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Knowing your place

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Knowing your place

When you use the term minority or minorities in reference to people, you’re telling them that they’re less than somebody else.

Gwendolyn Brooks -American Poet.

The average age of knowing that you were born out of wedlock in my village was 5.

For boys, you learnt this news on a football pitch. I don’t remember the slight misdemeanor that prompted the insult. Neither did I know the meaning of the expletive, but the viciousness with which it was uttered sent a chill down my spine and I froze on the spot. Afterwards, my mother (a young widow then) could not explain what the word meant, but she warned me never step in that field again. I never did.

The word for a child born out of wedlock in Ekegusii, ekerentane, reduces the child to an inanimate object. Loosely it would translate to: something you bring along. Its connotations are untranslatable, there is an undisguised ring of contempt to it. Illegitimate children in my community were objects of ridicule and hostility. The boys at the pitch had put me to my place.

An illegitimate boy was always a target of insults, sometimes even by his own brothers. I scarcely remember any illegitimate boy who ever fully integrated into the new society the mother married to. Illegitimate boys were always forbidden from even performing certain rights like breaking ground for a grave to be dug, or even digging a grave. Such a privilege.

With hindsight, I now know it is the diminishing farming land in my community that motivated the hostility from our male peers and relatives. Illegitimate girls were the first target of pedophiles and any creep with incestuous inclinations, inured by the belief that as long the child was not related to them by blood, it wasn’t incest.

The message was clear: You are an outsider, you can’t have an opinion in our village. I recoiled in embarrassment, hurt badly. I will never belong.

Within a short five years of living in our new home, my mother would die in her mid-thirties. I was an orphan at just ten years. Being an illegitimate boy was bad enough. Being an orphaned illegitimate boy was positively vulgar. Nobody wanted to pick you up. Thankfully, my maternal kin took me and locked me in a boarding school.

My mother’s eldest sister would take care of me for the next ten years. It was a lovely, inclusive and kind family, but I would always be an outsider. A fact I was once reminded rather painfully. My aunt’s brother-in-law died of throat cancer. The brother-in-law was renowned patriarch, the last of a dying generation. In the 1990s, there was still a sense of community, and his death attracted a sizable crowd for the wakes.

During the wake nights, women will huddle themselves in the kitchen (usually a smoky, makeshift, grass-thatched, mudwalled hut, separate from the main house). And men will gather in the main house. It was in one such gathering of youthful men, that I would once again be put to my place.

The gathering was a blazing sitcom; rapturous, filled with rancorous humour and mudslinging that drew the throatiest of laughter. It was during one of the heated exchanges that I made the capital offense of offering my unsolicited opinion. One of the older members of the crowd, shouted me down,

“Shut up! You are a just a relative* here!”. He said it with such deadpan fury, it scared me.

The rage in the voice may have been made to carry with a hint of humour -indeed, the whole house went up in flames of laughter at that putdown- but the message was clear: You are an outsider, you can’t have an opinion in our village. I recoiled in embarrassment, hurt badly. I will never belong. Long after the funeral, everyone in that host village would call me “relative” in good humour, and I took it up without begrudging anyone. But deep inside, I started withdrawing from the world to take solace in books. In retrospect, that is how I became a bookworm: To escape the harsh world.

***

My high school was a little-known entity buried somewhere in the innards of Gusii Highlands. I joined a fat boy, about to shed all the weight and morph into a 6’4 wiry mesh of bone and flesh. High school was a neutral, anonymous space where no one knew my background. I could be anything I wanted.

I was scared of bullies. But our high school deputy principal, soon to be our principal for the next four years, a man who inspired the fear of God in boys, banned bullying effectively. Only prefects would whip us, but even that they did surreptitiously; if caught, they invited the fist of the principal’s fury. Think of Samuel L. Jackson.

That principal now heads Nairobi School.

The high school was Catholic. I grew up in a strict Adventist family, and became an ardent one at a young age. Soon, I would learn what it means to be a minority. For the small portion—roughly about a quarter the school—that identified themselves as active Adventists, getting a chance to worship on Sabbath was always a hard bargain. There were all sorts of intimidation from the administration. And to meet for Friday evening vespers, or the Saturday afternoon bible study, depended on the magnanimity of the school management. We were rather isolated, ridiculed by some students and we had to know our place, and be thankful to the gracious Catholic administration for the piecemeal hours of worship granted. I never liked that experience.

