A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend half an hour with a 85 year old man who moved to Washington DC in August 1980 – the very month I was born. I had just finished a really heavy day at the World Bank conference so I headed to Georgetown, checked out the Apple store there and dreamed a little before walking down 30th street, and across K street to the water front, where I had decided to have a quiet drink at Tony & Joe’s (where they serve a mean burger and chips – I mean crisps not fries)
It was there that I met Ben Andrew Oludhe. He’s now retired, takes it easy and every evening walks from his flat near Montrose park, has one beer at Tony & Joe’s and then walks back in time for bed. When I met the old man, he had a lot of questions about Kenya – do they have hospitals in gishagi (rural areas) now? Can you get Medicare? How many people live in Nairobi? Does koja mosque still exist? What’s Kariokor like now? Do you still get arrested for not having an ID? What are schools there like? Are there latest model cars like there are in the US? And I spent time just showing him photos of Nairobi today.
It reminded me of a question I have been asked TWICE by a close person to me who’s a nurse in the US: “do they still boil needles there?”
It occurs to me that we have people who consider themselves inherently Kenyan but who Kenya has left behind, perhaps forever. These ones are lost to Kenya and their only memory of Kenya can only be the old Kenya of the 1970s and 1980s. To these guys, the stories I would tell of cancer treatment in Kenya, heart transplants, a vibrant ICT scene, a flaming clubbing scene, malls that meet the malls in the US and beat some of them, etc. To these Kenyans (bless their hearts) none of this would make any sense. Now to talk about a police service that is polite and speaks without an accent? About government officials who help people? About a crop of young Kenyans who are taking on the world, like my friend Lorna? These would be just stories. Explaining how far Kenya has come these past decade, is of no use.
Anyway, Ben told me about how when he was a boy in 1950, he used to walk from his father’s house in Makongeni to the District Commissioners office to sit across the street on the ground and promise himself that he would one day drive a car like the white colonialists that he saw there. He told me how he used to go to the Norfolk hotel and stand across the street and look at the likes of Lord Delamere strut their stuff in and out of the hotel. These were his dreams as a boy. To be a DC or a Lord Ben.
“To be honest, I left Africa because I despaired of that ever happening,” he told me. “By the time I left, I could not drive a car, I could not even concieve the idea of owning one. Living in a big stone house with several bedrooms remained an unattainable dream. Something that only others, people from other tribes and races and class, people with connections could have.”
When the chance to move to America came, “I didn’t think twice. I didn’t look back.” He has never returned to Kenya since he got on the back of a pick up truck and held on as it sped to Tanzania from where he flew to the US and claimed asylum and later citizenship. He has never considered visiting.
“I found my dreams here,” he wistfully said. “and mine were not big – to own a two bedroom house, to wear a suit when I want to and to own a car.”
Since that encounter, as I watched the quaint old man shuffle away back to his house, to his American dream, I started thinking about my dreams as I was growing up. People of my generation didn’t dream of changing the world. That was not in our realm of thinking as kids – we dreamed of being lawyers, engineers, doctors, nurses and teachers. Astronauts? That was for American kids. Nobel Laureats? What’s that, we’d want to know? We wanted to be rich (in Kenyan terms) but to dream of being a millionaire in dollar terms? You were even discouraged from having your head that far up in the clouds. We didn’t dream that a Kenyan doctor could treat Lupus, do transplants. It just wasn’t possible. And we were not encouraged to dream of the impossible.
Now, I think about my son, Harry Kags. He will be 18 in the year 2030 – the year that Kenya dreams to be a middle income country. I wonder what his dreams could be as he grows up? Could he dream conceivably about finding a cure for cancer or AIDS or even a permanent way to eradicate malaria? Could he dream of building a company that designs the most advanced Compressed Air Cars and be the biggest car maker in the world? Could he dream of affecting the world in the way that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have (you know, getting us to use technology that we take for granted then, that is unimaginable today)? Would an African girl conceivably dream of being president based on her own merit and steam?
Where will the ceilings of my son’s generation’s dreams be? And if he can dream of all this things and conceivably believe that he can reach this dreams, what do I need to do with my own ceilings? What do I need to believe I can do? What about his teachers? How much could they stretch their ability to dream? And our leaders? How crazy dare they dream?
How far in the clouds will the African child be allowed/ encouraged to dare to dream? How much of his imagination will be encouraged to flourish?
How far will our sons and daughters dare stretch their imagination? And you? And me?