Mathogothanio and Matatuism: Two Kenyan ideas that every African will relate to, and why it needs to stop now

Mathogothanio is Jacob Zuma's Nkandla affair, and Lagos' 'ultra-modern' Banana Island. It is Burundi's last election; Paul Biya, and Robert Mugabe

FIRST, some ABCs:

Matatu is a Kenyan Kiswahili word. It’s root word is ‘tatu” meaning three. The “ma” prefix in Kiswahili is used to create the plural form. In other words “tatu” is three and matatu is “many threes”. I know it doesn’t make sense yet but please bear with me. 

Matatu, in Kenya, refers to the minivans that are used as public transport in many African cities and rural areas. In you’re in Dar es Salaam, you know them as daladala, in Accra as tro-tro, in Lagos as danfo, in Bamako as sotrama, and in Abidjan as gbaka.

If you’ve ever ridden one, (and you should at least once in your life) then you know that they are the very embodiment of the phrase “the end justifies the means”.  The matatu is, quite possibly, the worst solution to public transport in the history of mankind. 

But for many parts of Africa, these things, whatever you call them, are the only available solution. It’s either you get on one, risk death or other grievous bodily harm through accidents and maybe tetanus, or you are marooned many miles from home and business.

This whole line of transportation came to be because a gap had been created with the collapse of many national bus companies in the 70s and 80s, either through mismanagement or good old plunder. So profiteers moved in, whose only care was their bottom line.

Matatuism therefore is what happens when capitalism meets abject policy poverty and government delinquence. It’s the product of applying capitalist principles to death.

Unsightly mess
Mathogothanio, on the other hand is a more simple idea. It’s a term we owe to the Kikuyu people of central Kenya, that loosely translates to “an unsightly mess of things that should not go together.” It’s the total lack of coherence and clear thinking. 

Mathogothanio is anti-design. It’s where ignorance meets foolishness when both are completely inebriated by a complete and utter lack of self control and good sense. I am sure there’s an equivalent word in many if not all African languages. Feel free to use whatever word you know to substitute for when mathogothanio appears in this article.

Now I would love to take credit for the above definitions but sadly I cannot. They were first coined by Joseph Kamenju who taught us Architectural Theory at The University of Nairobi. Hat tip to him and many other thinkers who are struggling to provide intellectual solutions to the issues that afflict us. But I digress.

So how do we apply these terms, and their equivalents when we analyse governance across the African continent? I have a few ideas. For instance, mathogothanio would be the government of Kenya allowing a salary dispute with teachers to escalate to the point of shutting down all public schools nationwide for over four weeks, then brokering a deal on the day that national exams are set to start. 

The matatuist part of this is, rich children who study in private schools (and are therefore spared the inconvenience of the strike) register to take their exams at public schools in order to get access to prestigious national school places reserved for bright children who come from low resource backgrounds. 

Every election
Mathogothanio is Jacob Zuma’s whole Nkandla affair. It’s the unsightly drama that Cote d’ Ivoire’s Laurent Gbagbo treated us to a few years back. It is everything about Teodoro Nguema and Paul Biya. It is Burundi’s last election. It’s every election in the history of the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Matatuism is the fact that all these tragic circumstances led to untold wealth for the people who orchestrate death, disease and hopelessness. Matatuism is Pierre Nkurunziza considering himself a hero. Matatuism is politicians of poor African countries having personal fortunes larger than  US President Barack Obama’s. 

Matatuism is Charles Taylor still happening even after the experience of Mobutu Sese Seko. It’s Blaise Compaore managing to hold on as long as he did. It’s shameless, blatant man-eat-man thinking.

In summary, mathogothanio is the system of governance that allows and encourages matatuism and matatuism is the process by which a system imprisons and eventually kills people. Mathogothanio + matatusim is, in fact, the formula for creating banana republics.

To be honest, however, mathogothanio is not a uniquely African idea. Nor is matatuism. The Iraq war, the US gun ownership policy, the relationship between France and her former colonies and US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s public pronouncements  are all well matured examples of mathogothanio. Colonialism as a whole is where mathogothanio meets matatuism. 

In my opinion, the whole world suffers from this terrible affliction of madness, ignorance and lack of planning while high on weed and walking a high wire without a safety net. But the question is why does this situation seem to be so rampant in African countries? Are we cursed? 

I mean how is it possible that a president can watch as a country’s economy falters and currency takes a sharp nosedive then call a prayer meeting for it? And why would people actually show up to this prayer event? 

How is it possible that Zimbabwe’s 91-year-old Robert Mugabe has attended the inauguration of four Tanzanian presidents while in office in Zimbabwe? How is it possible that the success of Botswana is not a bigger story in Africa? Surely, how come, Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara’s ideas are not part of primary school curriculum across the continent?

How can agriculture be the “backbone” of our economies and we don’t  manufacture fertiliser? Why is it that US citizens do not need visas to travel to our countries but our next door neighbours do?

What is the antidote for this mathogothanio and how can we avoid the next wave of matatuism that is coming? Because, going by all that we have seen so far, these situations tend to get worse, not better. 

But, I have to say, the absolute worse is the matatuism that comes with utra-modern mathogothanio. Firstly, “ultra-modern” should not even be a phrase at all. Still, in this case ultra-modern mathogothanio is the idea that one can design and build an exclusive residential area that would banish all existence of poor people and poor looking things in a third world country. 

False narrative
It’s when people live in Lagos but do their shopping in London. It’s some of those gated communities that are proposed for Banana Island of Lagos and the utopia promised by Nairobi’s Tatu City. It’s having a toilet exclusively for use by the director while the rest of the office suffers the indignity of a pit latrine as if the director’s calls of nature come in a fundamentally different way than the rest of us mere mortals. 

It’s a false narrative that prosperity can be measured by the number of new high-end bars that are opened and their patronage. It’s expats living in high walled houses enjoying fast internet speeds but writing report after damning report. It’s forever giving these expats something to write about.

It’s building malls while having an insufficient supply of ARVs and anti-malarials. It’s assuming that every man is born equal even though we know that this is not true. And creating an economic environment - and policies - based on this. 

Stop. It. Now.

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