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Oliver Mtukudzi: The Art of Protest

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It is safe to say that Mtukudzi was one of a group of African musicians – alongside the likes of Masekela – who were adopted by Kenyans as one of their own, invited back time and again for representing something which was at once soothing and liberating, always reminding their audiences that Africa was still one. By ISAAC OTIDI AMUKE

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Oliver Mtukudzi: The Art of Protest
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‘As far as Africa is concerned, music cannot be for enjoyment. It has to be for revolution.’’

– Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

On Wednesday January 23 2018, as Zimbabwean and one of Africa’s most celebrated musicians Oliver Mtukudzi took his final bow in Harare aged 66, the floodgates of debate opened. Who was this cultural colossus? What about his politics cast against the turbulent reality of Zimbabwe? There is global consensus that Mtukudzi was a musical giant, but away from the music, nuanced conversations were happening. Was Mtukudzi modeled in the image of Franco Luambo Makiadi, who towed Mobutu Sese Seko’s line to stay in favour and keep producing music, or was he a Fela Kuti, a no-holds-barred bold anti-establishment figure?

There is little evidence to suggest that Mtukudzi was explicitly either a Franco or Fela replica – at least politically speaking. His loyal fans insist that he was simply Tuku, a man who handled his music and politics with a delicate balance as to allow himself the license to keep singing and touring, while avoiding the tempting trap of complicity by siding with the oppressors. One needs to revisit a little history to understand the obsession with situating a certain generation and caliber of African artists –a classification Mtukudzi belonged – within the prevailing political circumstances in their home countries.

During the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, musicians such as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, alongside writers and poets such as Keorapetse Kgositsile and Dennis Brutus, deployed their celebrity status to shape events both at home and abroad, thereby succeeding in drawing global attention to the plight of a segregated and oppressed Black population. Makeba, using the personal-is-political strategy, insisted that her music was not political, hastening to add – possibly as a caveat – that she only sang about truth. To her listeners across the world, what Makeba called truth was equated to her broadcasting the malevolent experiences suffered by Black South Africans, in effect deploying music to camouflage her anti-apartheid campaign. Makeba did not need to announce her politics from rooftops, because she was living her politics out loud for everyone to see and hear.

As far as Africa is concerned, music cannot be for enjoyment. It has to be for revolution

When Hugh Masekela, arrived in exile in the United States, he was still confused about what genre of music to pursue. He was mimicking a lot of American jazz before Miles Davis urged him to stick to the Southern Africa sound he had been experimenting with and take his time before digging his heels in politically. He benefitted from the counsel of African American musical greats such Harry Belafonte, who persuaded Masekela against returning to South Africa to bury his mother. Belafonte feared that the young Masekela had not built the influence needed to restrain the apartheid regime from arresting and imprisoning him. In time, Masekela slowly built the requisite stature, joining the likes of Makeba in using music to tell their country’s story. Like Makeba, Masekela was not overtly political outside his music, but his compositions did not hide his position.

On his part, the poet Dennis Brutus – like his Nigerian counterpart Christopher Okigbo – went all out. Brutus put his poetry aside for a moment and successfully campaigned for the banning of South Africa from the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. By the time the announcement of the ban was made, Brutus, who had returned home to South Africa, was already serving jail time in Robben Island – locked up in a prison cell next to that of Nelson Mandela – for his activities against the apartheid regime. On leaving jail, Brutus fled South Africa, banned from writing and publishing in the country.

Okigbo seemingly faced with limited choices took up arms to fight alongside his Igbo kin during the Biafra war, an act which resulted in the poet’s death in combat. Okigbo’s passing deeply affected his contemporary Chinua Achebe who eulogized him through his ‘Dirge for Okigbo’ resulting in Achebe leaving Nigeria and assuming the role of Biafra’s ambassador at large. Earlier, before the fighting had taken root, the poet and playwright Wole Soyinka appointed himself mediator between the two warring sides secretly meeting Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, leader of the breakaway Republic of Biafra. This act saw Soyinka imprisoned for two years by the country’s military dictatorship. Closer home, in 1970s repressive Kenya, Ngugi wa Thiongo was detained following the staging of his play ‘Ngaahika Ndeeda’ – Gikuyu for ‘I Will Marry When I Want’ – after the state considered Ngugi’s actions seditious.

Like Makeba and Masekela, Mtukudzi fought a battle of memory. He may not have had a political-heavy discography but he took up the battle identity that ensured that his people would not forget themselves, in the process ensuring Africa and the world did not forget his people.

By consciously keeping away from overt political commentary in Zimbabwe, Mtukudzi in a way chose to look beyond Zimbabwe much as he was looking right into his country’s eyes, his life mission being to make the rest of the world see, feel, touch, smell and taste the best of Zimbabwe’s culture and artistry. To some, this was enough. To others, Tuku’s apolitical nature was akin to neutrality, construed as complicity.

***

On the first Friday night after the passing of Mtukudzi, I made a midnight dash to Sippers, the Nairobi Rhumba hideaway, looking to find out who Mtukudzi was and what he represented in the eyes of my interlocutors. Following his long career that stretched decades of performances across Africa and the West, the man known as one of Zimbabwe’s finest exports – according to his daughter Selmour – built a global following.

‘‘He put Zimbabwe on the map,’’ said Selmour, who is also a musician of note. ‘‘He’s the biggest export from Zimbabwe, and all artists look up to him, to get to his level and surpass it. He set the gold standard.’’

In Kenya, Mtukudzi’s huge following first originated from his popular hit Todii – which is all that a sizeable chunk of his fans knew about the man and his music. Mtukudzi also made frequent appearances in the Nairobi concert circuit, earning himself a more discerning followership that went beyond Todii. Much as the song is popular with revelers across Africa and beyond, Todii was born out of one of Mtukudzi’s saddest life experiences. In 1996, four members of Black Spirit, Mtukudzi’s band – including his younger brother Robert Mtukudzi, with whom he started his musical journey – got infected with HIV/AIDS. All the four succumbed to the disease, dying within a two-month window of each other’s death.

‘‘I wrote Todii to address the HIV/AIDS stigma,’’ Mtukudzi told an interviewer in 2015. ‘‘It was a song meant to help start a difficult conversation, which many people didn’t know how to go about.’’

It is safe to say that Mtukudzi was one of a group of African musicians – alongside the likes of Masekela – who were adopted by Kenyans as one of their own, invited back time and again for representing something which was at once soothing and liberating, always reminding their audiences that Africa was still one. Musically, Kenya has struggled to produce artistic personas of such stature, much as it has had an abundance of gifted musicians –such as the late Ayub Ogada – some of whom have even collaborated musically with these African greats. For various reasons, Kenya’s cultural glue doesn’t hold tight enough. Benga, for instance, a Kenyan sound which was exported across Africa and beyond during the 1970s, still struggles to pass for the quintessential Kenyan musical experience partly because it is reduced to the ‘ethnic’ categorization, while artists from other African countries who sing in their languages are embraced as transcendent cultural icons. To cure this void, Kenya has found itself perpetually looking outside, to the likes of Mtukudzi.

