Holidays and history lessons

By Mark Nicholson

Our two youngest flew into Nairobi last Saturday for their long summer holidays. They arrived at 0100h and it took them three hours to get out of the airport owing to the fact that they had come from South Africa via Addis Ababa. They had to have another PCR test 24 hours after their last one and they waited three hours as the testers were clearly in their beds at 0200h. Was all this really necessary? They were both double vaccinated.

In an earlier article in Only Connect I wrote about how it was in the interest of a virus that finds a home in a new species to spread as quickly as possible and become harmlessly integrated with the host’s biome. So I was triply irritated when the South Africans announced to the world that they had detected a new variant - Omicron. First, it has potentially messed up our travel plans. Nine Southern African countries and Nigeria were until today on the UK Red List for the second time. The first time it cost us £2,000 in July when my wife was imprisoned in a Gatwick hotel for ten days. Second, it takes a while to detect and describe a new variant. So, as soon as I heard about Omicron I was willing to bet anyone that it was already in at least a score of countries worldwide, and sure enough it was. Third, having enjoyed a classical education, I was staggered to hear from my daughters (and probably 95% of the rest of the world) that they were unaware that Omicron was the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet. What happened to the Epsilon and Zeta variants? And where do we go after Omega is found?

In spite of their excellent reports, my daughters were then subjected to the usual end of term quiz from their father, which elicits filial groans, of course. “What do you learn about in history?”, I asked them. Colonization, apartheid, suffragettes, nuclear bombs and the wickedness of Hendrik Verwoerd. “Can you mention a British monarch other than Elizabeth II and Henry VIII?” Answer: Yes, Elizabeth I and Victoria. “Why those two?” Because you made us watch Young Victoria and because if the Queen is Elizabeth the Second, there must have been a First. The irony is that my Ethiopian wife, who is trying to get British Citizenship, had to learn that Henry I died of a surfeit of lampreys in 1135 in order to pass her Know Britain test.

Christmas approaches (why is it always a “run up” these days?) though there is little sign of it when one drives into Nairobi. No religious holy day has been so corrupted by materialism, pagan mythology (reindeer) and Victorian sentimental excesses (Santa Claus, Xmas trees & cards) as Christmas. If we drive to the drought-affected north, the incongruity is magnified when it is 40oC and one is seeking shelter from the sun in its zenith. My daughters again put me on the defensive: “Why do we all have to observe the mzungu (White man’s) Christmas when ours (Orthodox) is Jan 8th?” They have a point: 120 years ago the population of Kenya was estimated to have been 1.7m, 1.6m of whom were animists, 99,000 were indentured skilled or non-skilled labourers and traders from the Indian sub-continent, and about 1,000 were British administrators, adventurers and missionaries. The proselyting religions, Islam and Christianity, did a good job; today 70% of Kenyans identify themselves as Christian and in Tanzania 35 percent are Muslim.

Over the last three weeks I have had four lunches and two dinners with people of different backgrounds: my Patel friends (Hindus), my dentist (Iranian Baha’i), a new friend from the investment field (a Westminster-educated Ismaili), two Sikh friends from 20 km up the road (who had staying with them three British Zoroastrians from Wimbledon of Pakistani descent), my car mechanic (Gujerati-Sunni) and a very distinguished (practising) Jewish physician and his wife. The curious fact about my Asian friends is that while they are quite happy to entertain an outsider (me), it is extremely uncommon for them to socialize with (and far less to marry) fellow west Asians from a different religious group. Anyway, Diwali (November) was noisy but not invasive; Guru Nanak’s birthday (November) was a quiet affair; Hanukkah (ending Dec 6th) is a devout celebration that goes unnoticed by goyim. But Christmas is forced on the lot of us because that is where the moolah is made.

