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SIR VIDIA’S DARKEST SHADOW: V.S. Naipaul (1934-2018)

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Naipaul’s racism appears to have been transactional right-wingery by one who knew there was a cash-paying audience that loved that sound. By A.K. KAIZA

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SIR VIDIA’S DARKEST SHADOW: V.S. Naipaul (1934-2018)
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The first and only time I saw him, Sir Vidia looked frail. Face like a mask, pudgy fingers suspiciously handling the microphone, and eyebrows firmly chiseled in place, he looked as though he had been dragged to school on a day he would have rather stayed home in bed. That day, Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was at Makerere University, replaying the character he had played four decades earlier, as misanthrope in residence. The Naipaul event was immediately after lunch on a late March afternoon. The sun was beaming down directly over the equator and I remember the hall being hot with precipitation.

It’s a decade now since that March 2008 afternoon. Looking back, it seems that V.S. Naipaul, sitting there in Makerere University’s Main Hall, looked like a piece of wood carving. Like one of those giant Chinese wood reliefs, there was his grand magnificence. The brilliance of his finish was outstanding. And this magnificence, this brilliance, was all the more magnified because he was forever on the verge of becoming, tantalising the audience with the possibility that this rendering might come alive.

Arrested in 2D by a physique in distress, Naipaul’s dyspeptic mien marked the entire afternoon. He kept sinking into his chair, till at the end of the event we could only see his head and shoulders. Perhaps he had come expecting a hostile audience. Perhaps it was the heat and the stuffy air. Maybe he had been unwell. Maybe it was the sight of us, a room full of black people.

A farcical afternoon. Exhibit A: What was Naipaul doing in Makerere? Who comes to Makerere anymore?  Even ten years before that, when I had been a student there, we had not thought we could rate a writer, even a third-rate one. And here was a Nobel laureate, Sir Vidia, in person.

Had he come to mock us – again? But seated there in plain sight, Mr. Naipaul looked done with mockery. He had mocked Trinidad. He had mocked India. He had mocked Africa. He had found Ugandans disgusting. He had been the founding CEO and majority shareholder of the flourishing global literary corporation of jibing sneers.

That was back in the day when he looked chipper, when Makerere – the university – had been of enough value to make a killing out of mocking.  By 2008, Makerere (“Maka Ray Ray” as Naipaul reportedly pronounced it) was too far gone for anybody to be interested in mockery or disdain. By 2008, the mocking of black people for profit had been tarnished for a while, which meant that the days of Naipaul’s unqualified standing as a brilliant truth teller were behind him. “Controversial” had replaced “brilliant”, “controversial” being what you call an oaf you are too fond of to let go despite mounting evidence of his oafishness. Even in its time, “brilliant” had been used by certain British right-wing media in a way that you felt meant Naipaul gave the n****rs what they deserved.

We, the few hundreds of us, and Naipaul, who we had all come to stare at, could not have been more mismatched. Right there you could understand why the first time round in the 1960s, Mr. Naipaul had been unenthused about actually having to live in Makerere.

We, as no doubt our fathers’ generation had been then, were not very impressive specimens. Too black for our own good, we were too frayed around the racial edges. We squatted at the university, unable to fit in with the masonry and the woodwork, which had been cut for Europeans.  Unaware of the value of glass windows and flush toilets, we had run down a once famous university. We came from the bush to line up for maizemeal and boiled beans in dining halls built for three-course meals with salad dressing.

There was everything imperfect about us. We had not invented the wheel. We had never manufactured steam locomotives. We still imported, rather than made, paper, which meant that we were still attempting to beat out novels on drums. Yes, we still did that, make drums, and still beat them. Civilisation was wasted on us. And outside the hall, footpaths crisscrossed the once immaculate green lawns laid out in the 1930s and 1940s by Oxbridge visionaries. Six decades after Prof. C.S. Turner transformed the technical school founded in 1922 into a university, tribalism had long become the most important criterion for staff appointments.

Naipaul’s coming hence, four decades since he had last been, could have been for any number of reasons. Self-flagellation would not have been the least of possibilities. Material for a new book? Why? He was a brilliant writer. Could he not have invented some sordid tales about us from England, where they had been inventing marvelous things (and steam engines) for centuries?

His was a complexity of prose, rather than of ideas, so why the effort? If he was gathering material for a book, why fly so far when he was already in his 70s?

Naipaul’s coming hence, four decades since he had last been, could have been for any number of reasons. Self-flagellation would not have been the least of possibilities. Material for a new book? Why? He was a brilliant writer. Could he not have invented some sordid tales about us from England, where they had been inventing marvelous things (and steam engines) for centuries?

And us? Why did we turn up? We had never been enthralled by any of the things he had said about us. The admiration we had for his prose style outstripped our love for his books. But we had admired him because we wished that the people with power liked us as much as they liked him. We wanted his good luck (which can look like agreeing with him). Were we self-flagellating too? Could we not have simply read his comments from the safety of our houses? Or was some sado-masochist strain still alive within us?

The collision was utterly unavoidable, a true literary crash. A room filled with the undesirable, coming to an unwanted event to see an unpleasant guest. And that, more rather than less, summarises Naipaul’s oeuvre. In this iteration, hostile questions from the audience: a university lecturer asking a clever question about Tagore, and Naipaul, sensing his Indian roots intruded upon, rapidly slaps it down. Poor chap, he had spent his life teaching V.S. Naipaul books, and had stayed awake all night choosing which question would be best for the event. Next, a Ugandan of Asian descent takes too long with the mic, speaking up too fondly, getting on Nadira’s nerves and deserving what was coming his way; Lady Naipaul cuts him cold and says, next question?

If nothing else, this ping-pong moment was it. Naipaul was in town, game on. Right on cue, Lady Naipaul took charge. She had become the moderator, leaning forward all afternoon while Naipaul slunk back in his chair. The real moderator must have wondered if he had come to the wrong stage.

Naipaul murmured his responses. One thing he said still rings clear in my memory. He said “Africa came to me intuitively. It was not by searching.”

And then the hall emptied. Naipaul shuffled out. The thick entourage that had brought him in taking him out.

Like everyone else present, my journey to that afternoon had begun long ago, albeit in my case, not far away from that hall. Two decades earlier, I had gone to secondary school at Makerere College School, tucked inside the university itself, and read my first Naipaul book there. On the morning of his visit, I had packed my copies of Naipaul’s books, just like you do when you go to a speaking event and the author will be present, and afterwards you line up and confess your besotted heart, and the author, having to wear a droll, heard-it-all-before face, nonetheless signs the books with a flourish. I looked at my collection: a 1957 edition of The Mystic Masseur that I had procured from a flea market and the still fresh-smelling Enigma of Arrival reissued after the Nobel Prize of 2001. I recollected the contents of that, and of another book, Sir Vidia’s Shadow (hatchet job on Naipaul by one-time disciple, the American writer, Paul Theroux).

I then remembered how the opening of The Middle Passage had alerted me to something alarming about Naipaul that only expanded in later books and became all you saw in him. Some things not even magnificent prose could conceal.

I left the books on the top of the workbench in my workshop and headed out for Makerere. Naipaul’s wife Nadira and the university’s literature department staff staged a praetorian guard around him, an impenetrable phalanx of reverence. Asking him to sign books was impossible. Naipaul looked like he would suffer a mental breakdown if an African spoke to him. By day’s end, he looked like he needed to see a doctor. Still, he might have persevered and signed the books, and you would have had to throw them away later.

