Sunday, January 4, 2009

Media: Blackout MPs

By Betty Caplan

Parliament plans to black out the media: the media's response must be to black out members of parliament. Tit for tat. Consider this: a week without Raila in sweeping white garb, Kibaki smiling at a crowd being promised something they know they won't get; a week without Martha Karua's carefully brushed coiffure and perfectly enunciated KiSwahili. Remember no-one loves to be in the limelight more than politicians. We may actually have space to discuss what is to be done in the current mess.

Do you realize that a mere 35 MPs voted for the Media (amendment) Bill - 35 out of 222! What were the others doing, when something apparently of such overweening importance was being aired. One member of the House (I refuse to call it august) has a regular column in another national paper. This week he complained "There's nothing to envy about an MP's life and the job is thankless." Was the Assistant Minister for Higher Education Science and Technology spending time with his constituents who were visiting his home which they feel free to do day or night or was he seeking refuge in his rural abode to get away from them with his family whom he has too little time for? Was he being a professional beggar, shamelessly soliciting government ministers and bureaucrats or NGOs or being ridiculed, insulted and openly shunned as a potential (rather than an actual) thief?

The Hon. Mwiria cannot attend the House because mundane tasks distract him: he must be a marriage counselor, education advisor and an intermediary in location and family conflicts - tasks no doubt his training has equipped him to do. He must be an ATM machine coughing out money for school fees, hospital bills, funeral expenses and land issues. "Some MPs carry no less than Ksh 200,000 to use with the public any weekend they head home in addition to what they use in Nairobi." Well, if you've got it, why not flaunt it? He even has to, horror of horrors, pay rounds of drinks for those who can afford it. It strikes me that such ministers are poorly prepared House work.

There is a little word in English that has the power to move mountains, It is "No." No, I won't pay because you drink too much anyway and you'll get in your cars and knock someone over. No, I won't have a meal in a public place when my constituents don't even have the money to buy unga to eat in private. No I will not continue this ugly system of patronage that makes me a one-man charity and turns my constituents into perpetual beggars. Yes, I will pay tax on my allowances and even vote for a decrease in salary so that the obscene gap between us can at last narrow if not disappear altogether. No, I will put off my phone when in a meeting, in Parliament or taking a rest and if I am classified as "proud and inaccessible", then so be it. Shauri yako. I am not God; I cannot be all things to all men and women. I am human, or supposed to be.

As for the "frustration in not being able to accomplish even a tenth of what is expected of him and then however good your performance you are blamed as a failure," the revered minister must be aware that is exactly what the humble schoolteacher suffers year after year. In fact it occurred to me they had much in common. Schoolteachers too are meant to be pillars of the community, ATM cards, marriage counselors and of course educators who produce brilliant results no matter what quality of student material they are working with or how inadequate the school's facilities are - no textbooks, desks, clean toilets, libraries. The Minister complains that "you have to toe the line of the party chief or you are gone", but the schoolteacher has to put up with incompetent, inefficient, corrupt and greedy Headmasters and keep mum or else she risks being transferred to the bush. As for going through abusive campaigns to be an MP, the Minister might try just for a little work experience slogging away day after day with students who don't want to learn, who can't see the point of education because these days Ph.ds drive taxis if they're lucky and who think that if you can't get them through any exam without their doing a stroke of work you a nobody. The more I think of it the job is the same. Except for the salary, tax- free allowances and perks of course.

(Betty Caplan is a freelance journalist and writer living in Kenya. Click HERE to read more of her work.)

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