There seems to be a resurgence of the kind of genre in the contemporary world where religion, initially thought to be on the wane, is actually reasserting itself in various ways. One of the most conspicuous voices, for example, in contemporary America, is Marilynne Robinson, whose works are followed with keen interest. We however are sceptical that such themes can sustain writers in the long run, and will label them as genre writers. This seems to us as the return of the repressed, in the classical Freudian sense, in the sense that themes that were becoming increasingly repressed in secular societies are finding their way back into the public consciousness through the works of gifted contemporary novelists.
Literature is often a mirror of the period in which a work of art has been created. It is for this reason that we often frame literary texts within the time period that the texts are created. It is this assumption that we neatly categorise within the historical period that they were created. It is for this reason that we describe fictions as say, Victorian, Industrial Revolution, Edwardian, Modernist, and so on. This is particularly true of English literature. Other literary traditions have different ways of categorising literary productions. For example, postcolonial literatures are often categorised on the basis of the trauma of colonialism: pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial. Literatures of the Islamic Middle East have added categories such as post-Ottoman, pre-revolution, revolutionary, apart from the classical jahiliyya and post-jahiliyya periods.
An implicit but unspoken assumption in all these categorisations is that at a deep level, these literatures are underpinned by a certain spirituality, be this Christian, Islamic or Hindu. Behind this assumption is the given that the earliest forms of literary production were saturated with the mystery surrounding creation, institution building and the mores of society. These mysteries gave rise to the earliest forms of literature and mythology. Humans created stories to explain to themselves the incomprehensible and these stories at a certain point became the basis of religious beliefs and philosophical speculation. Without these stories, there would neither have been religious belief, philosophy nor science. The unstructured reality began to take shape only when mythology was created. The gods and goddesses that we created ourselves and then began to worship, were a step towards self-realisation. The earliest gods and goddesses had the same flaws as us human beings, they were assailed by the same weaknesses that we found in ourselves, and they became a sure mirror of the human person, with all his/her frailties. Later, the heroes, during the heroic age, again reflected our own wishful thinking.
With the rise of critical philosophy and the scientific method, there was no attempt to abandon the mythic in human history. It was assumed that, although now we started to think in more abstract terms, not everyone was capable of benefitting from this new worldview. It was taken as a given that, in human societies, there will be those among us who will be unable to make the mental leap from the concrete to the abstract, and for this reason, it was necessary to defend mythology as part of human heritage, a part that has its significance in transmitting ethic and moral values from one generation to the next. As such, discussions of such human values as virtue, justice, friendship, could only be transmitted through the silly stories of mythology. This is well articulated by Luc Brisson in How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorical interpretation and Classical Mythology. This was ol’ time religion.
The Bible, the Qur’an and the Vedas brought new kinds of stories, whose underpinning was the construction of new moral orders. The new texts brought in their wake the new religions of Islam and Christianity, but Hinduism, Shintoism and Traditional African and Amerindian religions are still remnants of the primeval spiritual order. There has always been what the British Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks has called the Persistence of Faith throughout human history, to the present.
In the Western intellectual tradition, the Renaissance is hailed as a New Era, but in fact, it was no more than an attempt to reclaim through the back door the pagan spirituality deriving from Classical and Late Antiquity. The intellectuals of the period, be they artists, creative writers or philosophers, were weary of the stranglehold of Christianity on all aspects of society, and sought to liberate themselves from this straight-jacket. Other, non-Western, societies did the same by creating a discourse counter to that of the religious. That is how the Arabian Nights were born, from ancient India all the way to what is today the Middle East. This was something like a literary carnival, where imagination was allowed to run wild outside the orbit of religion. These were all attempts at circumventing the official discourse dominated by men of religion and sanctioned by the rulers. Contemporary World Literature is incomprehensible without this mythological, spiritual background, because whether we speak of Greek/Roman mythology, African, Hindu or Japanese or Amerindian mythologies, the Holy Scriptures of Christianity, Islam or Hinduism, these are part of the collective unconscious, and form an important part of the inter-textuality necessary to self-referentiality.
Creative writers have for centuries situated themselves within particular spiritual traditions while creating works of art. This is taken for granted in the West. The medieval period in the West is considered collective because all European societies, without a single exception, went through the long experience of Christianity, from the tenth century all the way to the early twentieth century, with intermission for the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Although writers are situated within particularistic traditions, some, because of their intellectual versatility, have dipped into traditions that are not primarily their own, and claimed them for themselves by taking allusions from those external traditions. For example, Dante borrowed from the story of the Ascension of Prophet Muhammad to Heaven as recounted in the Hadith of the Prophet to construct his Divine Comedy. Or, to take a more contemporary figure, in his novel Spider’s House, Paul Bowles uses the story of the Prophet Muhammad’s anecdote about his being protected from his enemies by hiding in a cave on his way into exile in Medina. Spiders form a protective wall with their web which stops his enemies from pursuing him further. Or Salman Rushdie’s constant allusions to Hindu mythology in Midnight’s Children.
This cross-cultural enrichment does not necessarily mean that writers do not situate themselves solidly within their religious traditions. Indeed they do.
The two writers that we have chosen, Leila Aboulela, a Sudanese novelist currently based in Aberdeen, Scotland, and Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, are examples of novelists who still stick to religion as their default mode of literary exposition. Both use fiction to advance their sectarian viewpoints without being offensive to secularists or the non-religious in general.
Leila Aboulela’s spirited spiritual damage control
Leila Aboulela, throughout most of her fictions, novels and short stories, has tried to defend Islam as a spiritual religion, and not a political religion. That she should hold such a position is evident from her own background as a Sudanese. Mystical Islam, with its headquarters at Omdurman, is very much part of the Sudanese landscape. In fact, modern Sudan is dated at the point the Sudanese resisted British colonial encroachment under Lord Gordon Kitchener in the nineteenth century. Led by Muhammad al-Mahdi, Restorer of the Faith, the Sudanese rallied under his mystical brotherhood to push the British out, resulting in the death of Gordon. This millenarianism galvanized the Sudanese into a national consciousness embedded in Islam. Like much of West Africa, society in the Sudan is organised partly around belonging to a brotherhood. The brotherhoods double as communities of self-help and also as spiritual sanctuaries complete with an organisational structure. The main activities of these Sufi brotherhoods are centred on remembering Allah and his ubiquitous presence in the thoughts and actions of individuals.
It is important to stress that Sufi religiosity is based on individual accountability that is ultimately anchored in internal purification as prioritised before the practice of ritual. It tends to de-emphasise the legalistic aspects of the faith, unlike for the Salafis, for example, who give importance to the minutiae of ritual practice. This legalistic emphasis on the part of the Salafis pits them against the purely spiritual emphasis of the mystics.
Leila Aboulela, in her fictions, is at pains to point out that what is done in the name of Islam has nothing to do with Islam, and that those who are prone to violence only do so after they have politicised Islam by demanding, for example, the establishment of an Islamic state, the Khilafah, or Islamic Caliphate. Sufi immersion in God-consciousness is considered a form of escapism from the challenging political and economic realities of the Islamic world. On their part, the Sufis accuse the Salafis of sanctimonious ostentatiousness and consider themselves to be the real upholders of the prophetic message of peace and love, without at the same time holding to the highest standards set by the Prophet himself.
