A responsible government takes care of its poor people until they are strong. – Mwalimu Julius Nyerere: 1922–1999.
On the fifth day after the surprise dawn evictions at the infamous Kibera slums that lay in the path of a new road that is being constructed, I visited the area to witness first-hand the scorched earth policy that the government had employed to rout out the hapless slum dwellers. It was a bright sunny mid-morning with a clear blue skyline above but the area was eerily silent: From the District Officer (DC)’s offices, one could look yonder, as far as the eye could see, where once upon a time, there were structures and those structures housed human beings and their pets – cats, dogs, chicken, doves and rabbits, but now, all one could see was flattened land. The only movement was that of the Caterpillar bulldozer rumbling along like a military tank detecting land mines.
Kibera shares a border with the Nairobi Royal Golf Club, which is near former President Daniel arap Moi’s home, Kabarnet Gardens, and runs all the way down towards the Langata area. I met three elderly women who were watching the earthmover as it levelled the land where once stood their structures.
“I have lived here since 1969, and in my close to 50 years, I’ve never seen such a brutal, cold and calculated demolition from such a cruel government,” Mary Gikunda, a landlady whose structures (she declined to say how many she had) were flattened in a matter of seconds. “Those structures were my income, as well as my financial support for my children,” reiterated Ms Gikunda, who told me that all her (many) children were born in Kibera. Now in her mid-60s, the landlady seethed with fury against politicians, against state bureaucrats, against the security apparatus, against journalists, against anybody associated with the Jubilee government.
“Why would the government do this to us? I woke up very early to vote for Uhuru Kenyatta, believing and trusting that he would not allow this kind of demolition to occur, but obviously we were duped; we are always duped by these politicians,” posed Ms Gikunda. “Trust me, I will never vote again, I’m done. I’ve ran the course of my voting life. These people should leave me alone now. A road is a good thing – nobody in his right senses would oppose such a development. But is a road worth the wanton destruction you’ve just witnessed? Is it more important than people’s lives?”
“Why would the government do this to us? I woke up very early to vote for Uhuru Kenyatta, believing and trusting that he would not allow this kind of demolition to occur, but obviously we were duped; we are always duped by these politicians”
She and the two women were eating dry githeri (boiled maize and beans). “I was born here in Kibera,” said Josephine Munee. “I’ve spent all my life in Kibera, I know no other home. In all of my 65 years, we grew up being threatened by demolitions and evictions, but we fought back and we survived. Somehow, the past governments would perhaps think twice and have mercy on us, but this Jubilee government is something else.” Ms Munee observed that as the “wretched of the earth”, slum dwellers anywhere in Nairobi city were not the “owners of the land”, and so, the powerful and the mighty could do whatever they deemed fit, “but at 65-years-old, where would they expect me to go?”, she wondered aloud.
Rhoda Muthei, 87, was the oldest among the women: Because of her advanced age, her colleagues had looked for a plastic chair for her to prop up her back and rest on. In her Kikamba mother tongue, she asked them who I was and what is it that I wanted.
“I’m not in a mood to speak to anyone,” she told them. Persuaded to talk to me because I was not a state officer, she came to life and said, she came to Kibera via Langata in 1963, settling in her current abode proper in 1972. But now, it was no more and she did not know what to do and where to go. “I witnessed Jomo Kenyatta (the first President of the Republic of Kenya and the father of the current and fourth President Uhuru Kenyatta) being sworn in as the country’s first black leader in Langata and we ululated throughout the night, ecstatic in the knowledge that we could now henceforth self-govern ourselves. In the sunset of my years, I have no place to call home because the government does not have time for poor, old and dying women like me.”
However, even in the worst of adversity, people can have something to smile and live for. I walked 20 metres from where the three women were, navigating huge boulders to where Rachel Kerubo was, and found her preparing lunch on an open makeshift three-stone hearth. Charming and welcoming, she heartily invited me to lunch: ugali and omena (sardines) with kunde (indigenous bittersweet greens leaves). A delicious and nutritious dish, eaten mostly in low-income households, the meal is a mouth-watering combination that fills the stomach and is very pocket-friendly.
“I came to Kibera a decade ago after I was displaced by the 2007/2008 post-election violence in the Rift Valley,” said Kerubo. “There’s no respite for the poor and the weak in this country. Now it looks like I’m on the run again.” Her house in Kibera had been flattened, but she counted herself lucky: She was just in time to rescue her wooden chicken coop, part of her income-generating project when she came to Kibera. Her three-week-old chicks were scrounging the rubble for food with the help of the mother hen. In her mid-50s, Kerubo is as enterprising as they come.
Besides rearing chicken, she grew tomatoes on a 20X10 plot that she had rented next to where she lived. The tomato plants too had been flattened. With a group of other seven residents – five women and two men – Kerubo and her group had fund-raised to buy 10,000- and 5,000-litre plastic water tanks, where they stored water which they would sell to their fellow slum dwellers for a marginal profit. She also used part of the water to grow her tomatoes. “We were given two alternatives – we pour all the water and therefore save our tanks – or the bulldozers crush them,” Kerubo narrated to me. I found the water tanks lying on their belly on their raised wooden support, proof indeed that their contents had been rendered to the ground.
Across the field, on the other side of the wall, about 60 metres away, I found Halima Burhan cleaning dishes. Her ageing great aunty and daughter sat close by on the ground crossed-legged, their backs leaning on a semi-demolished mud wall. Tall and ebony black, Halima, at 63-years-old, is as energetic and as active as ever. Looking a little rugged, perhaps because of the vicissitudes of slum life, she still retains a trace of the impossible beauty that Nubian women are known for. “The Monday [July 23, 2018] morning demolition took us by complete surprise,” said Halima in proper Kiswahili sanifu (formal Kiswahili language).
“On July 16, government officials [these were Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) personnel] descended on our homes, marked them with a red X sign, and told us that all the people who would be affected by the impending evictions would be paid a consolidated three-month payment to move away,” said Halima. “We asked them when the eviction notice was due, but they dodged the matter. They assured us nothing untoward would be done without our prior knowledge. Little did we know they had come for a last reconnaissance tour to confirm that all the intended houses and buildings to be demolished were clearly marked, as they duped us that nothing sinister was in the offing.” In hindsight, said Halima, it was the calm before the storm.
On July 16, government officials [these were Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) personnel] descended on our homes, marked them with a red X sign, and told us that all the people who would be affected by the impending evictions would be paid a consolidated three-month payment to move away,” said Halima. “We asked them when the eviction notice was due, but they dodged the matter.”
The KURA officials had gone down to the three affected villages of Kichinjio, Mashimoni and Lindi that would be razed down on Monday to pave way for the link road between Langata Police Station and Karanja Road in Kibera, ostensibly to enumerate and take the slum dwellers’ particulars for what the dwellers were made to believe would result in restitution. Four days later, KURA sent out a WhatsApp message and copied both Amnesty Kenya and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR). The message read as follows: “A multi agency team has successfully completed the Kibera enumeration process on 20th July 2018. The team is now analysing the data collected and once the process is complete, the Resettlement Action Plan (RAP) report will be availed to the public.”
Yet, perhaps, unlike many of her slum mates, Halima should have been aware of the demolitions, “if only I had not brushed away my grandchild’s naggings.” On Sunday [July 22] evening, her grandson Masud Talib was playing football near the DC’s offices, when he saw the bulldozers being parked at the compound. Eleven-year-old Masud, acting on a child’s instincts, ran back home and called out his grandma: “Bibi, bibi, tutavunjiwa, nimeziona matrekta zikipaki pale kwa DC. Nimewasikia wakisema watabomoa manyumba.” (Grandma, grandma, they will demolish, I’ve just seen the bulldozers being parked at the DC’s compound and I overheard them saying they will demolish our houses. “We Masud nawe acha hayo,” (Please Masud stop that) Halima responded. There was nothing usual about the presence of bulldozers at the DC’s place – the road (Karanja Rd) connecting to Ngong Road was still under construction.
