Just one letter

Have you ever played crossword constructor, Jeopardy champ and Harvard brainiac Joon Pahk’s Guess My Word?  One letter can change the outcome of the game, and stump you but good. You could be going from immunity – protection, or exemption from an obligation or penalty. Immunity, first used in the 15th century, is a Middle English word rooted in the Latin word for munia (services) and munus (services).   Switch one letter around, and suddenly you’ve got impunity – exemption from punishment or freedom from the injurious consequences of an action.  Taken from Middle French or Latin, this word draws from impunitas (without punishment), rooted in poena, punishment.  While both words employ the negative prefix, im-,  their roots are quite different – service versus punishment.

The jump from n to p is in danger of being executed by the U.S. foreign service in Kenya.  An American diplomat – an information management officer –quickly left Nairobi after a car accident.  The American was speeding in an SUV, which ended up in the opposing traffic lane and crashing into a commuter mini-bus. This accident injured eight and killed one, Hal Lukindo – the husband of Latifah Naiman Mariki.  The American was extracted with stealth immediately after the accident (within 24 hours) in what is standard procedure for overseas employees. (The extraction process was explained to me by a Coke employee in Cairo, when I was scared of driving his car – it happens with the precision and immediacy of a swat exercise to prevent the natives from getting restless.)

Mariki, a 38 year old mother of three who is 7 months pregnant, is left husbandless with little immediate recourse.  In speaking to ABC News, she said:

“It is difficult for me to handle this matter because my kids need to go to school. They need everything, basic needs. And we have no place to stay because we have to pay the rent. We have no money. … Even if my kids are sick I have no money to take them to hospital.”

She and her family live in a sheet metal hut, at the cost of roughly $125 per month.  To send her children to school it would be $500 per year. Kenya is a largely agricultural country with a small, highly visible, affluent urban population.  In fact many multinational companies have their East Africa headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. This gives a skewed view of the Kenyan economic landscape. It is not a developed economy, but rather one whose purchasing GDP Per Capita power parity ranks below North Korea (198 out of 229) and whose Human Development Index ranking is 145th out of 186th.   Almost 40% of Kenyans live in absolute poverty.

Mariki’s husband was all that kept this family from reaching that low. According to Foreignservicetest.com, the salary for an entry level diplomat is between $38,394  and $77,837.  The average salary in Kenya is much less than this, roughly $1,600 USD.

Her late husband’s employer paid both the funeral costs and her August rent.  A Kenyan facebook page is said to be mobilizing help for the young widow, but until then, she is left scrambling.  The only communication she has had from US has been a condolence letter from the embassy.  While monetary compensation will never equal the cost of a human life, it seems like the cost of extracting the diplomat would more than cover Mariki’s troubles.   And that way, immunity does not equal impunity.

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