On reading Aboulela’s fiction, one is left with the impression that she tries to compress the whole Islamic ethos and practice within her short fiction, where readers will not only enjoy the storyline, but at the same time gradually learn what the “real” Islam or Islamic practice is. In reading her fiction, we are taken through all the essential, but simple Islamic practices and beliefs without seeming to be coerced. The message is that Islam is such a practical and simple faith that it cannot be distorted or abused without exposing those who want to put the religion to their own nefarious uses. For example, Dr Nizar Fareed, a Salafi character in The Translator, is portrayed as well-intentioned but indoctrinated by rigid Salafi interpretations of the scripture and the practice of the Prophet. He emerges as inflexible, opinionated and self-righteous. He appears as some kind of cardboard character, uncritical and gullible, although kind and intelligent.
Leila Aboulela encapsulates the whole gamut of Islamic practice and belief in that short novel, The Translator. For example, she describes the cornerstone of Islamic belief as the absolute surrender to Allah in all one’s actions, and believing that He is the one who proposes and disposes of the believers’ every action. They are helpless before His immense omnipotence. Although we may plan our actions, we must never lose sight of the fact that everything is preordained, and we should not be overly disappointed when things do not go our way. God consciousness entails our planning for the future, but not being deluded into believing that things will always go the way we have planned. This is the classical tawheed position, where, tawakkul, or total surrender to the will of God is the pure faith. Tawheed and tawakkul are the twin pillars on the road to sainthood. The fragility of human life makes it necessary for humans to acknowledge the presence of a force mightier than any human society can command. In fact, Sammar, the main protagonist in The Translator, is sustained in her grief by her total surrender to the will of Allah. Her strong faith sees her through unimaginable grief after the loss of her young doctor-husband in a tragic road accident in Aberdeen, Scotland, far from home, where she finds succour and help from absolute strangers whom she only knows through shared faith and belief in Islam. They take over the funeral arrangements, the washing of the body and its transportation to Khartoum for burial, without having known the deceased or the widow. They answer the call of Islam to help one another in a time of need, the true implementation of Islamic teachings. In a poignant scene, Aboulela, using Sammar as her mouthpiece, describes this communal involvement during the arrangements immediately after the death of her husband:
A whole week passed before she got him under the African soil. It had taken that long to arrange everything through the embassy in London: the quarantine, the flight. People helped her, took over. Strangers, women whom she kept calling by the wrong names, filled the flat, cooked for her and each other, watched the ever–wondering child so she could cry. They prayed, recited the Qur’an, spent the night on the couch and on the floor. They did not leave her alone, abandoned. She went between them dazed, thanking them, humbled by the awareness that they were stronger than her, more giving than her, though she thought of herself as more educated, better dressed.
Islamic teachings are inserted in a subtle way at appropriate places to create the desired effect. The Hadith of the Prophet are summarised and included as explanatory tropes to affirm Islamic teachings. For example, all the major issues at the core of Islam like tawheed, qadar, or predestination, prayers, charity, the apportionment of inheritance to both male and female inheritors, the etiquette of grieving for widows, are highlighted. These issues are introduced seamlessly without appearing as sermonising. As an illustration, Sammar tries to convince Rae, her new-found love, to recite the declaration of the intention to embrace Islam. She notes the simplicity of the creed itself by getting Yasmin, Sammar’s friend, to say that the creed has sometimes been abused or taken lightly, as some kind of fig leaf to mask relationships between a Muslim and a non-Muslim:
‘I have seen the kind of Scottish men who marry Muslim girls.’ Yasmin went on, ‘The typical scenario: he is with an oil company sent to Malaysia or Singapore; she is this cute little thing in a mini-skirt who’s out with him every night. Come marriage time, it’s by the way I’m Muslim and my parents will not let you marry me until you convert. And how do I convert my darling, I love you, I can’t live without you? Oh, it’s just a few words you have to say. Just say the Shahadah, it’s just a few words. I bear witness there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the Messanger of Allah. End of story. They get married, and she might as the years go by pray and fast or she might not, but it has nothing to do with him. Everything in his life is just the same as it was before.’
On Tawakkul and destiny, Aboulela is also discreet in her explanation:
Her fate was etched out by a law that gave her a British passport, a point in time when the demand for people to translate Arabic into English was bigger than the supply. ‘No,’ she reminded herself, ‘that is not the real truth. My fate is etched out by Allah Almighty, if and who I will marry, what I eat, the work I find, my health, the day I will die are as He alone wants them to be.’ To think otherwise was to slip down, to feel the world narrowing, dreary and tight.
Further on in the novel, Sammar ascribes her steadfastness and hope to spiritual underpinnings. Her spirituality acts as a shield that protects her from hopelessness and resignation: “She had been protected from all the extremes. Pills, break-down, attempts at suicide. A barrier was put between her and things like that, the balance that Rae [her love] admired”.
Leila Aboulela compares the real rational position of Islam, based on transcendence and the rationalism of the empiricist and positivists of the eighteenth/nineteenth centuries. In the words of Rae, who hovers between positivism and doubt,
‘In this society,‘ he said, ‘in this secular society, the speculation is that God is out playing golf. With exceptions and apart from those who are self-convinced atheists, the speculation is that God has put up this elaborate solar system and left it to run itself. It does not need Him to maintain it or sustain it in any way. Mankind is self-sufficient . . . ’
The rational and plausible Islamic belief system is validated by the, until then, non-Muslim Rae. Having read Islamic religious and other literature, he is gradually won over by this rationality. But he validates Islamic tenets through a third party, Rae’s uncle who “went native” or in Tudor parlance, “turned Turk”. He quotes from Uncle David’s epistolary confession:
David never of course said that Islam was “better” than Christianity. He didn’t use that word. Instead he said things like it was a step on, in the way that Christianity followed Judaism. He said that the Prophet Muhammad was the last in a line of prophets that stretched from Adam, to Abraham through Moses and Jesus. They were all Muslims, Jesus was a Muslim, in a sense that he surrendered to God. This did not go down very well in the letter nor in the essay.
Leila Aboulela takes the opportunity in her fiction to also explain how the Sacred Hadith, or what are better known as Hadith Qudsi, the second most important source of authority after the Qur’an, came about, while dictating to Rae, who gave her the assignment:
She sat on the floor of the landing and read out, over the phone, the notes she had made from the book. ‘A definition given by the scholar al-Jurjani, “A Sacred Hadith is, as to its meaning, from Allah Almighty; as to the wording, it is from the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him. It is that which Allah almighty has communicated to His Prophet through revelation or in dream and he, peace be upon him, has communicated it in his own words. Thus the Qur’an is superior to it because, besides being revealed, it is Allah’s wording.” In a definition given by a later scholar al-Qari, “ . . . Unlike the Holy Qur’an, Sacred Hadith are not acceptable for recitation in one’s prayers, they are not forbidden to be touched or read by one who is in a state of ritual impurity . . . and they are not characterized by the attribute of immutability”.
This is heavy stuff for the uninitiated, and requires extra work to understand this background, even for an average educated Muslim, let alone one who is completely unfamiliar with the Islamic intellectual tradition. This is the kind of intertextuality that is not easily accessible for western readers who mostly read texts from the Western intellectual tradition, and whose allusions are generally familiar. Postcolonial writers now demand that Western readers also exert themselves in order to benefit fully from their reading, just as non-Western readers have to immerse themselves in the Western intellectual tradition to fully enjoy literature emanating from the West. In a recent collection of essays, Can Non-Europeans Think? the Columbia University Iranian American scholar Hamid Dabashi decried the provincialism of Western intellectuals. He argues that rarely do Western intellectuals bother to educate themselves about the intellectual traditions of the “others”, although they will not shy away from making uninformed pronouncements about those societies that they know little about. He gave the example of Slavoj Zizek, who knows a lot about Marxism and the Western Intellectual tradition, but next to nothing about the Eastern ones. In his view, there is a lot of navel-gazing among them, unable to appreciate other traditions unless they are themselves area specialists churning out papers for policy think tanks, and regurgitating the same orientalist pieties.