There was something terribly Naipaulish about the university that stuffy afternoon. Eighteen years before, at the age of 14, when my journey to that afternoon commenced, I had read my first Naipaul, Miguel Street, on Makerere hill at Makerere College School. The edition I read had a foreword by Laban Erapu that mentioned Naipaul’s time in Uganda. I had assumed then that Naipaul was Ugandan.

Miguel Street – that sardonically cheerful primer, of which there had not been that many copies in the school – had exchanged hands many times among us kids and we talked much about it. It had been something of a staple. You had to know Miguel Street. Elias and the posse of Bogart et al, their comical putter, the mother with as many husbands as children.  A sing-song toned collection of stories, curious names, absurd accents. Miguel Street was the book from a man who had a twinkly view of life as a thing to be had to the full. We related to these tales. We laughed.

It was in this mind-frame that five years later, in 1995, I had picked up from the university library an old copy of A House for Mr. Biswas. I half-expected to find in this book the loveable characters from Miguel Street. Certain things were similar. Mohun went off to England, to study, as Elias had dreamt.

Back in the 1990s, with Empire still within striking cultural memory, we too had dreamt of going to English universities. We were starting off from the same place as Naipaul, his clutch of characters so recognisable to us, their sense of the future our own. You understood that fever in A House for Mr. Biswas.

What drove Naipaul’s characters was what drove us. Empire had emptied its subject populations of their subjective selves and their metaphysical heritage, which had been replaced by England, Oxford, high tea, biscuit and crumpets, Piccadilly. An equal opportunity impoverisher, the British Empire had left penury and hurt in so many parts of the world that a book from any of these parts tended to speak to all parts. What a Sir Hathorn Hall committed in Aden, or Trinidad, he repeated in Uganda – serial murderers leaving tell-tale signatures of their deeds dotted along the grim, imperial trail.

Naturally, we got Trinidad.

What drove Naipaul’s characters was what drove us. Empire had emptied its subject populations of their subjective selves and their metaphysical heritage, which had been replaced by England, Oxford, high tea, biscuit and crumpets, Piccadilly. An equal opportunity impoverisher, the British Empire had left penury and hurt in so many parts of the world that a book from any of these parts tended to speak to all parts.

Empire had taught us to believe in the same things and we had come to believe in them. We dreamt of red letter boxes. Oh, but these lucky red letter boxes lived in London.

As I read deeper, I began to protest. A House for Mister Biswas got heavy. Some leaded weight pulled down the mirth of Miguel Street to darker places. Still you soldiered on, expecting some lift, a sliver of sunlight. Yes, you would always remember Mrs. Tulsi. One day I thought I found her running a bakery in Kampala. And then I thought I met Mr. Biswas himself nursing big-time literary ambitions as a sourpuss editor in a newsroom.

The darkness in the novels was piling up, getting heavier, in that way readers know when the plot has advanced to that point where you size up the remaining pages and determine them too few for the story to work its way back to a different tenor.

I was young and not entirely appraised of what novels were capable of. As young readers tend to, I simply thought I had landed on the wrong novel. Another Naipaul might bring back that Miguel Street thing. In the meantime, A House for Mr. Biswas was teaching me just how serious novels could be. They could also detail stark-real ugliness. The novelist did not have to imagine, as a pot boiler author had to; he could simply observe. Mr. Naipaul made you see how it was possible to weld art into social reality. He made half a millennium of globalising history his material.

Naipaul could be called the Anti-Jane Austen. Miss Austen had examined the same history; you must see through her writing to know it is detailing crimes of history. But she had seen only the other side: the English manors, the indolence, the unbelievable wealth that the slave trade had made possible in the English countryside. She never questioned where the wealth of the characters in her novels came from. She never asked what those young men in need of a wife did when they went overseas. Naipaul laid out the exhibits.

The exhibits – the deformed progeny of Empire’s victims, the craven, the dehumanised – were his material (a Naipaul word). He looked with the dispassionate temper of a forensics expert. These novels were not for escapist reading. It seemed to me that this was as serious as writing would ever get. Naipaul’s craft made everybody else seem to be winging it, wanting it, sleight-of-hand bathos that quickly drained you of interest. Others write so their brilliance could be praised. Naipaul? His was meditation, a haloed temple of letters. He had convened a one-man caucus and solely written a constitution of looking. To have not seen the world as Naipaul had seen it was to have been guilty of sheer unconstitutional acts. The writer was chief justice, high priest.

There had been Graham Greene; but he could be unconvincing in the role, and he tended to overdo the disgust. There had been Joseph Conrad, but he had tended towards sentimentality. Ernest Hemingway had haunted the same geography as Naipaul. Against what Naipaul had to say, the American was a mere flower girl. Hemmingway loved Kenya; he just never saw Africans (natives, savages) the entire time. Naipaul saw Africans; he was grimly aware of us.

At the age of 20, when I read A House for Mr. Biswas, I could not as yet tell what that thing was, what had made Naipaul’s voice so stately, for I was sure that it was a stately voice. I had not found any of Miguel Street in it. Rather, I emerged from A House for Mr. Biswas overawed by grandeur. The plunge to pathos happened with the steadiness of a murderer strangling his victim. An unrelenting vision of dystopia.

There had been Graham Greene; but he could be unconvincing in the role, and he tended to overdo the disgust. There had been Joseph Conrad, but he had tended towards sentimentality. Ernest Hemingway had haunted the same geography as Naipaul. Against what Naipaul had to say, the American was a mere flower girl. Hemmingway loved Kenya; he just never saw Africans (natives, savages) the entire time. Naipaul saw Africans; he was grimly aware of us.

I was in my 20s when I got the full measure of Mr. Naipaul. By then, Uganda had begun to normalise; books were available once more and we had been liberated from borrowing dog-eared texts from friends and relatives. That was when I began to tell that the early books of Naipaul were fundamentally different from his later books, books of he wrote between his late 30s and into his 50s.

The overriding themes of the early books is escape from the colony. The barbs of later years were already there, the mockery, the casual racism; except back then Naipaul thought of them as jokes. The later books are about settling in, and once that project got underway, the books became about the world, its expansiveness. But also about sharpening. Mr. Naipaul begins to grind and file and sand his prose, the sharp defining of edges, the details focused on. His prose knows what to search for, with just the right emphasis, a few strokes that hint at a larger form without overstating. He was becoming a master craftsman.

The novels carry something extra, a certain uncheerful enjoyment even. Ralph Singh, the protagonist narrator of The Mimic Men, has that quality. The Mimic Men signalled the arrival of the man who would later write The Enigma of Arrival.

And then there were the travel writings. The Middle Passage brings to life the Caribbean in ways you, as an outsider, are grateful to Mr. Naipaul for, even though you have a pile of indictments against him. Then in India, in An Area of Darkness, Naipaul goes for broke. He writes with an urgency he has hitherto not displayed, nor will again. One feels, reading the travelogue, that Mr. Naipaul writes faster than he sees. He arrives in Bombay like a tightly-packed grenade, the ejector of a lifetime’s hearing, reading, expecting, ready to go off. This book defined Naipaul like no other. In comparison, there is something processional about The Middle Passage, a processionalness you find in his Caribbean books, novels and travelogues. Explosions, of theme and prose, don’t go off. But they contain the toxins and poisons that came out of Naipaul whenever he met black people.

Naipaul went out of his way, beyond necessity, in a Trumpian gratuitousness, to mock black people even when there was no discernible literary gain. He made no effort to engage with black people. He treated Indians with less contempt, but the derision was still there. It might look like he gave some thought to Ramnath the “steno” in An Area of Darkness, or to Jivan, but no. It is fascinating how decidedly uncurious Naipaul’s brand of curiosity was.