I did attend an Adventist high school briefly also and I noticed that Catholics were also given very limited time, or rights to worship, same as other Sunday worshippers. You could see the big, authoritarian hand of the Adventist church infringing on the religious liberties of the young men. I immediately wanted the church to be separated from the school system, and I grew to hate any form of authoritarianism even from my own church.

***

Ten years ago, I joined the University of Nairobi’s Main Campus. To me it felt like coming out of a jail after the unfortunate first 20 years of my life. With guaranteed freedom and housing for the next four years, a burning desire to be a man of my own in my heart, and the financial stipend from Higher Educations Loans Board, I could afford to be a man of my own.

I remember the knife-edge tension in the small room where we were hurdled in front of the TV, incredulously watching Kibaki being sworn in at night.

Again, here I could afford to be anonymous. My being illegitimate, or an orphan were no longer a factor of life. At least on the outside. I joined other young men and women, mostly from rural and rustic parts of Kenya on a government loan to pursue my dream, which by then was clear: become a writer.

***

A brief detour

Bad things come in threes. The Christmas Break of my first semester coincided with the General Elections of 2007, the first elections I was eligible to vote. My ‘paternal’ grandmother, died. I may not have been her biological grandchild but, growing up she had this indifference (more of her temperament than any ill will) towards me, but still humane enough in the African way. I visited my ‘ancestral’ home for the first time in ten years. It was awkward. I will never belong.

The second bad thing: my high school crush, a woman who had unleashed a Sicilian Thunderbolt on me ala` Michael Corleone in The Godfather, died and I could not afford to attend her funeral. In my imagination, she would have been my wife. Or not.

Third thing: the botched elections and the violence afterwards. I remember the knife-edge tension in the small room where we were hurdled in front of the TV, incredulously watching Kibaki being sworn in at night. We had all voted for Raila Odinga cashing in on the ODM wave. I was in the village where I had grown up.

I grew up being fed a lot of nonsense about the Luo, but in that election, a brilliant cousin then studying Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Nairobi taught me a lesson on historical marginalization of not just the Luos, but of the Coastal people, of the people in Northern Kenya. He convinced me that Raila Odinga was the right candidate for Kenya, not just the Luos. He told me Kibaki had broken the MoU that would have probably ridden Kenya of the toxic tribal nature of our politics.

It is this kind of idealism that had led more than 50 per cent of my clansmen to turn to Raila Odinga in that election. But the blatant disregard of the wishes of Kenyans in that election was more than we could take. The men in the room were smacking, clicking, shouting, creaking, rasping and could not believe what was happening.

My cousin Shylock, a brilliant and laidback mathematician, in moment of absolute exasperation, sighed,

“HE IS NOT MY PRESIDENT!”

He was beside himself with anger. Those words are still the realest, heaviest reaction I have ever heard from someone. Everyone in that house was mortified and I remember so many bad things were said about the Kikuyus, all in a moment of madness.

Then the violence erupted. In no time, we learnt that our clansmen were being killed in Kericho for “voting for Kibaki”. We were in town bordering the Maasai and the men in the room had ‘warrior’ instincts borne out of the many years of the inter-ethnic war with the Maasais. They wanted to pick up their bows and arrows and go fight the Kalenjins; indeed, the war did erupt at Borabu on the Kisii-Bomet border.

We got the more sad news—rumours really— that our clansmen had been killed in Kisumu. This was greeted by ambivalence. There was a Luo man, Ouma, who had lived in that market place I grew up, working as welder, widely loved for his wild laughter and boisterous personality. He had spent the evening with us, in readiness for never-would-be Raila presidency.

Even in our devolved units, for some clannish communities, smaller clans have little chance and will always be at the mercies of the numerically bigger clans, handed scraps of leadership to pacify them. Sadly, if you are minority, you have to accept and live with this.

But as soon as the Kisumu news hit us, some of the male cousins suddenly wanted to be hostile towards him, with one insinuating that we should discipline him, and more disgustingly suggesting that ‘we’ should go after the wife.

The thought itself scared me to death. Even then, I knew what it feels like to be a minority in a place dominated by people of a different kind. Luckily for Ouma, nothing bad happened to him, there were more sensible people in that room than the few rotten apples.