Leila Aboulela assumes herself a conscientious and responsible Muslim, whose obligation it is to portray what she believes is the real image of Islam, untainted by its association with the Islamic lunatic fringe hell-bent on wreaking global terror, without any sectarian differentiation. It is through literature that she feels she can best serve her faith. She is conscious of the fact that as a liberal Muslim, she is under constant pressure, like all liberal Muslims to condemn acts of violence perpetrated in their name by their co-religionists. In a column in the British Guardian entitled Why Must Britain’s Young Muslims Live With Unjust Suspicion? she described the double jeopardy of these liberals:
The causes and solutions can be hotly debated but it makes little difference to the daily life of Muslims. Until this climate [of fear and suspicion] eases, the day-to-day anxiety, the feeling of being tainted, of being tested, will still be the same. Ironically, it is the liberal integrated Muslims who bear the brunt. On them lies the responsibility of explaining and apologising. If you live in the kind of ghetto where you never read newspapers, never make friends with non-Muslims, never participate in sports, you can feel safe and oblivious. Start to engage and you will immediately realise just how careful you need to be. Young British Muslims are being watched. This is not paranoia. This is just how things are after 9/11 and 7/7.
From the above it is clear that Leila Aboulela took it as her mission to explicate the tenets of Islam to a wider public as a contribution to mutual understanding between Muslims and people of other faiths and other worldviews. A hard sell this, the defence of Islamic values under the present climate of fear and suspicion. One may also wonder how much mileage she can extract from mining this theme, even under these trying circumstances.
Unlike in the fiction of other writers of Islamic faith, where Islam merely forms the background, as in Nuruddin Farah’s later fictions The Closed Sesame and Crossbones, and Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, Leila Aboulela is deliberate in foregrounding Islamic belief system and practice. It is as if she was an author with an agenda, which she turns out to be in this particular fiction. In this regard, her creative work has more affinity with that of Marilynne Robinson who puts her creative energies to wearing her religion on her sleeve, as does Aboulela in The Translator.
The Christian fiction of Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, who died in December 2015, is a Kenyan novelist of British descent and a lay Protestant missionary. She came to Kenya in 1954 to work for the Church Missionary Society, fell in love with the country and in 1960 married Dr. Daniel Oludhe Macgoye, a local doctor from the Luo tribe, one of the largest ethnic groups in the country, with whom she had four children. Over the years, she took all the necessary steps to become fully integrated into Kenyan society, and especially completely within the Luo culture; she learned the language to complete spoken and written fluency and accepted almost all aspects of Luo tradition, except those she deemed inimical to Christian values and virtues.
Macgoye is a well-informed and conscientious novelist, having graduated with a degree in English literature from the Royal Holloway College, University of London, and later earned a Masters from Birkbeck College, University of London. Her grasp of Kenyan political history, and the social changes that she has witnessed personally throughout her extended stay in Kenya, put her in the same intellectual league as the most famous Kenyan novelist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. In fact, Macgoye’s fiction covers the same terrain as that of Ngugi because they seem to have lived almost the same experiences of colonialism and post-colonialism, and their works are a mirror of contemporary history through their neo-realism.
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye arrived in the country when she was barely in her mid-twenties, and lived the next sixty years mostly in Kenya, with a short interlude in Tanzania as the bookshop manager at the University of Dar es Salaam. During her long residence in Kenya, she witnessed almost all the major political events that shaped the nation: the Mau Mau insurgency, independence, the struggle to create a unified nation out of a welter of ethnicities, tribes, religions and political ideologies. As acute observers of the Kenyan political scene, both Ngugi and Macgoye write proletarian fictions populated by perplexed and dislocated rural masses and the lumpen proletariat who have washed up in the urban areas because of colonialism and post-independence mass migration.
Macgoye’s fiction is populated mostly by female characters, strong women who struggle against all odds. They are mostly uneducated but pick up street smarts as they go through life’s trajectory. Female characters like Paulina and Amina are portrayed as strong characters, Amina with her strong entrepreneurial spirit, and Paulina gradually asserting her individuality in the face of constricting tradition.
Perhaps the main theme in Macgoye’s best known fiction, Coming to Birth, is the interrogation of anachronistic obsolescent cultural traditions. In fact, it appears that in the case of this particular novel, many aspects of Luo culture are held up to be antithetical to all that Christianity stands for. The novel critiques such time-honoured cultural practices as polygamy, levirate marriages, lavish and extravagant wake and funeral practices and the cultural sanctioning of domestic violence in the form of wife beating.
Although the Luo as an ethnic group is considered overwhelmingly Christian, this Christianity is more a veneer than actual substance. The Luo are portrayed as stuck in the cultural past more than many other ethnic and cultural groups. The Luo are held up and judged by the highest Christian practices and standards, and are ultimately found wanting. But in the tribal world of the Luo, cultural practices were considered more humane than the dictates or demands of Christianity. We see, for example, Paulina, the main protagonist in the novel, going through miscarriages, the harassment of being a childless woman in a society that believes in the strength of numbers, the grief of losing a child obtained outside the matrimonial bed, and the state of limbo that the husband keeps her in because, in Luo culture, once a woman is married, she is married for ever as her husband has a permanent claim on her, however cold the relationship throughout their lives. The husband is never sanctioned for shunning her, physically molesting her and completely neglecting her. Christian values are merely paid lip service. In fact, there is general apathy, if not outright cynicism, towards Christianity among the majority. Martin’s alienation from Christian practice is held up as the general religious malaise afflicting the new generations of post-independence Africans. The narrator notes of Martin that:
He did not regularly go to church any more, though he might go if there was a special speaker or if he felt particularly at odds with Paulina’s having sometimes to work on a Sunday. The climate had changed from the days when you used to say, ’I am a Christian but I am not yet saved.’ To praise the Lord no longer helped you to get a job, and though the top people attended places of worship in surprising numbers they were eager for a quick getaway. It was another way in which light was going out. People talked about religion on buses, in queues, in cafes you heard them talking, but often as though it was something dull, outside themselves.
The celebratory ambience in Luo mourning practices is brought into sharp relief by Macgoye. By letting a comment slip off the mouth of a Kikuyu, a people who are noted for their industriousness in wealth accumulation, the macabre Luo enthusiasm for partying on such occasions is described with a pithy comment from a shopkeeper. In the words of the narrator:
Kano had kept the old hedged homesteads more exactly than the other locations, and also a bigger share of the old plumed headdresses: teams of male dancers bedecked with feathers and bells and intricate chalk patterns were often to be seen going off to the funerals and other public occasions like the Kisumu Festival. Okeyo used to get excited, chattering and pointing till she restrained him, so that the kikuyu shopkeeper remarked somberly, ‘He is a real Luo: more keen on a funeral than anything else’.
Okeyo was the child that Paulina had begotten outside her marriage with Simeon, a clansman of Martin’s, and who was fatefully killed by a stray bullet during the funeral procession of the legendary Kenyan politician, assassinated in broad day light, in one of Nairobi’s busiest streets, on a July day in 1969.