His first book on India may have been his most connected (Naipaul was drawn to India), but it was written by a man trapped in a certain view of colonial peoples. Even from the depth of Africa, we could tell that Naipaul failed to see that India was a bigger place than his commentaries offered. Jivan’s refusal to stop sleeping on the pavements despite having a job and owning a taxi is interpreted by Naipaul as India’s foolhardy attachment to the Gita, Hinduism’s religious text. To the rest of us, Jivan was displaying an imperviousness to colonialism’s and capitalism’s crass anti-metaphysics. For me, this vignette of Jivan was too two-dimensional. After all, by the 1960s, Naipaul’s view of “conquered” peoples was already antiquated, even amongst the ranks of colonial anthropologists, who had a more nuanced view of colonised peoples.

Naipaul went out of his way, beyond necessity, in a Trumpian gratuitousness, to mock black people even when there was no discernible literary gain. He made no effort to engage with black people. He treated Indians with less contempt, but the derision was still there. It might look like he gave some thought to Ramnath the “steno” in An Area of Darkness, or to Jivan, but no. It is fascinating how decidedly uncurious Naipaul’s brand of curiosity was.

In Naipaul’s world, we Africans are “Negroes” with “physique”, “nursing racial injustice”. There is always the hint of violence towards us when we appear in his books. In The Mimic Men, we show up at the British Council, garishly dressed up, the gold-rimmed spectacles Naipaul places on us are there so that they can clash against the darkness of our skins. We expect “sex” like a tribute, a right, because we are racially wronged. But that’s in the diaspora. In Africa, in A Free State (so now we come to Uganda, although the reason Mr. Naipaul came to Uganda in the 1960s was so he could write The Mimic Men), we are deeply indolent, with our bush ways and our lazy eyes. We are a backdrop to Europeans lives, and often the backdrop to breaking European marriages.

Deep into his career, Mr. Naipaul, like Ganesh Ramsumair in The Mystique Masseur, adopted the identity of an Englishman with an Oxbridge accent that replaced his Caribbean intonation. Ganesh, the shape-shifting artist, remains an enigma in Naipaul’s oeuvre. Who is he? What does he mean? What indeed do these middling characters in Naipaul mean? They people his writing entirely, the Jimmy’s of Guerrillas, the characters upon whom instances are mounted? As if of necessity, the author is decidedly nasty to these sorts. They are de riguer (a la Naipaul), angry, pretentious, dangerous, always without fail, dark-skinned. Naipaul is afraid of them. He is also violent towards them.

Is understanding these mid-level characters key to understanding the politics of Naipaul? Why is Naipaul afraid of them? One clue, but no overall explainer, is that they have a politics. They are confronting Empire. They are the reverse of the Naipaul hero, if that is not an oxymoron. They are not enthusiastic about Oxbridge accents. They are not changing names from Ganesh Ramsumair to G. Ramsay Muir (a typical Naipaul joke of the earlier books). They are changing names from James to Haji or Ngugi.

But do we have a right to be brutal in our assessment of Mr. Naipaul? He was born at a time when Empire looked like extending and consolidating, rather than crushing. How deep did the psychology of that go? For him to have written as he did, to see the world through only one measure (Britain, Europe) – a measure in which other races failed to measure up, a measure in which being African (“bow and arrow people”), Arab (“Mr. Woggy”) was failure in itself, speaks of something other than penetrative insight. To not allow for the validity of a different world is to have been immensely delimited. But might Mr. Naipaul have escaped it? Was it necessary for him to have been the writer and the man he was in order for him to see with clarity?

It would be simplistic to say that the need, indeed, the entire undertaking of having to fight for liberation, was too much for Naipaul. His position on the most important movement of the 20th century (independence from colonial rule) might be described as ambivalent, except, if you are ambivalent about freedom, then what exactly are your values?

It could be as simple as this: Mr. Naipaul was that all-too-typical, but special, victim of Empire, the favoured colonial subject. There was divide and rule – some colonised people were considered less savage than others, people who displayed almost-white qualities. These divisions marked the entire breadth of Empire, from the aristocrats of Buganda (convinced into collaboration by effusive British praise), to the Tutsi of Rwanda (whose position the Belgians tragically imperiled by calling them semi-white Africans), to the Singhala of Sri Lanka (treated more favourably than the black Tamils). In the Caribbean, the indentured Indian labourers were taken to the Atlantic, not as slaves, as the black Africans had been. It is very important to remember that. It was this thin substratum of Empire that tended to oppose liberation movements. They actively collaborated, often virulently, as in the case of Kenya, against fellow Africans, in the fight for independence.

It would be simplistic to say that the need, indeed, the entire undertaking of having to fight for liberation, was too much for Naipaul. His position on the most important movement of the 20th century (independence from colonial rule) might be described as ambivalent, except, if you are ambivalent about freedom, then what exactly are your values?

In Empire, this modicum of elevation from the bottom was very important and so when the British said you were not that dark, not that negroid, your status protected you against slavery and forced labour. This bred its own psychosis. We may want to describe Naipaul in elevated terms, but his own unease once in India (he finds the land of his forefathers too unhygienic) speaks of this. The elevated elite in Empire knew that once they accepted the bribe of racial elevation, they would become accomplices. It was hence in their interest to perpetuate colonial rule, for once it ended, their position would become terribly exposed. The liberation fighters whom Naipaul mocks were a threat against the collaborator class.

In Empire, this modicum of elevation from the bottom was very important and so when the British said you were not that dark, not that negroid, your status protected you against slavery and forced labour. This bred its own psychosis.

When the worst came, the bargain was to choose the racialist humiliation because the patronising treatment at least guaranteed some goods. Mr. Naipaul’s English reviewers perhaps understood this – a brown man acknowledging the hegemony, affirming that the Empire was appreciated by the middle races (hence at least intelligent) as civilisation. They praised his books at a time when they were fighting a losing battle against their black subjects.

You could understand the racism of Joseph Conrad. But Naipaul? The relationship of his narrators to Europeans is telling. It is always to prove how they are better than white people. There are the clueless young white people whom his narrators are proud to dominate intellectually. The white women in his books have to be degraded; the violence and contempt with which his characters treat them appears like the acting-out of suppressed rage. White people are his main audience and he must show them how he is neither Negroid nor Indian. These are the people who either granted or denied scholarships to the Eliases of Miguel Street.

It was thus easy to be bullied into calling V.S. Naipaul a brilliant writer. But you had to have occupied his very position – to have had an ambivalent position towards the colonial project – to have called him so.  What you needed was just that much politic education to see that the 20th century was changed by the men and women despised in Mr. Naipaul’s books. To understand the minds of those who imprisoned Nelson Mandela for 27 years, you have to absorb Naipaul. His was one of the attitudes that had to be defeated for people of colour to become free.

It was important for me to go through Mr. Naipaul’s books after his death. But the realisation that I was reading him the last time in this involved manner, with the heat with which I once did when the writing was not yet done, when he was still around, was hard.

Now Naipaul’s forced racism – for it feels like that – does not really feel like that. Rather, it appears to be transactional right-wingery by a certain savvy type who knew there was a cash-paying audience that loved that sound.

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A.K. Kaiza is a Ugandan writer and journalist.

Politics

Curfews, Lockdowns and Disintegrating National Food Supply Chains

The disruption of national food supply chains due to COVID-19 lockdowns and curfews has negatively impacted market traders, but it has also spawned localised – and more resilient – supply chains that are filling the gap in the food system.