About 12 hours later, at around 6.00am, Halima was woken up by earth tremors beneath her house and wondered what possibly that could be. The demolitions had began and people were scampering from their houses. Because her house is 500 metres from the DC’s offices, the bulldozers’ earthshaking movements were audible from far, and her house was among the first ones to fall under the hammer. “Alhamudillahi my grandson is alive,” said Halima in supplication. Inside her house was her 90-year-old great aunty, grandson Masud and her daughter and her 12-week-old newborn baby. “Since demolitions, we have been sleeping outside, Allahu Akbar [God is great], the elements have so far not affected the baby.”
“I was raised on my paternal grandfather’s land – this land that they have just evicted me from,” recalled Halima. She had now stopped doing the dishes and we were standing next to the ramshackle ruins – a crude reminder of what she once called home for more than half a century. Her grandfather, Marjan Sakar, a soldier of the British army, was among the first Nubians to be settled at Kibera.
Kibera, which for the longest time has been synonymous with the Luo people, owes its existence to Nubians’ bravery and diction. Kibera is a corruption of Kibra, Ki-Nubi for forest or a bushy area. The Nubians came from Sudan, around the Nuba Mountains. They were identified first by the Egyptian ruler Emin Pasha and later by the British imperial government as brave soldiers. At different times, they were enlisted by both Pasha and the British to wage wars on their behalf.
Modern Nubian history records them as having been settled in Kibera around 1897, just before Kenya become a British protectorate. Those that were settled in Kibera were part of the 3rd Battalion of the King’s African Rifles who formed the bulk of the soldiers who had been deployed to fight for the British Empire. By 1900, Kibera was already a military reserve. This designated area, next to the railway, was surveyed in 1917 and was gazetted the following year. The land was estimated to be 4197.9 acres. From 1912 to 1928, Kibera was administered as a military area under the direct control of the army authorities. Anybody who wanted to settle in the area needed a special pass and one of the requirements was to have served in the army for at least 12 years.
In 1933, the colonial government appointed The Carter Land Commission to study and report on the land problems in Kenya. In reference to Kibera, the commission wrote: “It appears that this area was assigned to the King’s African Rifles in 1904, although not gazetted until many years later. There is nothing in the gazette to show for what reasons so large an area was required, but it is common knowledge that one of the objectives was to provide home for the Sudanese ex-askaris.”
In 1963, Kibera was fully incorporated into the city boundaries of Nairobi. By 1970, the original area of 4197.9 acres had been reduced to just 500 acres. Today that land is just under 300 acres. Large portions of Kibera were swallowed by middle-class estates, like Ayany, Jamhuri, Langata and Ngei, along Ngong Road, leaving the Nubians to be concentrated at Lindi, Kambi Aluru, Kambi-Lendu, Kambi Muru and Makina and along Karanja Road. In the fullness of time other ethnic communities, such as the Kikuyu, Kamba, Kisii, Luo and Luhya, settled in Kibera.
In 1933, the colonial government appointed The Carter Land Commission to study and report on the land problems in Kenya. In reference to Kibera, the commission wrote: “It appears that this area was assigned to the King’s African Rifles in 1904, although not gazetted until many years later. There is nothing in the Gazette to show for what reasons so large an area was required, but it is common knowledge that one of the objectives was to provide home for the Sudanese ex-askaris.”
“In 2016, Nubian elders took the government to court,” Halima told me. “They were seeking to stop the road passing through our land and the intended demolitions and evictions.” On August 5, 2016, the “Abdulmajid Ramadhan & 3 Others V Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) & 4 Others” case was filed at the Environment and Land Court in Nairobi (Petition N0.974).
The court ruling
On April 28, 2017, Justice S. Okong’o ruled on the matter and directed KURA as follows: “In the interest of justice and in order to avoid human suffering, I order that the petitioners herein be included in the Langata/Kibera Roads Committee and be actively involved in the Relocation Action Plan (RAP) for the Project of the Affected Persons (PAP). I order further that the 1st, 2nd, and 5th respondents shall not evict or demolish the houses belonging to the petitioners until the agreed resettlement plan for the persons affected by the road project in question is put in place.”
In essence, what Justice Okong’o had done in his ruling was to order the Attorney-General, KURA and the road contractors, H.YOUNG, to enter into a preparation of the relocation action plan. From the time of the ruling in April 2017 to July 16, 2018, when KURA showed up with the eviction notice, they did not do anything to obey the court orders: they did not involve the Nubian elders or its committee; they did not come up with a discernable relocation action plan; and, in truth, they did nothing to show that they respected the law of the land.
Then, suddenly, KURA got caught up in a flurry of activities: On July 13, 2018, it requested a meeting with Nubian elders, KNCHR and the Mohammad Swazuri-led National Lands Commission (NLC) at its offices located at the Ministry of Roads offices ostensibly to convince these bodies to come up with the relocation action plan as per Justice Okong’o ruling. An official who attended that meeting told me, “The July 16 enumerations was a way of showing that KURA was keen on honouring the court’s ruling with the ‘false’ promise of giving something small to the people as compensation.”
The official told me that it was very odd that KURA would summon, among others, an independent body such as KNCHR to its offices and “KNCHR, unashamedly would troop to another body’s offices to scheme on how to bend and obstruct the constitution, while disobeying a court’s ruling. I had along chat with KNCHR commission members and I did not mince my words,” the official said to me.
“In respect to the brutal evictions in Kibera, the commission punched below its weight. The 2010 Constitution and the KNCHR Act of 2011 grant the commission immense powers to summon state officers, the power to sue for injunction, through the courts, for such violations of human rights, and the power to investigate and prescribe remedies. So far the commission has deployed only a fraction of these powers,” added the official. The official explained to me how KNCHR is entrusted with quasi-judicial powers to summon the minister in charge of roads to explain eviction notices. He said the commission can equally go to court to secure an injunction on behalf of an aggrieved party and exercise powers to collect data, and even enforce corrective action.
Forced evictions: A violation of human rights
On my second day in Kibera, I met up with 61-year-old Joseph Omondi. Born and bred in Kibera’s Katwekera village, he is tall and sturdy and is always up and about and laughter is his second nature. When elated, he breaks into uproarious laughter and can crack your ribs with his practical jokes. “But on the day they demolished Kichinjio, Mashimoni and Lindi, I broke down and wept,” said a reflective Omondi. We were at the backyard of Kabarnet Gardens. At the Administration Police (AP) camp inside the stately home, there is a makeshift food kiosk, where food affordable to the security officers and their retinue is sold.
“In respect to the brutal evictions in Kibera, the commission punched below its weight. The 2010 Constitution and the KNCHR Act of 2011 grant the commission immense powers to summon state officers, the power to sue for injunction, through the courts, for such violations of human rights, and the power to investigate and prescribe remedies. So far the commission has deployed only a fraction of these powers,” added the official.
In between a meal of ugali and matumbo (fried intestines), Omondi told me he had witnessed forced slum demolitions over time in Nairobi – in Soweto (next to Spring Valley suburbs), in Kibagare (next to posh Loresho), in Muoroto (that used to be next to Country Bus Station) and in Mathare 4A. However, according to him, “This Kibera one ranks among the most horrendous, perhaps only to be rivalled by the brutal Muoroto slum eviction which took place at 3.00am and which resulted in some people losing their lives. How can a government be so brutal, merciless and conniving against its own people like this? In a post 2010 new constitution?”
“The state had come prepared to mow down the people in case they resisted or became violent,” pointed out Omondi. “But on this day the people did not resist. They watched, dazed, as their structures went down with their earthy belongings, with no time to salvage anything. With a 1000-strong force of regular police, AP, the brutal and inhuman paramilitary GSU (General Service Unit), it was going to be a futile resistance. So the people stood aside, the earthmovers roaring, flattening anything and everything on site, much like a military operation.”