As a counterfoil to Christianity and Christians, Islam and Muslims are portrayed in a less than flattering light through the characters of Amina and Fauzia; as either whores or parents pimping for their own children for survival and livelihood. Both Amina and Fauzia are held responsible for the loosening ties between the rural import, Paulina and her urbanised Martin. Both Amina and Fauzia come out, not only as femmes fatales, but also as some kind of mercenaries out to fleece Martin and lure him to the temptation of sin in the form of nice food, nice dresses and perfumes. Pauline was later to see with her own eyes what Nikos Kazantzakis described these nubile nymphs as: “This labyrinth of hesitation, this poison that tastes like honey…”. Pauline wanted to find out for herself what life for Martin was like in Amina’s grip:
Amina proved unexpectedly expert with powder and feeding bottle and soon afterwards approached the pastor about baptism for the child but bowed to the rule that since there was no Christian parent, Joyce must make her own profession when she could read and write. The baby made a good pretext for Pauline to come and see Amina from time to time. Little by little she built up a picture of a world quite remote from her own, a world of gay wrappers and jingling bracelets and perfumes and spicy dishes, where slim men with bony features came and went, for what purpose one was not quite aware, and of town houses where these urbane traditions from the coast somehow collected themselves despite the bare crumbling walls and the outlandish cold . . .
Swahili culture is taken as a synecdoche for Islam and all that it stands for, what are perceived as its negative influences among the relatively recent native converts to Christianity. Fauzia was later to be warned of the possibility that he, Martin, might take another wife, but of a different kind:
And so he told her that when he took a second wife she must be a Christian who would leave her hair unplaited and her ears without ornament, who would dig in the fields and plaster walls and leave her children fat and naked. But she only laughed and said she must enjoy herself a while longer.
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye seems to believe her duty is not to be even-handed when she has to confront the reality that Islam is a major religion and a rival to Christianity in Kenya. In this regard, she takes the opportunity to show what she considers the superiority of Christianity over Islam. She uses her fiction to re-affirm her own faith and its tenuous hold on the relatively new converts on the African continent. Her last work of fiction, Rebmann, is a celebration of the efforts of pioneer missionaries like Rebmann and Krapf, who ventured into Africa in the middle of the nineteenth century to win the flock for Jesus Christ in what was then unexplored terrain in the heart of Africa, or the Conradian Heart of Darkness, as Africa was perceived then. Macgoye was later to come to Kenya under the auspices of the same organisation that sponsored the German missionary, the Church Missionary Society.
Looking at name use in her Coming to Birth, there is a lingering feeling that Macgoye’s ancestors, probably Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe who migrated to England from continental Europe to escape pogroms there, might have converted to the Anglican Christian rite upon their settlement. Female characters are given common scriptural names pointing to Old Testament antecedents, names like Paulina, Rebecca, and Rachel, names popular with people of Jewish background. Again, one of her more obscure fictions set in Kenya is A Farm Called Kishinev, described as “a fairly comprehensive picture of Kenyan Jewish experience”.
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye’s working class background and sympathies enable her to empathise with the plight of the African poor and downtrodden. Her descriptions of the African “great unwashed” is accurate in that it is described as a life of ceaseless want and deprivation. Nairobi is notorious for its “parking boys”, an expression that is a euphemism for abandoned and homeless kids, who are often orphaned and use their street-smarts to survive in a highly competitive and unforgiving environment. Their situation is so dire that they have to live off dustbins, and sometimes resort to using human waste as a weapon to extort money from passers-by threatening to smear them with it if they do not respond generously. The tough struggle for survival is described with pathos, in the words of one such street urchin:
So my dad said we couldn’t go on to school for a while because he need all his money to get another woman to look after us. And when he was there she was alright to us, but she started going queer when she got her own baby: then she hated the sight of us and used to beat us for every little thing. And then last year she started saying that she didn’t get married to come and live in a back-of beyond village with a load of kids, and not any rice or hair oil or nice soap like her friends had for their babies, and only seeing her man one day or two in the month, and then she started to drink. And then she didn’t cook everyday, and never early in the morning, and started saying it was our fault that my dad didn’t pay her attention. He only wanted his first wife’s children and all that. In the end my little brother got so hurt he ran off to his granny: she doesn’t have much, but she likes him and tells him stories. But my sister had to stay to look after the baby, so my dad said. But me, she said I didn’t do anything around the place but eat, and so one day when she beat me worse than usual I ran to my friend’s big brother who is a conductor on a country bus, and he talked with his dad and put some ointment on the bad places and gave me a ride on the bus free. That was about two months ago.
‘He didn’t know anything,’ put in Muhammad Ali. ‘Lucky for him I found him wondering about. I showed him the temples, where they give you free food if there is celebration going on. And how to find the eating places, where good food sometimes gets thrown out when they close, and how- well, all sorts of things I showed him. He just didn’t know how to stay alive’.
Macgoye captures the spirit of anxiety and desperation among those living on the edge.
Both Leila Aboulaela and Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye have used the art of fiction to push their religious agenda, using fiction to both affirm and defend their belief systems in a world that had increasingly come to see religion as dragging us to the medieval bloodletting that so characterised that period. But of late, there has been an upsurge in writers who have unashamedly proclaimed their fidelity to the time-honoured beliefs of their societies and the era in which they are living. This is also an era when we see the rise of militant atheism too, that is challenging the religious discourse and looking for a much wider space than they have ever been accorded. The problem with this kind of genre, where fiction is put at the service of religious sectarianism, is that it soon becomes tiresome in its self-righteousness and tiresome for the secular-minded; these are often people who are also set in their ways of thinking, determined to draw a line between the religious and public space.
Cloud Kitchens and Supermarkets: COVID-19 and the Rise of Online Food Delivery Services
On-demand e-commerce has led to the rapid expansion of food delivery platforms and companies in Kenya’s urban areas. While these companies offer choice and convenience to their customers, they exacerbate class divisions. In addition, the technology required to use these services places consumers at a risk of third parties using their personal data without their knowledge or consent.
The consumer logistics industry is not new in Kenya; people have been ordering and delivering products via hawking and third-party messenger services powered by phones or direct contact. Products include produce, clothes, and cooked food that are delivered to offices, homes and designated collection points.
The food and beverages sector has experienced aggressive growth with the entry of new players in the market who are using on-demand e-commerce enabled by mobile technology and connectivity throughout the entire purchase chain. From the point of ordering, payment, order management, processing, delivery and tracking, these on-demand e-commerce platforms limit the role of human mediation in the transaction – unless it is absolutely necessary.
According to Jumia Food Index Report 2019, the food and beverages industry in Kenya was valued at between Sh830 and Sh880 billion at the end of 2019, and had internally projected a 50 per cent growth in on-demand services in 2020. Jostling for a slice of this on-demand cake are food delivery players (including global companies powered by e-commerce technology), venture capital and a market ready for on-demand consumption. The biggest three food delivery players in Kenya are Jumia, Glovo and Uber Eats, the latter two having come on board in the past two years, and the former having been established for a while.
Jumia is a Nigeria-based online service that sells and delivers almost everything, from beauty products to electronics. Glovo is a Spanish courier service that purchases, picks up and delivers products through its mobile app. Uber Eats is an American online company that only delivers food. Even though Glovo was the last entrant into the Kenyan market, it has rapidly expanded to give Jumia a run for its money in the food delivery business.
It is instructive to note that all three companies are subsidiaries or part of larger companies, with extensive on-demand driven e-commerce experience in transport, supply chain management, and last-mile logistics, all centred around consumer convenience and satisfaction. These companies are, therefore, able to maximise on their experience, existing infrastructure and available capital to rapidly expand. Their middlemen approach to providing a marketplace and a service without the commensurate costs associated with running a business means that they are able to maximise their profit margins.
