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Knowing Binyavanga

14 min read.

A story of an unlikely friendship, a chronicle of the final years of the late Kenyan writer Binyavanga’s life, from the perspective of a former student activist discovered on the brink of despair and mentored into a writer.

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Knowing Binyavanga
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‘‘I want to go and drink in River Road, where you guys used to drink,’’ Binyavanga told me, wanting to experience Nairobi’s underbelly, where broke University of Nairobi students and those staying in cheap downtown hostels engaged in debauchery. It had all started a month or so earlier. I had shared with him bits and pieces of a memoir on student activism that I had been working on. That story seemed to make Binyavanga want to talk for hours on end, as if wanting to discover a part of Kenya he wasn’t familiar with, including drinking in Nairobi’s dingy backstreet bars.

I had instigated our chance meeting weeks earlier through a random Facebook message. After a year of seeking and being granted asylum in Uganda following an untidy spillover of my student activism, I had returned to Kenya in early 2010, broke and broken. Sitting in a Kenya National Commission on Human Rights safe house in Nairobi’s Kilimani neighbourhood, I started writing a memoir, later deciding to share a section of it with someone I considered a literary authority, wanting to know whether it was all just trash. I settled on Binyavanga, at the time Director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College in New York. I wrote him one of those possibly irritating I-know-nothing-about-publishing-but-I-think-I’m-onto-something messages, suspecting he received tens of those at a time. Luckily, Binyavanga responded in under ten minutes, saying he was busy but wouldn’t mind having a look. He shared his email address, and asked me to send him a chapter. He emailed back in less than 30 minutes.

‘‘Where are you?’’ Binyavanga wrote, ‘‘Are you safe?’’

Under a month later, upon his return to Nairobi—with loads of emails in-between about his intention to grant me one of the early Achebe Center writing fellowships—Binyavanga and I met for the first time at Divino, a restaurant on Nairobi’s Argwings Kodhek Road, and spoke for ten hours. Towards the end of the evening, Binyavanga told me he had a friend who lived nearby, on Kirichwa Road, whom he thought I should meet. That friend was his contemporary, the writer and journalist Parselelo Kantai, who joined us at Divino. The next weekend, staying true to the spirit of our new friendship, Binyavanga invited me to one of his epic parties at his house in Karen, introducing me to his high-flying literati friends as a promising writer in his usual exuberant way. That day, at that party in Binyavanga’s house, I became a writer.

Eager to learn more about my bleak University of Nairobi days, his curiosity sparked by the writing I had shared with him, Binyavanga decided to immerse himself into the downtown Nairobi scene, which was foreign to him. And so, one Saturday evening, I joined Binyavanga and his stocky, talkative cab driver, Njuki, who took us to the less glamourous part of the city. We drove around downtown Nairobi, to those places with their infamous little pubs with names like Emirates, where music blares out of faulty speakers and the streets are populated with staggering, drunken patrons.

Binyavanga didn’t seem impressed, much as he wanted to be in the depth of it all. Then Njuki took a turn off River Road, landing us at the junction of Keekorok Road and Jaisala Road, next to the better-known Kirinyaga Road. There stood an imposing, modernish building, AJS Plaza, which seemed out of place in the midst of structures that had seen better days, possibly dating back to colonial days. At the rear of the building, on the lower ground floor, was what looked like a kiosk, selling alcohol. There were seats placed in front of a small window from where drinks emerged.

‘‘I think I like this place,’’ Binyavanga said. ‘‘Let’s sit here.’’

Jaisala Road, which is where the watering hole was located, was quiet and deserted. Sitting on the plastic chairs, we faced a tiny dark alley, which served as the urinal for the little kiosk. Every time Binyavanga stood up, delicately balanced his imposing frame and crossed the street, positioning himself at the edge of the dark corridor to relieve himself, I wondered what I had done, bringing him to these sorts of places.

Before I could explore that thought further, Binyavanga would return, relieved and reenergised, downing his bottle of Guinness, engaging gear-five as Parselelo Kantai would later cheekily christen that moment when an idea hits Binyavanga’s mind and he is shouting and drinking and making his point loudly and urgently. A lot of gear-fives happened at Kantai’s Kirichwa Road backyard at four in the morning as our host asked us to keep it down for the sake of his neighbours.

