3rd Place winner of My Corruption-Free Africa competition

Look beyond corruption. What do you see? Why does corruption exist? Are all people who partake in corruption really evil?

Let’s take a look at the stereotypical small-scale corruption scenario. Say I am a policeman and I take a bribe – why? I am not paid enough, and, well, everyone does it. Say I am a driver and I pay a bribe – why? Going to court would be such a hassle, and, well, everyone does it.

pesa ya soda

pesa ya chai

Are the policeman and the driver bad people? No – they are just following a societal norm.

Let’s take a look at the stereotypical large-scale corruption scenario. A politician is privy to a scandal that steals money from the country’s education fund and funnels it into the pockets of “foreign investors” and political “partners.” Why? He/she will gain more money that he/she has ever dreamed of and can live a luxurious life, and, well, everyone does it.

Is this politician a bad person? Societal norm or not, stealing money from those who really need it cannot be excused – so in my opinion, yes.

I am not excusing the everyday minor corrupt act. Every little act of corruption, every little drop of poison into the sea, contributes to the pollution of society.

Look beyond corruption. What do you see? A system that makes it too easy to be corrupt. A culture that expects, even encourages corruption. Our polluted society is caused by more than just the corruption that is a thin film stretching across the surface of the heaving ocean of a culture and a system that are behind that corruption.

dark ocean

Heaving Ocean below the film of Corruption. Photo from Travis Wise, on Flickr

Corruption is a symptom of a system – a complex system of capitalist greed, political nepotism, exploitative motivation, and historical precedents that have not yet been overturned. In Africa, corruption as we see it today was unknown until the colonialists arrived on the continent. With their taking over, favouritism of a few, creation of an elite, installment of capitalism, and exploitation of Africa’s precious natural resources – which continues today through economic imperialism – the continent has been transformed into a den of corruption.

Corruption has become a culture that has spread to almost every corner of the globe and become so engrained in our daily lives, to the point where it is perfectly normal. An average person today will partake in corruption without feeling an ounce of guilt. Getting a little personal to my life as a Nairobian, yes, I have given the police “kitu kidogo” (“small thing” in Kiswahili, code for “bribe”). Recently though, I decided to walk the talk. In my first driving lesson, my instructor said she would only give me the full hour if I “talked to her nicely” (code for “bribe”). I refused and suffered the consequences – hope I pass my driving test now! When applying for my ID, I was asked for “soda” (code for “bribe”) to speed up the process. I refused and almost didn’t get my ID after losing my temper at the chain of corrupt officials in that office. These are minor actions, but significant in starting to address a psychological addiction to bribery, a little needle-poke fighting the dragon.

fight the dragon

Starting to fight the Dragon of Corruption. Picture from http://www.wallconvert.com/

Nowadays, even being nice on a human level requires a bribe. In Kenya, when one’s car breaks down and passers-by give a hand in pushing, the driver is expected to give some “chai” (Kiswahili for “tea,” code for “bribe”). The saying goes “nothing is free.” Have people forgotten how to do something just to help out another, without always asking “what’s in it for me?”

The above examples are the small things. Then there are the infamous scandals. We have so many in Kenya (Chickengate, Goldenburg, Anglo Leasing, . . the list goes on) and I’m sure most African countries have their own shame list. Then the less famous ones like covert forced bribery on Somalis, a group much discriminated against in Kenya. Such scandals and operations take inhumanity to another level. Not only has corruption become normal and expected – so have inhumanity, selfishness, exploitation, cheating and stealing by corporations and politicians.

The South African musician Fiesta Black puts it very well in her song “Hayi Basile” (“They are Wicked”):

We work hard every day

Yours is just to eat for free

You’re known for empty promises

Don’t give a shit about nobody else, but yourself.


I differentiate between large-scale and everyday corruption. Large-scale corruption is absolutely unacceptable and should be severely punished. Small-scale corruption is also unacceptable, but good people often end up giving in to this symptom of the system that we are slaves to. In order to survive in the capitalist society, one must adopt the capitalist mindset of “me first, even if I have to push others aside.” This selfish mindset infiltrates into many of our actions. Further, it encourages thoughtless corruption that is an act in a present moment that benefits the involved parties, with no thought or care to the consequences beyond. However, any corrupt act adds to the sea of wrongdoing.