On-demand companies make their money by creating a marketplace and charging for it. The customer pays for the supposed convenience and choice. The restaurant pays to off-load delivery services, hence reducing the logistical challenges while gaining access to a larger market. Restaurants may pay up to 30 per cent commission to these on-demand platform providers, depending on their volume and agreements. They also pay for their restaurant to be promoted within the e-commerce site for more visibility.
Customers pay in two ways: either they buy a subscription through membership, where they are enticed with unlimited free delivery, or they pay a delivery fee. This fee is calculated in terms of the distance covered.
Delivery companies also make money off the drivers, who register onto the platform for opportunities in delivery. These companies consider their delivery workers as independent contractors, thus defraying the costs associated with employee remuneration and benefits, as well as costs of managing and maintaining a delivery fleet. There are also consumer logistics companies that make additional money from advertising on the platform and their other logistics businesses.
These on-demand companies operate only in a few Kenyan cities: Uber Eats only delivers in Nairobi; Glovo operates in Nairobi, Kitengela, Mombasa and Nakuru, while Jumia is operational in Nairobi, Mombasa, Eldoret, Kajiado, Kiambu, Kisumu, Machakos and Nakuru. Even within these cities, there are areas that are not covered by this service.
COVID-19, the true disruptor
Human systems are very difficult to upend, unless collective human behaviour and actions are forced to change. For a while, computing and technological advancement hit a plateau where existing systems of living and working conditions remained significantly untouched. Then, in November 2019, a new coronavirus, COVID-19, was detected in Wuhan in China, and by the 11th of March, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a global pandemic.
Kenya, like many countries, took a raft of measures to respond to the pandemic, from a ban on social gatherings (including closure of in-dining restaurants) to encouraging social distancing, strong encouragement towards teleworking, closure of schools, curfews, inter-county travel bans, promotion of sanitation, closure of some markets, and violent policing of these measures, among others. And in one fell swoop, COVID-19 created the kind of disruption computing and technological aficionados have been predicting and hankering after.
What COVID-19 and the measures taken by the government did was to create an opportunity for the on-demand e-commerce-enabled consumer logistics sector to expand much more than the players themselves predicted, as their service was classified as essential. Glovo, for instance, quickly positioned its entire range of logistics business (third-party couriers, delivery of groceries and pharmaceuticals etc.) within the market. Jumia quickly leveraged its platform and delivery fleet by partnering with Twiga Foods to get farmer produce to customers.
The government measures have positively affected the consumer logistics industry and its revenue streams. This will continue long after the return to a “new normal”. The industry will try to position itself as the disruptor to the old ways, forgetting that it was opportunely placed to leverage the true disruption that COVID-19 wrought.
What COVID-19 and the measures taken by the government did was to create an opportunity for the on-demand e-commerce-enabled consumer logistics sector to expand much more than the players themselves predicted, as their service was classified as essential.
Having dispensed with the notion that these on-demand e-commerce marketplace providers are “true disruptors”, let us attempt to understand how they operate within the food delivery sector. As they self-define, they just offer a market where the players within the sector connect with each other. They, therefore, work with brick-and-mortar restaurants, cloud kitchens (restaurants with delivery menus only) supermarkets’ hot food sections, and independent food providers to deliver the product to the customer. They also work with delivery people, mostly as independent contractors, to offer the transport part of the transaction. In addition, they lay claim to the customer base in order to sell advertising to restaurants, third-party delivery people and other businesses.
Restaurants signed up with them are available to consumers within a certain locale, based on proximity. Their menu items are available for consumers to select, load into a cart, pre-pay or opt for post-payment, provide a delivery address and proceed to track the delivery. In Kenya, most customers opt for cash or M-Pesa payment on delivery of their orders, although there are pre-payment options using credit and debit cards provided by payment gateway companies. There are myriad of technologies that these on-demand businesses use to provide this seemingly seamless unmediated experience to the customer.
Although we have engaged with the ideas that on-demand e-commerce platforms offer convenience and choice for customers, an expanded marketplace for restaurants and food proprietors, and ready delivery markets for delivery persons, we must also grapple with the arising concerns from this business model.
First among the concerns, especially during COVID-19 times, is food safety. How do we ensure that these platforms have a standardised approach to food handling, ensuring the highest standards for food delivery? With food delivery, there is the added layer of the delivery worker, which in itself is contrary to the social distancing rules set up by the government. When these layers are added, the monitoring of the rigid healthy and safety guidelines might fall by the wayside. When such standards cannot be assured, who will bear the responsibility of infections should they happen?
We have also seen a global trend towards most essential workers being at risk of contracting COVID-19, and delivery workers fall into this category. Their work requires their physical presence, and they may during the discharge of their duties get exposed to infection. After all, they may be delivering to those who are sick and in quarantine.
In Kenya, there is a preference for cash payment, on delivery, which further compounds the risks faced by delivery workers. It is a major concern for these workers, especially when we consider them in relation to the nature of our non-existent healthcare system. These delivery workers are treated by these global companies as independent contractors or “entrepreneurs”, which means their connection to these global companies is one devoid of employee benefits, such as medical cover, which would be a safety net for them.
Most of the e-commerce platforms are hailed as opening up opportunities for businesses, in this case, restaurants and food providers, along with delivery workers. But on close scrutiny, we notice that these companies operate quite a predatory model to maximise their revenue generation. For every meal a customer orders, a restaurant can pay up to 30 per cent of the cost of the meal, depending upon the volumes they sell and the agreements they set up with the companies. Why should such a model be encouraged where the actual businesses that have invested in the operations and people to produce the product are not reaping the benefits? This model, which ostensibly offers the consumer choice and convenience, is actually killing the restaurant business and rendering a lot of people in this sector jobless. Not to mention that these dine-in options can lead to a solitary food culture, which is the antithesis of dining in a restaurant, which is more of a social event.
So, who uses theses services and what do they eat?
I think we sometimes forget that Kenya is more than Nairobi and the other major cities. By using their distribution model, we can see that these on-demand services are not equitably spread all over Kenya, and in fact when we look at the cities/ towns they operate in, we’ll also discover that for one reason or another, there are areas that are not covered by this service. I can venture, therefore, that this service is classist in nature because it replicates the problems inherent in the society, and Kenya as a society is classist. In addition, its “everyone pays to be on the marketplace” model is a clear indication that there are those who cannot afford to use this platform.
So, who gets to use these services and what do they get to eat?
First of all, it is those who have the money to pay for the food, and the convenience of getting the food delivered. For most people in Kenya, dining out (or in this case, in) is a luxury. The cost of food that is delivered is higher than the cost of food in a restaurant because there are delivery charges included. There is a minimum threshold of spending that one must do to avail free delivery services. All these costs add up to exclude a lot of people.
These delivery workers are treated by these global companies as independent contractors or “entrepreneurs”, which means their connection to these global companies is one devoid of employee benefits, such as medical cover, which would be a safety net for them.
Secondly, by nature, the use of these on-demand apps require that the user have a mobile device with internet connectivity, and in some cases, a form of electronic payment method. Although, there has been a marked penetration of mobile internet users in Kenya, quite a number of them still do not have this facility.
Another area of exclusion is that of illiterate users, who cannot read to place their orders, including those who are technologically disadvantaged. It requires a certain form of digital literacy to avail secure, private and efficient use of the e-commerce marketplace.
As I intimated earlier on, there are sections of the cities that where these on-demand services are not available. This could be due to insecurity, a lack of restaurants (we earlier saw that delivery is based on proximity of the customer to the eateries that deliver), a lack of a clear address layout, lack of trust and so forth. Whatever the reasons to not operate is certain areas, this ensures that people in those areas are not serviced, or do not get an equal service to someone else.
