Well into its fourth week, the bewildering showdown between Rwanda President Paul Kagame and his Ugandan counterpart, Yoweri Museveni, had predictably produced a heart-rending headline. The news reports said that a woman several months pregnant, an Elizabeth Mukarugwiza, had been chased across the border from Rwanda into Uganda by either the Rwandan army or police.
Eye-witness reports said that Ms. Mukarugwiza, 37, just about beat the Rwandan security to the border. Whatever it was had driven her, and we can only speculate (a prenatal visit to a clinic?), would have been that urgent. Had this episode occurred inside Rwanda itself, what happened next would not have been reported. Were we to hear of it, it would have come as rumor, a thing said of a closed country that without voices or images to back it up, quickly loses steam.
Take the story of three sisters:
As reported in The Observer newspaper, the sisters, daughters of a pastor Deo Nyirigira who lives in Mbarara in Western Uganda, had completed their studies at Ugandan universities and then returned to find work in Kigali. Their father, part of the group extruded from Rwanda in the 1959 upheaval that brought Paul Kagame himself to Uganda, had one time returned to the country after the genocide. After only a handful of years, Mr. Nyirigira realised that he could no longer live in his country. For a second time, he left Rwanda for Uganda. Given his influence as a pastor, the authorities in Kigali grew weary of him and wanted him back. Attempts at kidnapping him are said to have led to the shooting death of one of the suspected Rwandan kidnap squad.
Eyewitness reports said that Ms. Mukarugwiza, 37, just about beat the Rwandan security to the border. Whatever it was that had driven her, we can only speculate that it had been urgent (a prenatal visit to a clinic, perhaps?). Had this episode occurred inside Rwanda itself, what happened next would not have been reported. Were we to hear of it, it would have come as rumour – a thing that quickly loses steam without voices or images to back it up.
Back in Rwanda, and back in the present, with the rise in political tensions now, Mr. Nyirigira’s daughters, because the government could not touch their father, have reportedly been stripped of their jobs. In Rwanda, children may be punished for the infractions of parents; in the worst of times, the unborn were not spared either. One sister was already married with a child. The husband was ordered to divorce her. It was when their father sent them sustenance money that they were apparently taken into custody. But we hear of these events secondhand.
The fate of Ms. Mukarugwiza too would have been rumor were it not for the Ugandan media. But alas, escaping the Rwandan forces counted for naught. No sooner had Ms. Mukarugwiza made it across the border than she collapsed and died, she and her unborn baby.
A moment crackling with significance; there you had the picture, shared across social media, of what appear to be two Red Cross responders, white latex gloved hands, stooped forms, shocked, horrified faces wanting to have a look. The body covered in red, green, then blue and red Maasai blankets. The scene is slopping ground, a wooded glen, heavy jackets giving an idea of altitude and weather. Armed men hounded the expectant mother to death; just like in a gothic, B Movie, the fetus must not be born. It was as if 1994 were reclaiming the soul of Rwanda.
Trying to see it from the perspective of a Rwandan, to not miss-judge the act, however carking, was hard, the central question refusing to go away; in what way does the death of a pregnant woman contribute to the greater good of Rwanda? At 37, Ms. Mukarugwiza would have left behind other children. They will remember, so does that now make them targets to a regime that lives in fear of its victims? (“He who kills Brutus but does not kill the sons of Brutus,” a researcher once quoted the mantra to me). How many times in that country was it justified by saying that the child will be born an enemy? Too rebarbative to contain, and yet human sacrifice, after thousands of years, has still not lost its repugnance. Fascism, the conclusion went, had sunk deep roots into Rwanda, its president, irretrievably fallen to the dark side.
The one link I could use to comprehend what happened to Ms. Mukarugwiza was two decades out of date. The first and last time I was in Rwanda, a few years after the genocide, was March 2003. The first thing I did in Kigali was look up my old classmates who had returned home post-1994. But the once humble, amiable schoolboys of the late 80s and early 90s, I failed to find in the men they had become. In turns brash, and rude, then commanding, suddenly distant, then calm, then uncommunicative, their mercurial, unstable character had caught me off guard in 2003. I took it with whatever fortitude I could muster at that age, rationalizing that few peoples had endured what the Rwandans had gone through.
