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So Many Hungers: The Starving IDPs in Uthamaki’s Backyard

12 min read.

As famine threatens to devastate vast regions of the country the stories and pictures that the Kenyan media has been relaying are those of the Turkana people. But what about the Kikuyus who happen to occupy some of best arable land you can find anywhere in the country? As fate would have it, there has been a silent hunger going on in the Uthamaki kingdom, not just in the semi-arid plateau or less arable lands, but also in some of the most fertile lands in the country.

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So Many Hungers: The Starving IDPs in Uthamaki’s Backyard
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Seeing is believing. And first-hand witnessing clears all falsehoods and half-truths, and separates facts from fiction.

I had to travel more than 200 km north-west of Nairobi through Laikipia and Nyandarua counties to see for myself how hunger has been stalking the Kikuyu people in their own land of plenty. As difficult as it is to believe, a section of the Kikuyu people – who are considered the most prosperous, the most exposed, and the most resilient of all the 42 ethnic communities in Kenya – are playing dice with starvation and have been abandoned and left alone to fend for themselves in whichever way they know how.

The mainstream Kenyan media have peddled the narrative that famine and food shortages can only be found among (backward) pastoralist people (who do not know how to cultivate land), and not among the agrarian, sedentary Kikuyus, whose land of milk and honey is endowed with rich soils that can practically grow any crop this side of the planet. It has been a false narrative that masks the true state of affairs.

As famine threatens to devastate vast regions of the country (largely because of delayed or failed rains) the stories and pictures that the Kenyan media has been relaying – and has always relayed – are those of the Turkana people, emaciated old men and women and dying children. If not the Turkana people, it has been the Akamba people, who like the pastoralist Turkana, happen to come from some of the harshest semi-arid regions of the country. Their starvation is always implicitly blamed on their topography, which according to geography is susceptible to drought – a natural calamity that human beings have little control over.
But what about the Kikuyus who happen to occupy some of best arable land you can find anywhere in the country? Why would they be threatened with food shortages? As fate would have it, there has been a silent hunger going on in the Uthamaki kingdom, not just in the semi-arid plateau or less arable lands, but also in some of the most fertile lands in the country.

The mainstream Kenyan media have peddled the narrative that famine and food shortages can only be found among (backward) pastoralist people (who do not know how to cultivate land), and not among the agrarian, sedentary Kikuyus, whose land of milk and honey is endowed with rich soils that can practically grow any crop this side of the planet. It has been a false narrative that masks the true state of affairs.

I arrived at Makutano, a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) that looks like a United Nations refugee camp with its blue iron sheet roofs scattered over the 4,600 acres of land in Ngobit, in Laikipia County, 20 km from Ndaragwa town, which is in Nyandarua District. I had gone to the settlement area to see for myself how starvation was threatening to emaciate the people as they fought to keep biting hunger at bay by receiving tiny rations of foodstuffs from well-wishers.

It was about 1.00 pm, when we found Lucia Wanjiru Njoroge in her makeshift dwelling. She was lying on the floor on her “bed” made of a reed mat and a worn-out blanket. “My tooth has really been aching, so I’ve just been lying down the whole morning because I cannot do anything,” explained Wanjiru, as she ushered in me and my minder. We sat on the black cotton soil floor. (There were no chairs or stools or anything that could be sat on.) “This toothache (it was the lower molar tooth that was aching) is driving me crazy: it has given me a terrible headache and incapacitated my movements.”

Wanjiru, who is in her mid- to late-60s, told us that she could not remember her exact date of birth, “but I can remember very well when we got independence in 1963, because I was already a young girl and could understand what was going on.” It was evident that she had shrunk in size and she looked much older than her actual age. Times were hard; times had always been hard, since she left Rongai, in Nakuru County, a dozen years ago.

‘They survive on one meal a day’

It was lunchtime and Wanjiru had no food to eat: she lived with three of her grandchildren, two girls and a boy, but recently her fourth-born son had come visiting. Word had reached him in Nakuru that his mother was down with fever. Outside, a black pot rested on a three-stone hearth, the fire embers having died out. “I’ve been boiling dry maize for the children to eat – that’s all we have to eat,” said Wanjiru. She told us the kids had last eaten the same food 24 hours earlier. “They survive on one meal a day. That’s what I can provide. It helped when the school provided the kids with some meals, but since January, there hasn’t been any food in the school either.”

The teachers told me that the children who brought some semblance of food to school were so few that it was creating a commotion at lunchtime. “The hungry kids without food will hover around those with food and demand to be given some. Hunger knows no bounds,” observed teacher Salome.

It was a Friday when I visited Wanjiru. The schools had reopened for the second term, but I found her grandchildren at home doing odd jobs around their house. “The head teacher had asked them not to go back to school until they paid examination fees,” said their granny. By examination fees, she meant the opening continuous assessment test (CAT) that is done at the beginning of the school term. “How much was the examination fee?” I asked her. “Thirty shillings for each. I can’t raise a hundred shillings because I haven’t worked for some time. It’s the tooth, but also work has been hard to come by these last couple of weeks. I wish the head teacher would understand. But this term, he said he was going to be very strict.”
Her grandchildren attend Shalom Primary School located in the camp. There I found teachers Jackie and Salome. “The situation in the school is dire. The school can no longer provide food for the pupils because it does not have any money to spare,” explained Jackie. “So parents have been asked to supplement the food ration by giving their children something to carry to school, but how many parents can afford any extra food. As it is, they don’t have any more food at home.”

