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Rising price of leisure will soon make Kenya ill : The Standard

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A well-lit 18th hole at Muthaiga Golf Club. Is leisure becoming too expensive for Kenyans? [XN Iraki, Standard]

The Britons introduced golf in Kenya at the turn of the last century, starting with Nairobi Royal Golf Club in 1906. They easily imported their aristocracy and class system. The echoes of that class system still reverberate on the streets and hamlets of this beautiful country. When someone asks for your residence or workplace, it is often a coded question on your socio-economic class.

After independence, we took up that class system best espoused by the type of leisure we buy. Leisure is rarely free; that beer you share with buddies costs money. Golfing costs money, watching sports on your TV costs money, a holiday costs money, that ‘mrembo’ you show off to your competitors costs money. You can add to the list but let us focus on golf, the ultimate leisure for Kenya’s upper class, middle class and a few hustlers.
In Kenya, the game never became public; that is why we have only one public golf course, Golf Park at the Jockey Club, off Ngong Road. You still have to pay for membership there, though it costs much less than private members clubs. The fact that golf has remained largely in private hands has had some interesting economic outcomes.
Status symbol

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One is that the sport is a status symbol that defies dilution. If too many people played golf, it would lose its prestige and aura. Economic laws of supply and demand come into play: To maintain the brand and prestige, reduce the supply, meaning the number of golfers. 
An easy way is to raise the price of membership, what you pay to join a golf club. That is driven by demand as more young men and women become affluent or aspire to be affluent and see golf as the status symbol. We could even use golf membership as a proxy for the growth of the economy, much like the use of cement. 
Paradoxically, golf courses are closing in some countries like the USA. The Economist in 2015 attributed that to the fast pace of life, which has made it hard to get time to play the game. Hard economic times reduce membership and designers are making the game harder to play.
Golf clubs have lately increased their membership fee; Muthaiga to about Sh700,000, Vetlab to about Sh500,000. It’s about Sh800,000 in Karen and much higher in Windsor. It’s much cheaper in upcountry clubs like Nyahururu, Nyeri, Kitale, Nyanza, Machakos or Mombasa.
The rise in price of membership is not just driven by the need to maintain class or brand, it is also driven by shortage of golf courses. Where would you get 200 acres of land to build a new golf course in Nairobi today? When will the much-awaited public golf course at Kasarani be ready?

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Apart from Windsor, which other golf course have we built in Nairobi in the last 100 years? There have been bold attempts to build new courses that incorporate residences including Great Rift and Thika Greens, and a few others under development such as Longonot Gate. Golf courses, unlike gyms, are on natural ground which makes them pricey, particularly in urban areas.
The shortage of land and the need to maintain class and status will mean the price of membership will keep going up. That is common in developed countries – and we aspire to be one through Vision 2030 and the Big Four Agenda.
Should rising price of leisure like golf worry us? I believe so.
One reason is that leisure has a positive correlation with health. We define leisure as any mental or physical activity that is beneficial to your health. That will include games like chess and maybe moderate drinking. 
Sports and adjoining physical activities are great emotional sinks. They keep us physically and emotionally fit. One way to make universal healthcare cheaper is to make leisure such as sports more available. Canada, which should be our model in universal healthcare, has made physical activities more available including cycling to work instead of sitting in a car.

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Costly membership to clubs and gyms mean more health problems as the vast majority resort to unhealthy lifestyles. It is even worse when inactivity loops in young men and women. Seen the number of obese youngsters in our urban areas? Think of the rising number of flats in the city with no commensurate leisure activities. Where can you take a leisure walk or cycle? 
Cheaper alternatives
We have imported a lot of ideas from the West including political systems but rarely their leisure systems with parks, sports facilities and open spaces even among the poor. Githurai has more children than, say, Runda but has no playgrounds. 
Two, the rising price of leisure activities means we shall look for cheaper alternatives. That includes alcohol, sex and drugs. While we see such vices as just arising from infallibility of man, idleness is a factor. What are thousands of KCPE and KCSE graduates doing as they await their next step in life? What of the school children out for the two-month holidays? What of jobless adults?
Does it worry you that such vices are more prevalent in densely populated places like slums or some regions that arrested child mortality early because of early encounter with modern medicine?

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Central Kenya is an example. Such places have no sports facilities or parks. The vices also tend to afflict the affluent too, who have plenty of time. Ever wondered why liquor licences are always contested? Why not gym or soccer field permits?
Three, excluding the vast majority from living their lives to the fullest is discrimination. Our bodies are the same irrespective of our economic status, they need exercise and some leisure. Parks, sports facilities and other amenities are just like hospitals and schools. One of the biggest problems facing urban areas is provision of leisure activities to “vertical ghettos.” Yet I saw a park in Harlem, New York.
Four, failure to invest in leisure is a missed economic opportunity. There are jobs to be created for trainers, administrators, and even facility managers. The beauty about leisure is that it is renewable resource. There will always be people looking for it just like food.
Where do we go from here? 
Social decline
Since the dawn of civilisation, man has made leisure part of his life. In fact, most of the money stolen in our litany of corruption cases is meant to buy the perpetrators some leisure in form of better houses, holidays, patronising high end hotels or clubs, getting more sexual partners or just showing off. We work hard to one day afford leisure.
The oversupply of leisure to a few can be a recipe for economic and social decline. That is why monarchies declined as representative democracy flowered. Leisure was now more accessible to more people. The decline of the Roman Empire is attributed to obsession with leisure among the ruling class.
Yet, our representatives are taking us back to that era with their demands for leisure. All their demands are about leisure, why are they not demanding a book allowance to do more research on governance? Could their denial of leisure while growing up be one reason they are demanding all that leisure to make up for the lost time?
Paradoxically, few counties in Kenya have invested in leisure despite the huge economic opportunities. Think of mountain climbing in central Kenya. What of the many lakes? I have a photo taken by a British settler of some gentlemen sailing on Lake Ol Bolossat near Happy Valley. Any boats there today?
We need to learn from temperate countries who have invested in leisure activities for all seasons from winter to summer. Maybe our fair weather has made us complacent. We can blame media for making us addicts of virtual leisure, watching EPL and playing video games.
As the country and counties become more affluent, the demand for leisure will keep going up. Let us supply it to make money and give greater meaning to our lives. After all, who does not want to live his or her life to the fullest?
To make Kenyans more productive, we must balance work and leisure. We could follow examples set by some old companies like banks which had sports facilities.
Finally, it’s time we redefined leisure as more than taking a drink with friends or watching a movie sitting on a couch.
– The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi.

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