Slavery was widely accepted. It was wrong. Apartheid was widely accepted. It was wrong. Colonialism was widely accepted. It was wrong. Corruption is widely accepted. It is wrong.

What can be done to tackle corruption?

  • Change our attitudes, starting with ourselves. Make that conscious decision today.
  • Increase accountability of those in positions of authority. This requires stringent measures and strict punishments that are enforced.
  • Create peer pressure against corruption. Disrupt the cultural acceptance of corruption. With societal disapproval and shaming of any act of corruption, people will start to change.
  • Revisit the past. Look back at our diverse and rich histories, societies, cultures and traditions. What systems worked better that we have eliminated through colonialism, imperialism, and blind imitation of the “west”?
  • Change the bigger system of capitalism that encourages selfish actions. Create a society of “Ubuntu,” such that we are not fighting each other but working together.

Look beyond corruption. What do you see? Human beings who are slaves to a system but have the potential to be just – human.


  1. Excellent Narissa! we are becoming immune to this kind of behavior and hence becoming more and more acceptable as part of society’s behavior. We need to ‘fight the dagon’.

  2. Nice piece, Narissa. But I wonder whether corruption is inherent to capitalism, or whether it has always been part of human coexistence. In every society, I assume there have always been people who tried to get an advantage over others by establishing informal power relations or by breaking existing rules that the majority adhered to.
    Or maybe in a non-democratic and non-market based system, nepotism was just so embedded that corruption was never required, whereas now in a capitalist democracy, where everyone is equal in theory, corruption flourishes as people want to gain advantage over others; which of these two options is better?
    Anyway, just thoughts, doesn’t really matter where it comes from – more important is not letting it persist. So again, nice piece and thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Thanks Max. Definitely agree that there will be corrupt people in every society who try to exploit for personal benefit. The key is to create conditions in which such actions are difficult to take, stigmatized, and punished, As for capitalist democracy, democratic ideals of equality and fairness are better (as long as they don’t oppress the minority) than most alternatives. Capitalism I believe is inevitably inequitable and lends itself towards exploitative corrupt actions. Looping back round, whatever system we are working with, how can we reduce options and incentives for corruption?

  3. Corruption is definitely a vice we all need to fight against, each one of us, and not choose the easy way out by becoming apathetic or succumb to it

  4. Hi Narissa,

    I read your article today on Daily Nation and you have extremely gone to the crux of the matter, looking beyond it. Corruption has indeed become not only a way of life, but also “celebrated” and is more of an enterprise. Your deep analysis really looks at the root causes.

    I recall in 2002 when Kibaki came to power, Kenyans almost FINALLY killed the monster. People were refusing to pay bribes, people demanded for services like Passport issuance, IDs, etc without “needing” to fast-track it through bribes and it was working….not until Angloleasing scandal came about and we went back to business as usual. I think when we have good political will, it can be reduced significantly.

    A good piece you wrote there!!!

    • I remember the hope we all held when after years of dictatorship, we finally had a fresh start. People were ready to start discarding the culture of corruption and creating a new and better norm. For those claiming no hope in getting out of the sea of corruption, that should go to show that it is indeed possible to have an entire mindset change in a society. As for good political will, that is such a lottery that we really need to rack our brains as citizens to think about how we can both ensure that and simultaneously take charge ourselves to redefine a corrupt system and culture.

  5. Hi Narissa, I love your post. Kenya is indeed funny. Our politicians keep on saying that they will bring corruption to an end but it never ends. Instead, it keeps on increasing everyday. This is very wrong. And I thank the almighty for you, because your post is bringing new light to people. The truth is that in order to climb a tree or dig a mountain, everyone has to start at the bottom. But digging the mountain of corruption in Kenya and Africa at large, can’t start at the bottom. It has to start from the top. What I mean is, we can’t start finishing corruption from small scale corruption. If large scale corruption is finished, then I don’t see how small scale corruption will exist. I don’t know whether I am right, but this is just my thinking. I mean that we should not start killing the dragon named corruption by cutting bits of it’s tail. We have to start by beheading it. That way, it will die and its tail which is small scale corruption will also be dead. But the truth is, this is not easy. But we have to try somewhere. Corruption has to die. And we should all follow the steps that Narissa has written above to stamp out this corruption.

What do you think?