‘‘Don’t be afraid,’’ Binyavanga told me about writing, sensing my half-heartedness. ‘‘Don’t wait for permission. If you see space, occupy it. Don’t close your mind to any possibilities.’’

Later that night, the only activity on Jaisala Road, other than that originating from our corner of the street, was the steady stream of Congolese nationals, mostly musicians, returning from live performances in places across the city—places like Simmers, that popular city center nightspot—to their rooms at Jaisala Hotel in the building across the road. Or to the cheap lodgings in the upper floors of the buildings on the street.

An idea came to Binyavanga.

‘‘I want to buy a building here,’’ he said, ‘‘one located on a corner, and transform this place.’’

Binyavanga revisited this conversation over the years, his idea of owning a building in that part of Nairobi, where he wanted to establish an arts and culture center, house the Kwani? office, and in so doing collapse the Nairobi art scene’s class divide. To his thinking, those from upper class Nairobi would—in the usual way that gentrification works—be interested in being part of this downtown experience, while those from the less privileged parts of the city would only need to board one matatu and access the venue bila hustle. As our first joint project, that night, Binyavanga gave me a much needed $100—I was dead broke—to scout for a suitable building for such a project.

‘‘Don’t be afraid,’’ Binyavanga told me about writing, sensing my half-heartedness. ‘‘Don’t wait for permission. If you see space, occupy it. Don’t close your mind to any possibilities.’’

‘‘Here’s some money,’’ Binyavanga said. ‘‘I don’t want you to get stuck.’’

At around that time, the literary journal Kwani?, of which Binyavanga was the looming founding editor, was working on its seventh edition, the majuu issue. African writers who lived or had lived in the Diaspora were being asked to tell their tales of life abroad. Having briefly read my Kampala asylum seeking escapades, which I doubt fitted neatly into Kwani?’s Diaspora template, Binyavanga reached out to Kwani’s managing editor, Billy Kahora, introducing yet another of his discoveries, another promising Kenyan writer.

‘‘You have to publish this guy,’’ Binyavanga pushed Billy on the phone, over and over again.

Billy, possibly half curious and partly seeking to get Binyavanga off his back, asked me to send him 10,000 words of my Kampala story. That is how Waiting for America in Kampala, my first piece of published writing, came to be. I told of sneaking out of Nairobi into Kampala with the material and other support of the then American Ambassador to Kenya, thereafter spending months navigating Uganda’s Directorate of Refugee Affairs and UNHCR processes.

Binyavanga went back to New York, staying in touch with me the whole time. He was back in under three months, and would call every other day, asking to meet up for lunch and talk through the evening and into the night. A lover of fine dining, he would ask me to join him at either Le Rustique on General Mathenge Drive, Talisman in Karen or Mediterraneo at The Junction. Whenever I went to meet him, I always found Binyavanga punching away at his MacBook, which almost always had bits of cigarette ash on the keyboard. He would light a Dunhill Switch cigarette in mid-conversation, and when making an important point, lift his cigarette-holding arm up in the air, put the cigarette in his other hand, take a long puff and blow the smoke upwards. He would then engage gear-five, sipping a Guinness, a cappuccino or sparkling water.

‘‘I want to protect you,’’ Binyavanga would say, feeling obligated to give me some form of cover from whoever he imagined had been after me. ‘‘If they think of coming after you, I want them to see me, and know that we can make a lot of noise if anything happens to you.’’

That is how Waiting for America in Kampala, my first piece of published writing, came to be. I detailed my sneaking out of Nairobi into Kampala with the material and other support of the then American Ambassador to Kenya.

One late afternoon, after a visa renewal appointment at the American embassy in Nairobi, Binyavanga called and asked me to join him at the Java Coffee House in Gigiri, where I found him later that evening. The moment I settled in, I noticed something strange was happening to him. He was punching on his MacBook keyboard relentlessly, his level of concentration higher than what I was accustomed to. He seemed somber and quieter, yet peaceful, and smiled whenever he looked up from whatever he was writing. Then he spoke.

