What the 2019 census reveals about Kenyans

The questions asked during the census exercise have been quite revealing — but not in a way many of us have thought of.

Depending on where you live, you probably found some questions odd or unnecessary. We even joked about it on social media. Someone wondered out loud on Twitter why the enumerator found the need to ask if he owned a TV and yet she could see it right in front of her.

Another city dweller found the question about owning cattle a little amusing. I personally remember pausing for a few seconds before responding to a question about owning a canoe (I don’t). I, too, joked about this on Twitter and Facebook.

Humor as a shield

For Kenyans living in the city, especially the middle class, many of the census questions felt out of touch. Yet instead of realizing that these questions ought to teach us something about the rest of Kenya, we chose to laugh and meme our way through the oddities.

We used humor to shield ourselves from the realities of the stark inequalities in a supposedly “united” Kenya. We do this a lot. Just check out the hashtag #KoT on Twitter. If we are not raging about a foreigner who has disrespected our country, we are making fun of the ridiculous levels of corruption within our own borders.

One man’s joke is another man’s lifeline

The census questions say a lot about the reality many Kenyans still live in, a reality that we cannot afford to joke our way out of confronting. The way a Nairobi resident felt about answering “no” to whether they owned a car is the same way someone in rural Kajiado felt about not owning a “cow”. Except that in Kajiado, the feeling was much worse and the implications of that reality much more devastating.

Owning a canoe in the fishing villages around Lake Victoria does not make one the butt of a joke. To some (who own it) it is a means of sustenance and a mark of great privilege,  while to others (who don’t) it is a mark of failure in life. One man’s joke is another man’s lifeline.

While you are wondering whether to classify your home theater system as a radio or part of your TV, someone in a slum not far from your apartment complex does not even own a portable radio. Another in a remote village in West Pokot doesn’t even see the need to because his area doesn’t receive a radio signal.

I spent a few days earlier this month in Mosiro Ward in Kajiado County where I came face to face with the reality of child marriage and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). To many of us in Nairobi, the term FGM is often relegated to hashtag activism and the horror story that occasionally shows up on our TV screens.

The girl child as property

Yet, to many girls as young as 10 years old in Mosiro, this is a reality they have to live with — a rite of passage that defines them and earns them a place in their society. FGM is not a matter of choice or opinion for many of these girls, it is as natural to their life experience as menstrual cramps — they know to expect it and they better be ready to endure it.

I hate to imagine how many fathers glanced at their pre-teen daughters when the census enumerators asked if they owned a cow. Because to many of these men, bringing a girl into this world is an economic investment that guarantees a bump in the number of cows you own. It is sad that there are still communities where the question of whether you have a child and whether you own cows sounds like one and the same question.

This is nothing to laugh or joke about. For each property-related question that you answered “yes” to, there are millions of Kenyans who answered “no” and still many others who were too ashamed to confess their lack. Yet this is why the census exists, to reveal the needs in our society so that the government can make informed decisions regarding resource distribution.

A call to confront the inequalities

Isn’t it ironic, then, that instead of getting angry about the basic things we own that our fellow countrymen can only dream  about, we find ourselves amused? Is our conscience this seared? The opposite ought to be the case.

The question about your level of education should provoke you to care about access to education (or the lack of it) for hundreds of thousands of Kenyan children.

The question about the number of children you have should provoke you to care about the infant mortality rate and what we can do to stop preventable deaths in the country.

The question about how you earn a living should provoke you to care about the rising rate of unemployment in Kenya and the tone-deaf advise college graduates get about becoming entrepreneurs instead of getting a job.

While you were wondering whether to classify as a “habitable room” your guest room and the SQ that you have converted into a study room, there is someone who was not even sure what to call the shack they live in.

As I write this, the Kenyan drought management authority says that more than 2.5 million Kenyans in at least 11 counties facing starvation as drought and hunger situation gets worse. This is not just a food-related census question to respond “yes” or “no” to, it is a matter of life and death.

This is what census 2019 reveals about Kenya — or at least it ought to. I hope that when the results are released in three months, we will use them to confront these issues, call our local government representatives to account, and do something to make our neighbor’s world, and not just our own, a better place.

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