Michela Wrong’s It’s Our Turn to Eat was first published by 4th Estate in 2009, in the aftermath of the bloody 2007 Kenyan elections that left 1,500 killed and about 200,000 displaced. And indeed, from its opening pages, it is clear that the book is going to end on a sour note. Set in 2004 in Nairobi, the story starts off with a gripping scene:
“Inside the minister’s office, three men sat locked in intimate conversation: the finance minister (…); the justice minister (…); and a third player, a barrel-chested, trunk-necked lumber-jack of a man who looked ready to burst from his suit at any moment. What they were discussing was so engrossing, they were barely aware of their surroundings. And then it happened. The giant suddenly became aware of a metallic whispering… What was that? (…) He could barely believe it. The recorder he had taped to his stomach, its wire lead and microphone stuck to his breastbone, had somehow switched into “play” mode.”
A gripping tale
Written as a thriller, documented as a scientific paper and scattered with witty anecdotes, the book examines the sequence of events that made of “lumber-jack” John Githongo, a highly regarded civil society activist turned Kenya’s anti-corruption czar, the most famous whistle-blower in Kenya’s (and arguably Africa’s) history. Only for the corruption scandal, the book would already be a success. Constantly treated with juicy details and villain-like characters of the infamous “Anglo-leasing” affair that plagued Kenya’s recent history, the reader discovers in pure crime-writing fashion how several key ministers and, ultimately, the country’s President Mwai Kibaki himself were caught hands in the till. It all comes along with vivid reminders of the political up and downs Kenya has had to face since independence – the long, crippled reign of Daniel arap Moi that finally ended in 2002, the burst of joy and hope that accompanied his successor’s beginnings, the eventual disillusion… –; adding historical perspective to the gripping tale. But Wrong goes further, and her attempt to look at the bigger picture takes “It’s our turn to eat” to another level, giving her detective story features of a philosophical fable.
Rebel with a cause
As Wrong herself notes, insiders leaking information to the public for the sake of common good are a rare species on the African continent. In societies where tribal affiliation, respect to the elders (whatever their moral record) and political patronage remain unquestioned, it takes great courage for an individual to stand up against the system and point at its cracks. Githongo dared it, for reasons that the author tries to understand – independent-minded, he is a devout Christian, his education made him aware of tribalism’s danger… But looking at Githongo’s drive and demeanour, Wrong enters the dilemmas the man had to face: how to improve a corrupt system? Is denouncing it the best solution? Is trying to improve it from the inside a moral acceptance of its failures? The only answers come from Githongo’s own experience; and it is of course impossible to know if a better outcome would have been possible, had he chosen another path.
As the initial prediction goes its way, the book ends badly. Wrong concludes on the bloody Kenyan elections of December 2007, which ended in murderous ethnic confrontations, and links them directly to years of mismanagement and ethnic favouritism at the very top of the country. Turning her eye to the Western donors who failed to grasp the importance of Githongo’s story, continuing their no-question-asked policy with the pouring of huge amounts of money into Kenya’s rotten system, the author ultimately shows that no genuine development can occur in a society where those in power feel entitled “to eat”.