The teachers told me that the children who brought some semblance of food to school were so few that it was creating a commotion at lunchtime. “The hungry kids without food will hover around those with food and demand to be given some. Hunger knows no bounds,” observed teacher Salome. “So what we teachers have been doing is to beg for food on behalf of the pupils who don’t have any food. We ask the children who have carried food whether they are willing to share. Then we put them into groups.” To be on the safe side, the teachers said they normally ask the pupils with food not to report to their parents that they shared their food. “The food’s already too little, and we don’t want parents who have provided their children with morsels of food to storm the school and accuse the teachers of forcing their children to share their meagre rations.”

Before heading to Makutano, I had stopped at Ndaragwa Primary School. Built in 1944, it is one of the oldest primary schools in the country. The original wooden class is still intact. “We’re struggling to feed the children here,” a board member said to me. “Parents whose children learn here are so poor, they can’t afford to give their children daily rations for their lunch.”

The board member narrated to me how one teacher had asked his class to record in their exercise books (as a form of homework) what types of food they had for lunch on different days. “Going through the exercise books, the teacher noticed that one of the pupils had not filled his book on several days for several weeks. ‘Why haven’t you filled in some days, did you forget?’ asked the teacher. ‘No, it’s because I didn’t eat on those days,’ replied the pupil. Many pupils are going hungry because they have nothing to eat,” said the board member.

‘It was hunger that was driving him nuts’

Wanjiru, a victim of post-election violence (PEV) of 2007/2008 came to Makutano in Ngobit in 2012. “One day during the controversial presidential election, we returned home to find everything razed to the ground. The house with everything had been torched…we escaped with our lives,” recalled Wanjiru. She had been a casual labourer on a white man’s sisal plantation in Athenai in Rongai division. “We were taken to the Nakuru showground, after which we were transported to Mawingo area in Nyandarua County.”

In March, 2012, after each family was given Sh10,000, they were settled at Makutano, 40 km from Nyahururu town on the Nyeri-Nyahururu highway. “To give Sh10,000 to each family was an insult. What were you supposed to do with the paltry sum, especially after staying in a camp for three years?” asked a solemn Wanjiru. The land the IDPs were settled on belonged to the family of Zachary Gakunju, the late Kiambu coffee plantation magnate.

The IDPs who came to Makutano were mostly from Burnt Forest, Eldoret, Kaptembwa, Kericho, Kipkelion and Molo. They were each given a quarter of an acre to put up a house and two acres for farming.

“The government bought the land known as Giani Farm from Gakunju. It has rich soils, but where’s the seed capital to engage in farming?” Wanjiru said many of the camp’s IDPs have been reduced to casual labourers, working in the neighbouring big and small farms for Sh200 ($2) a day, tilling land. Wanjiru’s husband was killed during the ethnic mayhem, making her the sole breadwinner of her family comprising her children and now some of her grandchildren.

The IDPs who came to Makutano were mostly from Burnt Forest, Eldoret, Kaptembwa, Kericho, Kipkelion and Molo. They were each given a quarter of an acre to put up a house and two acres for farming. The government provided each family with blue iron sheets for a 25 by 14 size house. The government erected the iron sheet roofing with four wooden props so that each family could complete the rest. Many did not have the money to actually put up the iron sheets with proper shelter, whether with extra iron sheets or plywood to seal the four corner spaces. Many of the ramshackle structures were thus sealed with cartons and hanging rags.

If Wanjiru can at least have the energy to fend for herself and her grandchildren, Cucu Alice Wambui is too old to even move around. I found her sunbasking outside her house. Her two male grandchildren were repairing the rickety reed fence. The boys, pupils at Shalom Primary School, like Wanjiru’s grandchildren, had missed school. Reason? “Cucu (grandma) does not have the Sh60 for exam fees.”

Wambui told me she was born in 1933. Because of going through long spells without eating anything, she had become emaciated and weak. “I’m too weak to do anything, so I depend on well-wishers to support me and my two grandchildren,” said Wambui, who correctly noted her age and said she was now 86 years old, and facing the sunset of her life. Next to where she was seated was a small bowl of dry githeri (a mixture of boiled maize and beans). “I can’t chew the maize, I’ve no teeth left,” said Wambui as she opened her mouth for me to see her gaping gums. When she eats, she cherry-picks the softer beans, which she crushes with her gums.

“I don’t have long to live, but I would like to see my (grand) children continue with schooling,” said Wambui. The boys are in class four and five respectively, and they hang around their grandmother because she is the only parent they have ever known. “I took them in when they were very young…very young,” recalled Cucu. “That younger one would even try and suckle my sagging empty breasts,” she said laughing but with a touch of sadness.

One of the well-wishers that has been taking care of Cucu Wambui with her two grandchildren is Love in Action Mission (LIAM), a community-based organisation in Ngobit. “It has been challenging and heart wrenching,” said Pastor Isaac Kinyua Wairangu, who is charged with the daily operations of the LIAM. “We don’t know who to distribute the little foodstuff we have to, and who to skip. The camp people are all really badly off, but for Cucu Wambui, it is a self-evident case.” In any case, Wairangu said that the community-based organisation did not have enough food to distribute to everyone. LIAM also relies on well-wishers to give it foodstuffs to distribute around in Makutano camp.