But others were not lucky in the Rift Valley and Nairobi. Depending on where you voted, you were targeted for either offensive or vengeful attacks. The rest is well documented.

***

When school reopened, in the first class after the coalition government was formed, a Japanese instructor married to a Kenyan and who had lived in Kenya long enough, tried to prompt a conversation on the violence. There is something foolish about being 20-years-old with youthful idealism. Our feelings were raw, and we said bad things against each other, full of stereotypes. We stopped short of a fist fight. The Japanese lecturer was so scared she had to stop the discussions.

A section of the class wanted to move on. A section of the class felt hurt and cheated by the coalition government. The rancour in our nation politics would visit our campus, only uglier, during the charged Students Organization of Nairobi University (SONU) elections. Ethnicity was a big factor. We had ODM Tribes and PNU tribes.

There were tribal kingpins in college who decided which seat went to which tribe. The big seats went to the ‘big three tribes’; (Kikuyus, Luos and Kalenjins). I remember one friend telling me, straight-faced,

All I would have wished for is an electoral body that is above reproach in its conduct and delivery. It is not too much to ask. It is not because my party lost that I think the process is not credible.

“You Kisiis, have to give us the Organizing Secretary.” No irony. It was the default set up under which the university operated. Even the university management, top-down had to reflect a sense of equitable distributions of positions, with “minority” tribes in Kenya having a zero chance of ever being in charge of Kenya’s largest learning institutions. It was disgusting. Ditto the Kenyan political landscape. Even in our devolved units, for some clannish communities, smaller clans have little chance and will always be at the mercies of the numerically bigger clans, handed scraps of leadership to pacify them. Sadly, if you are minority, you have to accept and live with this.

Another reminder that coming from a minority tribe or clan in Kenya, you must be ten times as good before you even stand a chance. Recently, there were arguments if the newly elected Nairobi senator is a Sabaot or a Luhyia, the import being, he would rather identify himself as a Luhyia and get Luhyia votes than risk identifying himself as a Saboat.

***

The 2013 elections gave us the phrase for our pathological condition of sweeping everything under the rug and forgetting: Accept and Move On. Yvonne Owuor, in her novel Dust that was set against the backdrop of the 2007 contested elections, called Silence our fourth national language. Besides the 2007 post-election violence, Owuor visited parts of our violent history that have been hushed up to the convenience of one part of the country, and the constant agitation of others.

2017, I expected better. But regardless of the legitimacy of the declared results and how the Supreme Court will decide, the outcome will disappoint a section of the country.

For me, there is no such a thing as ‘third time is the charm”. All the three elections I have voted, neither my vote, nor my voice has counted. It would be tolerable if the opponents’ victory was incontestably clean. The first election was fraudulent. We lived with it. The second time, the opponent’s victory was doubtful, made the worse by the curt dismissal at the Supreme Court. We took it on the chin. Third time, we will still go to the Supreme Court, not after a brief, premeditated round of violence on Raila Odinga’s supporters by the state. Thankfully, no large-scale violence, but there is large-scale hurt and internal bleeding that will not go away.

***

I’m proudly Kenyan. Given my background, I’m condemned to live in a city or a cosmopolitan county. But, I’m not blind to the deep-seated differences that will sooner or later boil over along ethnic lines. It has made settling in places that are not our ancestral home a scary prospect, as every election approaches.

Our differences can be solved peaceably through constitutional means; amending the constitution to have a better power sharing arrangement, adopting a different voting system that is not based on the tyranny of numbers like in the US, whose constitution we badly plagiarized. Or even increasing funding as some of the measures that can forestall the call for secession – a number of Kenyans are buying into economist David Ndii’s call for self-determination.

I have come to understand why people vote the way they vote. Both parties have valid reasons; fear on one side, hope on the other. Fear always prevails. If I was a Kikuyu, and my community has been a target of ethnic displacement or cleansing in 1992, 1997 and 2007, I would probably vote for someone I believe will protect me, especially if the utterances of some of the politicians urge my community to “lie low” hours before the election. Last time someone said such words, our clansmen died. Understandable.

If I have been under systemic neglect and discrimination since independence I will turn to a candidate who promises to address historical injustices, redistribute the national cake and inclusion.

All valid reasons. All I would have wished for is an electoral body that is above reproach in its conduct and delivery. It is not too much to ask. It is not because my party lost that I think the process is not credible. Power is a very temporary thing; the incumbent can lose and another person can take over. I will hate it if the political elite will abuse their power.

