The cheek with which Finance Minister Amos Kimunya proposed his new tax measures aimed at cigarettes may have unnerved some, but he was unflinching. In a section of his 2008-2009 budget speech appropriately titled Contribution to National Development he “propose[d] to allow cigarette smokers to be proud Kenyans by making additional token contribution, averaging only (emphasis supplied) Kshs. 7 per packet toward development.” If the smoking fraternity were un-amused by his humor, the brewers certainly found it caustic: “Mr. Speaker,” the veritable Kimunya began, “Hon members will recall that last year, I increased the excise tax payable on malt-beer by only Kshs. 2 per liter, or an equivalent of Kshs. 1 per bottle of beer. Following this insignificant adjustment, the industry immediately advertised a price adjustment of Kshs. 5 per bottle, translating to a net gain to the industry of Kshs. 4 per bottle. To recoup part of this gain made by the industry to finance priority programs in this budget, I propose to increase …”

Pity we may not get more Kimunya budget humor. Pity, too, that the circumstances surrounding his hounding out of office may blunt the prospects of what was probably the year’s biggest budgetary innovation – long term bonds, including sovereign bonds, to finance infrastructure development. With allegations of corruption leading to his resignation, the sovereign bond, especially, may not succeed, leaving the country with a huge budget deficit of almost $2 billion. While the government has always made efforts to keep the interest rates low, a regime of high-interest rates with its attendant high inflation rates may just be in the offing, and, is in fact, already here. The Commercial Bank of Africa recently revised its base lending rate to 22% with other banks expected to quickly follow suit. As for inflation … it still remains death. Okay, okay … has been death for quite some time now. (The full quote that I read so many years ago went something like “Inflation hasn’t changed the wages of sin, it still remains death”).

I’d, as usual, ordered my budget meal of rice and beans and was surprised – but not perturbed – when the bill was 80 Shillings and not 70. I understand, I told myself, everything has been going up. It’s expected. A week later I ordered the same meal, handed my 80 shillings to the attendant expecting some change back. Thanks, she said, and I understood that she meant “please come back again.” I was still ruminating on the sudden change in my lunch budget when the late night matatu made the last stop. Even before I stepped out, a feeling of unfamiliarity suffused the air. A bunch of people stood on the roadside beside what that morning was a row of kiosks, in whose stead now were the smoking ashes of dying fires. The big kiosk had been turned over, the rest flattened out. I forgot about the pinch in my wallet that night, but instead cried for the kiosk owners. The next morning and the next the kiosks stood somber and sullen, in the evenings gaunt and grotesque. For about a week the life that had so suddenly ebbed out stayed snuffed out. Yet one evening, about a week later, the fillip was palpable as teams of workmen worked on putting the structures back up. They weren’t daunted by the chill of the morrow’s morning, their enthusiasm buoyant.

Another late evening that night, and the sore realization that the kiosks were all flat and the big one toppled over yet again. On the morrow the life was absent, the roadside deserted. No quick banana before hopping into the matatu, or donuts for my breakfast at the office. I held my chin and stared into the distance. That evening, some of the dying embers had kindled a fire, and instead of the gaunt roadside was a stall – a small one, on which three shelves stuck out holding a crate of eggs, a rack of tomatoes and one of kales and cabbages. At one side of the stall stood the owner of the toppled-over kiosk. As I walked past her, I hoped I could shop with her just to show my solidarity. It was another week when the fire started to spread. This time, however, the stalls came up hesitantly and diffidently. Even after the big kiosk stood on its floor the owner didn’t start selling. Instead, only the other smaller kiosks seem to open only about half of the time.

Their resilience has astounded me. But if this teen counselor was right, I also have such “bed-bug” blood in me. “If you’re Kenyan,” she noted, “you are like a bed-bug. She’s often been heard telling her young ones: ‘Even hot water has to get cold after some time then life goes back to normal’”. It most certainly was in this lad who walked into this CitiHoppa minibus I was in, with a black polyethylene bag wrapped over what I assumed was a big novel. Once he’d ascertained the conductor was to his back, he unwrapped the bag, picked out a few sweets which he started hawking to the passengers. No one seemed to buy, and, a few minutes later, he lightly wrapped the polyethylene bag over the candy and hopped out as if taking back his rejected novel. Even if we bought some of his candy, I wondered, would he get enough to live on? I wondered. Still wondering about this lad, I asked my friend what he thought of such an enterprise: resilience, entrepreneurship or misapplied effort?

It’s a little bit of all, we agreed, but certainly misapplied effort. But we also noted we were harsh. The [grim] rules that are economic reality probably stand impregnable to his yearning for change. He only does what – and all – he can. Suppose there were a government-funded labor-intensive public works project … would my lad, or the kiosk owners participate in it? Definitely, I thought. In case they wouldn’t, they would have a very good reason backing their decision, I reasoned. But herein also lay the contrast: my friend and I believe the economic reality can be changed. Maybe that’s why we think misapplied effort is not good for the economy. But herein also lies the hope: we don’t need to remain persevering bedbugs – we can apply our efforts appropriately and reap success, not resilience.