“I’ve been receiving five packets of 2 kg of flour, 1 kg for porridge and a bar of soap every fortnight,” Wambui told me. “That’s what has been keeping us alive.” Wairangu said that his organisation evaluated which family to help on a need-to-need basis. “We can only distribute so much. Recently we decided to put Wanjiru in our programme. Her intermittent sickness was pulling her down and she was unable to work as a farmhand. She’s also really not that young and with her three grandchildren, all young, she needed help.”

Thirty-four year-old John Thiong’o, Wanjiru’s son who had come visiting from Nakuru, told me that tilling the land for a woman of his mother’s age was a daunting task. A labourer is supposed to dig an area measuring 15 by 15 piece of land. “This work is done with a hoe and spade, requires someone strong and who’s feeding well. With not enough food going around here…you can only expect so much from an old lady like my mother.”

Thiong’o himself is a labourer in Nakuru. He said that wage labour everywhere had been going down lately – the drought had seriously affected and disrupted the harvesting and sowing periods. “That’s when there’s work in the farms. Since late last year, there hasn’t been work. It is that bad.”

Pastor Wairangu told me that another person they had incorporated into their programme was Guka (granddad), an octogenarian, who lived alone and whose family was killed in the 2007/2008 ethnic upheavals. “Guka would go for long periods of starvation, recoiled in his hovel, where oftentimes he would weep on his own,” said Wairangu. “Then he started behaving like he had been possessed, talking to himself, like he was performing a soliloquy…when he was given food, he calmed down. It was hunger that was driving him nuts.”

‘This government has never done anything for IDPs’

Right in the middle of the highlands, with the Mt. Kenya and Aberdare Ranges close by, Makutano camp can be very cold and windy at night. When Esther Kwamboka Ambuya gave birth to her fraternal twins, her “house” was a hovel. The only thing it had was the blue iron sheets. The empty spaces were filled with cartons and hanging rags and sacks. But when I visited her, the house had been built with iron sheets all round and partitioned with plywood.

“LIAM one time came visiting. They found the twins very sick. They asked me what the problem was. I told them it was the windy chilly nights through the gaping holes, which exacerbated their sickness,” said a smiling Kwamboka to me.

“But the babies had also been underfed,” added Wairangu. “We elected to re-do her house and put her on a feeding programme to boost her milk production for the babies.”

Kwamboka, 28, could now afford a smile and for a good reason: The house was now shielded from the chilly winds and the floor had been spruced up by a thick black polythene sheet to help trap heat. This kept the babies warm.

This Jubilee government is the most useless that has ever ruled Kenya,” said Peter Kariuki, the national chairman of IDPs in Kenya…As we talked, he painted a grim picture of the lives of the Kikuyus living in the camps, not only in Makutano, but wherever IDPs were located. “There are 300,000 IDPs, 95 percent of them Kikuyus, still not settled and languishing in poverty. And this government since its inception has never, mark my words, never done anything for IDPs.”

Kwamboka, today a single mother, was in Form III when PEV happened. She lived in Soko Mjinga in Kaptembwa in Nakuru. When her family escaped to the showground, the family separated as they were being taken to the different IDP camps. When the twins were born, she could not continue working as a casual labourer. “Her hands were full and she was all alone with the twins. They almost starved, but we helped salvage the situation,” said Wairangu.

“This Jubilee government is the most useless that has ever ruled Kenya,” said Peter Kariuki, the national chairman of IDPs in Kenya. I found him in Makutano. As we talked, he painted a grim picture of the lives of the Kikuyus living in the camps, not only in Makutano, but wherever IDPs were located. “There are 300,000 IDPs, 95% of them Kikuyus, still not settled and languishing in poverty. And this government since its inception has never, mark my words, never done anything for IDPs.”

The IDPs in Makutano were settled during President Mwai Kibaki’s tenure, explained the 38-year-old Kariuki. “The iron sheets for roofing were acquired during Kibaki’s time. We fought hard to coax the Sh10,000 from the government. By the time people were being settled at Makutano, Kibaki’s term was coming to end.”

Kariuki said that the IDPs had hoped the incoming government of President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto would be sympathetic to their plight. After all, who could understand the predicament of IDPs better than these two comrades-in-arms? “But all they were interested in was canvassing for votes from poor and vulnerable people. They lied to them how once they got into power, the government would alleviate their miserable lot,” said Kariuki. “It’s really mindboggling how a government can ride on the susceptibility of its people tormented by the wicked political actions brought to bear on them by the very same politicians.”

Recently, said Kariuki, the government – out of guilt or shame, or both – brought 50 bags of dry maize as its contribution to the famine that is going on at Makutano camp. “Is this a joke of a government or how would you describe this insult?” posed Kariuki. “Makutano has a population of 9,600 people or around 1,600 families. How was that maize supposed to be distributed? Who was it supposed to feed? This is a shameless government devoid any feelings.”

Kariuki told me a dark cloud of a silent hunger was threatening the people of Makutano camp, menacingly circling around them, as a government obsessed with lofty ideals of constructing houses for the pretenders to middle class watched unperturbed. Kariuki is himself an IDP from Eldoret. “The IDPs who came to Makutano were poor, yes, but not desperate. They could afford their own food. They had their own animals and used to till their land until they were visited by the 2007/2008 political calamities.”

It is the government that has impoverished them, he added. “These people have been turned into serfs, exploited for their blood and labour. The Uhuru government, said Kairuki, was busy splitting hairs and blowing hot air over its duties and obligations to the citizenry. “What the people of Makutano have always wanted was the government to, at the very least, provide water for them. Rain-fed agriculture has over the years become intermittent and unpredictable.” The IDP chairman said that the underground water could not be used because it was saline – “it can’t be used for growing crops.”