‘‘I am resigning from the Achebe Center,’’ he said, without giving the reason why he was walking away. ‘‘I will send the letter before boarding my flight to New York later tonight.’’

When he returned from New York a fortnight later, Binyavanga made me a proposition. He was now talking about spending more time in Africa, as if overcome by a new sense of agency. He had originally wanted to grant me an Achebe Center fellowship that would give me time and space to write. Now that he was no longer at the Center, he had an alternative.

‘‘Can you live in Nakuru?’’ he asked me one afternoon. ‘‘There is a house. My father’s house.’’

I had never lived in Nakuru, and didn’t know what life was like there. But seeing how keen Binyavanga was to have me find a space to clear my mind and get on with the writing, I immediately said yes. We had gotten to a place where I felt he knew exactly what was good for me, because why else would he keep at it when he had other important things he could spend his time on? He wrote a brief email introducing me to his siblings—Jimmy, Ciru and Chiqy—telling them that I would house-sit their home for three months. I was soon off to Nakuru.

I arrived in Nakuru’s Milimani neighbourhood to find a five-bedroom mansion, a small detail Binyavanga had omitted to mention. The plan was that I would receive a stipend for groceries and Binyavanga would make trips down to Nakuru to check on me. Whenever he came around, we spent hours talking politics, writing, Africa, and in the evenings we would make our way to downtown Nakuru, where he would take me on a tour of old pubs with history. He would stay for up to a week.

My routine was simple. Wake up, bask with Tony the dog, get some writing done, make lunch with Vincent the gardener, write some more, take a long evening walk, have lunch leftovers for dinner, write again, then sleep. When the loneliness got too much or the writing wasn’t working, I would go to the backyard and have the occasional smoke, promising myself not to make a habit of it. On Fridays and Saturdays, I went to Rafikis, the happening nightspot in Nakuru at the time. I stood alone at a spot near the entrance, and drank till morning, speaking to no one. Frequenting Rafikis was my way of seeing other humans other than my two constant companions, Vincent, who was always busy pruning the hedges, and Tony the dog. Before I knew it, I had lived in Nakuru for a year and it was time to move back to Nairobi.

‘‘Come to Karen,’’ Binyavanga told me as I left Nakuru. ‘‘I’ve got an extra bedroom.’’

I got to Binyavanga’s Karen home after nightfall. I knew the place from my visit a year earlier when he had invited me over for the party at which he had introduced me to his writer friends. The living room was packed with young writers working with him, compiling the Africa39 longlist—39 African writers aged under 40 touted as the force that would shape African literature in the coming decades. Books, and what I imagined were printed copies of submissions from across Africa, littered the place. I sat quietly in a corner and watched them work. Later that night, Binyavanga showed me to the extra bedroom which I would occupy for the next two years.

Barely a month after my arrival in Karen, on the night of 17 January 2014, we were sitting in the cold living room, working as we always did, everyone facing the page. On the stroke of midnight, I looked up, uttering the first words spoken for the better part of that night.

‘‘Happy birthday, Binya,’’ I said.

‘‘Thank you,’’ he replied, barely looking up.

‘‘I am coming out tomorrow morning,’’ he said, ‘‘through a piece published on an African platform.’’ The following morning the world and I woke up to I am a homosexual, Mum.

Binyavanga’s cell phone was ringing off the hook. Al Jazeera, BBC, CNN, The Guardian, among a myriad other international news outlets, all wanted an interview. We were riding in a taxi, as we always did, going I can’t remember where, when Binyavanga, seated in the front passenger seat, holding a cigarette out the window, turned and looked at me.

The living room was packed with young writers working with him, compiling the Africa39 longlist—39 African writers aged under 40 touted as the force that would shape African literature in the coming decades.

‘‘Man, I need your help,’’ he said. ‘‘Can you help me handle these media inquiries? There’ll be chums.’’ And just like that, I started working as Binyavanga’s occasional assistant, before it became a full-time firefighting gig not without its dramatic moments, like being pulled out of writing workshops to make calls to embassy officials to sort out incomplete visa applications.

