposed to have real relevance to the empowerment of people's lives.

We are a country that is now accustomed to operating in a parasitic relationship with its political leadership. The big quest for the Kenyan voter in the coming election is survival rather than change. Where others seek to thrive, all we ask is to survive. So in many respects, we are the architects of our own suffering.

Exploitation, like any parasite cannot exist without a compliant host. The muted protest to the ugali crisis is a good indicator of how apathetic Kenyans have become to their own suffering. The starvation of entire communities in the forgotten North does not even move us anymore.

Maize seems to be racing to the Sh200 per packet mark and it is taking its toll. Relief we are told, is coming in form of duty free imported food from South America. During the budget speech read in March, National Treasury CS Henry Rotich proposed to zero-rate bread and maize whose supply is subject to machinations of unknown food cartels and crisis profiteers angling for a windfall.

The government has made a lot of noise about its interventions that are at best a band aid. We are now pacing restlessly as we anticipate cheap maize from Mexico without a shred of irony. For a cargo ship to travel from Mexico around the Cape of Good Hope to Kenya can take up to 48 days. That Kenya's main staple can travel 15,000 kilometres from Mexico and still retail cheaper than locally produced maize is the height of irony.

In the 80s, Captain Thomas Sankara, the assassinated revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso preached that development must be rooted in fulfilling the basic needs of the people.

"What is imperialism? Look at the food on your plate when you eat. These imported grains of rice, corn, and millet – that is imperialism." Sankara told a simple truth, "He who feeds you, controls you" and in Kenya the food cartels own us.

A government that cannot relate to its people's basic needs is akin to a greedy parent vomiting over the shoes of its own famished children. Our locally produced food is not even a central factor of our economic strategy in a country where agriculture is the most important economic sector.

It is a spectacular failure of imagination for a nation in the Aquarian age. Therefore Achebe, the grandfather of the African idiom offers us a space for deep historical reflection on the state of our nation in his memoirs on the problem with Nigeria.

I find myself struck by a similar sense of frustration as I bear witness to Kenya's potential squandered by those gifted with the sacred duty of leadership. A country that cannot feed itself, is no longer a country.