The black cotton soil is fertile, he said, and it could be used to grow a variety of crops – from carrots to cabbages, potatoes to tomatoes, maize and beans. “Yet, look at all that land lying fallow because of lack of water and capital.”

I left Laikipia and Nyandarua counties persuaded that food shortages, hunger and food insecurity were less about drought and famine, but more to do with having the capacity to afford food and to secure food security.

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Politics

It’s a Nurses’ Market Out There, and Kenyans Are Going For It

Nurses are central to primary healthcare and unless Kenya makes investments in a well-trained, well supported and well-paid nursing workforce, nurses will continue to leave and the country is unlikely to achieve its Sustainable Development Goals in the area of health and wellbeing for all.

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Nancy* is planning to leave Kenya. She wants to go to the United States where the nursing pastures are supposedly greener. I first met Nancy when the country was in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic that tested Kenya’s healthcare system to breaking point. She was one of a cohort of recently graduated nurses that were hastily recruited by the Ministry of Health and thrown in at the deep end of the pandemic. Nancy earns KSh41,000 net with no other benefits whatsoever, unlike her permanent and pensionable colleagues.

When the then Labour and Social Protection Cabinet Secretary Simon Chelugui announced in early September 2021 that the government would be sending 20,000 nurses to the United Kingdom to help address the nursing shortage in that country, Nancy saw her chance. But her hopes were dashed when she failed to raise the KSh90,000 she needed to prepare and sit for the English language and nursing exams that are mandatory for foreign-trained nurses. Nancy would also have needed to pay the Nursing Council of Kenya KSh12,000 for the verification of her documents, pay the Kenya Medical Training College she attended KSh1,000 in order to get her exam transcripts, and apply for a passport, the minimum cost of which is KSh4,550 excluding the administrative fee. Nancy says that, contrary to then Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe’s disputed claims that a majority of applicants to the programme had failed the English language test, most nurses simply could not afford the cost of applying.

Of the targeted 20,000 nurses, the first 19 left Kenya for the UK in June 2022. But even that paltry figure represents a significant loss for Kenya, a country where the ratio of practicing nurses to the population is 11.66 per 10,000. The WHO considers countries with less than 40 nurses and midwives for every 10,000 people to not have enough healthcare professionals. Nearly 60 per cent of all healthcare professionals (medical physicians, nursing staff, midwives, dentists, and pharmacists) in the world are nurses, making them by far the most prevalent professional category within the health workforce. Nurses offer a wide range of crucial public health and care services at all levels of healthcare facilities as well as within the community, frequently serving as the first and perhaps the only healthcare provider that people see.

Kenya had 59,901 nurses/midwives in 2018, rising to 63,580 in 2020. Yet in 2021, Kenya was proposing to send almost a third of them to the UK to “address a shortfall of 62,000 in that country”.

The growing shortage of nurses in the UK has been blamed on the government’s decision to abolish bursaries and maintenance grants for nursing students in 2016, leading to a significant drop in the number of those applying to train as nurses. Consequently, the annual number of graduate nurses plummeted, reaching the current low of 31 nurses per 100,000 people, below the European average of 36.6 and half as many as in countries like Romania (96), Albania (82) and Finland (82). Facing pressure to recruit 50,000 nurses amid collapsing services and closures of Accident & Emergency, maternity and chemotherapy units across the country, the UK government decided to once again cast its net overseas. Established in 1948, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has relied on foreign healthcare workers ever since staff from the Commonwealth were first brought in to nurse back to health a nation fresh out of the Second World War.

The UK government’s press release announcing the signing of the Bilateral Agreement with Kenya states that the two countries have committed  “to explore working together to build capacity in Kenya’s health workforce through managed exchange and training” and goes as far as to claim that “with around only 900 Kenyan staff currently in the NHS, the country has an ambition to be the ‘Philippines of Africa’ — with Filipino staff one of the highest represented overseas countries in the health service — due to the positive economic impact that well-managed migration can have on low to middle income countries.”

It is a dubious ambition, if indeed it has been expressed. The people of the Philippines do not appear to be benefiting from the supposed increase in capacity that the exchange and training is expected to bring. While 40,000 of their nurses worked in the UK’s National Health Service last year, back home, according to Filipino Senator Sonny Angara, “around 7 of 10 Filipinos die without ever seeing a health professional and the nurse to patient ratio in our hospitals remains high at 1:50 up to 1:802”.

Since 2003 when the UK and the government of the Philippines signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the recruitment of Filipino healthcare professionals, an export-led industry has grown around the training of nurses in the Philippines that has attracted the increased involvement of the private sector. More nursing institutions — that have in reality become migrant institutions — are training nurses specifically for the overseas market, with the result that skills are matched to Western diseases and illnesses, leaving the country critically short of healthcare personnel. Already, in 1999, Filipino doctors had started retraining as nurses and leaving the country in search of better pay.

It is difficult, then, to see how the Philippines is an example to emulate. Unless, of course, beneath the veneer of “partnership and collaboration in health”, lies the objective of exporting Kenyan nurses with increased diaspora remittances in mind – Kenyans in the UK sent KSh28.75 billion in the first nine months of 2022, or nearly half what the government has budgeted for the provision of universal health care to all Kenyans. If that is the case, how that care is to be provided without nurses is a complete mystery.

Already in 1999, Filipino doctors had started retraining as nurses and leaving the country in search of better pay.