But most importantly, is my wish that our country can start having statesmen who think beyond raw power, tenders, real estate, stashing cash in foreign reserves. I hanker after statesmen who will think about future generations and build a world, where race, tribe, religion and such play a tertiary role over competence, humanity and empathy.

Where a child born in Turkana or Wajir, or Kisii, or a slum in Nairobi has as much chance to be a president, as the one born in Kiambu or Siaya. Or Uasin Gishu.

***

These things are cyclic. In 1960, Ronald Ngala led Kenya African Democratic Union (an outfit for Kalenjin, Maasais, Turkana and Samburu) to oppose the dominance of the Kikuyus and Luos. If the so called big tribes continue to dominate the political scene, other tribes will continue having deep antipathy towards them.

We need both a political and constitutional solution to this. Otherwise elections will always be a problem, since more and more Kenyans will feel that Kenya is not a place for them. They will find another place they can call home. Hardly the right way. But if pushed…it will be the only way. It is not as farfetched as some people think.

By Silas Nyanchwani
Silas Nyanchwani is a Kenyan writer who writes for the Standard Group. He is also a Journalism Instructor at Riara University. 

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Reflections

Obviously They Are Fine With Mugabe

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When A Coup Is Not A Coup: Why The Removal Of Mugabe Will Not Change Zimbabwe

My identity straddles African borders.

I was born in Zambia to a Zimbabwean mother and a South Africa father.

Of the three countries, I carry South African citizenship.

On social occasions I have often been at loggerheads with my compatriots who self-identify as pan-African. There are, you see, African politicians they will not brook criticism of. And one of them is one Robert Gabriel Mugabe: truth-speaker to the West, the man who had enough gumption to take land back from the whites and whose truth-telling videos, in this age of social media, they shared every year after the United Nations General Assembly. Any attempts at telling these, my fellow ‘woke’ South Africans how rhetoric did not match action and how the man, his family and his political party had often treated Zimbabwe and its citizens with contempt was always met with disbelief and what my friend and writer Petina Gappah calls Zimsplaining from my fellow South Africans. Why, they would ask, was I taking aspirin for someone else’s headache? Obviously Zimbabweans are fine with Mugabe. If they weren’t, surely they would object, toyi-toyi and overthrow him? This was the criticism that brooked no comeback as it was something that I wondered secretly sometimes. I had grown up in a Zimbabwe that protested: not just university students full of pent-up early adult hormones but notably, the teachers’ strike of 1990. What had happened to that fire? And then last year I decided to have my 40th birthday party in my mother’s country en route to South Africa by road from the country I now call home, Kenya.

In Zimbabwe in the days after my birthday, I found out that the two currencies which had created some sort of stability, the US dollar and the South African rand, were now going to be scrapped. In their place would be bond notes which, on being brought in, would be valued one to one with the US dollar. The Minister of Finance, Patrick Chinamasa and John Mangudya, Governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe had decided that the bond notes would be back in circulation in October 2016.

Already, while I was there, people had started hoarding their dollars and some shops were refusing to accept South African rands.

It was in this context that on the evening of August 2, 2016 I got a poster via WhatsApp from a friend reading:

Do you want to destroy your business that you have worked for all these years? SAY NO TO BOND NOTES. Join hands and march against Bond Notes.

Date: 03 August 2016

Time: 10AM

From: Cnr Julius Nyerere/Jason Moyo

To: Ministry of Finance

#pullingtogether #notobondnote #Tajamuka/Sesjikile

I had already dealt with a cash crisis in the week that I had been there. My cash crisis meant I could not go and see a lot of aunts and uncles as one cannot use a Visa or Mastercard on public transport. But my inability to visit relatives seemed minor when I heard some heartbreaking stories from people who live in Zimbabwe. I was, after all, just a guest in Zimbabwe and had other places to go. What of those who stayed there on a regular basis?