I found Oscar Indula and David Lwili, both in their late-20, seated on a bench and pensively looking over the horizon beyond the site that they had once called home as residents of Kichinjio slum. “The state had come fully armed and it was a stealth operation. They had taken us by surprise, there was no time to mobilise. They came at dawn and many people were just waking up. Confused by the attendant commotion and seeing the encroaching excavators, the people panicked. Then, they became lost and bewildered. But even if we could have mobilised, we would have been completely pulverised. It was a full army battalion, we stood no chance. We were gazing down at a massacre.”
Omondi told me he could only liken the Kibera evictions to the brutal demolitions that had razed down people’s homes and businesses in Zimbabwean cities and towns a dozen years ago. On May 19, 2005, the then Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF government security forces rolled down on the capital city Harare’s informal settlements and flattened homes and businesses. It was a violent affair, overseen by the police and army, and soon spread to other major cities and towns.
Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Restore Order) was dubbed “Operation Tsunami” because of the speed and ferociousness with which it attacked the settlements. According to the “Report of the Fact-Finding Mission to Zimbabwe to assess the Scope and Impact of Operation Murambatsvina by the UN Special Envoy on Human Settlements Issues in Zimbabwe”, an assessment carried out by Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka between June 26 and July 8, 2005, about 700,000 people across cities in Zimbabwe lost homes, sources of income and sometimes both.
“The Kibera demolition affected between 30,000 and 35,000 families in the three villages,” George Odhiambo told me. “The exact figures are not known, but for those talking about 30,000, they should know that that is a very conservative estimate.”
Odhiambo is the founder of Adventure Pride Centre, a school that catered for pupils from pre-school to Class VIII and which was located in Kichinjio village. He took me to the precise place where the school had stood. It is difficult to believe that a stone building with a cemented floor once stood erect at Kibera’s ground zero. The only sign that learning used to take place here were the scattered text books and some completely new and unused exercise books. Nothing was spared in the wake of the demolitions.
“Adventure, alongside two other schools – Egesa Children’s Centre and Makina Self-Help Primary School – rested on Nairobi Royal Golf Club’s private land, contrary to the popular belief that everything that was demolished was on government land,” said Odhiambo. “The management of the Club had had an understanding with the schools’ owners to operate on its land, as long as they used the premises as learning institutions.”
I asked Odhiambo what would happen to the Class VIII pupils who will be sitting for the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) this year. “The pupils are very confused, distraught, disturbed and will need counselling,” observed Odhiambo. “Currently, all the pupils are at home, as we think of what to do next. For the Class VIII, we have to quickly find alternative centres where they will sit for their exam. Already, as it is, they learn under some of the harshest conditions that one can possibly imagine and yet have to compete in the same exams, with kids going to exquisite schools, laden with textbooks, learning materials and whose teacher-student ratio is at most 1:15 and where teachers are always present.” In total, there were eight schools in the three villages that were brought down: Adventure Pride Centre, Egesa Children’s Centre, Love Africa Primary School, Mashimoni Primary School, which had been there since the 1970s, Makina Self-Help, Mashimoni Squatters, Mashimoni SDA and Saviour King School.
Josiah Omotto, of the Umande Trust, an NGO that works in the water sector in Kibera, said that between 2008 and 2009, the ministry responsible for housing led a team of experts to scout for best practices on eviction guidelines. The team borrowed from the United Nations and best practices from visits to Brazil, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.” The result was the compilation of the government’s document: “Towards Fair and Justifiable Management of Evictions and Resettlement: Land Reform Transformation Unit (LRTU) secretariat.” Chief among its recommendations were:
- Evictions should be carried out when appropriate procedural protection are in place
- These protections are identified by the UN Commission as Economic and Social and Cultural Rights
- An opportunity for genuine consultation with those affected
- Adequate and reasonable notice for affected people prior to the eviction
- Information on the proposed evictions must be fully provided
- Government officials and/or representatives to be present during the evictions
- Evictions are not to take place in adverse weather or at night.
- Government to ensure that no one is rendered homeless or vulnerable to the violation of other human rights as a consequence of evictions
- Adequate alternative housing and compensation for all losses must be made available to those affected prior to eviction, regardless of whether they rent, own, occupy or lease the land in question.
“The saga of the Kibera-Langata link road is very puzzling. There are too many shortcuts, too many loose ends and illegalities,” observed Omotto. “And they are being let to pass, while in fact, we have a precedent to follow.” He reminded me of the Kwa Jomvu evictions in 2015 and how the Kenya National Highway Authority (KeNHA) redeemed itself by owning up to orchestrating forceful eviction of the Jomvu houses and business premises without following the due process of the laid out stipulations.
Josiah Omotto, of the Umande Trust, an NGO that works in the water sector in Kibera, said that between 2008 and 2009, the ministry responsible for housing led a team of experts to scout for best practices on eviction guidelines. The team borrowed from the United Nations and best practices from visits to Brazil, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.” The result was the compilation of the government’s document: “Towards Fair and Justifiable Management of Evictions and Resettlement: Land Reform Transformation Unit (LRTU) secretariat.”
On May 17, 2015, more than 100 inhabitants of the Kwa Jomvu informal settlement along the Mombasa-Mariakani Highway were woken up by a bulldozer trampling on their structures at night, between 11.00pm and past midnight. The bulldozer, escorted by armed police, flattened their houses and business premises. “Driven Out For Development: Forced Evictions in Mombasa”, a report by Amnesty International, says the people complained that they had not been consulted beyond being given a January 2015 eviction notice. They had not received any information on eviction process, resettlement, or compensation.
On August 13, 2015, KeNHA organised a public sensitization meeting and owned up to carrying out the forced demolitions. The roads authority asked the people to form a committee to tabulate their losses and present the same to KeNHA. It also educated the people about the Environment and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) and Resettlement Action Plan (RAP) for the project. In September 2015, KeNHA took responsibility for the evictions and agreed to pay compensation till the end of 2015.
Then last month, once again, one of the most famous slum colonies in Africa was in the international news: On the days I was there, the slum had attracted its usual voyeuristic suspects – local and international news corps, “development” workers and NGO crusaders, all hoping to share a piece of the slum’s soul.
COVID-19: Uganda Must Take Robust Measures to Defeat the Coronavirus Pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic will end but without strong public services, Uganda will remain vulnerable to the next epidemic, pandemic or extreme climate event. The health, water and sanitation and all other sectors must be transformed into robust, life-enhancing government services.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the public service infrastructure as never before. We commend the government for the efforts it has made to limit the contagion. In particular, we commend health service personnel for their tireless round-the-clock monitoring, testing and treatment of those affected by the disease.
I appreciate the 300 water points rolled out by the National Water and Sewerage Corporation and Kampala Capital City Authority on Friday 27 March. NWSC must be funded to enable them to continue to offer handwashing points in urban areas.
It is heartening to observe the positive public response to the Ministry of Health guidance and directives. I join the President of Uganda in emphasising that the contagion can only be stopped if we collectively practice physical distancing, frequent handwashing and avoiding touching our faces. These are the only preventive measures possible. There is no cure available so far.
The Director of the World Health Organisation, which is at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic, has described lockdowns as “extreme social & economic restrictions”.
In Uganda, our first confirmed case of COVID-19 was detected on 21 March 2020. As of Friday 3 April, Uganda had 48 confirmed cases. It is not easy for public servants and it is not easy for the ordinary citizen, but if we continue to cooperate, the pandemic will end. Uganda is among the countries with fewer than 100 cases and we stand a good chance of overcoming this crisis if we make the right policy choices now.
We agree with the WHO that the lockdown provides a window of opportunity to curb and finally defeat the disease but also to prevent a resurgence of infections once the lockdown is lifted. We believe it is necessary to “Refocus the whole of government on suppressing and controlling Covid19”, as Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, has advised.