For the UK, on the other hand, importing nurses trained in Kenya is a very profitable deal. Whereas the UK government “typically spends at least £26,000, and sometimes far more, on a single nurse training post”, it costs only £10,000 to £12,000 to recruit a nurse from overseas, an externalization of costs that commodifies nurses, treating them like goods to be bought and sold.

However, in agreeing to the terms of the trade in Kenyan nurses, the two governments are merely formalizing the reality that a shortage of nurses in high-income countries has been driving the migration of nurses from low-income countries for over two decades now. Along with Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe, Kenya is one of the top 20 countries of origin of foreign-born or foreign-trained nurses working in the countries of the OECD, of which the UK is a member state.

Faced with this reality, and in an attempt to regulate the migration of healthcare workers, the World Health Assembly adopted the WHO Global Code of Practice on the Recruitment of Health Personnel in May 2010. The code, the adherence to which is voluntary, “provides ethical principles applicable to the international recruitment of health personnel in a manner that strengthens the health systems of developing countries, countries with economies in transition and small island states.”

Article 5 of the code encourages recruiting countries to collaborate with the sending countries in the development and training of healthcare workers and discourages recruitment from developing countries facing acute shortages. Given the non-binding nature of the code, however, and “the severe global shortage of nurses”, resource-poor countries, which carry the greatest disease burden globally, will continue to lose nurses to affluent countries. Wealthy nations will inevitably continue luring from even the poorest countries nurses in search of better terms of employment and better opportunities for themselves and their families; Haiti is on the list of the top 20 countries supplying the OECD region.

“Member States should discourage active recruitment of health personnel from developing countries facing critical shortages of health workers.”

Indeed, an empirical evaluation of the code four years after its adoption found that the recruitment of health workers has not undergone any substantial policy or regulatory changes as a direct result of its introduction. Countries had no incentive to apply the code and given that it was non-binding, conflicting domestic healthcare concerns were given the priority.

The UK’s Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has developed its own code of practice under which the country is no longer recruiting nurses from countries that the WHO recognizes as facing health workforce challenges. Kenya was placed on the UK code’s amber list on 11 November 2021, and active recruitment of health workers to the UK was stopped “with immediate effect” unless employers had already made conditional offers to nurses from Kenya on or before that date. Presumably, the Kenyan nurses who left for the UK in June 2022 fall into this category.

In explaining its decision, the DHSC states that “while Kenya is not on the WHO Health Workforce Support & Safeguards List, it remains a country with significant health workforce challenges. Adding Kenya to the amber list in the Code will protect Kenya from unmanaged international recruitment which could exacerbate existing health and social care workforce shortages.”

The WHO clarifies that nothing in its Code of Practice should be interpreted as curtailing the freedom of health workers to move to countries that are willing to allow them in and offer them employment. So, even as the UK suspends the recruitment of Kenyan nurses, they will continue to find opportunities abroad as long as Western countries continue to face nurse shortages. Kenyan nurses will go to the US where 203,000 nurses will be needed each year up to 2026, and to Australia where the supply of nursing school graduates is in decline, and to Canada where the shortage is expected to reach 117,600 by 2030, and to the Republic of Ireland which is now totally dependent on nurses recruited from overseas and where working conditions have been described as “horrendous”.

“Adding Kenya to the amber list in the Code will protect Kenya from unmanaged international recruitment which could exacerbate existing health and social care workforce shortages.”

Like hundreds of other Kenyan-trained nurses then, Nancy will take her skills overseas. She has found a recruitment agency through which to apply for a position abroad and is saving money towards the cost. She is not seeking to move to the UK, however; Nancy has been doing her research and has concluded that the United States is a much better destination given the more competitive salaries compared to the UK where nurses have voted to go strike over pay and working conditions. When she finally gets to the US, Nancy will join Diana*, a member of the over 90,000-strong Kenyan diaspora, more than one in four of whom are in the nursing profession.

Now in her early 50s, Diana had worked for one of the largest and oldest private hospitals in Nairobi for more than 20 years before moving to the US in 2017. She had on a whim presented her training certificates to a visiting recruitment agency that had set up shop in one of Nairobi’s high-end hotels and had been shortlisted. There followed a lengthy verification process for which the recruiting agency paid all the costs, requiring Diana to only sign a contract binding her to her future US employer for a period of two years once she had passed the vetting process.

Speaking from her home in Virginia last week, Diana told me that working as a nurse in the US “is not a bed of roses”, that although the position is well paying, it comes with a lot of stress. “The nurse-to-patient ratio is too high and the job is all about ticking boxes and finishing tasks, with no time for the patients,” she says, adding that in such an environment fatal mistakes are easily made. Like the sword of Damocles, the threat of losing her nursing licence hangs over Diana’s head every day that she takes up her position at the nursing station.

“The nurse-to-patient ratio is too high and the job is all about ticking boxes and finishing tasks, with no time for the patients.”

Starting out as an Enrolled Nurse in rural Kenya, Diana had over the years improved her skills, graduating as a Registered Nurse before acquiring a Batchelor of Science in Nursing from a top private university in Kenya, the tuition for which was partially covered by her employer.

Once in the US, however, her 20 years of experience counted for nothing and she was employed on the same footing as a new graduate nurse, as is the case for all overseas nurses moving to the US to work. Diana says that, on balance, she would have been better off had she remained at her old job in Kenya where the care is better, the opportunities for professional growth are greater and the work environment well controlled. But like many who have gone before her, Diana is not likely to be returning to Kenya any time soon.