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Curfews, Lockdowns and Disintegrating National Food Supply Chains
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Our stomachs will make themselves heard and may well take the road to the right, the road of reaction, and of peaceful coexistence…you are going to build in order to prove that you’re capable of transforming your existence and transforming the concrete conditions in which you live.” – Thomas Sankara, assassinated leader of Burkina Faso

 On July 6, 2020, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta announced phased reopening of the country as the government moved to relax COVID-19 restrictions. That day found me seated in a fishmonger’s stall in Gikomba market, located about five kilometres east of Nairobi’s Central Business District (CBD) and popularly known for the sale of second-hand (mitumba) clothes. The customer seated next to me must have received a text message on her mobile phone because she began howling at the fishmonger to tune in to the radio, which was playing Benga music at the time. It was a few minutes after 2 p.m.

“I order and direct that the cessation of movement into and out of the Nairobi Metropolitan Area, Mombasa County and Mandera County, that is currently in force, shall lapse at 4:00 a.m. on Tuesday, 7th July, 2020,” pronounced the president on Radio Jambo.

The response to this news was cathartic. The female customer, on hearing the words “cessation of movement shall lapse” ululated, and burst out in praise of her God – “Nyasaye” – so loudly it startled the fishmonger. The excited customer jumped on her feet and started dancing around the fish stalls, muttering words in Dholuo. Nyasacha, koro anyalo weyo thugrwok ma na Nairobi, adog dala pacho. Pok a neno chwora, chakre oketwa e lockdown. Nyasacha, iwinjo ywak na. Nyasacha ber.” Oh God, I can now leave the hardship of Nairobi and go back to my homeland. I have not seen my husband since the lockdown measures were enforced. Oh God, you have heard my prayers. Oh God, you are good to me.

“She, like most of us are very happy that the cessation measures have been lifted. Life was becoming very hard and unbearable,” said Rose Akinyi, the fifty-seven year old fishmonger, also known as “Cucu Manyanga” to her customers because of her savvy in relating to urban youth culture. “Since the lockdown, business has been bad. Most of my customers have stopped buying fish because they have either lost their sources of income while others have been too afraid of catching the coronavirus that they have not come to make their usual purchases,” explained Akinyi.

Gikomba market is also Nairobi’s wholesale fish market.  Hotels, restaurants, and businesses flock there to purchase fresh and smoked fish from Lake Victoria and Lake Turkana. But with the government regulations to close down eateries, fish stocks have been rotting, lamented Akinyi. She has had to reduce the supply of her fish stocks in response to the low demand in the market.

“With the re-opening of the city, I plan to travel to my home county of Kisumu and go farm. At least this way I can supplement my income because I don’t see things going back to normal anytime soon,” she explained.

Two days later, I found my way to Wakulima market, popular known as Marikiti. The stench of spoilt produce greets you as you approach the vicinity of the market, Nairobi’s most important fresh produce market. News of the president’s announcement had reached the market and the rush of activity and trade had returned.

Gikomba market is also Nairobi’s wholesale fish market.  Hotels, restaurants, and businesses flock there to purchase fresh and smoked fish from Lake Victoria and Lake Turkana. But with the government regulations to close down eateries, fish stocks have been rotting, lamented Akinyi.

“Since the lockdown, business has been dire to say the least,” complained one Robert Kharinge aka Mkuna, a greengrocer and pastor in a church based in Madiwa, Eastleigh. Robert, who sells bananas that he gets from Meru County, noted that “business has never been this bad in all my twenty years as a greengrocer. Now, I’ve been forced to supplement my income as a porter to make ends meet. Before COVID-19, I would sell at least 150 hands of bananas in a day. Today, I can barely sell five hands,” he explains.

Robert, who is also a clergyman, leans on his faith and is hopeful that things will get back to normal since the cessation of movement has been lifted. He also hopes that the county government of Nairobi will finally expand the Marikiti market to cater for the growing pressure of a city whose population is creeping towards five million.

A short distance from Robert’s stall and outside the market walls stands Morgan Muthoni, a young exuberant woman in her early twenties selling oranges on the pavement. Unable to find space in the market, she and a number of traders have opted to position themselves along Haile Selassie Avenue, where they sell produce out of handcarts.

“When President Uhuru announced the cessation of movement in April, our businesses were gravely affected,” Muthoni says as attends to customers. “I get my oranges from Tanzania and with the lockdown regulations, therefore, produce hasn’t been delivered in good time despite what the government has been saying. Before COVID-19, I would get oranges every two days but now I have to wait between four and five days for fresh produce. My customers aren’t happy because they like fresh oranges and I’m now forced to sell them produce with longer shelf life.”

COVID-19 vs the Demand and Supply of Food
With the prior government lockdowns in Nairobi and Mombasa’s Old Town, which have large populations and are key markets for various food products, the government had to ensure that people in those areas were not cut off from essential goods and services. It was also the mandate of the government to shield farmers and manufacturers of the goods from incurring heavy losses because of the restrictions. Despite good attempts by the authorities to introduce measures that allowed the flow of goods to populated areas affected by the lockdown, there were several reports of police harassment.

“Truck drivers are complaining that they are been harassed by the police for bribes at the police stops, which is gravely affecting our businesses. The police, with their usual thuggery, are using this season of corona to mistreat and extort truck drivers to pay bribes in order to give them way at police checks even if they have adhered to the stipulated regulations,” complained Muthoni.

The movement of goods is further complicated by the disjointed health protocols. “We also hear that because Magufuli’s Tanzania has a different policy towards COVID-19, trucks drivers are taking longer at the border because they need to be tested for coronavirus before they are allowed to pass. But we don’t know how true these reports are. For now, we believe that things will get better since the cessation has been lifted. If God is for us, who can be against us?” Muthoni concludes.

Divine intervention is a recurring plea in these distressed economic times, but unlike Muthoni and Robert, who remain hopeful, this is not the case for Esther Waithera, a farmer and miller based in Mwandus, Kiambu, about 15 kilometres from Nairobi. Kiambu, with its fertile rich soils, adequate rainfall, cool climate, and plenty of food produce, is a busy and bustling administrative centre in the heart of Kikuyuland.

After the president’s announcement of the quasi-lockdown and curfew, Waithera has been spending her afternoons selling fresh produce from her car that is parked opposite Kiambu mall on the weekends and in Thindigwa, a splashy middle-class residential area off the busy Kiambu Road, on weekdays.

“Before COVID-19, I used to supply fresh farm produce to hotels and restaurants across the city. But now I have been forced to sell my produce from my car boot because if I don’t, my produce will rot in the farm. My husband runs the family mill and even that has been doing badly since the coronavirus came to plague us. We have had to decrease our milling capacity and the cost of maize flour to adjust to new market prices as demand reduces.”

After the president’s announcement of the quasi-lockdown and curfew, Waithera has been spending her afternoons selling fresh produce from her car that is parked opposite Kiambu mall on the weekends and in Thindigwa, a splashy middle-class residential area off the busy Kiambu Road, on weekdays.

Maize is Kenya’s staple food and Kenyans rely on maize and maize products for subsistence but, “Kenyans are going hungry and many households are skipping meals to cope with these harsh times,” explains Waithera.

Waithera, who is a mother of three children, doesn’t seem hopeful about the future. “This government that we voted for thrice has let us down. They have squandered the lockdown and have caused economic harm without containing COVID-19. Now we are staring at an economic meltdown, a food crisis and a bleak future for our children.”