The World Health Organisation, which is at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic, has described lockdowns as “extreme social & economic restrictions”
We agree that “on their own, these measures will not extinguish epidemics”. We adopt the recommendation that, to be effective, the lockdown must be accompanied by measures aimed at strengthening the health service. It is our view that Uganda’s response to this pandemic can lay the foundations for a healthier and better-prepared country.
In everything we do, we must prioritise the safety of the health workers at the frontline. We therefore propose that they are provided with daily transport, risk and other duty-facilitating allowances, as well as personal protective equipment (PPE). In his address to the nation on 31 March, the President reported that health workers in upcountry facilities are avoiding suspected COVID-19 cases because they lack protective gear. This is unfortunate and must be addressed immediately at all Regional Referral Hospitals. It was shocking to hear in the Presidential Address on Friday 3 March that Uganda only has 10 per cent of the PPE required at this time.
We also support the call by some members of Parliament to pay health workers a motivational allowance, on time and during this crisis, not in arrears.
It may not be possible in the short term to expand, train and deploy our healthcare and public health workforce as recommended but the recruitment process can begin. The news that hundreds of healthcare workers are being recruited at all levels is welcome. Hopefully, the majority are clinicians and nurses.
What is possible in Uganda in the short-term is to continue efforts to “find, isolate, test, treat and trace” those who may have been exposed to the virus and who together with their families are at risk. Of the 48 cases, nearly all were incoming travellers and contacts of travellers arriving mostly from Dubai, 15 from the United Kingdom, three from the United States, one from Kenya. By 28 March, only three confirmed cases were not incoming travellers. We wish them all an easy recovery.
Uganda is among the countries with fewer than 100 cases and we stand a good chance of overcoming this crisis if we make the right policy choices now
In the two weeks prior to the airport closure, 2,661 high-risk travellers entered the country. Also, there are others that had not been identified before Dubai emerged as a high-risk country. Less than 1,000 of these people have been quarantined and tested. It would help to offer amnesty to the hundreds remaining to encourage them to come forward. The security services need only be deployed if there is further failure to cooperate after the amnesty is announced. In any event, the forces should endeavour to treat citizens with the respect they deserve. Wanton violence of the type we have seen contributes nothing to disease control and undermines faith in the government to lead us out of this crisis.
As has been noted, the more tests done, the greater the number of positive diagnoses. While we appreciate the donation of testing equipment from the WHO and Jack Ma, we note that we remain vulnerable as long as our capacity to test depends on donations. We recommend that Uganda seeks short-term measures to find funds for test kits. The public needs to be informed whether all the tests being used are WHO-approved. There is some concern about the potential for false negative results and, being a “fragile State” that is receiving multiple donations, we need assurance that all equipment is up to par.
Regional Referral Hospitals, and Naggulu and Mulago Specialised Hospitals, have been tasked with the management of COVID-19 cases. The input of the Uganda Medical Association, whose members are at the frontline of this battle, is required in signing off those entities equipped to take on the task. This will ensure healthcare workers at those designated facilities have adequate equipment, drugs and PPE. It is hoped that funds will be made available to provide testing facilities in hospitals outside Entebbe.
Wanton violence of the type we have seen contributes nothing to disease control and undermines faith in the government to lead us out of this crisis
Biosafety professionals should be involved in setting up any quarantine sites outside hospital settings to avoid healthcare-associated infections after the pandemic passes. The same should apply to General Hospitals and all Health Centre IVs if the need arises. Regional quarantine and treatment centres are needed to ensure everyone has a good chance of survival wherever in the country they may live as transporting patients across the country puts health workers at risk. Moreover, disinfection of markets, taxi parks and, where possible, other public places should take place before the lockdown is lifted.
Funding the fight
To fund the interventions we request that money currently allocated to Ministries, Departments and Agencies for non-essential activities be reallocated to increasing the number of tests carried out per day and providing transport and PPE for health workers. For example, fuel expenditure saved by grounding government vehicles and cancelling bench-marking trips, conferences, and treatment abroad for ailments that are treatable in Uganda, should also be reallocated to the health sector. Above all, we should minimise waste; expenditure on advertising in the media, printing official bulletins and so on, is not a priority. As WHO recommends, the way forward is “find, isolate, test, treat & trace”.
Most challenging, however, is the third recommendation from WHO: “Expand, train & deploy your health care & public health workforce”. Currently, we have five hospital beds per 10,000 people, 200 intensive care units and less than one (0.9) doctor per 10,000 people. To further complicate matters, other affected countries will seek to import our doctors to combat COVID-19 in their countries. The United States has already invited work visa applications from doctors. The US has 25.9 doctors per 100,000 people but 300,000 COVID-19 cases. Robust interventions on our part will serve in the current crisis and during any future health crises.
As WHO recommends, the way forward is “find, isolate, test, treat & trace”
The immediate sizeable source of funds would be the suspension of the Lubowa Specialised Hospital Project targeting health tourists. The total project cost is Sh1.4 trillion ($379 million). After the first payment of Sh327 billion ($87million), there remains a balance of Sh139 billion. These funds are needed to provide primary healthcare, intensive care and emergency care for Ugandans. (The existing budget for the 41 hospitals to be built in 39 districts is Sh1.3 trillion.) The reallocation from Lubowa Hospital should take place as soon as possible and should the lender decline, the rest of the loan should be cancelled.
Easing the Economic Impact of COVID-19
The majority of Ugandans are employed in the informal sector. In fact, 83 per cent of non-agricultural workers are in the informal sector (World Bank Databank). The majority of workers (75.2 per cent) are classified as being in “vulnerable employment” (Human Development Report 2019, UNDP). What this means is they do not have health insurance and are unlikely to have savings or any other form of social safety net. For the fishermen and small traders who pay annual licence fees, Uganda Revenue Authority could consider extending the validity of those licences to take account of trade lost during the pandemic.
Borrowers from the Youth Livelihood Programme and the Women’s Entrepreneurship Programme present a problem. The 83,000 participants in the government-funded loan schemes such as the Youth Livelihood Programme were already having difficulties making repayments and the majority defaulted. During this time we request that the government suspends the pursuing of defaulters and resumes collections when normal work resumes.
Those in debt to micro-finance companies can be assisted by freezing interest accumulation during the lockdown and extending repayment periods once work resumes. Boda boda riders who have bought their motorcycles on credit fall into this category.
Formal Small and Medium Enterprises face similar loan repayment challenges and require similar consideration. The Bank of Uganda has the responsibility to use those mechanisms as are within in its powers to maintain economic stability. It should ensure that SMEs are not forced out of business by enabling banks to extend repayment periods for loans. In this connection, borrowers forced to default should not be penalised and listed by the Credit Rating Bureau.
Both the formal and informal sectors increasingly use digital means to do business. To reduce the use of potentially infectious money, and to make transactions more affordable, we request that the government lift the OTT tax (excise duty on over-the-top services). The government is also urged to reach an agreement with Telcos to further reduce their rates for all telephony.
Mortgages and rent
Without work, the informal sector and struggling SME owners may be unable to pay rent and may face eviction. Bear in mind landlords too may rely on the rent to repay building loans and cater for their families. Therefore, for those in the informal sector we request that the government works out an arrangement with landlords to grant a month’s grace period for those forced to default on rent. The government could take on the debt for the period of the lockdown. For those in the formal sector, the government should consider guaranteeing the rent and mortgage payments and later recover them from salary or from the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) savings of the tenant. Moreover, the NSSF Act needs to be amended to give members access to their savings during emergencies in future.
Payment of electricity and water bills will become more difficult in the days ahead. The National Water and Sewerage Corporation has explained that it is unable to waive water charges because it too must meet its obligations to employees and suppliers.
What is needed are subsidies for consumers in difficulty. Two options are possible for a fixed period: a VAT waiver on water and electricity or selective subsidies through Yaka credits and water credits for those most in need. It should be possible to apply online or to regional offices and be granted these credits according to criteria agreed upon between the government and the utilities providers.