From dealing with his literary agents in London and New York, to maintaining his calendar, booking flights and planning airport drop-offs and pick-ups in Nairobi, to replying to requests for interviews and such, finding a place for them in his crowded diary, this gig-on-steroids also involved buying groceries, dealing with the landlord, making visa applications, and tracking bill payments. It was a full-on engagement, all the while trying to maintain a friendship and a social life. I became Binyavanga’s friend, assistant, housemate, confidant, and bodyguard even, all rolled into one.

The distress call came on a Friday night—the 24th of October 2015—catching me midway through dinner. I was attending the farewell party for the African Writers Trust editorial workshop somewhere in Bugolobi, Kampala, keen on partying away the remainder of the night. The caller was Binyavanga’s closest high school friend, whom I knew well but not in an I-can-call-you-on-a-Friday-night-just-to-say-hello way. I left the loud banquet room and went outside.

‘‘Isaac, are you in Nairobi?” he asked.

‘‘No. I am not,’’ I replied. ‘‘I am in Kampala, but will be back by tomorrow midday.’’

The news was that Binyavanga had suffered a stroke and had been rushed to hospital. The friend, who was making his way to the hospital, was checking to see if I was in Nairobi, if I had any details to share. Disoriented, I ended up drinking a little too much—to the point of almost missing my early morning ride to the airport—keeping the news to myself. I landed in Nairobi, dropped off my bags at the house in Karen and made my way to Karen Hospital.

‘‘I am coming out tomorrow morning,’’ he said, ‘‘through a piece published on an African platform.’’ The following morning, the world and I woke up to I am a homosexual, Mum.

I found Binyavanga in the ICU, looking healthy and awake, but having difficulty with his speech. It seemed temporary, as if he would undergo a procedure or two and then everything would go back to normal. Before the stroke, Binyavanga had embarked on a crazy European run—Toronto, London then Paris, or something like that—attending a series of events before jumping on a plane and flying off to the next city. Seeing how tight his schedule had been and how much he had had to do, I thought this was all short-term, a product of the fatigue. Once out of ICU, Binyavanga would call me every morning, asking me to go and be with him at the hospital. I would tell him I was already on my way anyway, that he didn’t need to call for me to go to him.

‘‘Call so and so,’’ he would mumble from his hospital bed. ‘‘Tell them I’ve had a stroke.’’

It was as if we had moved his living room to his hospital room; he refused to slow down. We worked every morning, replying to emails, making phone calls, cancelling speaking and other engagements. Binyavanga was nothing if not painfully stubborn, never surrendering, insisting on acting as if everything was normal, refusing to take no for an answer from anyone. From Karen Hospital, it was Nairobi Hospital after a very brief break, before a group of friends and his family worked out a plan to get him to India, where his writer friend Achal Prabhala had recommended a solid post-stroke recovery programme. The idea of leaving the country appealed to Binyavanga.

On the day Binyavanga was leaving for India, I was returning from a Commonwealth Writers event in Malta, which I had attended as an East Africa stringer. As I was coming out of arrivals, I spotted a Nairobi Hospital ambulance parked outside the international departures gate and, recognising some of our mutual friends standing next to its open door, I walked over and saw Binyavanga lying on a stretcher, waiting to be wheeled onto the runway to board his flight. We exchanged pleasantries before I wished him good luck and said goodbye. A few weeks later, Binyavanga started sending emails to me and to the group of friends, asking that I travel to India. He became persistent, and soon, I was off to India.

I travelled to India on my birthday in December 2015, arriving in Bangalore, where Binyavanga was recuperating, at four in the morning. I made my way to the three-bedroom serviced apartment on Ulsoor Lake, where Binyavanga was staying with his sister Ciru, and a friend of theirs, Tango, who showed me to my room. At about eight in the morning, Binyavanga knocked on my door. I opened, we hugged, and he welcomed me to India. And that is how my eventful one-month stay in India began.

The news was that Binyavanga had suffered a stroke and had been rushed to hospital. The friend, who was making his way to the hospital, was checking to see if I was in Nairobi, if I had any details to share.