My employees have mostly vanished up-country for their annual leave. They return in early January and the start of our general election campaign. Our President and our Vice President, once the closest of allies, are now bitter foes. There will be two major parties vying for power and it looks at present as though the result will be split 50:50. The losers will cry foul. Vote-rigging will be de rigueur, which always gives an advantage to the incumbent. In 2007, tribally-based, post-election violence killed well over 1,100. One of my staff from western Kenya has already made plans to go home for the election next August because two family members were murdered after the 2007 election in our local town. I always encourage young people to vote but most do not bother even to get voting cards as they say the candidates are old (in a country where the median age is below 20) and belong to Kenya’s aristocracy. Quite true, I reply, but if you don’t vote, nothing will ever change.

We had a small staff party before they left. One of our staff bemoaned the corruption and venal character of our politicians. They asked why Africa couldn’t have an election like those in the Western world? “My friends, please look at the US election in 2020”.

Another has just lost money on a mini-Ponzi scheme in Kenya. So I decided to tell them a story. My father told me that two of his ancestors lost fortunes in 1929 and 1720. Assuming ‘he’ (my earlier ancestor…and I have no doubt of his gender) was around 40 in 1720, he would have been born around 1680. Now I have two friends who always tell me about their great-great-greats in the 18th Century but I am more interested in mathematics than genealogy. I, like everyone else, had 512 ‘great-greats’ in 1680 based on a generation interval of 30 years. If we reduce that to 25 years, then I have 1024 direct ancestors in 1700 of whom (one hopes) 1023 did not lose a fortune. At school one learnt that the South Sea Bubble of 1720 was the greatest share crash in history. Shares shot up to £1000 a share (roughly £70,000 in today’s money). What we did not learn was that the company’s remit was mainly to supply 5000 slaves a year for 30 years to Latin America and the Caribbean. The Bubble burst: many were ruined and politicians committed suicide. The cautionary tale of course is that if it’s too good to be true, it generally is.

What is equally interesting are the similarities between politics in Hanoverian England and politics in today’s Kenya. Both were/are oligarchies run by a few family clans that derived their wealth from land ownership and commerce. Politics in both cases was/is a highly lucrative profession allowing incumbents to endow relatives and supporters with desirable offices and sinecures. It is well-known in Kenya that the three routes to wealth for those lacking business acumen are Politics, the Police and the Church. There are over 4000 registered churches in Kenya: one of my staff founded a church and makes more money from tithing than from his salary. But politics is where the real money is made. Kenyan legislators are believed to be the second highest paid in the world after Nigerians, equivalent to around 60 times the annual per capita GDP. In Hanoverian England, 388 peerages were created for political services. In Kenya, it tends to be cash and land when Government land or protected forests are excised for sub-division and sale. But a major difference is that Hanoverian politicians tended to be landed gentry in the first place when they were ‘elected’ to represent (or given) ‘rotten’ or ‘pocket’ boroughs. In Kenya our Vice President went from selling peanuts on the street to becoming a billionaire, which says much for his craft and skill.

Yes, African Presidents are well-known for their ability to enrich themselves. But so were Hanoverian ministers. The first Prime Minister in history, Robert Walpole, had similar skills, guile or acumen as Kenya’s Vice President. Walpole made 1000 percent profit on his shares by judicious trading on the South Sea Company but was able to remain untainted by scandal unlike many others in Government who were bribed handsomely to allow the South Sea Company take over the National Debt. Walpole was both a clever politician and great financier but I am not sure his integrity was any greater than our Vice President or the current British Prime Minister. He built one of Britain’s greatest and most expensive stately homes, Houghton Hall, and filled it with some of the finest art of the day from Holbeins to Gainboroughs. Steven Sackur, of the BBC’s HARDtalk, might well have asked “What was the source of your wealth, Sir Robert?”.

So cheer up, Kenyans. It has taken Britain three hundred years to go from the birth of what we might call modern democracy to what Britain is today and it is still far from perfect. In democratic African states, I believe that universal suffrage, the power of social media, greater transparency and the influence of the outside world will get you to true democracy much quicker. Just bear in mind Churchill’s quote: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried”.