Social protection of the most vulnerable
We note the relief being distributed to the vulnerable in Kampala and Wakiso districts. It is true that many urban dwellers have been suddenly deprived of incomes and require support. However, rural people in vulnerable employment are also affected by the lockdown through loss of income. Many depend on roadside markets between towns and cities, traffic which no longer exists.
The elderly are the most vulnerable because globally fatalities have been most prevalent among this demographic and also because their caregivers will be unable to provide for them as before. Yet many of the elderly are themselves caregivers to grandchildren and employers of farm workers. The government has already compiled a list of the aged to which it pays a monthly grant. This Senior Citizens’ Grant is vital in keeping the rural economy afloat and for children being cared for during this time and therefore it must be paid in full and in a timely manner.
The incapacitated and those whose caregivers are themselves incapacitated by illness will need to be added to the list of the vulnerable as will the unemployed who will lose caregiver support. Nearly all Ugandans are at risk of financial disaster if they were to become seriously ill. The Human Development Report states that 75 per cent of Ugandans are at risk of catastrophic expenditure – expenditure which wipes them out financially – were they to require surgery. COVID-19 may not require surgery but in the worst cases (should they appear) it will require intensive care. With a reported 200 ICU beds nationally and most probably all occupied, the situation is dire.
In the absence of public transport, a special public transportation plan for patients and expectant mothers travelling to hospitals and medical centres should be put in place. The beginnings have been difficult as travel passes have not been easy to obtain. We propose hiring and branding vehicles for delivering COVID-19 patients to health facilities. The modalities can be worked out by the Joint Task Force. People Power Co-ordinators will be available to assist in locating those who require transport to health facilities.
The 21 per cent of people living in poverty forms a large part of the vulnerable section of the population. Undernourishment (caloric intake below minimum energy requirements) has been steadily rising for the last 14 years, from 29 per cent to 41 per cent. We have been advised by the Ministry of Health that people have a better chance of surviving COVID-19 infection if they are adequately nourished. To exclude them from the lockdown-affected persons requiring assistance is unfair and counter-productive as they are more likely to succumb to infection.
We cannot afford not to be prepared for other disasters. The shortage in medical masks, respirators, gowns and goggles caught Uganda unprepared yet this was forecast by the World Health Organisation on 27 February.
A resurgence of the desert locust plague in the region was forecast to begin in early May. A swarm entered Amudat district for the second time on 3 April. If it grows, there will be food shortages.
Extreme climate events such as mudslides this rainy season cannot be ruled out either. Our preparedness should reflect the seriousness of the situation and funds set aside to deal with any eventualities. A government statutory contingency fund must be put in place with immediate effect.
On an individual level, to increase food security, owners of uncultivated land are requested to either plant staple foods or allow food to be planted on their land during this rainy season. This arrangement would be limited to this season that is coinciding with the lockdown period.
Funding the safety net
To fund the social safety net, it will be necessary for the government itself to get debt relief on the national debt. Currently over 65 per cent of revenues goes towards debt payment. While we appreciate the World Bank’s call for suspension of debt repayments to development partners and offer of a loan package to finance the campaign against COVID-19, this is not a time to acquire more debt. Lenders are aware that Uganda is a fragile state and, therefore, negotiations for debt cancellation to enable us to provide a social safety net must go ahead and they must succeed. The absence of a social safety net is the direct result of ill-advised development policies.
Long-term interventions: Rehabilitation of the Health Care System
People Power has long argued that the stagnation in health and other services must be addressed as a matter of urgency, not in 2022 or in 2026 but now. This pandemic will end but without strong health and other public services, we shall remain vulnerable to the next epidemic, pandemic or extreme climate event. So we would like all interventions to go beyond the COVID-19 pandemic to cater for future needs.
The health, water and sanitation and all other sectors must be transformed into robust, life-enhancing government services.
Our expenditure on health decreases nearly every year. That trend must be reversed. We must go from spending 6 per cent of GDP on the health service to spending the 15 per cent we signed up to in the Abuja Declaration.
Not surprisingly, a review of the hospitals around the country reveals that the majority have faulty equipment. To finance a health service that meets national requirements, the health insurance scheme that has been in the pipeline for over a decade needs to be rolled out.
We must go from spending 6 per cent of GDP on the health service to spending the 15 per cent we signed up to in the Abuja Declaration.
We need to develop the capacity to manufacture items for clinical use, e.g. protective gear for health workers. We have the capacity. In 2019 young Ugandans developed life-saving and cost-saving bio-medical equipment. All are important because of the nationwide shortage of medical equipment especially in rural areas. Olivia Koburongo and Brian Turyabagye developed the Mama-Ope smart jacket for digital pneumonia diagnosis. In 2018 Phyllis Kyomuhendo invented M-Scan a portable ante-natal ultrasound device. Brian Gitta and colleagues developed a bloodless malaria test (Winner of the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, founded by the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK); we often cannot afford reagents used to test blood. In 2014 Dr Chris Nsamba developed an incubator for premature babies which he donated to the government. It is in use at Mukono Health Centre IV whereby last year it had saved the lives of 243 critically ill babies. Uganda has one of the highest rates of premature deaths in the world.
In 2019 young Ugandans developed life-saving and cost-saving bio-medical equipment
However, Dr Nsamba failed to get any government funding although a government agency later claimed to have sponsored the development. The government should make a firm commitment to support local innovators by buying their products while following procurement rules to give all innovators a competitive chance.
Water and Sanitation
Only 18 per cent of the population has access to basic sanitation services with which to keep themselves and their homes healthy. Of every 100,000 deaths, 31 are related to unsafe water and poor sanitation and hygiene services. Of every 100,000 deaths, 159 are caused by household and air pollution (Human Development Report 2019, UNDP).
In the long term, there needs to be an investment in the water sector that meets the needs of the 82 per cent without access to basic sanitation services.
We are grateful for the government’s transparency in admitting that the limited water supply to homes has been caused by “poor planning and implementation of programmes over the years”. As a result, the water and environment sector now needs at least nine times the present level of funding every year for the next 12 years to meet national development targets (Budget Monitoring and Accountability Unit Briefing Paper 30/19, Ministry of Finance, June 2019).
During the lockdown many will struggle to get fuel for cooking. Under normal circumstances, less than 1 per cent of Ugandans has access to clean fuels and technologies for cooking. Apart from being unsustainable environmentally, the daily search for firewood, like the daily trip for water, takes away time children would otherwise have spent in school, acquiring skills to innovate for our survival as a people.
We have an opportunity to reflect on the type of nation we want to be. Are we willing to invest in our human development and well-being or will we forever belong to WHO’s category of “the most fragile and vulnerable countries”?
Human development costs money. We will only see a change if we manage our resources better, this goes both to government and to the population. We must eliminate non-essential expenditure; expenditure on salaries of political appointees and on electioneering – cash handouts in return for votes. We must eradicate waste; last year vehicles were bought at a cost of $5.5 million for the Commonwealth Parliamentarians Conference. It was said that they would thereafter be used for government work but they have not been surrendered to the pool for use in fighting COVID-19. The recent budget proposals for the desert locust emergency, especially by the ICT ministry, show that we have not learned this yet.
As a Nation, we need to reflect on the wisdom of splintering the country into tiny entities paying salaries for MPs, and public service but remaining financially unable to maintain decent health centres, hospitals or roads, or to deliver quality education in most local government institutions.
As individuals, each one of us must have as much integrity as we expect from our leaders. In the last four years, Uganda lost Sh28 billion in the Youth Livelihood Programme. An audit of a sampling of Youth Livelihood Project groups which received loans found that 64 per cent were non-existent (representing 71 per cent of the value of the loans). Another 25 per cent had embezzled the funds. This means that repayments were not available for re-lending to new Youth Interest Groups.
We must never again be found without sufficient medical facilities. We must never again find ourselves lacking water with which to wash our hands and prevent disease.