A devout Christian of the evangelical persuasion, Waithera deeply believes that “God is punishing the country and its leaders for its transgressions because they have turned away from God and taken to idol worship and the love for mammon”. And like the biblical plagues, “the recent flooding, the infestation of desert locusts and the corona pandemic are all signs from God that he has unleashed his wrath on his people unless we repent our wrongdoings and turn back to God”, laments a bitter Waithera.

For Joyce Nduku, a small-scale farmer and teacher based in Ruiru, this new reality has provided her with opportunities for growth. She acknowledged that her sales have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying, “I now have more customers because there are not enough vegetables available in the market from upcountry”.

Localised and more resilient food systems

At a time when regular food supply chains have not been assured, some food markets have closed, mama mbogas (women vegetable vendors) are out of business, and the cessation of movement is deterring travel, Nduku attributes her increased food production to meet the growing demand to a business model that lays emphasis on a localised food system and short food supply chains.

Approaching food production through a localised food system, she says, “gives me local access to farm inputs”.

She adds, “I get my manure from livestock keepers within my locale and my seeds from local agrovets. I have direct access to my consumers, removing middlemen who expose my produce to unsafe and unhygienic handling and high logistical and transport costs. Hence I’m able to increase the access to safe and affordable food.”

Agriculture, forestry and fishing’s contribution to GDP in 2019 was 34.1 per cent, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics’ Economic Survey 2020. Another 27 percent of GDP is contributed indirectly through linkages with other sectors of Kenya’s economy. The sector, the survey revealed, employs more than 56 percent of the total labour force employed in agriculture in 2019. It also provides a livelihood (employment, income and food security needs) to more than 80 percent of the Kenyan population and contributes to improving nutrition through the production of safe, diverse and nutrient dense foods, notes a World Bank report.

Yet, in a matter of weeks, Nduku tells me, “COVID-19 has laid bare the underlying risks, inequities, and fragilities in our food and agricultural systems, and pushed them close to breaking point.”

These systems, the people underpinning them, and the public goods they deliver have been under-protected and under-valued for decades. Farmers have been exposed to corporate interests that give them little return for their yield; politicians have passed neoliberal food policies and legislation at the peril of citizens; indigenous farming knowledge has been buried by capitalist modes of production that focus mainly on high yields and profit; and families have been one meal away from hunger due to untenable food prices, toxic and unhealthy farm produce and volatile food ecosystems.

Nduku firmly believes that the pandemic has, however, “offered a glimpse to new, robust and more resilient food systems, as some local authorities have implemented measures to safeguard the provision and production of food and local communities and organisations have come together to plug gaps in the food systems.”

Food justice

Many young Kenyans have also emerged to offer leadership with more intimate knowledge of their contexts and responded to societal needs in more direct and appropriate ways. If anything, Nduku tells me, “we must learn from this crisis and ensure that the measures taken to curb the food crisis in these corona times are the starting point for a food system transformation”.

The sector, the survey revealed, employs more than 56 per cent of the total labour force employed in agriculture in 2019. It also provides a livelihood (employment, income and food security needs) to more than 80 per cent of the Kenyan population…

To achieve the kind of systematic transformation Kenya needs, we must “borrow a leaf from Burkina Faso’s revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara”, Nduku adds. Sankara emphasised national food sovereignty and food justice, advocated against over-dependence on foreign food aid, and implemented ecological programmes that fostered long-term agro-ecological balance, power-dispersing, communal food cultivation, and the regeneration of the environment, which remain powerful foundations for food justice today.

Indeed, we must also not rely on discrete technological advances or conservative and incremental policy change. We must radically develop a new system that can adapt and evolve to new innovations, build resilient local food systems, strengthen our local food supply chains, reconnect people with food production, provide fair wages and secure conditions to food and farm workers, and ensure more equitable and nutritious food access for all Kenyans.

Importantly, Nduku emphasises, “We must start thinking about the transformation of our food systems from the point of view of the poorest and those who suffer the greatest injustice within the current framework of our food systems.” This will provide a much more just, resilient and holistic approach to food systems transformation.

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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Politics

Food Protectionism and Nationalism in the Age of COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the global farm-to-plate conveyor belt, including related value chain and support industries. This has led to the overhaul of certain sectors and the expansion of others. On the upside, the disruption has also encouraged citizens to audit the resilience of their local food systems and their capacity to feed people over the long haul.

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Food Protectionism and Nationalism in the Age of COVID-19
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In June 2018, Kenya’s food and beverage import bill crossed the psychological 100 billion mark, underscoring the country’s overreliance on food imports for sustenance. This isn’t news to those in the agriculture sector who recently witnessed our diplomatic kerfuffle with Tanzania degenerate into a blockade that dented food imports and spiked the price of produce in the local market. Kenya imports onions and oranges from Tanzania; eggs, tomatoes, and pineapples from Uganda; poultry products from the United States; as well as fish and garlic from China.

This kind of skewed dependency on imports strains an already dysfunctional agricultural supply chain that has atrophied and shrunk over the decades, thanks to mismanagement, theft and a lax policy environment. The agriculture sector, despite its potential, has been the victim of legislative failures, beginning with the decimation of parastatals in the Ministry of Agriculture in the 1990s, and the consolidation of state functions in ways that were incongruent with the needs of the respective agriculture sub-sectors.

The litany of social and economic ills that result from this laxity stretches long – from local farmers to reduced earnings in state coffers, disadvantaged agro-processors, heightened pressure on the shilling and import shock risks.

Kenya’s agriculture sector employs more than 50 per cent of the labour force, accounts for 34.1 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and yet only contributes Sh23.3 billion to state coffers. The growing of crops and animal production combined account for 31.8 per cent of GDP, while support activities account for 0.5 per cent.

However, a weak regulatory environment, lax enforcement, brazen importers who gang up with state operatives to bring in cheap agro-imports, and depressed prices that have precipitated a significant decline in acreage under farming have negatively impacted the sector. The resulting drop in local supply, coupled with low yields and erratic rain models, have since produced critical shortages such as the ones that hit maize supplies in 2018.

Hence, while competing countries have been regulating their agro-industries, modernising their agro-supply chains, firming up the value chain, and managing the market to control prices, Kenya’s unofficial policy has been one of irascible cartelism, fueled by a few powerful industry players both on the regulatory and market side, who seek to cash in on their connections to state powers.

It also hasn’t also been helpful that in recent years, cash crop farming has monopolised acreage at the expense of other crops. Additionally, the top foods consumed in Kenya constitute milk, maize, wheat, vegetables, potatoes and bananas, which are easier to produce under mechanised farms controlled by a few oligopolies. The end result is loss of agency by the consumer and a patent inability to determine what ends up on a typical Kenyan dinner table.

Kenya’s agriculture sector employs more than 50 per cent of the labour force, accounts for 34.1 per cent of GDP and yet only contributes Sh23.3 billion to state coffers. The growing of crops and animal production combined account for 31.8 per cent of GDP, while support activities account for 0.5 per cent.

This marks the genesis of the cycle that has ensured that Kenyans are vulnerable to the certain kind of food protectionism and nationalism, such as the recent border shutdown by Uganda to truckers and Tanzanians due to a diplomatic tussle that saw food prices spike in the country. While Kenyans made fun of Mexican maize imports, Ugandan ginger, and tomato shortages, underneath that satire lay the profound vulnerability of Kenya’s 50 million tummies to the whims and impulses of random policy makers in countries hundreds of miles from our borders.

If the current food protectionism has taught us anything, it is that food has to become a national security issue and should be accorded the respective policy and structural and supply chain securitisation needed to forestall potential starvation.