But for a few years after that, and already disabused of my then, post-genocide, World Bank-sponsored naivety, garnished with western media manufactured facts about post-genocide Rwanda, I paid closer attention. I tried my best not to fall into the binary, this side good, that side bad routine. I read into each report, into each TV segment, the calamitous shift in the character of my old school friends. It was as if once you had seen into peoples’ souls, no mere shift in ideology nor mass media spin, can fool you.
We were not many in the newsroom, so on top of my other beats, I was dispatched to northern Uganda countless times where I spent time with refugees. Covering Rwanda and Congo was one of the most upsetting times of my career as a reporter. The end of the genocide had been heralded as a grand moment, yet in many respects, it signaled the beginning of other horrible events.
And then I paid too much attention. The years starting from 2003 would culminate with my departure from the media in 2006. They were the years of the unravelling of whatever post-Mobutu hiatus might have been in Congo. Congolese refugees were streaming out in all directions. And it seemed back then that the region was on fire. One of the worst massacres in the northern Uganda war came in that span of time. Sudan had just concluded its penultimate, bloody stage of civil war. Garang died in a plane crash. Back then, being a reporter meant that by default, you were a war reporter.
We were not many in the newsroom, so on top of my other beats, I was dispatched to northern Uganda countless times. I spent time with refugees. Of Rwanda and Congo, there began one of the most upsetting times of my career as a reporter. The ending of the genocide had been heralded as the grand moment. In many respects, it had been the beginning of the worst. In testimony after testimony, I heard something else besides what was said of the region. I was cruelly disillusioned about where this region would end up. I met the ugly underbelly of what was a disturbing, ethno-racial war. The silence of guns, if that ever came, would mean this zero-sum war being fought by other means.
We were all in it, Uganda, Rwanda, Congo, Burundi, so that events in any part of Congo would have meaning in all four countries. Those stocking the flames of the northern Uganda war saw it as a continuum for the outcomes in Rwanda, Eastern Congo, etc. How, as a reporter taught to not identify subjects by race or ethnicity do you approach that without also withholding the truth from the public? Calculating that if the combatants and their invidious backers in Kampala, Kigali and who knows which other cities quietly believed in their own ethnic superiority, why should the rest of us watching in confusion not know their full intentions?
Because Rwanda could rely on it, it took Uganda’s friendship for granted. However, by 2017 something had gone amiss. Kigali, it seemed, had overstepped its boundaries by interfering with the power dynamics of Uganda at a sensitive time when Museveni was struggling to assert his power.
It is one thing to fight a war of self-defense. It is another to wage a war of hegemonic ambition. The one is understandable; the other is a crime. I went for it. I reported what was a parallel, darker narrative to the sanitised news routine; the common approach was not courageous enough to tell the truth; rather than tell the world what accounted for the blinding human cruelty being meted out for what the perpetrators saw as payment for past ethnic traumas, it endlessly asked in faux naïveté, why people could be so inhuman.
It was then the backlash started. The war may have been in Congo, but doors began to be shut in my face in government offices in Kampala. Shielding behind media ignorance and international lack of curiosity had enabled them wage wars in four countries with the comfort that the usual tropes of reporting Africa would shield them. The furiousness with which the reactions came left me stunned. I began to hear of the moves to get rid of me from the newspaper long before it happened.
Back in the day, the newspaper I worked for had yearly run country supplements of Rwanda. After a series of stories, on the troubles in Eastern Congo, the supplement hung in balance, the expected hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising threatened. As a reporter who may never earn that much money over a career, there is not much choice between your journalism and a paper merchant’s profits. I recollect the hostility at the paper itself, the kvetching from advertising salesmen who saw my reporting as financially ruinous. My notebooks disappeared. Journalist colleagues whose relationships to Kigali you had taken as a joke, took on a different character. Kagame’s reach, we understood, was everywhere, and newspaper offices are great places to plant eyes and ears. The failure of my paper to stand by me as a reporter, and the increasing telephone harassment, plus the decision I was reaching to become a fulltime writer, led me quit the media. If your editor and publisher cannot stand by you, there is little you can do about such matters.
