Public service corruption on a grand scale, private sector excellence in the same place

It is beyond our darkest imaginings. The act of deranged killer co-pilot Andreas Lubitz — who deliberately crashed a plane into the French Alps — strikes fear into every airline passenger.

Against this sombre canvas, it probably seems trite to recount the saga of one lost, and then amazingly found, suitcase.

There is usually nothing more boring than travel travails. But in this tale of my bag, which disappeared last Saturday, there is a wider metaphor about our continent.

The loss happened between Johannesburg and Mombasa on a Kenya Airways flight that stopped over in Nairobi. It is a story of service excellence. It adds one human element to the Coca-Cola advertising campaign now under way in Kenya: “Africa: One billion reasons to believe.”

My wife and I found one more reason to believe in the form of an extraordinary employee of Kenya‘s national airline, Joseph Mwaniki.

My bag was wrongly tagged, and, since every plastic-wrapped black bag looks much the same, my baggage label had been placed onto a suitcase that belonged to a Swazi diplomat located in Nairobi.

Making this discovery in the early hours of Sunday morning, in an isolated resort two hours away from Mombasa airport, was compounded by the dread of loss. It wasn‘t just the absence of every essential from toothbrush to clean shirts, but the realisation that my very presence at this east coast Kenyan resort town was now moot.

I was there overnight to board a luxury cruise liner to deliver a series of lectures on Africa and South Africa to a largely American audience.

I had stupidly packed my laptop in the lost bag. The lectures could, at a stretch, have been reinvented. But anyone who has ever addressed American audiences will know there is a “PowerPoint expectation”. You cannot just tell your tales, you must illustrate them as well. Pity then that my computerised magic lantern appeared irretrievably lost.

More out of a sense of obligation than with any realistic expectation, I hit the phones. My expectations of reaching a competent and empathetic authority figure were about as high as Zwelinzima Vavi‘s hopes of hanging onto his former job.

The first three calls placed to the lost luggage department of Kenya Airways lived down to my lowest expectation. But my determined wife finally hit pay dirt when she spoke to the wondrous Mwaniki, who assumed the authority of a luggage detective.

He said to her: “Tell me what happened from the beginning. If my hunch is correct, your husband‘s bag was wrongly tagged in Johannesburg, and working off the information on the wrong bag in your possession, I am confident I can trace your correct bag.”

In six hours, I was en route to Mombasa airport to collect my bag and return the wrong one I had taken the night before. The exchange of bags, orchestrated by Mwaniki in Nairobi, happened at the exact hour on the exact flight to Mombasa that he had promised.

As I travelled back to our hotel, I exulted about a new, credible story I could tell the Americans about service excellence where it might be least expected.

Such happy thoughts were interrupted when the car was waved down by policemen manning a road block.

After a lot of gesticulating towards his passengers, our driver was waved through.

I asked him what had occurred.

“They demanded a bribe, just as they always do,‘‘ he answered.

“How did you avoid paying it?” I inquired.

“I told them that you had to get on a ship very soon and that we had no time.”

Next on this journey of discovery, we had to queue for a ferry to cross to the other side of the river that separates Mombasa from its south coast. It seemed odd, for a city and country in which tourism was such a currency generator, that there was no bridge, only a slow barge.

I asked the driver about it. His explanation: “Oh, the money has been given for it many times, but it always gets stolen.”

I tried to place the wondrous Mwaniki of Kenya Airways into this country, which novelist John Le Carré described as “terminally corrupt”. My rediscovered computer allowed some basic research: Kenya Airways was, in 1996, the first African airline to be privatised. It has low staffing to plane ratios, a passable bottom line in finances and very modern aircraft and, as I discovered, wonderful staff.

There it is: Public service corruption on a grand scale, private sector excellence in the same place. As government here tries to muscle in on the business sector, perhaps they should pause for breath.

We still have more than 50 places to fall on the corruption index before we get to Kenya‘s level. But then again their national airline is far more successful, and much more solvent than ours.

Africa‘s hope is learning and applying the right lessons for success from the right sectors. It is as simple, and as complicated, as that.