‘‘My impression of Mtukudzi was heavily influenced by the white neo-liberal view of him,’’ said Oketch, a Kenyan professor of philosophy who spent years living and studying in the West. ‘‘Every summer, for as long as I remember, Mtukudzi was invited to Chicago, where he sometimes performed alongside his countryman Thomas Mapfumo. To the white crowd, he was this big deal African performer. That was my earliest introduction to the man – an African revered by the concert going Western crowd.’’

For some critics, Mtukudzi fits the criteria of the African export to the West – which in some quarters translates to being a sellout. Nonetheless, Mtukudzi did not limit his performances to Western capitals. Tuku possibly performed across Africa and in Zimbabwe in particular as much as he did away from home, building a solid homegrown fanbase.

Mtukudzi and Mapfumo were one time bandmates in their youthful years, playing for the Wagon Wheel band. Much as they were both influential in the later periods of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, Mapfumo almost always rocked the political boat post-independence in 1980, with Mtukudzi taking the middle ground, both within and outside of his music. As a result of their different approaches to Zimbabwean politics, Mapfumo was exiled in the early 1990s, while Mtukudzi stayed put, giving Zimbabweans something to hold onto musically in times of serious political tribulations. Mtukudzi christened his music Tuku, drawn from his nickname, while Mapfumo dubbed his sound Chimurenga, continuing to be heavily associated with the liberation movement by the same name. Chimurenga, according to Ntone Edjabe – the Cameroonian DJ, journalist and founder of the Cape Town based Pan-African gazette, the Chimurenga Chronic – means ‘‘in the spirit of Murenga’’, who was a highly revered Shona liberation hero.

For some critics, Mtukudzi fits the criteria of the African export to the West – which in some quarters translates to being a sellout. Nonetheless, Mtukudzi did not limit his performances to Western capitals. Tuku possibly performed across Africa and in Zimbabwe in particular as much as he did away from home, building a solid homegrown fanbase.

‘‘He was a Shona who was loved by the Ndebele,’’ said Irene who is a Kenyan consultant with a multinational who has worked in a number of African countries. ‘‘I was once told of how when my friend’s sister arrived in Zimbabwe from an overseas trip, she came across one of the largest crowds she had ever seen in Harare. On asking what the occasion was she was informed it was an Oliver Mtukudzi concert. That is how much the man was loved in his motherland.’’

In many African countries, political competition gets highly divisive, setting communities against each other. Zimbabwe was no exception. Gukurahundi – a Shona term loosely translated to mean ‘‘the early rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rains’’ – was a series of massacres carried out against the Ndebele population by the Zimbabwean army under Robert Mugabe between 1983 and 1987. It was believed to have emanated from the rivalry between the two dominant political parties, ZANU led by Mugabe, a Shona, and ZAPU, led by Mugabe’s fellow liberation stalwart Joshua Nkomo, a Ndebele. The killings were intended to quell a supposed impending rebellion against the Mugabe state, resulting in thousands of deaths. This has remained one of the darkest patches in Zimbabwe’s history – just like Biafra for Nigeria. Therefore, the acknowledgment that Mtukudzi, a Shona, was celebrated in Ndebele land despite the painful historical fissures goes a long way in signifying the power of Tuku.

‘‘I credit Mtukudzi with maintaining Zimbabwe’s cultural momentum,’’ Irene said, ‘‘something which a number of African countries lost post-independence. In that way, he became an invaluable national asset, a symbol of resilience, and a Pan-African treasure. If there is one thing we have continuously been reminded of as Africans, it is that you lose momentum, you lose the struggle. By singing about love, life, loss, Mtukudzi reminded us of what being Zimbabwean and living the Zimbabwean and African experience felt like, reinforcing the idea of art as the natural adhesive that holds societies together.’’

Mtukudzi gave Zimbabwe what Fela gave to Nigeria – artistic endurance. Tuku was not Zimbabwe’s Fela, because Zimbabwe might not have needed a Fela with the presence of a robust liberation movement that solidly rallied around a beloved Robert Mugabe, before the man turned rogue. On the other hand, Nigeria had a series of coup d’etats after independence, resulting in successive military dictatorships that Fela felt obliged to keep resisting. The Fela comparison therefore only went as far as Mtukudzi’s artistic staying power, that he was perpetually present, towering in the lives of Zimbabweans from the time of the liberation struggle onwards – metaphorically holding the country’s hand through the good, the bad and the ugly.

‘‘Why do we sing, why is there art?’’ Mtukudzi posed during the 2015 interview, grappling with the question of the role of art and artists, explaining his life’s work. ‘‘Art is to give life and hope to the people. Art is for healing broken hearts. Like in Zimbabwe, you don’t sing a song when you have nothing to say.’’

Mtukudzi gave Zimbabwe what Fela gave to Nigeria – artistic endurance. Tuku was not Zimbabwe’s Fela, because Zimbabwe might not have needed a Fela with the presence of a robust liberation movement that solidly rallied around a beloved Robert Mugabe, before the man turned rogue.

***

In Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire – the home of Rhumba – standing up to the strongman, whether an artist or politician, was like buying one’s one-way ticket to prison, or at worse, writing one’s obituary. It therefore took the likes of Papa Wemba – whose cultural contribution is not fully appreciated by many outside the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) – to use their artistic influence to start cracking Mobutu’s edifice, covertly. As Mobutu enforced his Zaireanization program, asking the Congolese to denounce Western influence – including fashion and names – Papa Wemba led a quiet rebellion by reimagining fashion, starting a sartorial elegance movement which did not fall within Mobutu’s categorization of Western clothing, but equally didn’t fit into African fashion as imagined by the President.

This created sufficient middle ground occupied by those who wished to defy Mobutu and his politics covertly, without necessarily going to the streets to battle against military tanks. Fashion therefore became a weapon, a place of solace, an assertion of personal and collective defiance, a reclamation of self-dignity. This gave way to the rise of the La Sape (Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnesd’Élégance, translated as the ‘‘Society of Atmosphere-setters and Elegant People’’) to which Papa Wemba became the unofficial leader, influenced by fashion trends in Milan and Paris – directly challenging Mobutu’s anti-European sentiment, and by extension challenging his politics. It was the perfect illustration of soft power.

Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe – like Mobutu’s Zaire – morphed into a cesspool which ordinarily results in artists being pressured to use their art for something bigger. Mtukudzi therefore found himself under the spotlight, seeing that his contemporary Thomas Mapfumo who some insist is the closest Zimbabwe has gotten to having a Fela, both musically and politically had long drawn the line on the sand and declared all-out war on Mugabe, just as he did with the colonialists before that. Yet Mtukudzi refused to get directly drawn into the politics of the day, by all indications pulling a Papa Wemba-like soft power move – picking to fight on the cultural frontline – because sometimes one has to pick their battles. There are those who will condemn Tuku for his apolitical stance, just as there are those who will understand where the man was coming from, because sometimes, under such strenuous circumstances, there is only so much one can do.

On that cultural frontline, there was one significant battle that Mtukudzi successfully waged in seeking to preserve the essence of Zimbabwean music. The genesis of Mtukudzi’s pushback, as documented in ‘‘Shades of Benga’’ – a seminal work on Kenyan music history by Tabu Osusa’s Ketebul Music – started with the appointment of the Kenyan music producer Oluoch Kanindo as the regional representative for the international music label EMI Records. Kanindo became so instrumental in EMI’s Africa operations to a point of earning the privilege of jet setting across the continent, to seal recording and distribution deals.

Thanks to Kanindo’s infiltration of the African market through his Sungura and Kanindo record labels, both of which exploited the EMI music distribution networks – the Kenyan sound, Benga, became popular in East and Southern Africa, going as far as being one of the more popular sounds among Zimbabwean freedom fighters. Benga started influencing Zimbabwean music especially in the late 1970s when Kanindo was in his musical prime as a producer. It was off the back of this musical invasion that Mtukudzi made a conscious decision to pushback against it, seeking to preserve the Shona and Ndebele traditional sounds, leading to the birth of Tuku. The influence of Benga was so strong that there are proponents who hold that much as he worked overtime to become a Zimbabwean purist, Mtukudzi borrowed elements of his music from Benga. This monumental pushback illustrates Tuku’s sense of eternal cultural patriotism.

***

Oliver Mtukudzi was born in September 1952 in Highfield, a Harare township with historic significance as one of the founding hotspots of Zimbabwe’s independence movement. As if predestined to be a musician, Mtukudzi’s parents had met during a choir competition, passing down the music bug to their eldest son, Oliver and his younger brother Robert, who became bandmates in Mtukudzi’s Black Spirits. In the early 1970s, the two brothers started experimenting with music and landed in trouble for sneaking out of the house to play at a local beer parlor. It was here that Mtukudzi got a rare opportunity to have his first encounter with an electric guitar, getting in trouble with his parents, who were against their two sons’ pursuit of a career in music.

‘‘I played the guitar so well,’’ Mtukudzi recalled, ‘‘such that the following day, those at the beer parlor reported to my father how talented I was. It was the one time my father hit me, for sneaking out of the house and spending time at the beer parlor in pursuit of music.’’

As fate would have it, the self-taught guitarist who began experimenting, looking for his own unique sound that had observers saying he didn’t play the guitar right – would land his big break while sitting right in front of his family home in Highlife. Brighton Matebere, at the time a leading journalist with the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, had a love interest on Mtukudzi’s street, and regularly ran into the young Mtukudzi practicing with his guitar outside his family house whenever he came around to visit his girlfriend. Matebere was impressed by Mtukudzi’s skills and invited him to perform during his radio show. It was his impressive performance during the radio interview that resulted in Mtukudzi getting his first recording deal in 1975, never to look back again. Later, in 1977, he joined Wagon Wheel band, alongside Thomas Mapfumo.

‘‘When I left school I did not get a job for at least three years,’’ Mtukudzi revisited the birth of his politics, from where he learnt to hide in his music. ‘‘Blacks were not allowed to apply for jobs, but the colonialists didn’t think of art as a weapon that could be used against them. So they allowed us to sing. It was therefore up to the artist to help the nation heal and grow. We used idioms and proverbs, knowing that Shona speakers would decipher the coded messages we were passing across without being explicitly political.’’

67 albums later, Mtukudzi still spoke as if he was in search of what to call a career, telling Forbes Africa in 2016, ‘‘I am yet to decide on a career to take on, because this is not a career for me. I am just doing me.’’

As debate rages on about Mtukudzi’s legacy, Mtukudzi made things easier by summing it all up himself in 2015.

‘‘Pakare Paye is my legacy,’’ he said, ‘‘the legacy I am leaving behind for youngsters to get somewhere where they can showcase what they do best. My generation and I didn’t have similar opportunities.’’

The Pakare Paye Arts Center, meaning ‘that place’, is an expansive piece of real estate which Mtukudzi transformed from a rundown junkyard into a state of the art facility with recording studios and performance spaces. The center is located in Norton, about 45 kms from Harare. Pakare Paye has become a space for artistic apprentices seeking a soft landing in a country where the government gives little regard to the arts. Yet Pakare Paye remains a reminder of one of Mtukudzi’s saddest memories, since he originally built it intending for his only son and bandmate, Sam – who died from a 2010 road accident on his way from the airport – to ran it. Following his son’s passing, Mtukudzi took a two year hiatus from recording music, returning with Sarawoga, meaning ‘‘left alone’’.

‘‘Sam was more of a friend than a son to me,’’ Mtukudzi reminisced. ‘‘He was somebody who challenged me, not as a son but as a friend. It made me feel closer to him. He was so talented to a point where I couldn’t believe how much he could do musically, because he hadn’t had a very long music career.’’

For now, the family musical baton rests with Selmour, Mtukudzi’s daughter.

‘‘Some come and say oh, your children are following in your footsteps,’’ Mtukudzi said, as if diffusing pressure off his children who had taken after him. ‘‘That’s not true. I made my own steps, and my children make their own steps. God doesn’t duplicate talent. So they can’t be me. They have to be themselves.’’

Mtukudzi seems to have made peace with himself – as a father, husband, artist and Zimbabwean – having done what he thought he needed to do as a Zimbabwean cultural vanguard. Yet more was expected of him by those who felt he should have done something, said something, regarding Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Mtukudzi chose to play cultural politics – and succeeded in safeguarding Zimbabwe’s interests on that front both at home and on the global stage – but the political jury is still out on whether that was enough or whether those who demanded more from the man were justified.

In an interview with Kenyan actor and playwright John Sibi-Okumu, journalist and DJ Ntone Edjabe of the Chimurenga Chronic explained, responding to a question on the role of culture in raising public consciousness to tackle societal challenges, ‘‘Imagining culture as a tool, as something that can be used for anything but itself as an act of living and an articulation of that life is always dangerous, whether for positive or other reasons,’’ Ntone admitted that indeed art and culture affects society, but putting a weight of expectations on culture becomes inhibitive. ‘‘…but yes, aspects of culture, music, literature, film… the production of culture, can bring people together. We’ve seen this historically.’’

