Monday, October 02, 2006

Taxing the Poor: Corruption on the Local Level

For every kilogram of fish that is caught in the lake, the County Council takes one shilling as taxation. In bandas that routinely catch over 10,000 kilos of fish, after a week’s time, this can amount to a sizable sum of money. In the beach communities, that money is supposed to return to the people in the form of latrines built by the county council, or other sanitation efforts. However, this is rarely done, and the money just gets pocketed. On Remba, there is only one public latrine specifically built by the council for the population of about 8000 people. Think about that the next time you are waiting in line at The Big House or Comerica Park for a little relief….In addition, the public latrine is usually locked, forcing people to either track down the councilman with the key, or relieve themselves wherever they see fit.

In every discussion that I had with someone regarding this sort of “taxation without sanitation,” I found that the people in these isolated islands have an overwhelming feeling of helplessness in regards to dealing with anyone from the government. Pair that notion with the transient lifestyle of everyone in these beach communities and their response becomes “well, it’s not really that bad, the government could tax us much worse." The people realize that they are lining the pockets of the County Council and District Commissioners, yet without a unifying voice, they feel utterly helpless in the situation. They know that they’ll be moving on to another beach shortly, so the feeling is, what's the sense of taking care of the area they are in?

The corruption goes far beyond the taxation without sanitation at the beach level. Matatus are only supposed to carry a certain amount of passengers, but when an overcrowded matatu comes to an “official” police check point there are a couple options available. There is either a handshake exchanged with a bit of cash inside or several bills are wadded up and nonchalantly dropped to the ground as “garbage,” which the officer disposes of in a plastic bag as soon as the matatu drives off.

We often head to work out in the beach communities on the back of a motorcycle, known locally as piki-piki. We were delayed one morning during the attempt to leave by the county councilman who chained up the motorcycles until the drivers paid their taxes. I inquired what the taxes were for, and the councilman replied that they were some sort of fee for standing or parking in the certain location. I asked what the drivers get in return for paying the tax, to which the councilman replied, “they will have a shade up by next month.” Two weeks have passed and no efforts have yet been made. The worst case I’ve heard of recently, is that to play soccer in a local field, children have been taxed by this same councilman.

The funniest or saddest one I’ve heard, depending on how you look at it, happened on the streets outside of Nairobi. A buddy of mine in Nairobi was telling me about a time he was stopped by a policeman who accused him of speeding and was asked to pay a fine right then and there or he would be thrown in jail. Tim laughed at the officer knowing how they often act, and said “show me your speed gun.” The officer replied “no,” to which Tim replied, “why, because it’s actually a hairdryer?” Tim had seen that the officer had been holding up a hairdryer, and requiring that people pay for going over medium-warm kilometers per hour.

-----John Kurap

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