The global picture

In March 2020, Vietnam and China stopped rice exports. Russia and Kazakhstan followed suit and briefly banned wheat exports. Around the world, two dozen nations took the cue and started hoarding their primary food exports in false anticipation of global shortages amidst the unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic. In total, seventeen major food supply nations placed some form of constraint on agricultural exports in the early weeks of the pandemic. Luckily, speculative behavior in agricultural commodity markets and imposing unnecessary trade restrictions, didn’t trigger food price spikes similar to those in 2007-8. The respective states almost immediately rescinded on the move amidst piling pressure and global economy concerns since the protectionism didn’t bode well for global supply chains and consumers around the world.

In recent years, we’ve increasingly gotten accustomed to the geography and ethnicity of food: that tea is British, coffee is Kenyan; tomatoes and onions are Tanzanian; ginger and bananas are Ugandan; strawberries are South African and Egyptian; fish and garlic are Chinese, poultry is from the United States; maize is from Mexico; and butter comes from South Africa. While this may portend well for global culinary multiculturalism, in times of pandemics such as this, the nationalistic fervour and export disruption exposes us to the vagaries of shortages on the shelves, potential hoarding, and hiked prices.

In recent years, the international food system has been built around the capacity of certain countries to specialise in the production of some foods to feed demand in other countries, while importing food items that could not be efficiently produced locally. This has produced a complex cog of farmers, transporters, financiers, and distributors spread across all corners of the globe. In this system, the world has become highly dependent on a globalised production chain in which dozens of countries straddle the middle of this chain, each adding a new component to the final agro-product. Take the US for example, whose imports account for half of the fresh fruits, a third of the vegetables, and 90 per cent of the seafood consumed in the country.

Food nationalism sometimes gets politicised around origins, such as whether falafel originated in the Mediterranean or in the Middle East, or whether rice from Vietnam is better than rice from Pakistan. In some jurisdictions, this has taken the form of policy protectionism, such as the European Union (EU)’s Protected Geographical Status framework that limits the production of certain potato, tequila, vinegar and cheese varieties to certain regions under specified conditions.

In recent years, the international food system has been built around the capacity of certain countries to specialise in the production of some foods to feed demand in other countries, while importing food items that could not be efficiently produced locally. This has produced a complex cog of farmers, transporters, financiers, and distributors spread across all corners of the globe.

Luckily it isn’t only the exoticism of certain foods that drive food nationalisms; even the working classes in recent years have expressed their concerns through political dissent driven by food: Sudan’s 2018 Bread Revolution, Kenya’s 2011 Unga Revolution, Egypt’s 2017 Wheat Revolution, the French Milk Farmers’ Revolution, among a host of other displeasures with the volatility of the national food basket.

Food sub-nationalism

Within gastro-nationalism there exists local nuance that drives certain protectionisms too. Nyandarua produces 35 per cent of our national potato output. Cashewnuts come from Kilifi. Mwea and Ahero produce rice. Flowers are grown in Naivasha. Vegetables come from the Kisii highlands. Maize is from Kitale. Freshwater fish is from Kisumu. Sisal is from Taveta. Milk comes from Githunguri. Tea comes from the Nandi region.

The March 26th shutdown of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale counties disrupted huge markets that are the purveyors and outlets for these agriproducts. Because of claims of corruption at police barriers along these counties’ borders, rural farmers effectively reduced their supply of farm products, sending the prices of food sky high in urban neighbourhoods.

Barriers erected to contain in-country COVID infection rates have, in turn, created logistical bottlenecks that reduce the supply of basic food commodities, creating an overcapacity in the producing counties while precipitating shortages in urban agricultural markets, such as Kondele and Kibuye in Kisumu, Mwembe Tayari and Kongowea in Mombasa, Soko Mjinga in Kitale, Marikiti in Nairobi, Daraja Mbili in Kisii county, Kagio in Kirinyaga and similar large food markets spread across Kenyan urban centres.

This chokes a critical cog of an already disadvantaged food infrastructure, given that there is an annual demand for 4.5 million tonnes of maize, 2 million tonnes of wheat, 1.3 million tonnes of sugar and 0.7 million tonnes of rice, which is barely met by local production. This deficit is often filled by the import of 1.3 million tonnes of maize, 1.8 million tonnes of wheat and 625,000 tonnes of rice. The overall outlay of Kenya’s food system, therefore, is a combination of disempowered (mostly urban) eaters, powerful agro-cartels who chase higher margins through unregulated food imports, and traders who, as a result of overreliance on imports, have reoriented their supply chains.

Food capitalism

Ironically, hoarding and food nationalism hit amidst a global sufficiency and oversupply mainly driven by China’s and India’s massive investment in grain production, and investments in agriculture in Brazil, Argentina, the United States, Canada, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Overall, less than 25 countries in the world are global net exporters though many in South America, Eastern Europe and South East Asia range between food sufficient and stable exporters.

The world’s poor are bearing the brunt of this, thanks to their poor storage capacities as well as the fact that they often merely make up the unskilled labour needed within the global food supply systems. Britain, a key importer and exporter, had to rely on the importation of labour as a deficit of 90,000 workers had left fruit farms unattended, thus heightening the possibility of farm losses. Britain was forced to seek nearly 10,000 workers from EU and non-EU countries, which remained closed during the height of the pandemic.

Cross-border supply chains and the free movement of consumer goods have increasingly been subjected to unfair trade subsidies, consumer protectionism, and border logistical bottlenecks that reduce the flow of consumer foodstuffs. Surprisingly the hoarding happens just when, unlike previous periods of rampant food inflation, global inventories of staple crops like corn, wheat, soybeans and rice are plentiful.

Food nationalism feeds a strain of food capitalism that sees approximately 1.5 billion tonnes of food wasted globally even as the COVID pandemic impacts food production and supply and guts distribution. Meanwhile, 2020 estimates are that due to the pandemic, a billion people face starvation globally and suffer from some form of hunger brought about by war, climate change, or simply a lack of means, especially in the Global South, while 300 million are at a crisis point.

It’s a testament to the global architecture of hunger that the majority of those in need are in the Global South, partly due to conflicts and climate disasters, but also predominantly due to economic instability that hampers both physical and economic access to food. Resource-rich nations in Africa, Latin America and Asia get stunted by unfair global practices, disastrous political systems propped up by and from the West, and predatory firms from both the East and the West who loot these countries through tax havens and illicit financial flows.

Hence, the food systems across the Global South are impoverished through laxity and political interference, while critical capital that could boost agri-production gets siphoned to the Global North. The resultant losses and deficit are what precipitate the vulnerability and susceptibility to shocks, such as that which has been wrought by the current pandemic.

Culinary identities

While food nationalism entrenches a protectionist model that compromises the legal and political rules of global trade espoused by many treaties and pacts, culinary nationalism simply raises the pride in a country’s culinary history. Large swathes of societies are having to rediscover their comparative advantages as the imports from farmers halfway around the world grind to a halt.

The coronavirus strain and its disruption of supply and value chains has simply fed into a hand- wringing method of protectionism quietly accepted and sometimes loudly proclaimed by belligerents like Donald Trump. This localisation inadvertently provides a perfect cover for those who have long embraced the idea of nationalism.

Food nationalism feeds a strain of food capitalism that sees approximately 1.5 billion tonnes of food wasted globally even as the COVID pandemic impacts food production and supply and guts distribution. Meanwhile, 2020 estimates are that due to the pandemic, a billion people face starvation globally and suffer from some form of hunger…

Even so, the pandemic has also necessitated the closure of some plants, resulted in bankruptcy among some agro-producers, and slowed down processing plants in India, in parts of China, in the United States and Canada, across Brazil, and in Western Europe. On the upside, this has helped citizens to audit the resilience of their local food systems and their capacity to feed people over the long haul.