The physical environment in which we live and work can and must be transformed. Unsanitary working conditions in markets and other public places must be addressed beginning with the NWSC/KCCA handwashing points which we expect will become a permanent feature.
We must never again find ourselves lacking water with which to wash our hands and prevent disease.
A durable solution to the broken public transport system is needed, especially in cities and towns. This pandemic has taught us that public transport is a public good that must be supplied, regulated, maintained and sanitised by the government. Supplementary systems are well and good, but the primary responsibility for public transport lies with the government.
On behalf of the millions of People Power foot soldiers across the country, I call upon the government of Uganda and all Ugandans to reflect and consider the proposals I have laid out here.
For God and My Country.
Harsh Economic Times, Political Uncertainty…and Now Corona
Kenyans were already struggling with tough economic conditions and political tensions when COVID-19 appeared. Lockdowns and dwindling incomes have now made their lives much more difficult, even as they pray for the virus to be vanquished.
Our live were ruined among the leaves,
We decayed like pumpkin in a mud field
~ Mazisi Kunene, South African anti-Apartheid poet
They say when it rains, it pours, and calamity comes with its brother. The revelation that the dreaded coronavirus had, about two weeks ago, finally found its way into Kenya threw the country into a state of pandemonium. Until then, Kenyans viewed the virus as a devastating but “alien” disease.
It was not until the quasi-lockdown was ordered by the government that Kenyans realised that beyond the confusion and panic, a much worse situation was threatening to compound and exacerbate an economic meltdown they have been experiencing for the last 20 months or so. The “alien” ailment has not only brought with it bewilderment, but is threatening to lock them down, literally, to starvation.
The virus, of the genus corona, was first detected in Wuhan Province in China in December 2019, hence the name COVID-19 (coronavirus disease of 2019). Three months later, when Kenyans first heard about a disease that was killing the Chinese quicker than flickering fireflies, they brushed it off as one of those phenomena that occur in far-off countries in the East.
The disease could not have come at a worse time for Kenyans. Experiencing harsh economic times and political uncertainty, many Kenyans concluded that the gods have conspired to punish them. “For how else do you explain the disease coming to Kenya at a time when we are faced with the toughest of economic hard times?” posed a woman.
That plane from China
“This is the modern Armageddon, the end of times is nigh because we’ve deviated from God’s ways. It is a message from God who is angry with us. We’ve sinned too much and this is a sign from God who is asking us to turn from our wicked ways and repent of our sins,” prophesied a street vendor in Nairobi selling tree tomatoes, popularly known in Kiswahili as matunda damu. But after this revelation of a messianic message, the woman admitted that the hint of a complete lockdown by the government was a sure way of strangling the livelihoods of people like her.
“Ndiraikara mucii nacio ciana irie ke?” You’re asking me to stay at home, what will my children eat? “Ako corona niguturaga, reke tukuire guku bara-ini”. If the coronavirus is going to kill us, let us then die on these streets, hustling. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government has already killed our businesses, now he is asking us to stay at home – tumurie kana twikie atia? We feed on him? Or how does he propose we should fend for our families?
The vendor was angry that the president exhibited a laissez-faire attitude towards battling the deadly virus. “Why didn’t he stop the plane that came from China? If he had done that, we wouldn’t be in this bad situation and our livelihoods would not be threatened.”
The plane that she was referring to was a China Southern Airlines flight that was allowed to land at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) on 26 February 2019. The flight had arrived in Nairobi despite a directive forbidding flights originating in China to land in Kenya due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in China. Kenya Airways had also by that time suspended all its flights to and from China. This particular plane carried 239 passengers, many of whom were Chinese nationals. The airport employee who posted a video of the plane landing was suspended (and later reinstated through a court order), which suggested that the plane had the government’s permission to land. The reference to this plane and the anger it has generated among the people I talked to was evident throughout all my interviews.
The vendor was angry that the president exhibited a laissez faire attitude towards battling the deadly virus. “Why didn’t he stop the plane that came from China? If he had done that, we wouldn’t be in this bad situation and our livelihoods would not be threatened.”
The weekend before the quasi-lockdown decreed by the government on Monday, 23 March 2020, I was in Nakuru County. My first stop was at the Java House located in CK Patel House in central Nakuru town. It was 10.00 a.m. and there was absolutely no customer. I found the manager sipping her coffee latte. “What’s up?” I asked her. “There’s no one in the house”.
The nonplussed manager said the coronavirus was bad for business. “Look, it is mid-morning, a peak time when customers should be flocking in for their refill, yet we’ve an empty house.”
The coffee house closes at 5 p.m., which is normally a peak hour when commuters wait for the traffic jam to ease off before heading home. “This is not a harbinger of good times,” said one of the lady waiters. “If this situation persists long enough, who knows, the management could easily send us home…this, by the way, is not good at all.”
“The incompetence of this government and President Uhuru is mindboggling,” said a lady I was meeting in Nakuru town. “Why, in God’s name, did he allow the plane from China to land at JKIA?” she furiously wondered aloud. “He should have ordered the plane to turn back, the way it came and never to allow the passengers to disembark. Do we know how many of those passengers could have been infected all the way from China? Do we know how many people they, indeed, could have infected once here in the country? Who knows where those people are and which corner of the country they are in? Did the government ever track them down?”
The lady was convinced that if the government had refused the landing of that plane, it is probable that we would not be so afraid now and there would not really have been a case for a (quasi) lockdown.
“The government now is all over issuing edicts – it must always do the wrong thing first before it turns around to sound the alarm bells,” she said. People seem to be impressed by the new Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mutahi Kagwe, I’m not. What ordinary Kenyans want to know is how, in the event of a complete lockdown, they will earn a living. Period. Endless press conferences threatening us with damnation are neither here nor here. The President recently threatened us, saying the government will crack down on anybody not adhering to the stay-at-home edict. This is uncalled for as well as unhelpful. Does he have any concrete plans for ameliorating the situation and ensuring Kenyans who live from hand to mouth are cushioned?”
Later in the evening, I was at Garden Villa, located on the western side of town as you head to Shaabab residential area. It was completely empty and the waiters were just lounging around. Garden Villa is an expansive nyama choma eatery, as well as a “watering hole” with appropriate cushioned-seat cubicles for groups of people or couples. It was glaringly in its emptiness.
Beatrice, our waitress, was not amused by coronavirus coming to Kenya: “It is no longer a death scare; it has come to actually destroy our livelihoods. I’ve three children – two in university and one is finishing high school. My job has really sustained me, I’ve been able to educate my children so far with the tips that I collect here and there from patrons like you. When there are no customers, we are finished. I’m really worried. If this situation continues like this, we’ll all be declared redundant. What will happen to my children?”
Back in Nairobi, I went to one of my usual Java House haunts. The security guard was forthright: “Hii kitu itauwa watoto wetu. Sijui leo nita peleka nini nyumbani.” This thing called coronavirus will kill our children. Today I don’t know what I will take home.
The main work of security guards like one at Java House is to ensure that patrons enjoy their house coffee without probing eyes and disturbance from the city centre’s “undesirables”, and to usher patrons inside the coffee house. They help customers find car park spaces and guard the automobiles from hoodlums. They will also offer concierge services to patrons, such as carrying stuff to their vehicles. At the end of the day, they have enough pocket money to pass through the supermarket and buy some milk and bread for tomorrow morning’s breakfast. He told me the lack of patrons meant that he would go home empty-handed. “Mungu asaidie afukuze hii coronavirus, kama siyo hivyo tumeisha.” The almighty should intervene and clear this coronavirus as quickly as possible, otherwise we’re all finished.
In the city centre, at the famous Jevanjee Park, I met a group of four middle-aged women. They were talking with each other. On the day the government ordered the people not to leave their houses after 7 p.m., they disobeyed and trooped to town. “I’m staying in the house and then what happens?” posed one. “Are my children going to feed on me?”
The women were “professional” casual labourers. Lately they have been getting manual jobs from the Nairobi County as grass cutters and street sweepers.