*Names have been changed.

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Politics

Why Azimio’s Presidential Petition Stood No Chance

In so far as the court had nullified the 2017 elections, the evidential threshold required for any subsequent electoral nullification was going to be substantially high for any petitioner.

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Even before the 9 August general election, it was expected that the loser of the Kenyan presidential contest would petition the Supreme Court to arbitrate over the outcome. Predictably, the losing party, Azimio La Umoja-One Kenya Coalition, petitioned the court to have William Ruto’s win nullified on various procedural and technical grounds. Azimio’s case was predicated on, among others, three key allegations. First, that William Ruto failed to garner the requisite 50 per cent plus one vote. Second, that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) chairman Wafula Chebukati had announced the outcome without tallying and verifying results from seven constituencies. Finally, that the commission could not account for 250,000 votes that were cast electronically.

As we know, Azimio lost the case as the judges dismissed all the nine petitions that the party had filed, unanimously finding that William Ruto had won fairly.

Adjudicating electoral fallouts

Since its inception in 2010, the Supreme Court has played a decisive role in adjudicating fallouts linked to contentious presidential politics in Kenya, with the court deliberating on the outcome of three out of the four presidential elections held after its inauguration. Prior to this, the losing party had no credible institutional mechanism of redress and electoral disputes were generally resolved through mass political action (as in 2007) or consistent questioning of the legitimacy of the winner (as in 1992 and 1997).

The Supreme Court’s presence has, therefore, been crucial in providing losers with an institutionalised mechanism to channel dissent, with the court operating as a “safety valve” to diffuse political tensions linked to presidential elections. It is, hence, impossible to conceive of the relatively peaceful elections held in 2013, 2017 and 2022 without the Supreme Court whose mere presence has been key in discouraging some of the more deadly forms of political rivalry previously witnessed in Kenya.

Relentless petitioning

While the Azimio leadership were right to petition the court in the recent election, first because this successfully diffused the political tensions among their supporters, and second because the court was expected to provide directions on IEBC conduct in future elections, it was clear that Raila Odinga’s relentless petitioning of the court in the previous two elections, and the nullification of the 2017 elections, was in essence going to be a barrier to a successful petition in 2022.

In so far as the court had nullified the 2017 elections, the evidential threshold required for any subsequent electoral nullification was going to be substantially high for any petitioner. The relentless petitioning of the court and the nullification of the 2017 elections had in essence raised the bar for the burden of proof, which lay with the petitioner(s) and, therefore, reduced the probability of a successful petition.

The Supreme Court’s presence has been crucial in providing losers with an institutionalised mechanism to channel dissent.

The reason for this is both legal and political. Legal in the sense that the IEBC is expected to conduct the elections under the law, which, among other issues, requires that the electoral process be credible and the results verifiable before any certification is made, otherwise the election is nullified, as was the case in 2017. It is political because the power to select the president is constitutionally, hence politically, delegated to the Kenyan people through the ballot, unless electoral fraud infringes on this, again as was the case in 2017.

The court in its deliberation must, therefore, balance the legal-political trade-off in its verdict in search of a plausible equilibrium. For instance, while the majority of Azimio supporters had anticipated a successful petition based on the public walkout and dissent by the four IEBC commissioners, it seems that the decision to uphold the results displayed the court’s deference to political interpretation of the law by issuing a ruling that did not undermine the Kenyan voters’ right to elect their president.

While the settlement of legal-political disputes by a Supreme/Constitutional court is a common feature across democracies, and continuously being embedded in emerging democracies like Kenya, it does seem that in this election, the political motivations for upholding the vote outweighed the legal motivations for nullifying it. In essence, the court demonstrated its institutional independence by ruling against the Kenyatta-backed Azimio candidate due to insufficient evidence.

Supreme Court power grab 

A counterfactual outcome where the evidential threshold for the nullification of presidential results is low would foster a Supreme Court power grab, in lieu with the 2017 nullification, by marginalising the sovereign will of Kenyans to elect their president.

In many ways, nullification of the results would also have incentivised further adversarial political behaviour where every electoral outcome is contested in the Supreme Court even when the outcome is relatively clean, as in the case of the 2022 elections.

It is this reason (among others) that we think underlined the Supreme Court justices’ dismissal of Azimio’s recent petition. The justices ultimately dismissed the evidence presented by the petitioners as “hot air, outright forgeries, red herring, wild goose chase and unproven hypotheses”, setting a clear bar for the standard of evidence they expect in order to deliberate over such an important case in the future.

In essence, the court demonstrated its institutional independence by ruling against the Kenyatta-backed Azimio candidate due to insufficient evidence.

Since the earth-shaking nullification of the 2017 elections, the Supreme Court transcended an epoch, more political than legal by “invading” the sovereign space for Kenyans to elect their president, thereof setting a precedence that any future successful petition to contest a presidential election requires watertight evidence.

In a sense, Azimio were victims of Odinga’s judicial zealotry and especially the successful 2017 petition. In so far as the evidence submitted to the Supreme Court by Azimio in 2022 was at the same level or even lower than the 2017 base, their case at the Supreme Court was very likely to be dismissed and even ridiculed as the justices recently did.

The precedent set by the 2022 ruling will, actually, yield two positive political outcomes. First, it will in the future weed out unnecessary spam petitions that lack evidence and rather increase needless political tensions in the country. Second, it has signalled to future petitioners, that serious deliberations will only be given to petitions backed by rock-solid evidence.

