The ancient parable of blind men and an elephant may date back to Buddhist texts of the first millennium, but it remains universally relevant to this day and should be particularly apt for Kenyans right now.
A long, long time ago, six old blind men in a village somewhere in India argued about a strange animal. They had heard of a beast that could trample forests and carry giant loads.
But they also knew that the Rajah’s daughter rode an elephant. Would the Rajah let his daughter get near such a dangerous creature?
The old men argued day and night about elephants. One was sure it was a powerful, dangerous giant. Another argued that it must be graceful and gentle.
Eventually, they grew tired of endless arguments and decided to visit the Rajah’s palace and ‘see’ for themselves.
On arrival, they were led to the courtyard, and there stood the magnificent beast.
The first blind man reached out and touched the side of the huge animal.
“An elephant is solid like a wall!” he declared. The second man put his hand on the trunk. “An elephant is like a giant snake,” he announced.
The third man felt the pointed tusk. “This creature is as sharp and deadly as a spear.” The fourth man held one of the legs. “What we have here,” he said, “is a mighty tree trunk.”
Another felt the giant ear. “An elephant is like a huge fan or maybe a magic carpet that can fly over mountains and treetops,” he said.
The last man gave a tug on the elephant’s tail. “This is nothing more than a piece of rope. Dangerous, indeed!” he scoffed.
After the six blind men retreated to consider their findings, arguments started all over again.
“An elephant is like a wall,” pronounced the first blind man. “Surely, we can finally agree on that.”
“A wall? An elephant is a giant snake!” answered the next man. “It’s a rope, I tell you,” insisted another.
Their argument continued, growing louder and louder and escalating into fisticuffs.
“Order!” commanded a very angry voice. It was the Rajah. “How can each of you be so certain you are right?”
Not one of the six could respond. “The elephant is a very large animal,” explained the Rajah gently, “but each one of you touched only one part. Perhaps if you put the parts together, you will see the truth.”
“He is right,” said the first blind man. “To learn the truth, we must consider all the parts together. Let’s discuss this on the journey home.”
The elephant was our retired President Daniel arap Moi. Since his death a week ago, a lot has been published and broadcast about the man, who, for 24 years, until 2002, bestrode Kenya like a colossus.
To some, he was God’s gift to Kenya: a kindly, wise, generous and sagacious leader, who ensured peace, stability, national unity and unmatched economic development.
To others, he was devil incarnate: a brutal dictator who tortured, killed and jailed political opponents, looted the national coffers dry and destroyed all institutions of governance.
We all have a tendency to claim absolute truth based on our own limited and subjective experience, but we will ignore the similarly limited and subjective experiences of other persons though they may be equally accurate.
My subjective experience can be true but inherently limited by failure to account for other truths or a totality of truth.
The Buddhist parable provides insights into the need for deeper understanding and respect for different perspectives on the same object.
In my own view, President Moi is accurately described at both extremes. He was a contradiction of a man who kept the country united but by dictatorial means.
He was a leader who pocketed the national purse but threw loose change around on charitable causes.
I don’t know whether there is anything like a kindly tyrant, but that was Moi.
He was the quintessential African dictator driven to terrorise and impoverish his subjects by his own insecurities, fears and terrible inferiority complex.
Moi was, indeed, a complex man and, in many ways, a terrible curse on Kenya.
But looking at the circumstances of his rise to power, one can’t fail to acknowledge that he was the necessary evil.
The option of a ‘Kiambu Mafia’ succeeding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta remains too terrible to contemplate.
We have leaders now contemplating their own legacies. They could do well to note the divided views on Moi and work towards ensuring one positive memory.