I Laughed at a Kenyan With a Wheelbarrow-Even Though I Did Not Have a Car


By Washington Osiro,


The title of this piece is paraphrased from Helen Keller’s famous quote: “I cried because I had no shoes – until I met a man with no feet.” The quote underscores the irony of the reactions Kenyans had towards a recent event involving their current whipping boy, Deputy President William Ruto.

While his boss was in France borrowing more money and sinking the country deeper into debt, the DP gifted wheelbarrows to a group of seventy (70) youths and women, and like clockwork, his critics panned the gesture – with versions of the gripe “it will have little impact on the lives of the beneficiaries.” Even the one-time Lord of Poverty took his nemesis to task deriding the DP’s gesture as “petty politics…..(which) will not empower our youths but stagnate them in poverty as the world is working on innovation and technology.”

Let me set aside the obviosity that the gesture gave something of value (wheelbarrows) the recipients did not have before. Let me also set aside the jealousy, kimnadho if you may, and gift horse-in-the-mouthism bodied in a lot of the criticism. Finally, let me park the richness of the irony embodied in a former “Lord of Poverty” now lecturing others about poverty next to the silliness that has engulfed nearly EVERYTHING William Ruto has undertaken since March 2018, i.e., post-handshake/BBI and offer the following:

While it would have been more “meaningful” had the DP given each youth and woman a truck or a car, maybe a motorcycle, definitely a house or one million shillings, I can also bet my next paycheck that those now excoriating him would have found a different set of reasons to double their excoriation – something along the lines of “look at him using COVID-19 funds to ‘buy’ votes and support for 2022!” Additionally, on gifting high-value items, it bears pointing out that stories abound of hitherto poverty-stricken or down-on-their-luck persons happening upon financial or material windfall as described above. Unfortunately, many of these individuals, unable to plan out how to use their windfalls to improve their lives in the long-term, are soon back to Square One – struggling to put food on the table and a roof over their heads.

Put another way; the wheelbarrow is as utilitarian and practical a “windfall” as it gets to persons in an economy still struggling to develop and modernize itself and, importantly, create jobs for its largest tranche of unemployed citizens – its youth. Considered from this perspective, giving the youth a gift that symbolizes hard work was not such a bad idea.

Added to this practicality of the DP’s gift is this interesting nugget from a 1986 National Library of Medicine study:

Women of the Luo tribe carry loads equivalent to 70% of their body mass balanced on the top of their heads. Women of the Kikuyu tribe carry equally large loads supported by a strap across their foreheads; this frequently results in a permanently grooved skull.”

FULL DISCLOSURE: I do not know the criteria the DP’s team used to select the equipment or those who received them. Similarly, I do not know if they have plans to follow up on the progress of the youth and the women – to see how they use the wheelbarrows, presumably to improve their lives. I would also be interested in finding out whether these wheelbarrows were sourced locally or imported (from China). Some of these questions would help me (and Kenyans) understand the thinking behind the gesture and provide some context beyond the reflexive reaction the man’s detractors had to it.

Food (Taco) trucks are near-permanent fixtures in many California neighborhoods. They also have a long and storied history in America going back to the late 1600s. Food trucks are mobile restaurants that allow their proprietors to set up shop anywhere the local ordinances permit them to serve food and drinks to customers. These set-ups are comparatively inexpensive; the food they serve is healthier than those served in fast-food restaurants and given their mobility, their service uber-convenient. Best of all, taco trucks provide gainful employment – to mostly immigrants families, who have found niche markets serving their respective national cuisine to a California (and American) public with adventurous and accepting palates.

I had food trucks on my mind when news of William Ruto’s gesture first hit the airwaves several weeks ago. The way I see it, the widely maligned wheelbarrows provide recipients an opportunity to change their economic fortunes even if incrementally. They allow like-minded owners to pool their newfound “wealth” into a larger, hopefully, more lucrative undertaking than if each recipient of the symbol of hard menial labor – the wheelbarrow – sets off on their own. Granted, the path to changing their fortunes is bound to be protracted, laborious, and full of uncertainties – a process Kenyans are loath to embrace almost as much as they loath honest hard work.

And why should they?

Why should they literally break their backs in a culture where a twenty-something-year-old “learned friend”with nary an entrepreneurial bone in them can register a “company” and in less than one year, score a KSh.4 billion tender to provide PPEs to the government? With such examples of microwaved riches and a system teeming with self-dealers, one can see why offering an opportunity that demands old-fashion hard work would be met with scorn.

Kenyans love easy money. They have mastered the get-rich ethos embodied in the preceding story, and anything else is either unacceptable or the subject of ridicule. Half of them believe that it does not matter how they make their money so long as they do not end up in jail. Another half (47%) admire “those who make money through hook or crook, (including hustling).” These are not my views. They are the findings of a 2016 study – the Kenya Youth Survey Report – conducted by Aga Khan University’s East African Institute. The findings dovetail with the reactions these same Kenyans had towards William Ruto’s donations.

On the other hand, these same Kenyans are also recognized as among the most industrious of all immigrants in the US – and yes, these two conditions are NOT mutually exclusive.

They currently co-exist – at home and abroad.

The question is which bucket-o-Kenyans will win the day:

The 50% who don’t care about how they make their money/earn a living so long as they don’t end up in jail OR the 50% who hate their country’s culture of corruption and self-dealing thus are willing to work hard to earn an honest living.