Then there is the question of what is being eaten. Most of the food in this marketplace is produced by multinational fast food companies and long-established restaurants. However, we are increasingly seeing local food and kibanda-style restaurants entering the marketplace. Recently, both Jumia and Glovo added “kibanda” menus on their platforms. We do know that “kibanda” menus serve a certain frugal, by choice or necessity, clientele. It is therefore an oxymoron to put these foods that cater to a certain segment of the society on a platform that will put a surcharge on the product.
On a different note, this putting of the “kibanda” menu on the platform is akin to the gentrification of the food item – to appeal to those with the means. However, in general, gentrification does marginalise those who used the service before it acquired its special status. Do we then want to marginalise those for whom “kibandas” provided an essential service?
The other elephant in the room
Just like other applications that consumers subscribe to, there is a lot of data that e-commerce companies are collecting. Some of the data they collect include user demographics, location, spending habits and preferences, and so forth. How is this data stored? How do they use it? Do they monetise it? These are questions that have to be clearly answered by these companies. In fact, most companies do sell this data to targeted advertising campaigns and to feed their artificial intelligence algorithms – without the consumers’ knowledge or consent. Consumers, therefore, have to be quite discerning in their interaction with the systems and the advertising so as to ensure that they are making their own independent and informed choices.
Just like other applications that consumers subscribe to, there is a lot of data that e-commerce companies are collecting. Some of the data they collect include user demographics, location, spending habits and preferences, and so forth.
It may appear that I am cynical of technology, technological advancement and e-commerce. On the contrary, I am an avid user of technology and I understand that there is no reversing its prevalence and importance in our current world. What I want to posit is that we should not forget that technology, and all that it births, is a tool to enable human endeavour. It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to place checks and balances on people and organisations that want us to believe that this tool is a panacea to our problems.
What Washerwomen Would Say on a Webinar
Waiting for increasingly elusive work at stakeouts without shelter and facing police harassment is the itinerant washerwomen’s daily lot in this COVID-19 season.
As the signature tune for the 9 o’clock evening news floats on the airwaves, Elizabeth Mbatha wearily pushes open the door to her house in Kangemi.
She has just walked 22 kilometres across the city from Moi International Sports Centre in Kasarani where she completed her day-long court-ordered community service to sweep the streets because she could not raise the Sh200 fine for “failing to observe social distancing rules” and not properly wearing a mask in public.
Police from Kileleshwa station in Nairobi enforcing public health measures in response to the coronavirus pandemic, had arrested Mbatha and a dozen other women the previous day at the spot where they habitually sit, sometimes all day, waiting for someone to hire them for a day’s cleaning work.
In this COVID-19 season, webinars have become the middle class replacement for workshops, but on July 15, a different variety of this urban phenomenon occurred as itinerant washerwomen from Nairobi spoke about coping amid the crisis.
On a normal day, Mbatha walks a five-kilometre round-trip from her house to Kileleshwa to wait for work cleaning houses and washing clothes. Often, police order the women who sit waiting along residential streets back to their homes where they have nothing with which to feed their children.
“We face innumerable problems. If you leave your child in the care of a neighbour, she will want Sh100 at the end of the day”, Mbatha said.
Cleaning and laundry work has contracted as employees in the formal sector—grappling with pay cuts and disappearing jobs—stay home and take on the household chores. Live-in domestic staff have been laid off because of fears of COVID-19 infection, and also because households are surviving on reduced incomes.
Some employers called their former domestic staff and asked them not to come to work: Don’t call us, we’ll call you once the crisis is over.
Former live-in domestic workers have now joined day labourers like Mbatha in the search for work.
For some 50 women at each of the 40 waiting spots dotted across the wealthier parts of Nairobi, it is not so much a search for work as it is a game of wait-and-see. According to the Centre for Livelihood Advancement, up to 2,000 women sit in the open around Nairobi waiting for someone to offer them cleaning work, and so far, CFLA has registered 500 of them. Police regularly drive by and order the women to disperse to their homes as part of enforcing anti-crowding regulations. “Do not bring corona to the roadside”, the police bark at the women. “Stay at home until COVID-19 is over”.
Work is irregular, and when it comes, the load is heavy because employers who previously hired once a week are now taking in washerwomen just once or twice a month. It is a headlong dive into the unknown.
Mbatha, a mother of two children, says her husband is on furlough from his contract work in construction. She took the job because sometimes her husband would return home after a day out without finding any work. She has been washing and cleaning for three years.
“Living with an unemployed husband can be very stressful because when you enquire what you will feed the children, fighting can break out—sometimes even in front of the children”, she adds.
Depressed household incomes have forced many people with precarious occupations like Elizabeth Mueni—also a washerwoman—to move houses. “I used to pay Sh3,000 for rent every month but I had to move to a cheaper house. Even here, I had to negotiate to pay the Sh1,800 in instalments”, she adds.
Washerwomen start walking out of Kawangware, Kibera and other informal settlements adjacent to the middle class residential ones early in the morning. They stake out supermarkets, and sometimes road junctions, waiting for people looking for a day’s domestic help.
Employers who offer one-day jobs for Sh500 are of all varieties: homemakers seeking a helping hand with large catering; men who live alone; or people nursing patients and other household members with special needs.
The criteria used to select a washerwoman is capricious: some want plain looks while others are looking for neatness, some seek mature-looking older women while others call up those they have hired before.
“Employers are not the same”, says Rosemary Ambeyi, a widowed mother of five who works as a day-wage washerwoman. “Some [employers] invite the women into their personal spaces so that they can exploit them”, she adds.
Ambeyi has used this work to put two of her children through secondary school and is still educating another three.
“The challenge we have is assuming they want you to work”, she continues. “Once you get to the house, some start to make inappropriate advances, and you get into a fight—meaning you are not able to work. If you do not finish work, your pay is docked”.
The problems in the domestic work sector have persisted for over 12 years, says Mary Kambo, the programme manager for labour and corporate accountability at the Kenya Human Rights Commission. “Domestic staff work in isolation and their social connections are threatened. Raising your voice when you are alone could mean the loss of livelihood”.
Last year, an Africa Labour, Research and Education Institute study estimated that there were some two million people employed in domestic work in Kenya. Although domestic work is not properly documented, the sector is quite significant and plays an important role in driving the country’s economic growth and development.
Nannies, caretakers, cooks, gardeners, cleaners, drivers, and security guards among others, perform important work that makes it possible for professionals and people in business or other occupations to go to their jobs away from home. “The value of domestic work has, however, not been properly recognised”, says Kambo, adding that labour laws in the country have proved to be insufficient in dealing with the issues affecting domestic workers.
Working behind closed doors in gated communities, places domestic workers in personal spaces where they are vulnerable to abuse and harassment without any recourse because the laws of trespass make it difficult for labour officers or rights defenders to check what goes on in homes.
“The employee deals with one employer in a private space. When there is a dispute, it is difficult because they are alone. This type of work threatens the worker’s social connection. They do not know each other’s experience, and so cannot receive community assistance and support”, says Kambo.
For itinerant domestic workers like the washerwomen, the perils are double those experienced by live-in staff.
“You can be summoned and instructed to work from outside the house, working long hours until late”, says Mbatha. “The houses we work in are not the same. There are some places that are okay, and others are so hard but you cannot even speak about it. If you speak out, you will jeopardise future work”.
Staking out for work is a dicey game of chance. There are no toilets, and in the event of rain, there is no shelter from the elements. From their stakeouts, many washerwomen often have no way of estimating the amount of work they are signing up for and so cannot charge appropriately for it. They end up working long hours with no food. They can only leave when all the work is done, and sometimes it is too late to walk home.