If art can be left alone for its own sake, should artists, who become influential cultural figures in society, be left alone, or is that an oxymoron? On his part, novelist Chinua Achebe had no internal contradictions on what art is, and what function art plays in society and about the place of art and artists in politics.

Imagining culture as a tool, as something that can be used for anything but itself as an act of living and an articulation of that life is always dangerous, whether for positive or other reasons

‘‘Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art’ are not being honest,’’ Achebe said during a rare conversation with his African American contemporary James Baldwin. ‘‘If you look very carefully, you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is. And what they are saying is not don’t introduce politics. What they are saying is don’t upset the system. They are just as political as any of us. It is only that they are on the other side.’’

The jury is still out on Tuku’s politics, but no one will deny that he was master of his craft.

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Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.

Culture

Cloud Kitchens and Supermarkets: COVID-19 and the Rise of Online Food Delivery Services

On-demand e-commerce has led to the rapid expansion of food delivery platforms and companies in Kenya’s urban areas. While these companies offer choice and convenience to their customers, they exacerbate class divisions. In addition, the technology required to use these services places consumers at a risk of third parties using their personal data without their knowledge or consent.

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Cloud Kitchens and Supermarkets: COVID-19 and the Rise of Online Food Delivery Services
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The consumer logistics industry is not new in Kenya; people have been ordering and delivering products via hawking and third-party messenger services powered by phones or direct contact. Products include produce, clothes, and cooked food that are delivered to offices, homes and designated collection points.

The food and beverages sector has experienced aggressive growth with the entry of new players in the market who are using on-demand e-commerce enabled by mobile technology and connectivity throughout the entire purchase chain. From the point of ordering, payment, order management, processing, delivery and tracking, these on-demand e-commerce platforms limit the role of human mediation in the transaction – unless it is absolutely necessary.

According to Jumia Food Index Report 2019, the food and beverages industry in Kenya was valued at between Sh830 and Sh880 billion at the end of 2019, and had internally projected a 50 per cent growth in on-demand services in 2020. Jostling for a slice of this on-demand cake are food delivery players (including global companies powered by e-commerce technology), venture capital and a market ready for on-demand consumption. The biggest three food delivery players in Kenya are Jumia, Glovo and Uber Eats, the latter two having come on board in the past two years, and the former having been established for a while.

Jumia is a Nigeria-based online service that sells and delivers almost everything, from beauty products to electronics. Glovo is a Spanish courier service that purchases, picks up and delivers products through its mobile app. Uber Eats is an American online company that only delivers food. Even though Glovo was the last entrant into the Kenyan market, it has rapidly expanded to give Jumia a run for its money in the food delivery business.

It is instructive to note that all three companies are subsidiaries or part of larger companies, with extensive on-demand driven e-commerce experience in transport, supply chain management, and last-mile logistics, all centred around consumer convenience and satisfaction. These companies are, therefore, able to maximise on their experience, existing infrastructure and available capital to rapidly expand. Their middlemen approach to providing a marketplace and a service without the commensurate costs associated with running a business means that they are able to maximise their profit margins.

On-demand companies make their money by creating a marketplace and charging for it. The customer pays for the supposed convenience and choice. The restaurant pays to off-load delivery services, hence reducing the logistical challenges while gaining access to a larger market. Restaurants may pay up to 30 per cent commission to these on-demand platform providers, depending on their volume and agreements. They also pay for their restaurant to be promoted within the e-commerce site for more visibility.

Customers pay in two ways: either they buy a subscription through membership, where they are enticed with unlimited free delivery, or they pay a delivery fee. This fee is calculated in terms of the distance covered.

Delivery companies also make money off the drivers, who register onto the platform for opportunities in delivery. These companies consider their delivery workers as independent contractors, thus defraying the costs associated with employee remuneration and benefits, as well as costs of managing and maintaining a delivery fleet. There are also consumer logistics companies that make additional money from advertising on the platform and their other logistics businesses.

These on-demand companies operate only in a few Kenyan cities: Uber Eats only delivers in Nairobi; Glovo operates in Nairobi, Kitengela, Mombasa and Nakuru, while Jumia is operational in Nairobi, Mombasa, Eldoret, Kajiado, Kiambu, Kisumu, Machakos and Nakuru. Even within these cities, there are areas that are not covered by this service.

COVID-19, the true disruptor

Human systems are very difficult to upend, unless collective human behaviour and actions are forced to change. For a while, computing and technological advancement hit a plateau where existing systems of living and working conditions remained significantly untouched. Then, in November 2019, a new coronavirus, COVID-19, was detected in Wuhan in China, and by the 11th of March, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a global pandemic.

Kenya, like many countries, took a raft of measures to respond to the pandemic, from a ban on social gatherings (including closure of in-dining restaurants) to encouraging social distancing, strong encouragement towards teleworking, closure of schools, curfews, inter-county travel bans, promotion of sanitation, closure of some markets, and violent policing of these measures, among others. And in one fell swoop, COVID-19 created the kind of disruption computing and technological aficionados have been predicting and hankering after.

What COVID-19 and the measures taken by the government did was to create an opportunity for the on-demand e-commerce-enabled consumer logistics sector to expand much more than the players themselves predicted, as their service was classified as essential. Glovo, for instance, quickly positioned its entire range of logistics business (third-party couriers, delivery of groceries and pharmaceuticals etc.) within the market. Jumia quickly leveraged its platform and delivery fleet by partnering with Twiga Foods to get farmer produce to customers.

The government measures have positively affected the consumer logistics industry and its revenue streams. This will continue long after the return to a “new normal”. The industry will try to position itself as the disruptor to the old ways, forgetting that it was opportunely placed to leverage the true disruption that COVID-19 wrought.

What COVID-19 and the measures taken by the government did was to create an opportunity for the on-demand e-commerce-enabled consumer logistics sector to expand much more than the players themselves predicted, as their service was classified as essential.

Having dispensed with the notion that these on-demand e-commerce marketplace providers are “true disruptors”, let us attempt to understand how they operate within the food delivery sector. As they self-define, they just offer a market where the players within the sector connect with each other. They, therefore, work with brick-and-mortar restaurants, cloud kitchens (restaurants with delivery menus only) supermarkets’ hot food sections, and independent food providers to deliver the product to the customer. They also work with delivery people, mostly as independent contractors, to offer the transport part of the transaction. In addition, they lay claim to the customer base in order to sell advertising to restaurants, third-party delivery people and other businesses.

Restaurants signed up with them are available to consumers within a certain locale, based on proximity. Their menu items are available for consumers to select, load into a cart, pre-pay or opt for post-payment, provide a delivery address and proceed to track the delivery. In Kenya, most customers opt for cash or M-Pesa payment on delivery of their orders, although there are pre-payment options using credit and debit cards provided by payment gateway companies. There are myriad of technologies that these on-demand businesses use to provide this seemingly seamless unmediated experience to the customer.