I got busy finding ways of being a writer, including spending 3 years in Kenya. Rwanda receded from my mind. But I had gained a further insight. Legitimate, even useful scrutiny, let alone criticism, is not allowed in Rwanda, even if its well-meant. I immediately understood that Kigali’s temper tantrums would ensure that Kagame never ran out of enemies. Seeing enemies everywhere you look is not great leadership. There is a psychological term for it. I had not learnt anything new, really. I had merely joined the ranks of those familiar with the ugliness of our region’s politics, the people who expect any day to have to run into exile. I was not in bad company. I calmed down and moved on.
Till October 2017. That month, the big story (the month before Museveni had trashed the parliament) was that five Ugandan police officers had been arrested for the kidnap and extra-judicial deportation of Rwanda dissidents.
You had to have followed Rwanda closely enough, or been to school with some of the characters close to the show to have understood what that headline meant. There had always been much talk about the vaunted Rwandan security and intelligence, of their capacities and determination. I had always doubted that, particularly after enduring run-ins with a handful of them and taking note of how amateurish they were. I had also been in class with some, and they were not what you may describe as top of the class, as it were. They are good when you don’t fight back. When you do, they do precisely what Kagame has done; draw down the barricades and get nasty. Closer to the truth was that Rwanda is too small a country for others to spend energy worrying about. Some residual sympathy had perhaps led others to look the other way. It wasn’t that they were better; it was that others were benevolent towards them.
I doubted that when it came to it, Rwanda could match the intelligence capabilities of say South Africa. Or Uganda, when it came to it. Slinking about dark corners and spiking people’s tea, sticking knives into “enemies” is one thing. The net effect is to get you marked out as evil and untrustworthy. It is another to have the economic and diplomatic clout of countries dramatically bigger like South Africa, or even small ones like Uganda whose economy you actually depend on. The problem of toxic anger the junta is afflicted with means they fail to tell friend from foe.
Because it could rely on it, Kigali took Uganda for granted. Either way, by 2017 something had gone wrong enough. Kigali, it seemed, had overstepped its bounds at last. You easily guessed that they had interfered with the power dynamics of Uganda. At such a sensitive time over his hold on to power, Mr. Museveni would have been unhappy.
This unease is to the extent that nearly everyone – not just politicians, lawyers and journalists, but even mobile money booth owners – is afraid to receive phone calls, especially from strangers, but also from anybody who is not an immediate family member. Friends are now suspecting friends. Like Rwanda, Uganda is an overripe boil.
We still do not know the full details of the matter. But former Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura, perhaps the most unqualified man to have ever held the post, was said to have inadvisedly played a role in the matter, as rumor had it, getting too close to the Rwandans. His erratic behaviour in 2017 may now be clearer in hindsight. In effect, the general had appointed himself the government of Uganda, making the kinds of commands way beyond his ken, as if he had become prime minister, speaker of parliament, chief justice and chief executioner. Not even president Museveni exercised that much authority. It remained for even his boss to join the dots, follow the lines linking him with Rwandan high command to smell something off. What did a police inspector need a political base for; why did he need a foreign policy? Was CID so inadequate that he had to have his own intelligence network? The drama of Kayihura’s downfall added to the political unease in Uganda.
We live in a state of fear. Phone calls bring unease; who might be listening, who is reading the emails? Friends suspect friends; colleagues in offices are unsure of each other. Like Rwanda, Uganda is an overripe boil. Rwanda appears to be falling over the cliff first. We are not far behind.
The central charge against the five officers, and which charge in reverse facsimile ricocheted from Kigali as “Uganda detaining Rwandan citizens without charge” – Kagame’s primary casus belli, was that they were arresting and extra judicially deporting Rwandan dissidents.
For over two decades, Mr. Kagame had won wars in which the other side was not really shooting back, and waging undeclared espionage wars others weren’t too interested in. The risk of going too far was always there, of waking up governments with vaster reach and resources.