It was back to routine. We would wake up and have breakfast in the restaurant situated within the apartment building, by which time the taxi driver was already waiting in the basement parking. I would accompany Binyavanga to hospital for his sessions—speech therapy, physiotherapy, the works—after which we would go for lunch together and then spend the better part of the afternoon at a high-end gym. (I sat outside the building, people watching.) Then we would go back to the apartment, from where we all went out for dinner or something like that, and the next morning we would start all over again.

From Bangalore, and having regained much of his physical strength, Binyavanga was briefly back in Kenya, before leaving for Berlin to take up a DAAD fellowship for a year. Berlin was difficult. He encountered racism, and found himself having online scuffles with all kinds of people, including Kwani?. Thereafter, he briefly moved to South Africa, before returning to Kenya in 2017. I made a point of visiting him at least once a week. We spoke about anything and everything, just like in the old days, the only difference being that he couldn’t speak with the same vigour, ease and speed as before. The dreams grew even bigger, and every time I visited there was either an improvement on a concept, or a totally different idea he wanted to pursue. On the weeks when I couldn’t make it to see him, he would call asking why I hadn’t visited. At other times, he called and said he was lonely.

‘‘I want you to take me to Kigali,’’ Binyavanga told me in September 2018, ‘‘to go bury my uncle.’’

I wasn’t sure I wanted to accompany Binyavanga to Kigali. I couldn’t ascertain whether he was fit to travel, and wondered why none of those around him wanted to make the trip with him. I kept avoiding him, sometimes not taking his calls, feeling that I was in a Catch 22 situation—wanting to be there for him, but worrying about his health. However, on the eve of the trip, Binyavanga did what Binyavanga did best: put me in a situation where I couldn’t say no.

‘‘I’ve bought two tickets, mine and yours,’’ he said on phone, ‘‘We’re going to Kigali kesho.’’

The first sign that Binyavanga wasn’t his best self was at the security screening at the airport in Nairobi; I had to step in to assist him with every step of the process. Inside the aircraft, the passenger seated next to him, noticing that he might need assistance during the flight, offered me his seat so that I could be with Binyavanga. We arrived in Kigali and got in touch with his cousin Brenda, who directed us to a hotel across the street from the Rwandan Parliament. We booked adjacent deluxe rooms on the fifth floor, each the size of an apartment. It was typical Binyavanga, always going over the top, be it with fashion or restaurants.

Binyavanga would wake up every morning and knock at my door, asking me to help him get ready for the day. On the day of the funeral I took him to his uncle’s home, where he paid his last respects and reconnected with his maternal cousins. We attended the requiem mass at a Catholic cathedral in central Kigali, sitting at the back of the church. I was born a Catholic and as I participated in the rituals, Binyavanga kept giving me a sideways look that seemed to say, “I thought I knew you”. We attended the burial at a cemetery in the outskirts of Kigali, before taking our flight back to Nairobi the following day.

‘‘I want you to take me to Kigali,’’ Binyavanga told me in September 2018, ‘‘to go bury my uncle.’’

It was during that Kigali trip, his last trip outside Kenya, that I last saw Binyavanga walking unaided. A few weeks later, he was back in hospital, staying for a couple of weeks, having suffered another stroke. He was discharged and underwent a lot of physiotherapy, regaining much of his physical strength. I visited him two to three times a week, and mostly found him lying on the couch, watching Netflix on his MacBook. He would sit up, trying to have a conversation, before asking me to recommend shows or movies on Netflix. I would mention a show or a movie, read him the synopsis, after which he would say yes or no. We would speak, yet again, about his desire to do a PhD in Literature at Princeton, with him asking that the writer Andia Kisia and I work on his application. He would repeat his wish to study the work of Kojo Laing, since to Binyavanga’s mind, no one wrote better than Laing.

Just weeks later, Binyavanga was back in hospital, never to make it out alive. I visited him in the ICU one afternoon. Standing there, alone, watching him through a glass barrier—no one was allowed any closer—I felt my knees giving way, almost collapsing to the floor. We looked at each other. I felt that he wanted to speak, to ask me to do something for him, or to pass a message to someone, as it had always been with us. He couldn’t utter the words. After the longest, the frailest, eye contact, he slowly closed his eyes and slept. It felt like goodbye.

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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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