Concerns

Although we have engaged with the ideas that on-demand e-commerce platforms offer convenience and choice for customers, an expanded marketplace for restaurants and food proprietors, and ready delivery markets for delivery persons, we must also grapple with the arising concerns from this business model.

First among the concerns, especially during COVID-19 times, is food safety. How do we ensure that these platforms have a standardised approach to food handling, ensuring the highest standards for food delivery? With food delivery, there is the added layer of the delivery worker, which in itself is contrary to the social distancing rules set up by the government. When these layers are added, the monitoring of the rigid healthy and safety guidelines might fall by the wayside. When such standards cannot be assured, who will bear the responsibility of infections should they happen?

We have also seen a global trend towards most essential workers being at risk of contracting COVID-19, and delivery workers fall into this category. Their work requires their physical presence, and they may during the discharge of their duties get exposed to infection. After all, they may be delivering to those who are sick and in quarantine.

In Kenya, there is a preference for cash payment, on delivery, which further compounds the risks faced by delivery workers. It is a major concern for these workers, especially when we consider them in relation to the nature of our non-existent healthcare system. These delivery workers are treated by these global companies as independent contractors or “entrepreneurs”, which means their connection to these global companies is one devoid of employee benefits, such as medical cover, which would be a safety net for them.

Most of the e-commerce platforms are hailed as opening up opportunities for businesses, in this case, restaurants and food providers, along with delivery workers. But on close scrutiny, we notice that these companies operate quite a predatory model to maximise their revenue generation. For every meal a customer orders, a restaurant can pay up to 30 per cent of the cost of the meal, depending upon the volumes they sell and the agreements they set up with the companies. Why should such a model be encouraged where the actual businesses that have invested in the operations and people to produce the product are not reaping the benefits? This model, which ostensibly offers the consumer choice and convenience, is actually killing the restaurant business and rendering a lot of people in this sector jobless. Not to mention that these dine-in options can lead to a solitary food culture, which is the antithesis of dining in a restaurant, which is more of a social event.

So, who uses theses services and what do they eat?

I think we sometimes forget that Kenya is more than Nairobi and the other major cities. By using their distribution model, we can see that these on-demand services are not equitably spread all over Kenya, and in fact when we look at the cities/ towns they operate in, we’ll also discover that for one reason or another, there are areas that are not covered by this service. I can venture, therefore, that this service is classist in nature because it replicates the problems inherent in the society, and Kenya as a society is classist. In addition, its “everyone pays to be on the marketplace” model is a clear indication that there are those who cannot afford to use this platform.

So, who gets to use these services and what do they get to eat?

First of all, it is those who have the money to pay for the food, and the convenience of getting the food delivered. For most people in Kenya, dining out (or in this case, in) is a luxury. The cost of food that is delivered is higher than the cost of food in a restaurant because there are delivery charges included. There is a minimum threshold of spending that one must do to avail free delivery services. All these costs add up to exclude a lot of people.

These delivery workers are treated by these global companies as independent contractors or “entrepreneurs”, which means their connection to these global companies is one devoid of employee benefits, such as medical cover, which would be a safety net for them.

Secondly, by nature, the use of these on-demand apps require that the user have a mobile device with internet connectivity, and in some cases, a form of electronic payment method. Although, there has been a marked penetration of mobile internet users in Kenya, quite a number of them still do not have this facility.

Another area of exclusion is that of illiterate users, who cannot read to place their orders, including those who are technologically disadvantaged. It requires a certain form of digital literacy to avail secure, private and efficient use of the e-commerce marketplace.

As I intimated earlier on, there are sections of the cities that where these on-demand services are not available. This could be due to insecurity, a lack of restaurants (we earlier saw that delivery is based on proximity of the customer to the eateries that deliver), a lack of a clear address layout, lack of trust and so forth. Whatever the reasons to not operate is certain areas, this ensures that people in those areas are not serviced, or do not get an equal service to someone else.

Then there is the question of what is being eaten. Most of the food in this marketplace is produced by multinational fast food companies and long-established restaurants. However, we are increasingly seeing local food and kibanda-style restaurants entering the marketplace. Recently, both Jumia and Glovo added “kibanda” menus on their platforms. We do know that “kibanda” menus serve a certain frugal, by choice or necessity, clientele. It is therefore an oxymoron to put these foods that cater to a certain segment of the society on a platform that will put a surcharge on the product.

On a different note, this putting of the “kibanda” menu on the platform is akin to the gentrification of the food item – to appeal to those with the means. However, in general, gentrification does marginalise those who used the service before it acquired its special status. Do we then want to marginalise those for whom “kibandas” provided an essential service?

The other elephant in the room

Just like other applications that consumers subscribe to, there is a lot of data that e-commerce companies are collecting. Some of the data they collect include user demographics, location, spending habits and preferences, and so forth. How is this data stored? How do they use it? Do they monetise it? These are questions that have to be clearly answered by these companies. In fact, most companies do sell this data to targeted advertising campaigns and to feed their artificial intelligence algorithms – without the consumers’ knowledge or consent. Consumers, therefore, have to be quite discerning in their interaction with the systems and the advertising so as to ensure that they are making their own independent and informed choices.

Just like other applications that consumers subscribe to, there is a lot of data that e-commerce companies are collecting. Some of the data they collect include user demographics, location, spending habits and preferences, and so forth.

It may appear that I am cynical of technology, technological advancement and e-commerce. On the contrary, I am an avid user of technology and I understand that there is no reversing its prevalence and importance in our current world. What I want to posit is that we should not forget that technology, and all that it births, is a tool to enable human endeavour. It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to place checks and balances on people and organisations that want us to believe that this tool is a panacea to our problems.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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Culture

What Washerwomen Would Say on a Webinar

Waiting for increasingly elusive work at stakeouts without shelter and facing police harassment is the itinerant washerwomen’s daily lot in this COVID-19 season.

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As the signature tune for the 9 o’clock evening news floats on the airwaves, Elizabeth Mbatha wearily pushes open the door to her house in Kangemi.

She has just walked 22 kilometres across the city from Moi International Sports Centre in Kasarani where she completed her day-long court-ordered community service to sweep the streets because she could not raise the Sh200 fine for “failing to observe social distancing rules” and not properly wearing a mask in public.

Police from Kileleshwa station in Nairobi enforcing public health measures in response to the coronavirus pandemic, had arrested Mbatha and a dozen other women the previous day at the spot where they habitually sit, sometimes all day, waiting for someone to hire them for a day’s cleaning work.