And that is what has happened. The blowback started in South Africa. We do not as yet know the extent of this drama unfolding in Uganda, but the alacrity with which Kigali reacted (remember the adage – whatever you do, don’t make any sudden moves) would seem to indicate that the Ugandans knew exactly where to go and which tender spots to touch. By barricading himself and the people he leads in, a move with serious repercussions, no matter which way this story heads, Mr. Kagame has betrayed his state of mind. What he has done is beyond serious. He has drawn unkind attention from the world, who read in this move, not sophistication, leadership, cool-headedness, but cruelty. It behooves a leader not a drop of good to be seen as cruel. It’s not the time to build walls, or close borders with countries to north and south of your country. You remind the world of what and who it wants to forget.
That’s the wider world for starts. In East Africa, this has drawn the scrutiny of people in Kenya and Tanzania for whom Rwanda was far away, a country to be sympathized with. The interruption of regional trade is touching constituents that once could be counted upon to remain distant and unconcerned which way things happened over there. In Uganda itself, Kagame’s action is bringing up sentiments that had plateaued into disinterest. It has also curiously given Mr. Museveni some boost of badly needed sympathy in Uganda. It’s a strange thing, nationalism. Now some of Mr. Museveni’s opponents suddenly understand that it is okay for them to criticize him; they don’t like it that much when a foreign president does the same. Kagame is attacking, not just the Museveni government, but their Museveni.
We can’t tell how it’s going down inside Rwanda itself. But there, the issues are immediate. Rwanda needs Uganda for education, for health, for food more than Uganda needs Rwanda. The drama has been coloured by stories, such as that of the three sisters, whose lives have been imperiled by the closure of borders.
Then, in the middle of it, word came that Mr. Kagame had also closed the border with Burundi.
Rwanda’s relationship with Uganda is centuries old. As with the current character of Uganda, the bits of the ancient story we understand starts with the narrative of the ancient empire of Bunyoro-Kitara, when at the height of inter-Africa migrations, peoples ran into each other. Scars from the dim mists of time fester today, with broad implications for inter-ethnic divisions in Uganda and beyond.
Whichever way these reactions go, it is still early days, the opening pages of a book of raw emotions. The real story is still to hit its stride. Part of the reason we cannot tell where it will end is because we may be too horrified to begin thinking of it.
Rwanda’s relationship with Uganda
But do we not lose perspective by getting caught up in the moment of the drama? Do we care enough to know the story of Rwanda?
Rwanda’s relationship with Uganda is centuries old. As with the current character of Uganda, the bits of the ancient story we understand start with the narrative of the ancient empire of Bunyoro-Kitara, when at the height of inter-Africa migrations, peoples ran into each other. Scars from the dim mists of time fester today, with broad implications for inter-ethnic divisions in Uganda and beyond. The peoples of Rwanda-Burundi, including bits of Eastern Congo, played parts in the stories of the formation of Ugandan kingdoms, and they did not emerge winners. But that is ancient history. Of immediate relevance is how Rwandans ended up living in Uganda in such numbers.
The colonial wars that the British fought in Uganda were some of the most serious in the region, along with the wars the Germans brought to Central Tanzania. By the 1920s, it is reported, the population of Uganda had been growing negatively for three decades. The religion-inflected civil wars in Buganda (which were actually class wars), the Bunyoro genocide, the wars of conquest in the East and North, and the collapse of pre-colonial medicine, along with the interruption of agriculture, more Ugandans had died than were born for close to three decades. Nothing new; all of it very British. They simply did not care that black people were dying because of their imperial strategies. It is what they did in the Americas, in Australia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, etc. Hence, the introduction of the cash crop economy foundered under severe shortage of labour. The British actively encouraged immigration from Belgian holdings. There are dramatic pictures taken at the time of the way stations doling food, medicine and shelter along the migration route from the Rwandan border into central Uganda. Shirtless, barefoot Rwandans, their beddings rolled up on their heads, are captured in grainy images making the two week walk from the border to central Uganda.
Writing in his book, Kampala-Uganda in 1951, the late American anthropologist, Edwin S. Munger, who died in 2010, wrote that “For thirty years, the principle labor (sic) migration route has been that travelled by the Banyruanda and Barundi from the Belgian mandates into Buganda. Historically, Ruanda-Urundi’s high, steep-sided hills have produced more people than food to feed them. In many years the issue was blunt: go or starve…a carryover from the old days of hardship is the attitude in Ruanda-Urundi that one mark of manhood is a trip to Uganda. The traditions of battling with lions and elephants, of fighting bandits, living off the country, and surviving where many died still give the emigrant prestige on his return home.”