Missed opportunity

From the recent ruling, it is evident that the judgement fell far below the precedent set in 2017. The 2017 Supreme Court ruling that the IEBC should make the servers containing Form 34A publicly available, was crucial in improving the credibility of the 2022 elections, by democratising the tallying process. At a minimum, the expectation was that the justices would provide a directive on the recent public fallout among the IEBC commissioners with regard to future national tallying and announcement of presidential results.

By dismissing the fallout as a mere corporate governance issue, the justices failed to understand the political ramifications of the “boardroom rupture”. What are we to do in the future if the IEBC Chair rejects the results and the other commissioners validate the results as credible?

Additionally, by ridiculing the petitioners as wild goose chasers and dismissing the evidence as “hot air”, the justices failed to maintain the amiable judicial tone necessary to decompress and assuage the bitter grievances among losers in Kenya high-octane political environment.

In a sense, Azimio were victims of Mr Odinga’s judicial zealotry and especially the 2017 successful petition.

The Supreme Court ought to resist the temptations of trivializing electoral petitions, as this has the potential of triggering democratic backsliding, where electoral losers might opt for extra-constitutional means of addressing their grievances as happened in December 2007. It is not in the petitioners’ place to ascertain whether their evidence is “hot air” or not, but for the court to do so, and in an amiable judicial tone that offers reconciliation in a febrile political environment.

The precedent set by the 2017 ruling that clarified the ambiguities related to the IEBC’s use of technology to conduct elections, set an incremental pathway towards making subsequent elections credible and fair, and increased public trust in the key electoral institutions in Kenya.

The justices, therefore, need to understand that their deliberations hold weight in the public eye and in the eyes of political leaders. Therefore, outlining recommendations to improve the IEBC’s conduct in future elections is a bare minimum expectation among Kenyans. In this case, while they provided some recommendations, they failed to comprehensively address the concerns around the walk-out by the four IEBC commissioners.

At the minimum, chastising the IEBC conduct was necessary to consolidate the electoral gains made thus far but also recalibrate institutional imperfections linked to how elections are to be conducted and, especially, contestations around the role of the commissioners in the national tallying of results in the future.

This article is part of our project on information and voter behaviour in the 2022 Kenyan elections. The project is funded by the Centre for Governance and Society, Department of Political Economy, King’s College London.

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Politics

GMOs Are Not the Only Answer

In a country where agricultural production is dominated by smallholders, the decision to allow genetically modified crops and animal feeds into Kenya as a means of combatting perennial hunger ignores other safer and more accessible alternatives such as Conservation Agriculture.

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GMOs Are Not the Only Answer
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Newly elected President William Ruto has, to use a much abused expression, hit the ground running. I am, however, not certain that he is running in the right direction. On 3 October 2022, during the second meeting of his recently (and unconstitutionally) constituted cabinet, Ruto announced that his government had authorized the cultivation and importation of genetically modified crops and animal feeds, sweeping aside the grave concerns raised by Kenyans and lifting a ten-year ban with the stroke of a pen.

The decision was made at a time when Kenya is facing the worst drought in four decades that has left over four million people facing starvation. According to President Ruto, the adoption of GMOs is the solution to the recurring cycles of drought and famine that Kenyans have been increasingly experiencing.

I shall not go into the merits and demerits of what some call Frankenfoods here. However, it seems to me that Ruto’s decision is driven solely by the political imperative to bring down the price of maize through cheap imports of GM maize following the withdrawal of the maize subsidy.

Already, back in November 2018, the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI), the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition (KBioC), the Africa Biodiversity Network (ABN) and Greenpeace Africa had issued a joint statement raising “concerns over recent disconcerting developments in the country, that [suggest] the Government has made [a] unilateral decision to adopt genetically modified crops”, and adding that “an all-inclusive nationwide discourse through public participation, which addresses whether the technology is appropriate for us, is being circumvented”.

The group also voiced their suspicion that the report of the Task Force to Review Matters Relating to Genetically Modified Foods and Food Safety that was set up by the Ministry of Health in 2013 was being withheld because it was against the adoption of GM foods. This suspicion may well be founded since, in making the announcement, State House said that the decision to lift the GMO ban was “made in accordance with the recommendation of the Task Force”, while failing to make the so-called Thairu report—which was submitted in 2014—available for public scrutiny.

The cabinet said that in reaching its decision to lift the ban it had also referred to reports of the European Food Safety Authority, among others.

The European Union’s policy on GMOs “respects the right-to-know by ensuring clear labelling and traceability of GMOs. This requires reliable methods for the detection, identification and quantification (for authorised GMO) in food, feed, and the environment”. There is zero tolerance for unapproved GMOs and stringent regulation of products originating from or containing GMOs.

A detailed risk analysis and the availability of a validated method for locating, identifying, and quantifying GMOs in food or feed are prerequisites for authorization. For any GM launch, biotech businesses that want to market their product in the EU must submit an application. A very precise way of detecting each unique GMO is included in the application dossier.

The terms of reference of the government’s GMO task force included, among others, assessing Kenya’s infrastructural capacities to monitor genetically modified products in the country; assessing the adequacy of qualified human resource capacity to monitor research, use and importation of genetically modified products into the country; and recommending approval procedures for imports of GM foods.