In this COVID-19 season, webinars have become the middle class replacement for workshops, but on July 15, a different variety of this urban phenomenon occurred as itinerant washerwomen from Nairobi spoke about coping amid the crisis.

On a normal day, Mbatha walks a five-kilometre round-trip from her house to Kileleshwa to wait for work cleaning houses and washing clothes. Often, police order the women who sit waiting along residential streets back to their homes where they have nothing with which to feed their children.

“We face innumerable problems. If you leave your child in the care of a neighbour, she will want Sh100 at the end of the day”, Mbatha said.

Cleaning and laundry work has contracted as employees in the formal sector—grappling with pay cuts and disappearing jobs—stay home and take on the household chores. Live-in domestic staff have been laid off because of fears of COVID-19 infection, and also because households are surviving on reduced incomes.

Some employers called their former domestic staff and asked them not to come to work: Don’t call us, we’ll call you once the crisis is over.

Former live-in domestic workers have now joined day labourers like Mbatha in the search for work.

For some 50 women at each of the 40 waiting spots dotted across the wealthier parts of Nairobi, it is not so much a search for work as it is a game of wait-and-see. According to the Centre for Livelihood Advancement, up to 2,000 women sit in the open around Nairobi waiting for someone to offer them cleaning work, and so far, CFLA has registered 500 of them. Police regularly drive by and order the women to disperse to their homes as part of enforcing anti-crowding regulations. “Do not bring corona to the roadside”, the police bark at the women. “Stay at home until COVID-19 is over”.

Work is irregular, and when it comes, the load is heavy because employers who previously hired once a week are now taking in washerwomen just once or twice a month. It is a headlong dive into the unknown.

Mbatha, a mother of two children, says her husband is on furlough from his contract work in construction. She took the job because sometimes her husband would return home after a day out without finding any work. She has been washing and cleaning for three years.

“Living with an unemployed husband can be very stressful because when you enquire what you will feed the children, fighting can break out—sometimes even in front of the children”, she adds.

Depressed household incomes have forced many people with precarious occupations like Elizabeth Mueni—also a washerwoman—to move houses. “I used to pay Sh3,000 for rent every month but I had to move to a cheaper house. Even here, I had to negotiate to pay the Sh1,800 in instalments”, she adds.

Washerwomen start walking out of Kawangware, Kibera and other informal settlements adjacent to the middle class residential ones early in the morning. They stake out supermarkets, and sometimes road junctions, waiting for people looking for a day’s domestic help.

Employers who offer one-day jobs for Sh500 are of all varieties: homemakers seeking a helping hand with large catering; men who live alone; or people nursing patients and other household members with special needs.

The criteria used to select a washerwoman is capricious: some want plain looks while others are looking for neatness, some seek mature-looking older women while others call up those they have hired before.

“Employers are not the same”, says Rosemary Ambeyi, a widowed mother of five who works as a day-wage washerwoman. “Some [employers] invite the women into their personal spaces so that they can exploit them”, she adds.

Ambeyi has used this work to put two of her children through secondary school and is still educating another three.

“The challenge we have is assuming they want you to work”, she continues. “Once you get to the house, some start to make inappropriate advances, and you get into a fight—meaning you are not able to work. If you do not finish work, your pay is docked”.

The problems in the domestic work sector have persisted for over 12 years, says Mary Kambo, the programme manager for labour and corporate accountability at the Kenya Human Rights Commission. “Domestic staff work in isolation and their social connections are threatened. Raising your voice when you are alone could mean the loss of livelihood”.

Last year, an Africa Labour, Research and Education Institute study estimated that there were some two million people employed in domestic work in Kenya. Although domestic work is not properly documented, the sector is quite significant and plays an important role in driving the country’s economic growth and development.

Nannies, caretakers, cooks, gardeners, cleaners, drivers, and security guards among others, perform important work that makes it possible for professionals and people in business or other occupations to go to their jobs away from home. “The value of domestic work has, however, not been properly recognised”, says Kambo, adding that labour laws in the country have proved to be insufficient in dealing with the issues affecting domestic workers.

Working behind closed doors in gated communities, places domestic workers in personal spaces where they are vulnerable to abuse and harassment without any recourse because the laws of trespass make it difficult for labour officers or rights defenders to check what goes on in homes.

“The employee deals with one employer in a private space. When there is a dispute, it is difficult because they are alone. This type of work threatens the worker’s social connection. They do not know each other’s experience, and so cannot receive community assistance and support”, says Kambo.

For itinerant domestic workers like the washerwomen, the perils are double those experienced by live-in staff.

“You can be summoned and instructed to work from outside the house, working long hours until late”, says Mbatha. “The houses we work in are not the same. There are some places that are okay, and others are so hard but you cannot even speak about it. If you speak out, you will jeopardise future work”.

Staking out for work is a dicey game of chance. There are no toilets, and in the event of rain, there is no shelter from the elements. From their stakeouts, many washerwomen often have no way of estimating the amount of work they are signing up for and so cannot charge appropriately for it. They end up working long hours with no food. They can only leave when all the work is done, and sometimes it is too late to walk home.

“No one knows or recognises us . . . All we want is to be recognised so that we are not harassed and can raise our children from there”.

As the country moves to adopt home-based care for the rising number of COVID-19 patients, itinerant domestic workers will likely play a critical role in supporting families to cope. They have to protect themselves in environments where there might not be water or hand sanitisers.

Although the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied mobilises and speaks for workers in domestic service, those who undertake itinerant day-wage labour without the protection of contracts remain undefended.

Kenya has yet to accede to the convention on decent work for domestic workers. The convention requires member states to ensure the effective promotion and protection of human rights for all domestic workers, and to respect, promote and realise the fundamental principles and rights at work, such as freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining. States are also required to eliminate all forms of forced or compulsory labour, child labour, and discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.

Attempts at organising domestic work usually run into strong headwinds. People seeking live-in work in the domestic service register in private bureaus where they are required to pay up to Sh500 and asked to wait for a call, which often never comes. Live-in work has long hours—staff are the first to rise and the last to bed, often eating food of low quality. Those in itinerant labour fare worse.

Unlike motorcycle riders—who are largely male, have mobilised into self-help groups and cultivated a saving culture—washerwomen are not organised and do not go beyond making collective savings. Without enough to live on, meeting and organising becomes that much more difficult. On days when work is scarce, washerwomen borrow money from one another to cross into a new day hoping for better luck.

Beatrice Lucas, a washerwoman living in the Gatina area of Kawangware in Nairobi, says none of the relief assistance meant for people impacted by COVID-19 measures has reached her. Washerwomen have missed out on official emergency relief and assistance because local administrators like location chiefs often map urban dwellings under their jurisdiction when the women are out looking for work.

“You can go a week without assistance or work. Food is handed out to the chief for distribution but the names of beneficiaries are never made public”, she adds.