“We live on a day-to-day basis” said one of the women. “How on earth does the government expect us to survive?”
“Tell you what,” ventured one of the women, “yesterday I went to church because our pastor had sent word around that we must not fail to go church.” She told me she attends a Kenya Assemblies of God (KAG) church. Their pastor told them that coronavirus had come to Kenya to remind Christians that, indeed, these were the last days.
Back in Nairobi, I went to one of my usual Java House haunts. The security guard was forthright: “Hii kitu itauwa watoto wetu. Sijui leo nita peleka nini nyumbani.” This thing called coronavirus will kill our children. Today I don’t know what I will take home.
“Coronavirus is not going to be defeated by worshippers staying at home,” claimed the pastor. “It is going to be wrestled down to the ground by prayer warriors. We must condemn the evil-doer, we must never doubt our faith. We must never doubt our God, Is this the time to let our able God down? Are we doubting Him?”
“I’m a Catholic and we went to church. The parish priest, through jumuia [small community groups], sent word that we must all be in church on Sunday without fail,” said one of the woman. “The priest said the body of Christ is asking us, ‘Are you not going celebrate with me? For is this the time to forsake me?’ It is always fundamentally important to remember to keep the faith.’”
“The churches cannot, even for once, pretend that they care for our welfare,” said another woman. “In these times of economic turbulence and the coming of the corrosive coronavirus, all what the churches can tell us is to still go and congregate in congested spaces. And all what this government can tell us is to sanitise our hands. The church and the government’s work is to fleece us, the people.”
In the evening, I caught up with the same quartet outside Charlies’ restaurant that faces City Hall. It was now past five and they were hungry and angry. “How are we going home?” asked one of them in concealed desperation. All of them lived in the sprawling slums of Nairobi. Seated on the stone bench of the restaurant, they resorted to begging money from any passing man they thought they could remotely recognise.
“The churches cannot, even for once, pretend that they care for our welfare,” said another woman. “In these times of economic turbulence and the coming of the corrosive coronavirus, all what the churches can tell us is to still go and congregate in congested spaces. And all what this government can tell us is to sanitise our hands…”
The following day, I found myself in bustling Kawangware, where the coronavirus threat is real. Kawangware was deserted – many businesses were shut and the human commotion that is usually associated with the sprawling residential area was absent. I dropped in at Sakina’s kibanda (food kiosk-cum-shed) in the Coast area (Mombasani) where she sells very pocket- friendly fresh food to construction workers, bachelors, spinsters, and all manner of casual labourers. Sakina shared the kibanda with her mother, but her mom was not there on that day.
“Where’s your mother?” I asked Sakina.
“She took the kids [her four children] to shags [her rural home],” she responded. (Sakina’s rural home is right in the middle of Nyeri town, at Meeting Point.) “Business is slowly grinding to a halt and we didn’t want to take chances. At least at cucu’s [grandma’s] place, there’s food to eat…this coronavirus has dealt us a huge blow…but alhamdulillahi, it is going to be defeated by Allah.”
In times like this, said Sakina, it’s important to be steadfast and to anchor your whole self in the great faith.
A disease of the rich
At Zambezi trading centre, 19 kilometres from the city centre on the Nairobi-Nakuru Road, Nyambura, a chicken legs and liver vendor, was preparing her foodstuff for her evening customers.
“Are you not afraid of the coronavirus?” I asked her.
“Indeed I am,” she replied. “But can I eat fear? Can my children eat fear? I cannot stay in the house. I must get out to fend for my family. My husband is a salaried worker. He has to wait for 30 days to be paid his paltry pay. We cannot wait for that. It is my responsibility to supplement the ugali he brings home,” said the lady with a great chuckle.
“[President] Uhuru doesn’t care about us small farmers. He has been careless and is playing dice with our lives. After ruining our lives, he has now let this coronavirus invade our country. Why couldn’t he stop that plane from China? Its good coronavirus is infecting the rich and the powerful. They should all perish. They have caused us enough agony,” said Nyambura.
“But trust me, this coronavirus is not going to finish us because our Lord Jesus Christ is on the throne. In the name of Jesus, I condemn the disease,” she added.
She said coronavirus, like the most incompetent government she had lived through, had conspired to kill the spirit of Kenyans. “Yesterday, I paid 100 shillings from 87 to here. Can you imagine? Ordinarily the matatu fare from 87, just after Uthiru to Zambezi, is 30 shillings. For how long can one afford that kind of fare?” She said that from the Old Nation House roundabout stage to Zambezi, passengers were being charged 150 shillings. I hooked up with my freelance tout friend Davy to confirm whether it was true.
“What do you expect when the matatus have been ordered to carry half the seating capacity of their vehicles?” said the freelance tout.(The government has directed that public transport vehicles observe social distancing among their passengers, which means that these vehicles are forced to carry fewer passengers per trip.) Davy told me that many matatu proprietors had grounded their vehicles. “Hakuna haja ya kufanya kazi ya kirai”. It’s pointless to engage in an unprofitable business.
From the city centre to Zambezi, the fare is ordinarily 80 shillings during peak hours and 50 shillings during off-peak hours. “Think about it,” explained Davy. “The matatus that have chosen to be on the road are being fair.”
A 33-seater is now carrying 16 passengers. So passengers are paying 150 shillings instead of 80 shillings in normal times. The Nissan shuttles that ferry 14 passengers are now having to carry just 8 passengers. Davy said if the government was considerate, it would, at least for now, reduce the price of fuel. That way the matatu owners would not be forced to adjust the fares.
“How many people can afford to be paying 300 shillings every day to town?” asked Nyambura. “What is it then you are working for? You’ve not even eaten. And President Uhuru, instead of telling us how the government can come up with ways of helping us alleviate this burden, has gone on air to tell us about the merits of 4G Internet speed. (On March 23, President Kenyatta addressed the nation live on air, extolling the virtues of the business deal between Telcom Kenya and Google Loon, which would now allow for faster speed and easy interconnectivity.)
In the political sphere, Nakuru residents believe that the coronavirus appeared just in the nick of time to save President Uhuru and the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) team the embarrassment of a looming contest and showdown that was to take place in town at Afraha Stadium. On 21 March 2019, BBI had organised a rally to popularise its agenda. But every indication showed that this was not going to be a walk in the park for the BBI mandarins.
A 33-seater is now carrying 16 passengers. So passengers are paying 150 shillings instead of 80 shillings in normal times. Davy said if the government was considerate, it would, at least for now, reduce the price of fuel. That way the matatu owners would not be forced to adjust the fares.
“This coronavirus has just given the president some reprieve,” said a Nakuru boda boda (motorcycle rider) from Maili Sita trading centre (popularly known simply as Sita) on the Nakuru-Nyahururu Road. The rider opined that had the BBI rally taken place, the William Ruto wing of the Jubilee Party would, most certainly, have upstaged the BBI brigade. It was going to be battle a between BBI and the deputy president’s “Tanga Tanga” band of supporters.
When on 28 January 2019 President Uhuru was in Nakuru town to open a cement factory in Rongai, he detoured to Bahati constituency, where at Sita he lambasted the area MP, Kimani Ngunjiri. As he was castigating him, Ngunjiri was several metres away from the president’s motorcade. “When he left, the boda boda riders came to Ngunjiri and they were high-fiving him and laughing excitedly,” said the boda boda rider. “They promised him that when BBI lands in Nakuru, they would show President Uhuru who ruled Nakuru.”
With all the laments, speculation and tantalising gossip, it is still not clear what impact the coronavirus pandemic will have on the lives of ordinary Kenyans. Many are in still in disbelief and more worried about their livelihoods than about falling ill or dying. But what is clear is that Kenya after corona will not be the same again.
Inside the Quarantine: Fears of Further Spreading the Virus Haunt the Confined
Perhaps, it won’t take much longer before the country knows whether the mandatory quarantine strategy helped spread or stop COVID-19.
