Private Solutions to Public Problems

From the Curator’s Desk

Greetings, friends:

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me to review some regional data that his organisation had been working on – I can’t name the friend or the organisation yet, because the report is still embargoed, but I can tell you they are credible research organisation with a regional presence, focusing on citizen attitudes towards public issues such as governance, health, education and security. He tasked me with reading through the report and highlighting what I found interesting or counterintuitive.

I can’t yet highlight all the very intriguing regional trends in the data – East Africans are an interesting bunch! – but one little nugget stood out for me and got me scratching my head. The data showed that Kenyan citizens are more likely to be positive about their own circumstances than about the national economy, believing that their own personal finances are likely to improve in the next 12 months even if the national economy doesn’t. In contrast, in Tanzania citizens are more likely to be positive about the national economy than about their own circumstances. In Uganda there is no clear pattern in either direction.

I stayed with that paragraph for a long time, partly because I haven’t done an East African trend story in a while, even though I’ve written a lot of these kinds of stories in the past – the time I’ve spent away from writing a real data-driven story made reading this report truly delightful. But the other reason I was so struck by this idea of Kenyans being more optimistic about their own financial circumstances than the national economy speaks to the very particular Kenyan way of finding private solutions to public problems. 

In the words of my Twitter (I’m not calling it X) friend Mariah Sudi, “I think because the system has failed us and we got used to it, we focused on doing things ourselves so that is a more predictable thing for us…we think ‘if I get enough money, the failed system doesn’t apply to me’, so we really don’t look at the collective good.”

Still, there might be more to it. Perhaps media narratives play a part: in Kenya, there might be a stronger emphasis on individual or local stories of success in the media, which could make people more optimistic about their individual circumstances. In contrast, if Tanzanian media provides more positive coverage of government initiatives and economic growth, citizens may feel the national economy is doing well, even if they don’t directly see the benefits in their daily lives.

Or maybe it’s something cultural (and I hesitate to use the word cultural). It’s possible that in Kenya, there is a stronger cultural emphasis on individual perseverance, entrepreneurship or “the hustle”, leading to Kenyans believing their financial breakthrough is just around the corner. In Tanzania, there may be more of a cultural value placed on collective success or unity, and a small anecdote could illustrate.

Some years ago, I was invited to Dar es Salaam by this very friend who shared this report with me. We were a number of Kenyans in a minivan, stuck in Dar’s famous traffic which, as I understand, has since improved. It was hot and we were tired from the journey, and there was a street vendor selling mangoes in traffic, and so my colleague in the van quickly counted them up and mentally divided them among us in the van – and then asked the vendor if he could buy them all. I’ll never forget the vendor’s response, which truly blew me away – he said something to the effect of, if you buy my entire stock for today, what will the others (wenzako in Kiswahili) buy? In short, he was willing to forgo the immediate windfall of that one-time sale to avoid disappointing future hypothetical customers, who might even be able to get the same mangoes from another vendor in that same traffic jam.

I’m still trying to figure it out, and also think about why Uganda is in this intermediate position, with no clear pattern of feeling neither optimistic or pessimistic about their own or national prospects.

In the meantime, here’s: 

What We’re Reading: Revisiting my Rastafari Childhood, by Safiya Sinclair and published in The New Yorker. “Babylon was everything forbidden, and looming all around us—and my father tried to protect us from it at all costs.”

What We’re Watching: Painkiller on Netflix, a fictionalised retelling of the causes and consequences of the opioid crisis in the US. In the words of executive producer Eric Newman, “It’s a story that’s so big and so awful that it deserves to be told as often and as loudly as it can be.”  I’ve read and watched a lot on the opioid crisis, but this one left me in tears.

What We’re Listening to: A Divorce Attorney’s Thoughts on Love and Marriage. This one is on YouTube, but still counts as a listen because not much is happening visually – you could listen to it while doing something else. A divorce lawyer is an unexpected source of advice on marriage, but perhaps could be the most insightful.

As always,

Christine Mungai | Baraza Media Lab


SheLeads Media | Online Safety for Women Forum

Baraza Media Lab, in collaboration with the Thomson Foundation and Journalist for Human Rights (JHR) are committed to empowering women in media through the #SheLeads Media program. This initiative combines coaching, advocacy, and training to promote and uplift female voices in the media industry.

We are excited to invite you to the Online Safety for Women Forum, a gathering aimed at addressing the challenges women in the media face, with a focus on safeguarding against online violence. 

Date: 23rd August 2023

Register to attend here.


Book Bunk | NBO Litfest

Book Bunk are back with another exciting edition of NBO Litfest, an international literature festival celebrating art, culture, and the boundless potential of knowledge, all flourishing within Nairobi’s public libraries. 

This year’s theme, Mtaa Narratives, is a call to explore cultural memory and the stories that ground us. Mtaa being kitongoji, neighbourhood, baze, hood, home, how do we negotiate distance from and proximity to our roots? What do we foreground? Are there inflexible ideas about a place? 

This edition will have the programme spread out across all three of Book Bunk’s project libraries; McMillan Memorial Library, Eastlands Library, and Kaloleni Library. There will be a spectacular lineup of local, regional, and international writers, artists, and performers. And Baraza Media Lab’s Christine Mungai will be moderating a panel on Sunday 27th August, see you there!

Dates: 24th August – 27th August

Register to attend here.

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