I thought of the unemployed university graduates working as vendors because of unavailability of jobs. I was thinking of a conversation with my friend Tapiwa who told me he interviewed five graduates, one of whom had twenty years teaching experience and another who had a degree in Architecture – married with children – to tutor his nine-year old twins for $200 a month. What would happen to the prospective tutor in a city where a reasonably neat two bedroom flat in the low density areas cost $500 a month? What would happen to the cab driver I met who had a car and wanted to survive with his four children but could only charge three dollars because no-one was willing to pay more than that for a five kilometer trip, essentially making his cab rides cheaper than Uber in Nairobi, Lagos or Johannesburg without cheaper foodstuffs? I was thinking too of my cousin Abisai telling me that because of a lack of cash, if business people needed a thousand dollars to do transactions, they had to do a transfer to illegal cash traders by the bus station for $1,200 so that they could get the $1,000 they wanted. And this was when the dollar was still circulating in the Zimbabwean economy but people were hogging it because of fear of the threatened bond notes.

This was a protest I would sign up toyi-toyi for.

With the Zimbabwean courts having ruled against the police and the government in their quest to ban people from marching against the return of the painful notes into the economy, taking part in the protest was the right thing to do. Half of my family is, after all, Zimbabwean and the bond notes would impact them.

I had no idea who was organizing the event but whoever they were, I agreed with the reason for their demonstration and I wanted to do more than verbally support it.

On August 3rd 2016 as my fellow South Africans went to the ballot box to vote in the municipal elections. I was north of the border at a march against bond notes.

I arrived at the march just before it began. After a prayer and the singing of the old Zimbabwean anthem Ishe Komborera Africa whose lyrics and tune were taken from the late South African Enoch Sontonga, the organisers informed us of the route we would be taking. I asked one of the fellow marchers why we were not singing the current Zimbabwean national anthem and the wit responded, “it would be like listening to a speech by Grace after reading one by Sallie Mugabe.”

Until he was forced to resign on 21st of November 2017, when talking to many Zimbabweans, it was never quite clear who they resented more: their then senior citizen President, Robert Mugabe who stubbornly held on to power way past his sell-by date or his flamboyant and vituperative wife, Grace. Further, I sometimes wonder whether the affection that is given to the late Sallie by Zimbabweans who talk of her fondly would still be there if she were still alive. I also wonder whether Mugabe would have retired gracefully if she were alive. Random musings.

But back to the protest.

The organisers informed us of the route we would be using and we proceeded to march.

I noted that the face of protests had changed drastically. Prior to 2016, most protests consisted of either members of the opposition party or employees of non-governmental organizations who sometimes were both. While many people my age felt the pinch, they were members of what I dub The Sandwich Parents. When asked to boycott bread because it had become overpriced, for instance, their response would be something akin to, “Ah manje, my children need sandwiches. If I boycott bread for a week, what will my children take to school?”

But now, knowing how this may hurt them, they were among those who were taking part in the protest. A friend in the banking industry called in sick so she could take part in the protest. I encountered some high school friends during the march, among them a former classmate who, not only had actively spoken of the abuse of power by the Mugabe administration but who got thrown in jail together with her partner and others for daring to screen the Arab Spring when they took place. For her actions, Tafadzwa and her comrades were charged with attempts to overthrow the government. They received a suspended sentence “if they do not repeat it” by a court system that was largely state-captured.

Another high school friend was at the march because her brother-in-law, a former Zimbabwean liberation war veteran, was arrested and charged for speaking out against abuse of power by the political leadership of the governing party. Saner minds in Zimbabwe’s High Court, which now seemed keen to no longer be puppets to the puppet-masters that are ZANU government, prevailed and the case was struck off the roll. I saw friends who had returned from the diaspora with their savings hoping to invest in the country. Among those in the crowd too were unemployed university graduates in their gowns and grandmothers. There was something about this particular demographic that I had not seen in previous marches in Zimbabwe. There was a certain unity of purpose across age, gender and class that seemed to highlight that people were fed up. I did not know it then but I had just witnessed the beginning of the end for the Mugabe leadership which would topple a little over a year later.

The government had attempted to ban the march. The organisers went to court and the courts allowed it. Knowing that despite the court ruling, the law will not always act lawfully towards protestors, flyers were handed to the police reading:

OPEN LETTER TO THE POLICE

We are not your enemies, but we are your brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers. All we want from life is to be able to feed our families and to be able to send our children to school so that they can get jobs and do the same for their children. We want them to work in Zimbabwe, not outside the country as it is now. We want doctors and medicines in our hospitals. When we stand up to ask our government for these basic human rights, do not beat us, rather stand with us as we want the same basic human rights. Above all, we are all Zimbabwean, let us unite in demanding these rights from our government.