Grounding of flights and border restrictions have limited the flow of migrant workers to farms that rely on hired labour during the growing and harvest seasons. Meanwhile, wars have decimated grain research centres in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, while coercive legislation is being pushed in certain African countries even as there is criticism of the “NGO-isation” of agriculture in Africa and the push for legislated monopoly on seeds in countries like Kenya and India.

The global food infrastructure in the entire farm-to-plate conveyor belt and the related value chain industries and their support industries are staring at a significant disruption that will overhaul certain sectors, expand others, neuter many, and rejig the wider global reserves, primary producers and suppliers.

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Politics

Market Shutdowns, Policy Failures and the Mishandling of Food Logistics

COVID-19 has had a huge and immediate negative economic impact on low-income households, especially in urban areas. The Kenyan government’s mediocre response to this economic shock has not only increased people’s vulnerability, but has also laid bare the government’s inability to provide basic services.

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Market Shutdowns, Policy Failures and the Mishandling of Food Logistics
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Way before Kenya officially reported its first case of COVID 19, it was an open secret that the country was woefully unprepared to deal with the pandemic. The public health system was deplorable and ill-equipped to handle the country’s ongoing health concerns even without the added strain of managing the pandemic. Lack of piped water in informal settlements in urban areas presented an infrastructural headache, which was compounded by the high population densities in these areas. About sixty per cent of Nairobi’s population, Kenya’s capital, is said to be living in informal settlements, which occupy just 5 per cent of the city’s land.

Between the crowded living arrangements, lack of running water to guarantee constant and proper handwashing and a poorly managed health system;, the lack of preparedness made for a grim situation. By the time the first case of COVID 19 was officially reported on Friday, the 13th of March 2020 (the more superstitious amongst us were quick to connect the date with the event), there were concerns that low-income urban households, due to the nature of their design (or lack thereof), were more prone to infections. Experts also warned of the economic effects of the pandemic mainly taking the form of reduction or loss of income and reduced supply and access to basic utilities.

On 25 March, with a total number of 28 positive cases nationally and over 400,000 cases globally, the President of Kenya announced a raft of measures to contain the pandemic. Movement in and out of the country was heavily curtailed as borders with neighbouring countries were closed, passenger flights were suspended, schools were closed, large gatherings were banned and a countrywide dusk-to-dawn curfew was announced. Many have argued that the move to put in place a curfew rather than a total lockdown was seen as a compromise, a political economy calculation that took into consideration the socio-economic structure of Nairobi whilst endeavouring to reduce the spread of infection.

Nairobi is a city where the majority of the labour force comprises casual workers and informal petty traders who survive on daily earned wages and income. A total lockdown would have denied these citizens access to money for food, rent and basic utilities, which could potentially pose a political threat of social unrest. Others have speculated that the night curfew was intended to forestall criminal activities to supplement lost incomes.

On 6th April 2020, the president announced further containment measures, including a 21-day ban on all movement in and out of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kwale and Kilifi counties except for movement of food supplies and other cargo. By this time, 158 infections and 4 fatalities had been reported.

On 22nd April, Mandera County was added to the list of counties with restricted movement. On April 25th, the nationwide curfew and the cessation of movement in the four counties was extended for another 21 days until May 16th. Another extension was announced for 21 days until 6th June. On 6th June, the cessation of movement in and out of Kwale and Kilifi counties and Eastleigh (Nairobi County) and Old Town (Mombasa County) neighbourhoods was lifted, and the nationwide curfew hours reduced to 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.

Movement in and out of Nairobi, Mombasa and Mandera counties remained restricted until 6th July 2020. (At the time this article was being written, the restrictions in and out of all counties had been lifted and there was a scheduled roadmap to allow for intra-country travel and the resumption of domestic and international flights. Places of worship had been reopened on condition of adherence to social distancing precautions along with a limit to 100 faithful and gatherings not lasting more than an hour. It was announced that schools would reopen in January 2021.

Taking cues on precautionary measures from the national government, county governments also put in place containment measures that mainly targeted market places. In March 2020, Kwale, Kiambu and Kajiado county governments ordered all their open-air markets closed. Kisumu County closed the famous Kibuye market and Nyandarua County closed all Sunday markets. In June 2020, Machakos County closed 8 markets in Kangundo and Mwala sub-counties, where it was reported 3 people who had tested positive for COVID-19 had interacted with local residents.

The economic impact of COVID-19

As earlier speculated, the economy has taken a beating due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, the Central Bank of Kenya revised its 2020 economic growth forecast from the original 6.2 per cent to 3.4 per cent.

More ominously, in late May, the Central Bank indicated that up to 75 per cent of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) were at risk of collapsing by the end of June 2020 due to the hostile COVID-19 business environment. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has forecast a 0.3 per cent economic contraction, the result of disrupting livelihoods across the country.

Findings from household surveys on the effect on COVID-19 seem to reflect this gloomy macroeconomic prognosis. They all indicate loss of jobs, decline in incomes, rising cost of living and hunger as key concerns for those interviewed. A survey by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics released in mid-May 2020 revealed that 30 per cent of households sampled were unable to pay rent. In addition, 21.5 per cent of households that met their rent obligations on time were unable to do so and had to renegotiate with their landlords on repayment. This goes to show the extent to which the COVID-19 economic shock has affected households’ ability to pay recurrent bills.

On 30th June 2020, TIFA Research, a market research company, released a report focusing on the impact of the global pandemic on low-income neighbourhoods in Nairobi. The study, which sampled respondents from Huruma, Kibera, Mathare, Korogocho, Mukuru kwa Njenga, and Kawangware, had several key findings. Over 90 per cent of those interviewed said the COVID- 19 pandemic had had a huge and immediate impact on their lives, with 54 per cent of the respondents reporting having lost their jobs and attributing this to COVID-19. Ninety-four per cent of the respondents reported having to cut down expenditure on food and drinks.

More worrying was the 42 per cent whose immediate concern was hunger. The seriousness of this is reflected in the subsequent finding that only 6 per cent of those interviewed had been able to save during the pandemic, which exposed the economic vulnerability of most households. Most of those interviewed had supplemented lost income by selling off assets and cutting down on their expenditure on food and drink.

Over 90 per cent of those interviewed said the COVID- 19 pandemic had had a huge and immediate impact on their lives, with 54 per cent of the respondents reporting having lost their jobs and attributing this to COVID-19. Ninety-four per cent of the respondents reported having to cut down expenditure on food and drinks.

Another survey conducted between 28 May and 2 June this year by Infotrak Research Consultancy had similar findings. The survey showed that more than 80 per cent of those interviewed struggled to feed their families. More than 60 per cent of Kenyans were unable to pay rent in full, with an almost similar proportion who were struggling to pay rent on time. In urban areas, almost 4 out of 5 of those interviewed who used to send remittances to rural homes were unable to do so.

The government containment measures, whilst reducing the spread of infections, have also had a domino effect on other parts of social and economic systems, particularly in urban areas where the effect of these restrictions has been felt the most. They have had direct and indirect effects on food security in urban centres and on their linkages with food production areas and distribution networks.