Community activist Ruth Mumbi, who recently led a protest by washerwomen in the Eastleigh area of Nairobi when they were locked out of work by the lockdown, says the government’s COVID-19 bailouts are focusing on big companies, with Sh2 billion going to the hospitality industry, yet the women who do this work are also in the hospitality industry but they have received nothing.

Kambo argues that the COVID-19 emergency response should broaden its definition of vulnerable populations to embrace daily wage domestic workers beyond the usual categories of the aged, orphans, and people with preexisting health conditions.

There is an urgent need to formalise the domestic workers sector, especially daily wage earners. “We need space set aside for us to meet, register and plan our programmes”, says Ambeyi, adding that women have a variety of skills that can be monetised, such as car washing, which they perform as part of their daily labour.

Mary Wambui, who has done laundry work in Upper Hill for years, wants permanent sheds established with washing machines, and a linkage with motorcycle riders to collect laundry and drop it off after it has been cleaned and pressed, thus reducing personal contact and the opportunity for abuse. House cleaning can also be undertaken commercially, together with car washing.

Many government agencies are unaware of the rights violations in the domestic service sector because of poor documentation, leaving victims with no voice. Kambo reiterates that labour laws do not differentiate workers—domestic, office, plantation and the rest. Domestic workers are different and unique, deserving a separate categorisation. A special regulation is required to accommodate the domestic worker because this is the one person who cannot unionise.

And because washerwomen serve fellow workers, they should receive treatment free of charge and have their health insurance and social security protection paid for by the state.

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Why Re-Invent the Wheel? We Have Been Here Before With HIV

Communication on the prevention and management of COVID-19 needs to borrow a leaf from the lessons learnt in dealing with HIV, eschewing fear-mongering and stigmatisation and instead focusing on the social and behaviour change that will help us to contain the spread of the coronavirus even as science seeks a remedy.

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A few days into the coronavirus lockdown, my 85-year-old mother called me sounding very worried. She wanted to discuss her concerns over the bats in her ceiling. Bats can be a real nuisance; they invade houses, hide in that space between the roof and the ceiling and not only make really annoying screeching sounds, but also have a tendency to deposit their acrid -smelling droppings and urine up there. These discolour the ceiling boards and, under the Western Kenya sun, can emit a really foul odour. If you are not used to them, bats can give you a real fright when they exit their dark hiding places at dusk and it wouldn’t help at all if you are not a Dracula fan and have issues with these upside down mammals that are associated with vampires.

Bats are very difficult pests to get rid of but this time, my mother’s concern was whether they could infect her with the coronavirus. She is elderly, and like many her age, has a litany of “underlying conditions” that make her a prime candidate for COVID-19. Apparently, my mum had listened to a series of discussions on FM Radio—in her first language, mark you—that associated the coronavirus with bats, and warned that the aged and the infirm were most at risk.

The panellists also informed listeners that the virus originated in China. In the playful manner of our folk, the contagion had been named Akkori nyar China, nyar Wuhan, Akkori daughter of China, daughter of Wuhan. Anybody familiar with Luo culture knows that a woman who joins the community, especially through marriage, is known by her father’s name or her place of origin. Nyar China had wormed her way into our community like a newlywed. But affection for this miaha—this newly married woman—was not great.

The lethal infectiousness of nyar China was emphasised, and my mother was grappling with the recommendation to maintain social distance which meant that the stream of village friends and relatives who normally come by to check on her would need to keep off. She was told not shake hands or hug; how was she to greet her children or grandchildren? How does a grandmother show affection from a distance?

But what mum found most confounding was that she had to wear a mask covering her mouth and nose because the coronavirus comes out of the nose or mouth of an infected person and infects others through the same route. So the breathing that keeps one alive was now the route through which death could enter the body? Handwashing and sanitising were easy for her to understand; mum has always been very particular about clean hands and even though she thought the regularity was a trifle exaggerated, she was ok with having to spend more on soap.

At her age, my octogenarian mother has lived through many disease outbreaks. As we spoke, she recalled measles, smallpox, mumps and others, but confided that she had not seen this kind of thing before. “This one is different”, she said. “We have had Ayaki with us all these years, but this?” Then her voice went a little lower and she asked, “They have also said that anyone who dies now will be buried on the same day. No mourning, no mourners?’’.

My initial reaction to mum’s queries was one of joy and satisfaction; at least the coronavirus message was getting out there in mashinani where it is most needed. I was no longer sceptical about the survey that reported that knowledge about the virus was almost universal, that close to ninety per cent of respondents knew of the importance of handwashing and wearing a mask. The only message that did not seem to have been well received was about social distancing.

This was exciting news; I am a veteran of the HIV public awareness, education and mobilisation trenches. In all the years that we have been speaking about the ABC of HIV prevention—abstinence, being faithful to one partner whose status you know, consistent and correct condom use and acceptance of medical male circumcision—we have not had close to universal awareness let alone compliance with the recommendations.

The proliferation of FM stations broadcasting in local languages helped to take the coronavirus message to the grassroots, and to domesticate the measures of prevention. The discussions were hosted by individuals who could contextualise the prevention measures in the local language. This ensured that the message percolated to the remotest parts much faster than the virus itself could travel.

Three distinct messages about the virus were heard loud and clear: that it was a deadly, highly contagious virus, that the symptoms of the COVID-19 disease it causes are flu-like and that those who catch it die a rather sudden and painful death. Mum told me that they described it as “drowning in a well full of mucus”, the fright and disgust in her voice palpable.

Without going into details, they also communicated that the aged and those with underlying illnesses were most vulnerable. So my mum, with her high blood pressure, arthritis and cardio-vascular issues, was worried out of her wits. At the same time that these messages were circulating—and as if to reinforce them—stories from Italy and other parts of Europe were streaming in. When the illness was first reported in China it seemed too distant, but Europe is just next door even in village terms. It seems as if the strategy used to communicate information about the coronavirus was mainly based on scare tactics.

As with communication about HIV, there were a lot of half-truths and outright falsehoods doing the rounds. My mum had heard that the coronavirus was associated with the “strange” meats eaten by the Chinese—bats and other creatures in “wet markets” came up. It was also said that the Chinese had deliberately manufactured the virus with the intention of killing everyone (especially Africans) and taking over our continent to find a place for their ballooning population.

These conspiracy theories were actually competing with public health messages at the grassroots. When HIV first arrived it was discussed in hushed tones. Stories filtered in from Uganda where they had nicknamed the disease “slim” because of how it wasted those it afflicted. The cause was not clear, or possibly the connection to sexual intimacy made it uncomfortable to discuss the cause. HIV soon acquired local names—ayaki, mukingo, biitya, live-wire… all names that suggested devastation.

