First published on 24th December 2019 on Jedaktari.wordress.com
This is a positive story, and regardless of how it looks at the outset, please bear with me and keep reading. I have opted to make it as detailed as possible, else the experience is lost. This is from the perspective of a first-time, middle class visitor to this place: “middle-class” herein being a place-holder for the non-chalant, oblivious, self-absorbed Kenyan.
Last week I went to Bishop’s Garden to collect my daughter’s birth certificate. I required it to process medical insurance. My wife had applied for this document in March of 2019
A few months ago, the minister for interior, Dr. Fred Matiang’i was shown on TV fuming at workers at registration of births at Bishop’s Garden. The clip projected reprieve for people looking for this crucial document. Unbeknownst to most of us who had never had to visit the centre, corruption, inefficiencies, and a reverse public service attitude (where it’s the public that serve you when you are in office) had kitad mizizi in the place. As a result, the centre had been a source of pain, misery and financial compromise to fellow citizens whose only fault was to require birth certificates.
Arriving at the centre, I hadn’t put 2 and 2 together. I had Imagined something of a pleasant actual church thing (ACK Bishops gardens sounds as church as it comes). My first disappointment was the government sign-board- “Office of the president, Ministry of interior”. My expectation dropped a couple of notches. You would imagine anything having “Office of the President” in it’s name would be excellent. Then there was the queue: forty or so people on the outside. I imagined that there was limited space inside and so we had to wait. Still, the queue appeared too long. I was pleased to note that the queue was moving and thought I would get to be served in a few minutes. As I inched forward, an NYS cadet scanned queue documents to confirm that those queuing had everything that was needed. He got to me. I only had the soft copy of the invoice from ecitizen.
“You have to print it. You require a hard copy,” he advised politely.
“Where can I do that?”
“The last door to the left. It’s a cyber”
I quickly spoke to my neighbours on the queue to reserve my spot and headed out to print. The last door to the left was a room with about sixty or so people seated in what was like a waiting bay. To the far end on the left was a desk with two people on it and a computer.
“I am looking for the cyber,” I inquired.
“This is it.”
I was in shock.
“These people…are they all waiting to be served?”
The crowd burst out laughing. Not a laughter of scorn but that of letting you know you’ve been had. It was the knowing laughter of “join us brother. We were as shocked as you are. Njoo tupambane na hali yetu.”
Clearly, it was one at a time and the sixty people were actually in a queue waiting to have their documents printed. It was not free, but luckily, printing in that particular “cyber” was also optional. No chance I was doing that. I asked around for an alternative cyber and was directed to the nearby NSSF building.
Has the phrase “cyber cafe” lost meaning near government offices? The cyber at NSSF too was just one computer in a small shop (literally) with an attendant to whom you had to email your documents to be printed (I know this is good business for someone but surely, government offices need to start thinking about convenience for the public). Still, the queue here was only three people and moved quite fast.
Back to the Bishop’s Garden I got to the door and tried to negotiate my way back into the queue. A brief back and forth with a guy who wanted me to go back to the end of the queue and start again ensued.
“Anyway, you’ll still be sent to customer care.”
As I took my place in the queue, I wondered why that was threat. Customer care is a good thing right? The cadet came back, looked at my documents and said, “Come in. Go to customer care.” Then I understood. The queue outside was not a queue. That was a baby queue. A queuelette or a pre-queue of sorts. It couldn’t hold a candle to the inside lines. And the customer care? The queue there was quite something. You looked at it and images of climbing mount Kenya come to mind. I’m exaggerating a little here.
At that moment, the Matiang’i news story struck me. What was that? Was it all public relations and a camera moment? Clearly to me, this place was a disaster with no concern whatsoever with public service. At that moment, I knew I would share this experience in writing and call out the in-efficient folk, and most importantly, call out the cabinet secretary.
As usual, people caught in such a pickle, are often busy PNHYing (Pambana Na Hali Yaoing) in silence. As God had planned, I sat next to a Mr. Alfred Michuki Macharia, from Thika and a Lady whose name I didn’t get to know. Mr. Alfred was in high spirits and quite chatty. I overhead his comment about the months it had taken him to get the documents for his daughters. We spoke. This is when I got to know.
