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I recently watched a documentary about house girls in Nairobi on BBC. Many of them travel from as far as Uganda to work in Kenya. Many are underage girls, and travel alone with no identity cards. They end up in homes where they may get abused, underpaid and unrecognised by law.

With such a high risk of travelling through the border to a world unknown, their prospects are still much better than staying home due to poverty. At least they feel, they can get work and get some pay, enough to send home and provide – the currency in Kenya is stronger so it can do more in Uganda.

Compared with our East African family, Kenya has the image of being the capitalist nation. Travel to Tanzania, and they recognise our ambitious drive for business, it can be translated into selfish and greedy. They probably find us too aggressive, their president calls us thieves and many experiences have occurred in the past that are not mainly positive.

It is the same in Rwanda, the attitude that they have to Kenyans revolves around hard work. We are not as laid back as our neighbours. I walked into a shopping centre during a visit to Kigali, and was surprised to find that most of the products were from Kenya. I was shocked, then hit by an “aha” would make sense why we were viewed a certain way.

The East Africa Community does see us as being ahead when it comes to development; we are the hustlers of the region and we do not wait for opportunity but grab it. This can also make us appear to be bullies. Our neighbours are also fully aware of our ethnic differences, how we constantly ask which tribe is what. I could not name tribes for you in Tanzania or Uganda and the stereotypes that follow.


When people in search of employment cross the border, by the time they get to Kenya, it is because they have heard you can make a living here. There are opportunities. That is the dream that many come in to the country with, searching for something better that will enable to support themselves and their family at home. If one was to ask a Kenyan, what the Kenyan dream is, would they have a response? What is our purpose?

After Independence it was about coming together and building the nation. Hence the chants of Harambee! were common during public addresses to remind people what our mission was at the end of the day: Collective pulling together. Then came Moi, and “Nyayo” (follow in the footsteps of Kenyatta) became the national slogan.

The characteristic nature of a culture, era or community as manifested in its attitude and aspiration is its ethos. Looking at the youth of our country, what is their ethos? Because that will translate into the ethos of a country.

The ethos of a country should not be that difficult to think about. For America, it is the pursuit of happiness, enshrined in their Constitution, the idea that one can work hard and be successful. In Kenya it seems to change with every president. We moved from Harambee! to Nyayo, then it gets fuzzy: Was it Kibaki Tosha! Or Tuko Pamoja? Would that even be considered an unwritten national slogan? Because to many people it seemed like the togetherness of two main tribes, and now it has been translated into the handshake, to appear national.

It is interesting to see the pains that people take to travel to Kenya to look for opportunity. But when you talk to young Kenyans about their future, many will say they are trying to find ways to leave the country if they can to look for better opportunities.

There is less talk about coming together, even less talk about building a country. But more talk about building oneself. As long as success can be measured materialistically, the details to that success are not important. Nobody cares about that nation stuff. Unless we won a marathon or something.

Nerima Wako-Ojiwa is executive director, Siasa Place. Twitter: @NerimaW