By David Onjili
The world is asplash with materialism, which explains mantras like “pursuit of happiness”, a sugarcoated admission of materialism. Yet, in this rat race of life, all this is like chasing the wind. A student, for example, has the option to diligently attend class and, through hard work, sit an examination, or skip classes then copy answers or buy the exams to obtain a pass. In a queue, one can choose to follow order or jump the line and be first at the expense of those who came earlier. We live in an era that condones, even glorifies instant gratification, and forget that the joy that comes with that, if any, it is fleeting. In this pursuit of happiness, we often fail to get purpose, courting, despite material wealth, lifestyle diseases and loneliness.
Nothing explains this like the current Kenyan political circus. Many of those who purport to want to serve their electorate are after the goodies that political office has to offer. Our economy, for example, has been limping for years now, but that multi-billion infrastructural projects, like the Sigiri Bridge, can collapse and nobody is held responsible demonstrates our disregard for our own laws. Knowing this, it would do us good to understand that it is not out of the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but out of regard for his or her own interest. Politicians don’t legislate with the interest of the electorate, but for their own ends.
Leo Tolstoy, in his parable “How much land does a man need?” tells the story of Pahom, an irrational, unsatisfied and acquisitive man, which describes the politics of Kenya since independence. Overhearing a conversation between his wife and the sister in law on how great life in the town is, the theatre they attend, as well as the fine clothes and food and drinks on offer, Pahom gets very envious and forget the agrarian life he leads.
Out of greed, Pahom sets out to acquire land in his home area and, soon, he is boasting that if he had enough land, he would not even fear the devil himself. He feels angry when neighbours trespass into his cornfields and meadows. One day, a traveller who stops over to feed his horses tells him about the Bakshirs, and the thousands of acres of land they own.
In January 2015, students of Lang’ata Road Primary School who were demonstrating against the encroachment into their school playground by a private developer ended up being choked in tear gas as police were used to protect the illegal acquisition of the property. In this chase, not even the innocence of children is spared.
Some African presidents are known for clinging to power like their lives depend on it. Robert Mugabe did until he had to be forced to resign by the same military that was propping him up. In Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, inspired by his other neighbour, Paul Kagame, is on a quest to remove age limits and presidential terms limits respectively. Comparatively, some, in Africa and outside of it, some other heads of state are happy to retire when time beckons, and live fulfilling lives outside office.
The story of Pahom depicts the typical African leader – this is not about the continent or its people; statistics don’t lie – before they are elected. Their motivation for running for office is not to serve but to lord. They package themselves as reformists only to turn once they are safely in office.
The looting of billions by state officials only seems to embolden and enable them to seek higher leadership positions that come with high status, and therefore better protection for bigger crimes! Nobody has a conscience anymore; nobody fears stealing or killing any more, as long as one gets rich. Like Pahom, we are moving to acquire more and more wealth at the expense of humanity.
Going back to the story above, Pahom visits the Bakshirs, whose chief agrees to sell him as much land as he can walk around in one day. The caveat is, he must return to the exact point he started before sunset, or the sale is off. Pahom dies in the attempt. The lesson is simple enough, and it is the general consensus that like Pahom, none of us can be buried with the wealth we amass. Real purpose is not found in seeking land as Pahom did, it is found in introspect.
When still young, we must strive to find out whom we are and our purpose in life so that, as we get older, we can objectivel shift our purpose in life from ourselves to others. We must give back to society and make it better than we found it. Nelson Mandela, whose efforts delivered South Africans from colonisation, chose to retire from politics and let others run the nation. Today, his name is written not just in South African but world folklore as a unifying figure in apartheid South Africa, as a man whose image and name invokes forgiveness. Can the same be said of most others?
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, in his last days when struggling with cancer, summarises the journey of life so well. For a man who reached the pinnacle of success to come to this realisation should be an eye opener to the many Pahoms that the world keeps churning in the name of leaders. These were his words:
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.
Almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it, and that is how it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.” ^