“Oh, I tell you, Matiang’i held my documents in his hands like this and spoke directly to me I tell you. I had been looking for the documents I had submitted and had been turned away. He handed my documents to the desk and in five minutes they had miraculously found my documents!”
“So where is the difference if it is still this bad?” I asked.
“Bad? My brother, you don’t know what you are talking about! This place was baaaddd!! I have been coming here since August and the transformation is like night and day!”
And at that moment, as I sat there listening to Alfred, I began to see things for what they really were. What had looked like a tale of great disservice to the public started shaping out to be real transformation that touched lives. This is what he told me:
“Let’s start with these seats you are sitting on. They were not there three months ago. You would come here and stand for hours. These NYS cadets, wamesaidia sana! At least now there is some form of order. There used to be no order. Just chaos. Unless you paid five thousand in which case your document would be out but even that queue of people who had paid was very long and you had to wait. My brother, there was no toilet. That toilet you see on the outside is new. Matiang’i had asked where people waiting for hours would go to answer a call of nature. You can see the queues are moving.”
“Look at those people. They are leaving with their birth certificates. Do you know how good that is?”
“The best part is that all the previous people have been removed. Most of these guys are new. The old ones were bad I tell you. Kwanza there used to be a young beautiful lady sitting in number eight!”
“Eeeeeh!” exclaimed the lady sitting next to us. She had been nodding at what Alfred was reporting. She too had spent quite some time pursing these documents. “Huyo mama alikuwa mbaya!”
Apparently, there were times staff would decide that they were tired and let the tens or hundreds of folks waiting at their windows to just wait. And I will not go into the corruption, inefficiencies disrespect and reverse public service attitude.
“People are many here now because they have heard things are working, and they are indeed working. This stage I have reached, it is recent. It wasn’t like this. Now I have made progress and I may get my daughter’s birth certificate today,” continued Alfred.
And true, just as he said, my eyes began to open to what was happening before me. The lines were long but they were all moving. People were collecting their certificates. There was no idle window: I began to empathize and sympathize with the staff who seemed to be working at full speed yet the queues grew. More than fifty people were leaving the premise every hour with their certificates, but every hour another fifty would join the queue.
“Imagine how many people they have served since morning,” Alfred said smiling. He was happy and hopeful and had witnessed a real transformation.
Then I saw a young man I recognized as a public servant with whom we had interacted in the past. He went straight into the back offices and I could see him greeting the guards as he got in meaning that he was known here. I didn’t get to say hi to him. Shortly thereafter he came out to the lobby. I caught up with him to to greet him and got to exchange pleasantries.
“Where are you now?” I asked.
“Well, this opportunity opened up two months ago and now I am here.”
Having gone through a change of heart, and impressed by the sentiments on the queue, I was quite happy to share with him all the positive sentiments from the floor.
“We are trying. We found a backlog of thousands of birth certificates that we are trying to clear. We have made some progress but still have about 15,000 pending. We haven’t stabilized the staff yet but as that improves, this was also improve. Daktari, you are telling me that we are doing well but I get so concerned when I see so many people waiting in the lobby. It is so crowded, meaning that we have to do better. We’ll move some straightforward certificates online by the way. In the next few months, I hope this place will be a good example to other centres.”
And there it was. The attitude that we look for and hope will get to every public space. 🙂
“What do you do here?”
“I… sort of manage this place. I’m in charge,” he answered, a bit hesitatingly, not with the usual grandiose you would expect of bosses, but with the humility of a servant. And without knowing it, there I was, talking with the public servant who was implementing Matiangi’s transformative agenda and making people like Alfred smile and hope. Later, I could see him helping the cadets and officers at the retrieval and dispatch. Hands-on. I was impressed. I hope that he too was at least in a small way happy that I didn’t ask for any favours and opted to follow due process.
My whole time there, I saw work. First come first served. I saw product. I saw progress. I’m not saying the place is perfect, no. But if all the changes had taken place in the preceding two to three months, I am hopeful that in the next six months, we could see even better.
All in all, I took four hours witnessing this: that if you put the right leaders, public service can serve the public. I pray that this result presents a new template for leadership, that will be replicated across all centres: CSs the caliber of the current interior CS, and managers the caliber of the current manager at ACK Bishops Garden Department of Registration.
Alfred did get the birth certificate for one of his daughters that day and is quite hopeful to get the other one soon. I did too.