“No one knows or recognises us . . . All we want is to be recognised so that we are not harassed and can raise our children from there”.
As the country moves to adopt home-based care for the rising number of COVID-19 patients, itinerant domestic workers will likely play a critical role in supporting families to cope. They have to protect themselves in environments where there might not be water or hand sanitisers.
Although the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied mobilises and speaks for workers in domestic service, those who undertake itinerant day-wage labour without the protection of contracts remain undefended.
Kenya has yet to accede to the convention on decent work for domestic workers. The convention requires member states to ensure the effective promotion and protection of human rights for all domestic workers, and to respect, promote and realise the fundamental principles and rights at work, such as freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining. States are also required to eliminate all forms of forced or compulsory labour, child labour, and discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.
Attempts at organising domestic work usually run into strong headwinds. People seeking live-in work in the domestic service register in private bureaus where they are required to pay up to Sh500 and asked to wait for a call, which often never comes. Live-in work has long hours—staff are the first to rise and the last to bed, often eating food of low quality. Those in itinerant labour fare worse.
Unlike motorcycle riders—who are largely male, have mobilised into self-help groups and cultivated a saving culture—washerwomen are not organised and do not go beyond making collective savings. Without enough to live on, meeting and organising becomes that much more difficult. On days when work is scarce, washerwomen borrow money from one another to cross into a new day hoping for better luck.
Beatrice Lucas, a washerwoman living in the Gatina area of Kawangware in Nairobi, says none of the relief assistance meant for people impacted by COVID-19 measures has reached her. Washerwomen have missed out on official emergency relief and assistance because local administrators like location chiefs often map urban dwellings under their jurisdiction when the women are out looking for work.
“You can go a week without assistance or work. Food is handed out to the chief for distribution but the names of beneficiaries are never made public”, she adds.
Community activist Ruth Mumbi, who recently led a protest by washerwomen in the Eastleigh area of Nairobi when they were locked out of work by the lockdown, says the government’s COVID-19 bailouts are focusing on big companies, with Sh2 billion going to the hospitality industry, yet the women who do this work are also in the hospitality industry but they have received nothing.
Kambo argues that the COVID-19 emergency response should broaden its definition of vulnerable populations to embrace daily wage domestic workers beyond the usual categories of the aged, orphans, and people with preexisting health conditions.
There is an urgent need to formalise the domestic workers sector, especially daily wage earners. “We need space set aside for us to meet, register and plan our programmes”, says Ambeyi, adding that women have a variety of skills that can be monetised, such as car washing, which they perform as part of their daily labour.
Mary Wambui, who has done laundry work in Upper Hill for years, wants permanent sheds established with washing machines, and a linkage with motorcycle riders to collect laundry and drop it off after it has been cleaned and pressed, thus reducing personal contact and the opportunity for abuse. House cleaning can also be undertaken commercially, together with car washing.
Many government agencies are unaware of the rights violations in the domestic service sector because of poor documentation, leaving victims with no voice. Kambo reiterates that labour laws do not differentiate workers—domestic, office, plantation and the rest. Domestic workers are different and unique, deserving a separate categorisation. A special regulation is required to accommodate the domestic worker because this is the one person who cannot unionise.
And because washerwomen serve fellow workers, they should receive treatment free of charge and have their health insurance and social security protection paid for by the state.
Why Re-Invent the Wheel? We Have Been Here Before With HIV
Communication on the prevention and management of COVID-19 needs to borrow a leaf from the lessons learnt in dealing with HIV, eschewing fear-mongering and stigmatisation and instead focusing on the social and behaviour change that will help us to contain the spread of the coronavirus even as science seeks a remedy.
A few days into the coronavirus lockdown, my 85-year-old mother called me sounding very worried. She wanted to discuss her concerns over the bats in her ceiling. Bats can be a real nuisance; they invade houses, hide in that space between the roof and the ceiling and not only make really annoying screeching sounds, but also have a tendency to deposit their acrid -smelling droppings and urine up there. These discolour the ceiling boards and, under the Western Kenya sun, can emit a really foul odour. If you are not used to them, bats can give you a real fright when they exit their dark hiding places at dusk and it wouldn’t help at all if you are not a Dracula fan and have issues with these upside down mammals that are associated with vampires.
Bats are very difficult pests to get rid of but this time, my mother’s concern was whether they could infect her with the coronavirus. She is elderly, and like many her age, has a litany of “underlying conditions” that make her a prime candidate for COVID-19. Apparently, my mum had listened to a series of discussions on FM Radio—in her first language, mark you—that associated the coronavirus with bats, and warned that the aged and the infirm were most at risk.
The panellists also informed listeners that the virus originated in China. In the playful manner of our folk, the contagion had been named Akkori nyar China, nyar Wuhan, Akkori daughter of China, daughter of Wuhan. Anybody familiar with Luo culture knows that a woman who joins the community, especially through marriage, is known by her father’s name or her place of origin. Nyar China had wormed her way into our community like a newlywed. But affection for this miaha—this newly married woman—was not great.
The lethal infectiousness of nyar China was emphasised, and my mother was grappling with the recommendation to maintain social distance which meant that the stream of village friends and relatives who normally come by to check on her would need to keep off. She was told not shake hands or hug; how was she to greet her children or grandchildren? How does a grandmother show affection from a distance?
But what mum found most confounding was that she had to wear a mask covering her mouth and nose because the coronavirus comes out of the nose or mouth of an infected person and infects others through the same route. So the breathing that keeps one alive was now the route through which death could enter the body? Handwashing and sanitising were easy for her to understand; mum has always been very particular about clean hands and even though she thought the regularity was a trifle exaggerated, she was ok with having to spend more on soap.
At her age, my octogenarian mother has lived through many disease outbreaks. As we spoke, she recalled measles, smallpox, mumps and others, but confided that she had not seen this kind of thing before. “This one is different”, she said. “We have had Ayaki with us all these years, but this?” Then her voice went a little lower and she asked, “They have also said that anyone who dies now will be buried on the same day. No mourning, no mourners?’’.
My initial reaction to mum’s queries was one of joy and satisfaction; at least the coronavirus message was getting out there in mashinani where it is most needed. I was no longer sceptical about the survey that reported that knowledge about the virus was almost universal, that close to ninety per cent of respondents knew of the importance of handwashing and wearing a mask. The only message that did not seem to have been well received was about social distancing.
This was exciting news; I am a veteran of the HIV public awareness, education and mobilisation trenches. In all the years that we have been speaking about the ABC of HIV prevention—abstinence, being faithful to one partner whose status you know, consistent and correct condom use and acceptance of medical male circumcision—we have not had close to universal awareness let alone compliance with the recommendations.
The proliferation of FM stations broadcasting in local languages helped to take the coronavirus message to the grassroots, and to domesticate the measures of prevention. The discussions were hosted by individuals who could contextualise the prevention measures in the local language. This ensured that the message percolated to the remotest parts much faster than the virus itself could travel.
Three distinct messages about the virus were heard loud and clear: that it was a deadly, highly contagious virus, that the symptoms of the COVID-19 disease it causes are flu-like and that those who catch it die a rather sudden and painful death. Mum told me that they described it as “drowning in a well full of mucus”, the fright and disgust in her voice palpable.
Without going into details, they also communicated that the aged and those with underlying illnesses were most vulnerable. So my mum, with her high blood pressure, arthritis and cardio-vascular issues, was worried out of her wits. At the same time that these messages were circulating—and as if to reinforce them—stories from Italy and other parts of Europe were streaming in. When the illness was first reported in China it seemed too distant, but Europe is just next door even in village terms. It seems as if the strategy used to communicate information about the coronavirus was mainly based on scare tactics.