The image in Uganda from the 1920s onwards of Rwandans and Burundians (the difference was subsumed under the generic “Banyarwanda”) that emerged was unfortunate and unfair. Xenophobia in Uganda, particularly in Buganda, served to see these immigrants not as victims of cruel colonialism as the Ugandans themselves were, but as peripatetic, woebegone itinerants who worked for a meal. There were many eager to blend in, to become integrated, if only to avoid the unkind stereotype.
Life in Belgian territories was unpleasant, even by the unpleasant standards of colonialism. Arriving in late colonial Uganda, with somewhat better amenities, was for other reasons beside just food and work. “Perhaps here is partial confirmation of the physical hardships of the route from Ruanda-Urundi to Mengo (now greater Kampala) District,” Munger goes on. “Whole wards of Barundi and Banyaruanda are hospitalised with tuberculosis and general malnutrition.”
The image in Uganda, from the 1920s, of Rwandans (and Burundians, the difference was subsumed under the generic “Banyarwanda), that emerged was unfortunate and unfair. Xenophobia in Uganda, particularly in Buganda, served to see these immigrants, not as victims of cruel colonialism as themselves, but as peripatetic, woebegone itinerants who will work for a meal. And many were those eager to blend in, to become integrated, if only to avoid the unkind stereotype. They were escaping similar circumstances, but in one of the failures of African societies, those they ran to did not treat them well.
Particularly in the metropolitan Buganda, where a mix of aristocratic and racial hierarchy (not unknown in Rwanda) had created a caste system under the British, the immigrants, penniless and ill, were despised, and the timidity this produced is to be found today, three generations later. And as Munger notes, intermarriage tended to happen mostly at the social margins, because the Rwandans (and the women later followed the men), meant lower dowries demanded at nuptials.
The Buganda government, under the indirect colonial rule which left it in charge of broad swathes of its subjects, viewed the arrivals ambivalently. They were refugees; they were badly needed labour. After a few years, the Kabaka’s government began to tax them as its other subjects, a tacit act of admission. Those who could, integrated swiftly, taking on new identities and names.
The more urgent immigration into Uganda, of Rwandans and Burundians, was yet to come. But it resulted in a multi-layered extra-Rwandan diaspora. There are the integrated, who bare Ugandan names, have Ugandan parentage and are largely unhappy about the way the later immigrants served to tarnish their image, to say nothing of complicating hard-won relationships.
Amongst those that broke off from the Ugandan army and returned to Rwanda, the spearhead group were not from this earlier exodus. This group of latter immigrants came in 1959.
Throughout, the Ugandans had not behaved well towards their guests. The country had not come without its share of pain. The love was not bottomless. And today, the integration is so profound that any Ugandan saying anything anti-Rwanda, may well be insulting a grandmother. They had learnt that not being accepted was not the worst that can happen. Keep your head down and blend in. Loss of identity was not the worst. And the worst did come. The 1959 migrants did not keep their heads down. The entire region paid a steep price for their indiscretion.
The second wave of migration and its consequences
With agricultural reform, by chiefly terracing the hills to stem soil erosion, the Belgians had managed to rein in famine in Rwanda. But the Belgians had ruled by divide et impera, elevating to the dangerous levels of ethnicity, what some have described as a class system, “Hutu” and “Tutsi”. They had favoured the “Tutsi”, for much of their colonial rule, with the “Hutu” treated as underdogs, who for instance were not allowed to acquire higher learning. By the racist means of the time, anthropologists and sociologists had said were non-African, non-negroid. But it was a difficult question. Nazi conquest and racial theory was so repugnant that the Belgians themselves abandoned the racialist bifurcation of their Rwanda-Burundi colony. Unfortunately, rather than create a level, unifying policy, they started to favour the Hutu instead. So that when it came, they handed over independence to the majority Hutu.