If we are to look only at the procedures established by the National Biosafety Authority for the importation of GM products into the country, then we may conclude that Kenya lacks the infrastructural and qualified human resource capacity to monitor their research, use and importation. In effect, an entity wishing to import a GM product into the country is merely required to provide the particulars of the supplier, the nomenclature of the GMO, proof that the GMO has been registered in the exporting country, its use in the country of origin, its intended use in Kenya, a summary risk assessment, methods and plans for safe handling, storage, transport and use, and the emergency response foreseen in the event of an accident with the GMO. The second of the two-page the application document is reserved for the applicant’s signature before a commissioner for oaths, a magistrate or a judge. Means of detection of GMOs are not mentioned.

It would seem then that Ruto’s government has fully devolved the responsibility for Kenya’s biosafety and biosecurity to the authorities of foreign nations. This is very frightening when you consider, for example, that the European Union Regulation EC304/2003 allows EU companies to produce and export to other countries pesticides that are banned or restricted in the EU. This double standard is the reason why active ingredients which have been withdrawn in the EU find their way to Kenya, poisoning our bodies and our environment, and destroying our biodiversity.

Maize is not the only ugali

The lifting of the ban on GMOs may have sounded the death knell for Kenyan small-scale maize growers; GM maize is to be found on the international markets at prices that defy all competition, which will now prove to be a boon for well-connected maize-importing cartels.

But maize, a staple in the majority of Kenyan households, is a relatively recent arrival on our national menu, becoming a major staple during the First World War when disease in millet led to famine.

As Noel Vietmeyer observes in the foreword to the first volume of Lost Crops of Africa,

“Lacking the interest and support of the authorities (most of them non-African colonial authorities, missionaries, and agricultural researchers), the local grains could not keep pace with the up-to-the-minute foreign cereals, which were made especially convenient to consumers by the use of mills and processing. The old grains languished and remained principally as the foods of the poor and the rural areas. Eventually, they took on a stigma of being second-rate. Myths arose—that the local grains were not as nutritious, not as high yielding, not as flavorful, nor as easy to handle. As a result, the native grains were driven into internal exile. In their place, maize, a grain from across the Atlantic, became the main food from Senegal to South Africa.”

But with initiatives such as the Busia County Biodiversity Policy, which recognises the role that biodiversity can play in addressing food insecurity, the tide is turning and Kenyans are rediscovering and embracing the culinary habits of our forebears. You would think then that the GMO decision will not, in the main, affect the choices we make in the foods we consume. That those of us a tad squeamish about eating foods that have been genetically interfered with can opt out.

Were it that simple.

Many Kenyans are unaware that the Seed and Plant Varieties Act Cap 326 of 2012 prohibits farmers from sharing, exchanging or selling uncertified and unregistered seeds. Yet, to mitigate against the effects of perennial droughts and the escalating costs of hybrid seeds, community seed banks have been conserving indigenous seeds—that are demonstrably more climate-resilient—for sale during the planting season, in contravention of the law and at the risk of a one million shilling fine, or two years’ imprisonment, or both. Criminalising a system through which small-scale farmers acquire 90 per cent of their planting material does not augur well for Kenya’s food security, or for our biodiversity. Small-scale farmers are fighting back, however, with a group from Machakos recently going to court to challenge the legislation. It remains to be seen who between David and Goliath will prevail.

But maize, a staple in the majority of Kenyan households, is a relatively recent arrival on our national menu, becoming a major staple during the First World War when disease in millet led to famine.

What is clear is that Kenya’s David, while remaining impoverished over the decades since independence, is the mainstay of the country’s agriculture in terms of productivity. The Economic Survey (2021) of the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics reports that,

“The share of marketed agricultural output for small farms increased marginally to 73.3 per cent in 2020. This is a reflection of the continued dominance of the smallholder sector in the marketing of agricultural produce during the year under review. The value of sales through small farms increased by 9.4 per cent from KSh 341.4 billion in 2019 to KSh 373.6 billion in 2020. Similarly, the value of sales by large farms increased by 8.9 per cent from KSh 125.0 billion in 2019 to KSh 136.1 billion in 2020.”

The survey defines large farms as those above 20 hectares.

The small-holder has consistently outperformed the large-scale farmer despite government policies that have since the 70s viewed smallholders as without agency beyond adopting technologies that are presented as capable of transforming agriculture and building livelihoods. The adoption of GMOs is likely to be yet another of these technologies that, together with unjust seed legislation, will increase rather than decrease Kenya’s food insecurity.

President Ruto worries about food insecurity but fails to consider the very ready solution available to his administration and recommended in the Agricultural Policy (2021) of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Cooperatives, namely, conservation agriculture.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO – also quoted in Ruto’s decision to lift the GMO ban) recommends conservation agriculture as it is a sustainable system of production that conserves and enhances natural resources; enhances biodiversity; assists in carbon sequestration; is less labour and fertilizer intensive; improves the health of soils; and increases yields over time.

Criminalising a system through which small-scale farmers acquire 90 per cent of their planting material does not augur well for Kenya’s food security, or for our biodiversity.

The very promising results obtained among the small-scale farmers that have adopted the system following training under the FAO beginning in 2015 show that the government would do well to promote conservation agriculture among smallholders as a means of mitigating both against food insecurity and the effects of climate change, rather than hastily reaching for GM technologies that the country is ill-equipped to safely handle.

But clearly, the president is not on the same page as his Ministry of Agriculture and so, like others, I can only conclude that Ruto’s lifting of the GMO ban is for the benefit of the seed multinationals and their clients, the large-scale farmers who have taken over most of the productive land to grow cash crops for export, leaving small-scale farmers to exploit marginal lands for the production of food crops for local consumption. And for the benefit of maize-importing cartels.

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