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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction



It's Our Turn to Eat

by
Michela Wrong


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase It's Our Turn to Eat



Title: It's Our Turn to Eat
Author: Michela Wrong
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2009
Length: 339 pages
Availability: It's Our Turn to Eat - US
It's Our Turn to Eat - UK
It's Our Turn to Eat - Canada
  • The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting story, very well told

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 26/2/2009 .
The Guardian . 14/3/2009 Raymond Bonner
The Independent . 27/3/2009 Stephen Howe
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 19/7/2009 Joshua Hammer
The Spectator . 18/3/2009 Anthony Daniels
Sunday Times . 22/2/2009 Stephen Robinson
The Telegraph . 17/4/2009 Graham Boynton
The Times . 14/3/2009 Richard Dowden


  Review Consensus:

  Generally fairly impressed, though some don't think it's as compelling as her earlier books

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is a down-to-earth yet sophisticated exposé of how an entire country can be munched in the clammy claws of corruption. It is also a devastating account of how corruption and tribalism -- the author prefers the grander term ethno-nationalism -- reinforce each other, as clannish elites exploit collective feelings of jealousy or superiority in an effort to ensure that their lot wins a fat, or the fattest, share of the cake." - The Economist

  • "This is one of those rare books that deliver more than the title suggests. It is more than a story about a whistleblower, and more than about Kenya. It could have been written anywhere where corruption is endemic, and Wrong disposes of some general myths." - Raymond Bonner, The Guardian

  • "Wrong’s book has its shortcomings. I could have used more detail about the inner workings of the Anglo Leasing scheme, which remains frustratingly amorphous. Wrong never gets to the bottom of Kibaki’s role in the scam: was he an eager participant, or a stroke-incapacitated bystander who followed the path of least resistance? And the cabal surrounding the president could also have been fleshed out more. They come across as an interchangeably sinister group of thieves. But these minor weaknesses pale before the sureness of Wrong’s pacing, the depth of her reporting. (...) Wrong’s gripping, thoughtful book stands as both a tribute to Githongo’s courage and a cautionary tale about the dangers of challenging a thoroughly corrupted system." - Joshua Hammer, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Wrong weaves the various strands of Kenyan history and politics into the story, which is not quite strong enough to stand on its own, with special emphasis on the ethnic divisions of Kenyan society. The result is a competent book that is not nearly as good as In Mr Kurtz’s Footsteps, perhaps because it is harder to make ordinary, everyday corruption by essentially normal men as fascinating as the bizarreries of Mobutu’s Zaire. Moreover, the book is written in the mid-Atlantic prose that so many British journalists now adopt, consciously or unconsciously" - Anthony Daniels, The Spectator

  • "Michela Wrong's reflections in It's Our Turn to Eat about Africa's inability to govern itself are certainly gloomy. But the story she tells is more interesting because she humanises the problem by exploring it through the experiences of a friend, John Githongo, an intelligent and well-educated Kenyan who convinced himself that his government genuinely wanted to eradicate corruption." - Stephen Robinson, Sunday Times

  • "One cannot see an end to Africa’s unstoppable disintegration. Some of the reasons are contained in this well-researched, poignant and rather bleak book." - Graham Boynton, The Telegraph

  • "Wrong's first two books, on Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of Congo, were a mix of reportage and history that allowed her to deploy her lofty, elegant and sarcastic style to hilarious and striking effect. She spots self-regard or hypocrisy a mile away. But writing about a close friend and his imagined feelings is more restricting. Melodrama does not suit her style, and although she bluntly points out Githongo's failings and mistakes, the reader is unclear whether she feels that his sacrifice was worthwhile. Perhaps Githongo, a brilliant and colourful writer, should have written his own story." - Richard Dowden, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       At the end of 2002 Mwai Kibaki took over the presidency of Kenya, after two decades of (mis)rule by Daniel arap Moi. By this time, corruption and patronage in Kenya were: "so ingrained, so greedy it was gradually throttling the life from the country." Kibaki promised an end to this endemic corruption, and the man he turned to to lead these efforts was John Githongo, who was already well-known, as a journalist and for his work for Transparency International, among other things. As Michela Wrong notes:

I could see exactly why any new government would want John. No Kenyan could rival his reputation for muscular integrity, or enjoyed as much respect amongst the foreign donors everyone hoped would soon resume lending.
       Wrong worried that Githongo would be co-opted by the new administration, but, in fact, he stayed true to his mission; unfortunately, his best efforts were not nearly enough to effect much change. It's Our Turn to Eat is the sad story of his failure, and of the many ways in which he was let down.
       Githongo was given ready access to Kibaki, but despite a clear mandate his position was never precisely defined; more significantly, he was not charged (or empowered) with either formally investigating corruption (though he did a good deal of informal investigating) or prosecuting it. Thus, he had very limited real powers -- which was fine as long as Kibaki paid heed, but not if Kibaki no longer valued, wanted, or trusted his advice.
       Kenya is a country of many different tribes -- with Wrong explaining:
     If, in the West, it is impossible to use the word 'tribe' without raising eyebrows, in Kenya much of what takes place becomes incomprehensible if you try stripping away ethnicity from the equation.
       And tribes certainly fared well when they were on top: first the Kikuyu under Jomo Kenyatta, then the Kalenjin under Moi. Kibaki --and also Githongo -- were also Kikuyu, and the question was whether the vicious cycle could be broken under this regime. Earlier efforts, including under Moi by Richard Leakey, had been thwarted. Despite initial enthusiasm suggesting change was possibly really in the air, Githongo would soon find the corruption was so deeply entrenched that too many too powerful interests obstructed real change; disappointingly, even foreign (aid-giving) governments and institutions (such as the World Bank) undermined efforts at rooting out the problems.
       The title of the book comes from the idea that Kenya's various interest-groups (i.e. tribes) would put up with the corruption of others as long as they got their turn at the trough: the tribe in power was understood and expected to take advantage of their position while they held it. As Wrong explains, in a country (and, largely, a continent) where family, clan, and tribe relied greatly on individual members to provide for large numbers doing anything less was practically unacceptable. Anyone who was in a position of some power or advantage was expected to share that advantage with kin and tribe -- a disastrous system for any nation as a whole.
       It soon became clear that the Kibaki regime was going down the same road -- especially after the president suffered a stroke. Fascinatingly, the corruption was merely passed from one regime to the next, with many of the same outside players keeping up business as usual: there wasn't even any need for the new regime to start from scratch.
       Wrong does not go into too much detail about the seedy dealings, especially with the juggernaut pseudo-company, Anglo Leasing, but provides enough to make clear the sheer scale of the looting. As she notes, part of the problem in a country of such poverty was even just in conveying to ordinary citizens the extent of the corruption, as the many billions at issue were so beyond what ordinary Kenyans could imagine. And the amounts are beyond staggering, as Anglo Leasing -- essentialy just a money-funneling creation -- had their fingers in a lot of high-value contracts:
     In fact, the value of the eighteen contracts amounted to 5 per cent of Kenya's gross domestic product, and over 16 per cent of the government's expenditure in 2003-04
       With so much money that could be skimmed off the top of the inflated contracts a lot of people had a lot of interest in not rocking the boat; Githongo's efforts met with small success, but even exposure of these obscenities didn't affect much fundamental change.
       Wrong's account of how things went wrong is fascinating. She quotes one diplomat who notes over the years:
the roller-coastering attitudes of diplomats posted to Kenya. 'In the first year, there was great enthusiasm: "We must increase aid." In the second year, revision set in. In the third year they all seemed to go bonkers, so disillusioned that they couldn't speak or think rationally. I thought they'd all gone made.'
       The frustration is understandable, but Wrong shows many of the reasons why the corrupt system is so difficult to dismantle. Matters aren't helped by the blind eye donor-states are willing to turn.
       Githongo's story -- he eventually left the country and resigned his position, with justified concerns about his safety -- is an interesting personal one as well, and Wrong, who has known him for many years (and in whose flat he holed up when he first left his post) presents this well too. Many of the other personalities are also quite fascinating, and the book is as entertaining as any political thriller set in the Third World. Wrong's discussion of all the issues -- from her own closeness to Githongo, which obviously poses problems when writing a work like this, to the spread of 'Sheng' (a hip "rogue language" mixing elements from those widely spoken in Kenya), to all the political and tribal issues -- is very solid, and the book reads very well.
       Wrong concludes her book with the catastrophic events around the most recent Kenyan election, in 2007, which pitted Luo (a tribe that hasn't been to the trough at the highest level yet, and who thought (reasonably so) that the election was stolen from them) against Kikuyu, and shows just how high the cost of such tribal thinking can be.
       Certainly recommended for anyone seeking an understanding of the political and economic situation in Africa.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 July 2009

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Links:

It's Our Turn to Eat: Reviews: Other books by Michela Wrong under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Michela Wrong was born in 1961. She is a journalist.

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© 2009 the complete review

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