As with communication about HIV, there were a lot of half-truths and outright falsehoods doing the rounds. My mum had heard that the coronavirus was associated with the “strange” meats eaten by the Chinese—bats and other creatures in “wet markets” came up. It was also said that the Chinese had deliberately manufactured the virus with the intention of killing everyone (especially Africans) and taking over our continent to find a place for their ballooning population.
These conspiracy theories were actually competing with public health messages at the grassroots. When HIV first arrived it was discussed in hushed tones. Stories filtered in from Uganda where they had nicknamed the disease “slim” because of how it wasted those it afflicted. The cause was not clear, or possibly the connection to sexual intimacy made it uncomfortable to discuss the cause. HIV soon acquired local names—ayaki, mukingo, biitya, live-wire… all names that suggested devastation.
The association of HIV with promiscuity, prostitution and homosexuality soon followed. Those who were infected were pointed at and their supposed sins discussed in hushed tones. In Luoland, the term chira was used to explain the origin of the disease. Now, chira is an amorphous term used to describe an unending malady resulting from one having committed a grave taboo. Chira was not new, but in the past, an afflicted person would be given some manyasi—herbs—and the taboo would be managed. But Ayaki was unrelenting and soon people started dropping like flies. The combination of sexual transmission and death attached a stigma to HIV.
In the early days, the bodies of those who succumbed to AIDS-related illnesses were wrapped in hideous- black polythene bags and a closed-casket funeral was held. Relatives were not allowed to hold wakes; burials were conducted quickly and funeral gatherings were forbidden. Those who survived the deceased were stigmatised and shunned. Before dying, those who were HIV-positive endured being shunned, discriminated against and condemned. Parents refused to allow their children to be taught by HIV-positive teachers, landlords drove HIV-positive people from their houses and those selling goods would discriminate against any known HIV-positive individual.
The response to the coronavirus was following the exact same trajectory. Soon after the first death was announced in Kenya, the state responded by locking down certain localities and declaring a dusk-to-dawn curfew. The announcement of the night-time lockdown was greeted with humour, and CNN mocked Kenya for allegedly having discovered that the virus is spread by darkness. On the ground, law enforcement agencies doubled their zeal in punishing and arresting curfew breakers, those not wearing masks and individuals not obeying social distancing.
The response to the coronavirus was weaponised and in the first few days more people died from police brutality than from the virus. Photos of burials being conducted in the dead of night by public health officials dressed like space explorers and bodies wrapped in polythene being sprayed with disinfectant did the rounds on social media.
People were angry, maybe even defiant, because of the high-handedness. With regards to the social distancing rules in particular, how practical are they when people live in crowded housing where residents pass each other along narrow passageways (and woe unto you if you are plus-sized)? Many engage in wage labour, selling their muscle power shoulder to shoulder. Saying they should “work from home” is as insulting as Marie Antoinette asking Parisians who could not find bread to eat cake instead.
There are many Kenyans who are faced with the choice between buying a mask and a tin of maize meal for their families. In most areas, the state failed to provide face masks yet unleashed police on those who did not wear them even as the media was reporting that free masks had been donated to the country.
The Ministry of Health holds daily briefings on the coronavirus, led by the Cabinet Secretary backed by a posse of clinicians, with the head of state occasionally chiming in to emphasise the seriousness of the COVID-19 situation and deepen the measures aimed at managing the crisis. We are stuck in crisis mode and as the number of confirmed cases grows, and given the head start before the much anticipated “peak”, should the state not be providing reassuring messages of our state of preparedness?
Should they not be speaking about an increase in the number of fully kitted out health care providers, increased bed capacity in High Dependency Units and Intensive Care Units, and an increased number of ventilators and other equipment? Would that not be more reassuring? Right now, the message is reminiscent of the pre-ARV HIV message that “AIDS kills”. Every day there is talk about the “peak” that is expected and we are being prepared for the crash, but if we cannot apply brakes to the vehicle, can we at least reassure the ill-fated passengers that the facilities are in a state of readiness to deal with the injuries? What we need to know is the state’s capacity to cope with that peak and not whether it will come or not.
After we had climbed over the “AIDS Kills” hurdle and abandoned images of emaciated figures and burial caskets, we began to communicate how to live positively. Campaigns centred on the benefits of knowing one’s HIV status and voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) were aggressively promoted, together with the assurance that HIV is not a death sentence and that there is life after HIV.
Healthy living included focusing on nutrition and mental health. This was mainly to reduce self-stigma and discrimination. This is the direction the COVID-19 communication needs to take; we must now respectfully engage with Kenyans on the meaning and implication of the “new-normal”. This is the time for persuasive, logical yet emotional communication that will appeal to the head and the heart about the “new normal”.
Communication needs to separate myth from fact; my mother needs to understand the connections between the bat and this new disease because the bats are not moving in a hurry. She needs non-stigmatising information that clarifies to her why her age group is more vulnerable so that she knows how to relate to her grandchildren and fellow villagers. The public needs to understand that handwashing and sanitising is good hygiene that also reduces cases of dysentery, cholera and other illnesses transmitted in unhygienic environments. The public must also be helped to understand that any contagious disease can spread in crowded places and hence the need for physical distancing.
Communication on prevention and management needs to focus on normalising and building self-efficacy in the “new normal”. The communication now needs to logically challenge each one of us to find the self-motivation to wear a mask when in public much as we did with HIV; wearing condoms when having sex, being faithful to one partner whose status we knew and abstaining where it was possible.
Communities must reconsider such long-held cultural practices like hugging and handshaking. In those communities where it is taboo to shake hands with in-laws, there are other ways in which they show love, affection and recognition. We can start from there to explain that Akkori nyar China is like a mother-in-law who needs to be treated with reverence and not fear.
And where the public health message insists on immediate interment of the dead, a more acceptable and convincing logic must be provided. If the problem is the crowding among mourners, then the focus needs to shift away from stigmatising the remains of the deceased. It is possible for communities to manage the numbers at a funeral and bury their kin with dignity in order to achieve closure. Besides, there should not be contradictions where a high-ranking Ministry of Health official attends a funeral with 400 other people, or politicians hold a meeting with hundreds of people in attendance while elsewhere in the same country police tear-gas and clobber and scatter mourners at a funeral.
Away from illness and death, there is the one-metre distance that should also be observed while queuing at the bank, the matatu stop, or while receiving sacrament in church or offering prayer at the mosque. The community must also be challenged to find ways to avoid or manage gatherings at weddings, political rallies or other mass events because these must go on in the “new normal”. We must find ways of fitting in soap and water into our daily activities even as we adopt as routine and normalise handwashing with soap literally every hour of every day. And from now onwards, we must adopt a new etiquette when sneezing, coughing, laughing and speaking.
The public must be given the correct, scientifically proven facts about the virus and the disease it causes, and what to do when it strikes so that they can separate the wheat from the chaff that social media throws at everyone. And while applying all these measures, we must yet engage in those activities that will transform our country and our people, moving forward from poverty through work (at home or elsewhere) and leading ourselves into a dynamic state of economic growth that will bring greater social equity and the fulfilment of the human potential.
As happened with smallpox and rinderpest—and soon polio— science will eventually will find a way to eradicate COVID-19. The development of a vaccine will help manage COVID-19 as happened with measles. And just like we did with HIV, which called for social and behaviour change to get us to where we are today, development communication professionals need to ease into the driving seat of normalising COVID-19 and life after COVID-19 while the clinicians return to their primary role of tending to the sick.
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