Sunday, April 17, 2005

Growing up in Kenya: June Arunga's Story

Born in Nakuru, moved to Nairobi at 14, Moved to the UK to go to University at 22

Growing up in the Kenyan middle class, I watched as the standard of living in my household and that of my friends drastically declined in the span of 20 years even though my mother (the bread winner in the family) invested in two houses, was promoted at work and got raises in her salary.
I watched my younger siblings being moved from one school to another as their former school got too expensive, we quit eating breakfast as bread, butter and milk became too expensive and we quit doing monthly household shopping since we could not afford it anymore.
My friends and I theorized about the creation of wealth and the formula behind it… if there was any. I wondered (often aloud to my mother) if the creation of wealth was by chance, both for countries and for individuals since I also watched many of my well educated relatives move to wealthier countries to work unskilled jobs for better pay and higher standards of living.
I knew that something was wrong and wondered how I could help make it right, especially when I saw the number of people living on the streets or in the slums, even though some even have Masters Degrees from universities. What baffled me most was why the people in government made promises that did not come true.
Surely if other governments had “plans” that worked to facilitate wealth creation, our leaders needed to abandon whatever plan it was they were using and imitate the magic formula other prosperous countries were using.
I also wondered if corruption was genetic and Africans were naturally prone to more corruption. Perhaps the corruption in the halls of power was eating away at our potential to create wealth.
I wondered whether there was a fixed amount of wealth in a given territory demarcated by political boundaries, if that wealth was the raw materials that fell in the boundaries and it required careful planning to determine the most efficient way to allocate the scarce resources, so that everyone would gain.
Something else that sat heavy on my mind and even made me cry sometimes was the fear that if there was no set formula to wealth creation, poverty was our destiny and we would always be the bottom of the pile economically, forever destined to live on handouts, while plagued with other ills such as perpetual wars, fatal diseases, phenomenally corrupt governments and recurring famines. All I heard from the “grown ups” was that the government needed to step up and do something about one or another of the different social and economic ills that affected our lives. And the truth is that I really felt sorry for whoever’s task it was to plan everything for 30million people, and alleviate all these problems. I wondered if I would be able to do handle it if it were up to me.
I marveled at the wisdom of the people who had to run all the different government ministries and marketing boards, planning everything and even determining prices of goods and services for the whole economy. It always baffled me why all surplus grain had to be collected and put in the huge silos I saw growing up in the agricultural town on Nakuru.
Wouldn’t it be faster to let the farmers get the food to the market themselves? But on enquiry I was told that some people would not get the food if the government did not procure and redistribute it at affordable prices, and yet in the North of the country, there was always famine. These same questions dominate the everyday conversation of young people in Kenya today. Students in universities and high schools wonder about their destinies, since a good education does not seem to guarantee wealth with the status quo.
It is generally believed that if you don’t work hard and make it into Law, Medicine, Engineering or one of those traditional professions, then your future is uncertain, I was even sent to Medical school just to guarantee a job though I always wanted to study Law. My younger brother, Owuor Arunga, who was raised in Seattle, Washington, came across books and magazines that focuses on different approaches to social and economic problems. He subsequently attended several seminars that focused on the role freedom could play in expanding the choices and opportunities people could enjoy. He carried the “newly acquired understanding” to Kenya the next summer while on a family visit.
I listened to his ideas about how freedom worked but was very skeptical since the anti-globalization arguments had reached me first, and I was actively involved in promoting them. Although they did not make perfect sense, they offered a scapegoat for our problems, painted free markets black, and made me feel better by arguing that we were just victims of a complex system of trade where the rich were exploiting the poor.
I was introduced formally to freedom and free market by reading books on freedom. The insights it offered were crystal clear. Presenting to me questions I had never contemplated before, such as what the proper role of government is, and the idea that protection of life, liberty and property were the only functions that could be justified in the existence of governments.
I felt relieved and elated. Relieved because I expected creation of wealth to be very complex, and now I realized that in comparison to the task of central planning, deregulation and liberalization are simple.
And elated because after understanding the institutions of a free society and how they function, I knew that our African parachute had a chance to open and my country had a chance to survive. The plunge into eternal poverty could be broken and we could steer our destiny.
Hernando De Soto’s Mystery of Capital offered the final piece in the puzzle, demonstrating how vital a comprehensive property law system is to awakening dead capital. The lack of a rule of law that upholds private property and provides a framework for enterprise is the greatest challenge that we face before we can ever reap significant gains from liberalizing our economy.
It is hard to sit back passively with the knowledge that tried and proven solutions exist for the questions and fears that many of my peers still have in Kenya -- to sit back knowing that it is within each individual’s reach if only he was “deregulated”.
It is harder to watch the law break the people, demoralize and impoverish them when one clearly understands what it would take to improve their lot. It is particularly uncomfortable in a global context to see what manner of intolerance repression can breed when we witness terrorism, and by the same token what manner of wealth, health and peace free societies enjoy.
It only took my younger brother’s understanding of the role of free markets in wealth creation to induce enough curiosity in me, and set me on the journey to explore and read on my own how freedom works. Poverty is unpleasant and millions of young people like myself are seeking an escape, seeking solutions, guess who is reaching them first and harnessing their energies to rally for their cause…anti-trade, anti-capitalism and sustainable development promoting organizations.
Who is going to be the voice of freedom, which will introduce and promote and defend the role of free markets to high school and University students in Kenya? I hope to create an organization for young Kenyans that will help them understand the power that freedom has to improve opportunities for all Kenyans.

June Arunga


kenyanentrepreneur said...

I just heard you giving an interview on the BBC about cell phones in kenya. So, of course, I had to google you and that led me to this blog.

very articulate answers you gave...good job!

amk said...

A. Kamara

June I am inviting you to take part in EXPOFRICA UK. The event will take place in the summer of 2008. Please contact me on or for details. Thanks

Morgan Moulongo said...

Hi June, I found your site as I was looking for a way to contact your brother. I'm touched by your thoughtfulness, and appreciate your courage to share your explorations on the topic of power, wealth, and family.

I'm a Seattlite on the hunt for a good band for an upcoming event. Thank you for forwarding my contact to Owuor. Morgan at Tacoma Art Museum -

The gig is June 14, 2008.