Almost immediately, the Hutu began to persecute the Tutsi. And it this crisis that led to the second wave of migration, in 1959. They were a different group now, not really peasant, but with a grudge in their hearts. In Uganda, Mr. Museveni recruited many from this group into his rebel army that fought against the Obote II government in the early 1980s. When Museveni overthrow the sclerotic Tito Okello junta that had itself overthrown the Obote government just six months early in 1985, he appointed many Rwandan refugees into government and the army. There was uproar in Uganda over the inclusion of foreigners in sensitive positions. Kagame himself had been head of a spy agency in Uganda.
Under pressure from Ugandans, Mr. Museveni understood he had to let them go. Hence, when they broke away in 1990, after helping set fire to Uganda, there was something of doom about it. They clearly weren’t coming back. But the worst was at the other end. Much as it has always been said that Mr. Paul Kagame, who inherited leadership of the Rwanda Patriotic Army rebel group after the death of its leader, Fred Rwigyema. After four years of fighting, which started in 1990, hardliner Hutu leadership unleashed the 1994 genocide. The militarization of politics in Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and Congo, has meant that the four countries have been in one form of warfare or the other for nearly 60 years.
The matrix of governing a country with sharp divides, and doing it by force, is not one that Mr. Kagame’s temperament seems suited for. It may be gratifying to defeat your enemies. But you have to be a Nelson Mandela to win them over. You must win them over, for these conflicts are circuitous. Soon the other side can, and will, rise to power. It’s a question of time.
Increasingly intolerant governments have characterised Uganda and Rwanda, at a time when all over the continent, countries are settling down to stable governance. What is the point? What plans do Messrs. Museveni and Kagame have this region? Much as it is clear to all who pay attention that the unfortunate weaponising of ethnicity has perhaps trapped both men in power, it is still puzzling because there seems to be no end game in sight, except endless corruption and more militarization, which will require even more corruption to maintain the patronage system, and more militarization to fend off the disaffected. We have become trapped in a loop without exits. Decades ago, the citizens waited patiently because it seemed that real change could come. But if after these many years a pregnant woman has to sneak across a border, that begs the question, as Oliver Cromwell once asked of the British Parliament; have you not sat here too long for any good you can have done?
Shutting down the border is symbolic of the increasing pointlessness of the two regimes.
They came into power at the time that the cold war was ending. The period of rapid coups and countercoups in Africa, funded by the rival capitalist and communist power blocs ended then, with the result that whoever had been in power at that time, tended to remain so for a bit longer. Put simply, the power balance that might have kept the two men honest was not there. Crucially then, these quakes we now feel in Uganda and Rwanda, are not casual. They are the deep rumblings from shifting global tectonic power plates. In the past, when they were at loggerheads, the British Foreign Secretaries jetted in to knock their heads together. Agony “Aunts” Lynda Chalker and Claire Short, British ministers of the 1990s and 00s, would have been here already. But the British now have their hands full back home, and need benevolent foreign secretaries to go knock their heads together, enduring the cruel reversal of the foreign policy technique they so perfected, of keeping countries they wished to rule at each other’s throats.
The absence of steadying British and American hands right now, in this conflict, has exposed the lack of political and management skills in Kigali and in Kampala. It has exposed the fact that Uganda and Rwanda have for decades now been run as client states. In the absence of the Anglo-Saxon power-meisters, Museveni and Kagame are learning cruelly the difference between monkey and organ grinder. It is left to the East African Community states, Tanzania and Kenya, to try and sort the situation out. But it takes a fool to bet on that strategy working. Twice, first in 1985, then in 1994, both Kenya and Tanzania attempted to sort political problems in Uganda and Rwanda out. But the rebel leaders then merely inked their names to agreements reached in Nairobi and Arusha, whilst using the interim to move their forces closer to the capitals. With spectacular disasters. Those rebels? They are now called President Museveni and President Kagame.
How does that now happen? Did Nairobi and Dar es Salaam ever forgive the slight? Do they trust the two men? But, that is the wrong question. The question is, what power backdrop are the two men now banking on? If we can answer that question, maybe we can predict how they plan to plunge us into new rounds of war. Global power dynamics have eroded the neoliberal economic system they had learnt to game. What is emerging now requires skills beyond wearing military fatigues and firing AK 47s at target boards.
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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