Hybrid food systems and systems of care

Most African urban centres tend to have complex hybrid food systems characterised by a delicately balanced co-existence of informal and formal food systems. Nairobi, Mombasa and other big towns in Kenya are no exception. The restrictions on movement and closure of markets have had three immediate effects on informal food systems in the areas the markets are located. First, the income of the traders operating in these markets is lost. Depending on their business size, traders could be wholesalers getting produce from outside counties to retailers selling their wares to customers. Second, informal retail traders, such as hawkers, who normally source their food supplies from these markets are unable to do so. Closure of markets means there is a reduced supply of food produce in urban areas, leading to an increase in food prices. Third, the curfew was already eating into the operating hours of informal traders to get supplies from the markets in the morning and the hours they would have used to sell their wares in the evening. These hawkers have to work within reduced hours and still ensure they sell enough wares to make ends meet. They face another challenge in their potential customers having less money to spend, thus reducing the hawkers’ returns.

Most African urban centres tend to have complex hybrid food systems characterised by a delicately balanced co-existence of informal and formal food systems. Nairobi, Mombasa and other big towns in Kenya are no exception.

Another secondary effect on the food supply chain is the transport of food produce from the source county to the destination county. While the government announced that food supplies were essential services and movement would not be curtailed by the imposed restrictions, implementing that is not a clear-cut intervention. Whereas formally registered transport businesses can get the documentation and clearance to supply food without restriction, smallholder farmers use other forms of transport to get their produce to markets, such as passenger vehicles or motorcycles. Since these have been restricted from moving during the curfew hours, a key element of the food supply chain has been disrupted.

Most urban Kenyan households have ties to their rural homes and get care packages of food supplies from relatives in rural areas to supplement their urban food sources. These systems of care – what some would categorise as informal social protection – also offer a sanctuary to urban families, a space they can retreat to and reconfigure their livelihoods when urban life is too expensive. A recent article in the Daily Nation revealed an increase in these care package to families in urban areas in the last three months as urban households struggle to get food. Food sent includes cereals, bananas, Irish and sweet potatoes, dried fish, among others. So lucrative is this business that previous passenger shuttle businesses are repurposing their vehicles and obtaining permits to transport food to urban centres.

Rural-urban support systems also allow parents to send their children upcountry to stay with relatives over school holidays. During these dire circumstances, families can relocate to the countryside where the cost of living is much lower than in urban centres. The restriction of movement in and out of the major urban centres in Kenya has disrupted these systems of care as families are unable to exercise the option of easing the economic burden of their urban households by moving to their rural homes. In a past Infotrak survey, up to 40 per cent of Nairobi residents were willing to move to rural areas the moment the government lifted the movement restrictions.

Food security during this pandemic is also compromised by challenges faced by counties that grow food. Where production is going on as normal, restriction in movement has seen source counties facing a glut in food. This has led to reduced prices of food and increased wastage as food producers lack the storage capacity for their supplies.

So, depending on which county one looks at, there are rural food-producing households that have a lot of food, no market and reduced income from food sales. Meanwhile, low-income food-consuming households in urban areas are experiencing a scarcity of food, high food prices and reduced household income.

The restriction of movement during the pandemic also affects access to farm inputs at two levels. One, import supply chains have been disrupted and slowed down, hence it may be more difficult and expensive to buy imported inputs, such as fertilizer and pesticides, which are crucial to maximising yields. Two, where these inputs find their way into the country, they are typically found in urban areas and require to be transported to rural areas. Restrictions in the transport of good and services will affect the transport of these inputs to rural areas. Furthermore, the financial costs of importation as well as urban–rural transport are likely to be passed onto the farmer in the form of increased prices, thus disincentivising the farmer from accessing the inputs.

So, depending on which county one looks at, there are rural food-producing households that have a lot of food, no market and reduced income from food sales. Meanwhile, low-income food-consuming households in urban areas are experiencing a scarcity of food, high food prices and reduced household income.

The locust invasion across the Horn of Africa has compounded Kenya’s food insecurity. The country experienced the first wave of locust attacks from late 2019 to early 2020, with swarms moving through the country from arid and semi-arid areas hosting pastoralist communities to the food-producing counties. The Food and Agricultural organisation (FAO) issued a warning in late June 2020 about the second wave of locusts, with some estimating it to be 400 times bigger than the first wave. According to FAO, Turkana and Marsabit counties’ crops and pastures are likely to be affected in this wave as the swarms of locusts migrate northwards into South Sudan and Ethiopia. This would reduce the amount of pasture available for livestock in these areas, resulting in loss of incomes and increased health concerns, such as hunger, particularly childhood malnutrition. The food security outlook is grim to say the least, with forecasts of a food shortage in East Africa caused by the locust invasion, low food reserves and the disrupted supply chain of food and inputs.

Mediocre mitigation measures

Pandemic mitigation responses by the government have mostly favoured corporates and individuals in formal employment. The government offered VAT and corporate tax reprieves, financial support for businesses and creatives, and wage tax subsidies for those in formal employment. None of these measures directly targeted the majority low-income earners in urban areas whose employment situation has been worsened by COVID-19.

The Treasury has been criticised for the recommendations it made in the 2020/2021 budget, which included proposals for the removal of zero-rated status on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) as well as flour whilst fully aware of the economic impact of COVID-19, especially on urban low- income communities. Members of the National Assembly vetoed these proposals when they were discussing the Finance Bill.

The government reduced its budgetary allocation to agriculture by 18 per cent, from Sh59.6 billion in FY 2019/2020 to Sh48.7 billion in FY 2020-21. The agriculture sector in Kenya plays a significant role in employment, job creation and food supply. Its importance during this pandemic cannot be overstated as it covers issues of production, supply and even access of food, linking producers and consumers.

Government mitigation measures targeting the urban poor have been lacklustre at best. Even as the government moves to reopen the economy, there are no mass testing measures in place, hence there is no credible way of ascertaining the spread of the pandemic within communities. The distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) has been minimal and uncoordinated, putting many residents at risk as the move around in their communities.

Questions have also been raised about the targeting of potential beneficiaries for relief support measures, such as cash transfers and food package distribution. There are claims of government agencies misappropriating funds intended to contain the negative impact of the pandemic at the community level.

Pandemic mitigation responses by the government have mostly favoured corporates and individuals in formal employment. The government offered VAT and corporate tax reprieves, financial support for businesses and creatives, and wage tax subsidies for those in formal employment. None of these measures directly targeted the majority low-income earners in urban areas whose employment situation has been worsened by COVID-19.

As a society we have been forced to reckon with the consequences of long-term underinvestment by the government in public services. Informal settlements, where the majority of urban residents live, still do not have piped running water and residents have to buy their water at exorbitantly high prices from water vendors. The lack of piped water and the high cost of purchasing water in a time of reduced incomes reduces handwashing campaigns into a classist privileged initiative that only a few residents can comply with. According to Nahashon Muguna, the Acting Head of the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company, the daily demand for water in Nairobi is 810,000 cubic metres whereas the company, at its most efficient, is only able to supply 526,000 cubic metres.

Poor investment in housing and health offer little consolation to those who become infected with the virus. The hospitals are not equipped to handle the pandemic, and with the current state of housing in informal settlements, it is impossible to implement the self-isolation homecare guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health. Moreover, it is one thing to tell people to stay at home and avoid going outdoors. Assuming that they can afford to stay indoors, one has to ask what kind of dwelling spaces do they reside in.

COVID-19 has laid bare the inability of the government to provide basic services to the country’s people, services that are enshrined in our constitution under the Bill of Rights. It ultimately boils down to a breakdown of trust and a weakening of the social contract between the government and people it is mandated to serve.

This yawning disconnect between leaders and citizens has to be bridged. It is not enough to guarantee life; the government, in its dealings with citizens, should make sure that people lead a good life, a life of dignity, productivity and happiness. It is time for the Government of Kenya to ask itself what it has done for its citizens and what it should do for them going forward.

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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