Letter from Africa: A gift for Kenya

In our series of letters from African journalists, broadcaster and media trainer Joseph Warungu offers a few tips on surviving Kenya to his new-born daughter.


Dear Zawadi,

Thank you for making me a dad again.

Your name means gift in Swahili.

You’re a special gift from God and judging by your first few days on earth, you’re also truly gifted.

You have the gift of timing and that is vital in surviving Kenya.

Joseph Warungu

Kenya is a land of opportunities but they are snapped up pretty fast by those who see them first”

Joseph Warungu

You chose to arrive on the last day of the month – 31 January – to coincide with pay day.

This fiscal sensitivity on your part saved your parents the agony of having to borrow too much to settle your hospital bills.

You’ll soon learn that Kenyans are only fully functional in the first seven days after pay day.

The usually nauseating city traffic turns into a coiled up nightmare as cars that had been starved of petrol for half the month cough and belch from a fuel overdose, and pubs come alive with merry-making.

You also have a communication gift.

When you arrived into the doctor’s hands, you unleashed a powerful war-cry without waiting for the traditional slap on the back.

If you want to be heard above the other 42 million Kenyans, then yelling for your needs is a core skill.

Protesters outside parliament in Nairobi, Kenya - June 2013
Kenya’s constitution guarantees the right to protest

Kenya has one of the most progressive constitutions on the continent with an impressive bill of rights.

Your scream is well within your constitutional rights.

‘Be alert always’

Your eyes were also wide open when you emerged from the five-star hotel you had occupied for the last nine months.

This means you had already embraced the Swahili expression “kaa macho”, which means “be alert always”.

Kenya is a land of opportunities but they are snapped up pretty fast by those who see them first.

Within 20 minutes of your birth, you had already incurred a personal baby bill of 6,000 Kenya shillings (about $70; £42), even though you were delivered in a natural way.

This was for things you had consumed in hospital in those first few minutes of life.


Itemised hospital billZawadi’s itemised hospital bill was several pages long


This means you’re already in debt.

It’s not a position that I would encourage you to stay in, because it puts a strain on the Kenyan economic hamburger.

You see, with high levels of unemployment in Kenya and with no public social support system, the few people with jobs are like the meat in the middle of the burger.

It is pressed down by the weight of the elderly parents above who need to be supported financially and it’s also pulled down by the weight of the children below who need help for their upkeep.

So Zawadi, you will need to crawl out of debt as soon as possible.

24-7 economy

In the few days since you joined us, I noticed that you eat and sleep a lot.

You can’t survive like that in Kenya.

This country is gradually moving to become a 24-hour economy.

Already there are supermarkets and other businesses that operate day and night.

So you too will need to learn to survive on just a few winks and a smaller dinner plate.

You arrived at a time of a huge public debate over the role of the mother tongue in children’s education.

You will need your mother tongue to communicate properly with your grandparents… but a little Chinese can’t do any harm in modern day Africa”

Joseph Warungu

The debate followed a Ministry of Education guideline that children under eight years of age, which is roughly when they are in primary class four, should be instructed in their mother tongue.


Samburu children attending evening lessons in solar-lit classrooms at Loltulelei primary school in Kenya - 2012Some feel it is best to teach younger primary school children in their mother tongue


Matatus in Nairobi, KenyaKenya’s matatus may become a thing of the past with the country’s 2030 vision to build infrastructure…


Artist's drawing of Konza, a new city intended to be an IT business hub… This is how the new Konza city – an intended IT business hub near Nairobi – is envisaged

Well, Zawadi, irrespective of the merits or otherwise of this policy, we are not taking any chances. You will learn everything.

You’ll be spared the trauma of travelling in our current metallic coffins otherwise known as matatus”

Joseph Warungu

You will need your mother tongue to communicate properly with your grandparents.

You will require the national language, Swahili, to navigate Kenya and East Africa, while the official language, English, is a basic survival tool.

But a little Chinese can’t do any harm in modern day Africa.

By the time you reach 16, Kenya will have hopefully achieved its vision 2030 of becoming a middle-income country with a better quality of life for its people.

I’m told that by then, you’ll be spared the trauma of travelling in our current metallic coffins, otherwise known as matatus.

High-speed trains will be the order of the day in an oil-producing country.

You will also be able to travel from the port of Mombasa to Yaounde in Cameroon, or Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa by road in no time at all.

I’ve spent my lifetime being reminded that I’m a leader of tomorrow. Several decades later, that tomorrow hasn’t come.

So it’s over to you now, Zawadi.

You’re a special gift and the future of Kenya is in your tiny hands.

Shhhhhhh… when I said you should scream, I didn’t mean you do it in the middle of the night – or when I’m busy! Shhhhh…