The association of HIV with promiscuity, prostitution and homosexuality soon followed. Those who were infected were pointed at and their supposed sins discussed in hushed tones. In Luoland, the term chira was used to explain the origin of the disease. Now, chira is an amorphous term used to describe an unending malady resulting from one having committed a grave taboo. Chira was not new, but in the past, an afflicted person would be given some manyasi—herbs—and the taboo would be managed. But Ayaki was unrelenting and soon people started dropping like flies. The combination of sexual transmission and death attached a stigma to HIV.

In the early days, the bodies of those who succumbed to AIDS-related illnesses were wrapped in hideous- black polythene bags and a closed-casket funeral was held. Relatives were not allowed to hold wakes; burials were conducted quickly and funeral gatherings were forbidden. Those who survived the deceased were stigmatised and shunned. Before dying, those who were HIV-positive endured being shunned, discriminated against and condemned.  Parents refused to allow their children to be taught by HIV-positive teachers, landlords drove HIV-positive people from their houses and those selling goods would discriminate against any known HIV-positive individual.

The response to the coronavirus was following the exact same trajectory. Soon after the first death was announced in Kenya, the state responded by locking down certain localities and declaring a dusk-to-dawn curfew. The announcement of the night-time lockdown was greeted with humour, and CNN mocked Kenya for allegedly having discovered that the virus is spread by darkness. On the ground, law enforcement agencies doubled their zeal in punishing and arresting curfew breakers, those not wearing masks and individuals not obeying social distancing.

The response to the coronavirus was weaponised and in the first few days more people died from police brutality than from the virus. Photos of burials being conducted in the dead of night by public health officials dressed like space explorers and bodies wrapped in polythene being sprayed with disinfectant did the rounds on social media.

People were angry, maybe even defiant, because of the high-handedness. With regards to the social distancing rules in particular, how practical are they when people live in crowded housing where residents pass each other along narrow passageways (and woe unto you if you are plus-sized)? Many engage in wage labour, selling their muscle power shoulder to shoulder. Saying they should “work from home” is as insulting as Marie Antoinette asking Parisians who could not find bread to eat cake instead.

There are many Kenyans who are faced with the choice between buying a mask and a tin of maize meal for their families. In most areas, the state failed to provide face masks yet unleashed police on those who did not wear them even as the media was reporting that free masks had been donated to the country.

The Ministry of Health holds daily briefings on the coronavirus, led by the Cabinet Secretary backed by a posse of clinicians, with the head of state occasionally chiming in to emphasise the seriousness of the COVID-19 situation and deepen the measures aimed at managing the crisis. We are stuck in crisis mode and as the number of confirmed cases grows, and given the head start before the much anticipated “peak”, should the state not be providing reassuring messages of our state of preparedness?

Should they not be speaking about an increase in the number of fully kitted out health care providers, increased bed capacity in High Dependency Units and Intensive Care Units, and an increased number of ventilators and other equipment? Would that not be more reassuring? Right now, the message is reminiscent of the pre-ARV HIV message that “AIDS kills”. Every day there is talk about the “peak” that is expected and we are being prepared for the crash, but if we cannot apply brakes to the vehicle, can we at least reassure the ill-fated passengers that the facilities are in a state of readiness to deal with the injuries? What we need to know is the state’s capacity to cope with that peak and not whether it will come or not.

After we had climbed over the “AIDS Kills” hurdle and abandoned images of emaciated figures and burial caskets, we began to communicate how to live positively. Campaigns centred on the benefits of knowing one’s HIV status and voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) were aggressively promoted, together with the assurance that HIV is not a death sentence and that there is life after HIV.

Healthy living included focusing on nutrition and mental health. This was mainly to reduce self-stigma and discrimination. This is the direction the COVID-19 communication needs to take; we must now respectfully engage with Kenyans on the meaning and implication of the “new-normal”. This is the time for persuasive, logical yet emotional communication that will appeal to the head and the heart about the “new normal”.

Communication needs to separate myth from fact; my mother needs to understand the connections between the bat and this new disease because the bats are not moving in a hurry. She needs non-stigmatising information that clarifies to her why her age group is more vulnerable so that she knows how to relate to her grandchildren and fellow villagers. The public needs to understand that handwashing and sanitising is good hygiene that also reduces cases of dysentery, cholera and other illnesses transmitted in unhygienic environments. The public must also be helped to understand that any contagious disease can spread in crowded places and hence the need for physical distancing.

Communication on prevention and management needs to focus on normalising and building self-efficacy in the “new normal”. The communication now needs to logically challenge each one of us to find the self-motivation to wear a mask when in public much as we did with HIV; wearing condoms when having sex, being faithful to one partner whose status we knew and abstaining where it was possible.

Communities must reconsider such long-held cultural practices like hugging and handshaking. In those communities where it is taboo to shake hands with in-laws, there are other ways in which they show love, affection and recognition. We can start from there to explain that Akkori nyar China is like a mother-in-law who needs to be treated with reverence and not fear.

And where the public health message insists on immediate interment of the dead, a more acceptable and convincing logic must be provided. If the problem is the crowding among mourners, then the focus needs to shift away from stigmatising the remains of the deceased. It is possible for communities to manage the numbers at a funeral and bury their kin with dignity in order to achieve closure. Besides, there should not be contradictions where a high-ranking Ministry of Health official attends a funeral with 400 other people, or politicians hold a meeting with hundreds of people in attendance while elsewhere in the same country police tear-gas and clobber and scatter mourners at a funeral.

Away from illness and death, there is the one-metre distance that should also be observed while queuing at the bank, the matatu stop, or while receiving sacrament in church or offering prayer at the mosque. The community must also be challenged to find ways to avoid or manage gatherings at weddings, political rallies or other mass events because these must go on in the “new normal”. We must find ways of fitting in soap and water into our daily activities even as we adopt as routine and normalise handwashing with soap literally every hour of every day. And from now onwards, we must adopt a new etiquette when sneezing, coughing, laughing and speaking. 

The public must be given the correct, scientifically proven facts about the virus and the disease it causes, and what to do when it strikes so that they can separate the wheat from the chaff that social media throws at everyone. And while applying all these measures, we must yet engage in those activities that will transform our country and our people, moving forward from poverty through work (at home or elsewhere) and leading ourselves into a dynamic state of economic growth that will bring greater social equity and the fulfilment of the human potential.

As happened with smallpox and rinderpest—and soon polio— science will eventually will find a way to eradicate COVID-19. The development of a vaccine will help manage COVID-19 as happened with measles. And just like we did with HIV, which called for social and behaviour change to get us to where we are today, development communication professionals need to ease into the driving seat of normalising COVID-19 and life after COVID-19 while the clinicians return to their primary role of tending to the sick.

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