“We were flying over Juba when the announcement was made”. Chris*, not his real name, recounts to me his whereabouts when Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mutahi Kagwe, made the announcement that mandatory quarantining of all persons flying into Kenya would begin with immediate effect. It was early evening in Nairobi and a likely anxious nation tuned in for what was the tenth briefing from the ministry about the global COVID-19 pandemic that had made its way to Kenya, on the wings of an aircraft much like the one that ferried Chris back from a work trip to London.
Chris and I spoke a day after his arrival. He was in a hotel turned government-sanctioned quarantine facility, the Boma Hotel. The hotel, one of four Kenya Red Cross hotels that had just weeks before been placed under receivership, was dusty, with some rooms not having been cleaned for a while. Dead flies lined his windowsill. Chris complained that layers of dust on his pillowcase and bedsheets caused him discomfort. That was a minor inconvenience in comparison to the subject of our call.
Their flight, which arrived at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on the night of Monday, March 23rd, carried what was, in Chris’s estimation, about 60 people.
“After being screened and filling out immigration forms, we were told about the Ministry of Health’s directive. We protested the directive because some of us had made arrangements to self-quarantine. Among those on our flight were students who, I think, wouldn’t have taken the flight if they thought that they would be taken into mandatory quarantine.”
Their protests would seem vain in the face of the government’s efforts to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, which has overwhelmed some of the world’s best-equipped healthcare systems, but the response to these complaints from Ministry of Health officials was even more strange.
“The government relented and allowed us to leave the airport and go home, with orders that we report to the Kenya Medical Training Centre (KMTC) at 11:00 a.m for tests.”
Chris was picked up by his driver and recalls reaching his home at about midnight on the 23rd of March.
As he was falling asleep, Doris*, also not her real name, was on a fairly empty flight from Germany, a country hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, via Amsterdam, back home.
“I was alone on my row, the two rows behind me were empty and the lady in the row next to mine also sat alone.”
Her flight touched down in Nairobi on the morning of 23rd March and taxied in. In the nine hours between the landing of Chris’ flight and Doris’, the information that passengers were given had differed.
“Our temperature was taken, then we filled a form saying that we would self-quarantine. Then we filled the older, yellow immigration form. As we did so, there was a lady shouting that we should all go to KMTC at 11:00 am for testing. That was it.”
Doris had already made plans to self-quarantine. She had found an apartment on an online booking site, AirBnB, where she says she was going to stay for the recommended 14-day quarantine. She booked an Uber, made the trip across town to her apartment in Kileleshwa, showered, changed and then booked another Uber to the KMTC.
Before they got to KMTC, if Chris and Doris were carriers of COVID-19 and were contagious, they may have spread the disease to at least three people each. Neither of them has been asked to account for their movements or the people that they came into contact with; termed by the World Health Organisation as contact-tracing. They do not yet know whether or not they have the virus, because they have yet to be tested for it. They weren’t alone on their flights home, and sadly, their experience was not unique to them.
Infection within the quarantine facilities
Both Doris and Chris are worried about the possibility that they contracted COVID-19 while they were in the throes of evident lapses and confusion that they found at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, and at the KMTC, where they would go as ordered, on the 24th of March, at 11 am.
“When we turned up at the KMTC, they closed and barricaded the gates behind us, and said that we were officially under mandatory quarantine,” Chris remembers.
Doris witnessed the furore of the now hundreds of passengers grow, with them crowding around Ministry of Health officials for answers, having just been stung by the news. She tried to hang as far back as she could to avoid coming into contact with the virus.
“We were then given three options for places that we would undergo quarantine. Boma Hotel (where Chris would eventually go), the KMTC and the Kenya School of Government (KSG) in Lower Kabete, Nairobi,” she remembers.
“Boma would cost us USD 100 (Kshs 10,000) a night (this figure was later revised downwards), and the conditions at KMTC were just awful, so I chose KSG. When we got to KSG the director of the campus told us that it would cost us USD 40 (Kshs 4,000) a night. People protested again and crowded around the officials telling us this. They then relented and said we would be charged USD 20 (Kshs 2,000) a night.”
A video taken by one of the passengers shows the proximity of the passengers to the officials, and to one another. Again, Doris wisely chose to hang back and wait until things calmed down so that she could get a room.
Chris chose to stay at the Boma hotel.
When Chris’s cohort of travellers arrived at the Boma hotel, he says there was just one receptionist at hand to meet them.
“We all herded around the reception area waiting to be checked in. I am very afraid that we may have been exposed while we were getting into quarantine!”
Later that evening, Chris heard the sounds of sirens outside his window.
A hotel staffer told him that ambulance workers in hazmat suits were there to evacuate a fellow traveller, an elderly lady who allegedly fell ill.
“We are all so worried”.
Even with the inconveniences they have experienced, both Doris and Chris’s worry extends to the unanswered question they both have – were they both complicit in some way in the spread of COVID-19?
“If the government was serious about a mandatory quarantine, why did they let us go home first?” Chris asks, the tone of his voice deep and serious, unfettered by the muffles and crackling on the phone line.
“There were people on our flight who took public transport from the airport and to KMTC. How many people have they been in touch with?”
The question of how the virus spreads is no longer in contention, but there are concerns about the handling of passengers who were being put in isolation in order to contain COVID-19’s spread in Kenya.
Dr Ahmed Kalebi, the founder and CEO of Lancet Laboratories, which is among Kenya’s first private laboratories to offer PCR tests for COVID-19 (Polymerase Chain Reaction tests detect the genetic material of COVID-19, called RNA), shares his worries about the possible contagion that people in the mandatory quarantine may be facing.
“For me, it is a big scare. I am privy to what has been going on in some of those facilities and it has been a bit of a mess.”
“If two hundred people go into a hotel and three or four of them have COVID-19, by keeping them in close proximity we are creating an incubating chamber (for the virus).”
Dr Kalebi believes that in late April, Kenyan cases of COVID-19 will have risen exponentially. Government models publicized on Monday 30th March put Kenya at possibly having 10,000 cases by that time.
Several accounts from persons currently in mandatory quarantine speak to the potential for this, especially as they were being transferred into quarantine facilities. Doris, who was being quarantined at the Kenya School of Government facility, Chris at the Boma hotel, and Caleb* (not his real name), a traveller who is currently in quarantine at the Kenyatta University Conference Centre, all give similar accounts about how risky the first day of their return was.
They were all supposed to be part of a Ministry of Health-led mass testing campaign of the over two thousand Kenyans currently in quarantine facilities, being carried out beginning the weekend ending March 29th. Chris took a photo of a Ministry of Health official in a Hazmat suit from a common area at the Boma hotel.
Doris, Chris, Caleb and other travelers in quarantine that I spoke to all say that they feel healthy, save for a few coughs and sniffs which they hope are signs of a cold rather than COVID-19, but they may not be out of the woods, even as the days wind down to the end of their quarantine.
“The Coronavirus takes between two to fourteen days to incubate,” says Dr Kalebi.
“If tests were done at day seven, which is what the government is doing this weekend (weekend ending March 29th), you may have only a few people testing positive, who would be taken to more stringent quarantine facilities. Then you wait another week. Assume more people get infected. On day 14, when you are releasing them, people may have been infected in quarantine.”
Fears that the government quarantine facilities may become petri dishes for the spread of the virus are valid, but over-estimated, according to Professor Omu Anzala, who specializes in virology and immunology. He’s also part of the taskforce set up by the government to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak in Kenya.
“There is that possibility but we have not seen anybody go more than 14 to 15 days without having come down with the disease. We have not seen anybody who has gone more than 15 days who is not showing symptoms but is secreting the virus.”
He does say that these still are early days and that the government, like all governments, is learning as it goes deeper into fighting the virus.
It won’t be long before Doris and Chris get out of quarantine. Perhaps, it won’t take much longer before the country knows whether the mandatory quarantine strategy helped spread or stop COVID-19.
This article was first published by Africa Uncensored.
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