It was doubtful that the police would really care. They were there to do the bidding of their masters but it was good to see an attempt by the organisers to wake them up.

In Zimbabwe, there seemed to be questions about the government’s relationship with China as heard from the popular song on the march:

Bobo, watengesa nyika kumaChina

Usazokanganwa

Tisu takakuisa, tichakubvisa

A song that accused Bob, the President of having sold the country to the Chinese and reminding him that they were the ones who put him in power and had the power to remove him. It was an entertaining song but I wondered just how much power these people with their energy had, to remove Uncle Bob from power.

By the time we got to Treasury, many had joined and there were now thousands in a march that began with a few hundreds. It was then that I realized that perhaps something had changed. Zimbabweans were not only talking in private about being fed up with Mugabe, they were coming out in the street and publicly declaring it.

And so, on 18 November this year, although I was at a literary festival in Nigeria, I locked myself up in my room for a major part of the day to root for and follow the #MugabeMustGo protest through updates on social media. Zimbabweans were showing, this time in the glare of international media, that they were done with their geriatric leader.

Mugabe is now gone. I heard this announcement in an anti-climactic moment while in Nairobi making dinner.

Mnangagwa is in the driver’s seat.

And I.

I am cautiously optimistic for my mother’s country as I reflect on the coup that was not a coup from my father’s country. I like to think that Zimbabweans have realized the power they have and will not surrender it easily now to any politician.

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Reflections

A Healthy Serving of Reality

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A Healthy Serving of Reality
Photo: Shutterstock

I never thought I would be on the receiving end of gratitude until cancer happened. This show of kindness has kept me on the other side of Kenya’s health care system. I consider myself lucky. I am able to afford chemotherapy drugs, monthly tests and doctor’s visits and supplements.

It is common knowledge that cancer is not cheap and this is universal. At the height of my treatment, I was spending 140,000 shillings a month on treatment, the cost of my bone marrow transplant has more zeros and commas. It is thanks to family, friends, colleagues and strangers that I was and still am able to afford my treatment. Acknowledging this fills me with a sense of humility. I struggled with the kindness that was showered my way. My therapist who helped me grapple with the many twists and turns of this journey told me to be ‘open to kindness’. Pride stood in my way, but the bitter truth was that I could not have done this alone. We as a family, could not afford this alone.

Our healthcare system is us! It will be us, the people, holding one another until we have a public healthcare system that will be able to provide universal, affordable and quality healthcare services. My diagnosis gave me new eyes to accompany this new normal. I was hugely aware of the shortcomings of our public healthcare system and once you experience it, it scares you. And if you have private medical insurance, you will appreciate the cover. But these health covers are not bottomless pits. If anything, they cushion and if it’s excellent, it offers restful nights. During the two weeks of my hospitalisation, I spent over six hundred thousand shillings of my one-million-shilling in-patient cover. Thankfully, NHIF, knocked off another 100k. My outpatient cover was going to be blown in sixty seconds and I was tapping into my savings.

Alice Membao Tawa, was my nyanya, my grandmother. Sometime in 1999, she was admitted to the burns unit of the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH). She spent many weeks there until she passed away. The burns unit is not pretty, but we made our visits to the hospital hoping nyanya would get better. That period introduced me to the harshness of our public health system.

It is functional, though not wholly efficient. Kindness doesn’t come easily for some members of staff. There is a tough-love, ji-sort, hii-ni-kazi and uta-do attitude that is harboured by some of the staff.   I witnessed patients lying on mattresses on the floor, and there were patients sharing single beds. Beds were currency. There were no three-course meals like the Nairobi Hospitals, Maters or Aga Khans, the food was bland, stodgy and uninviting. It provided the most basic of nutrition. The hospital and the wards had a beaten and drab feel to them. They didn’t offer comfort or healing. I’ve been to Kenyatta many times after that, for several reasons, and there have been vast improvements, but it is far from perfect.

We work hard to able to afford private healthcare, but sadly not everyone in Kenya can access this. I don’t take this for granted. I was saddened by the many stories of patients being turned away or dying due to the lack of medical personnel during the doctor and nurses strike. I heard medics being described as selfish for downing their tools. I bet these critics made sure their health premiums were up to date nor had they slept or walked into a public health facility.

Let us not deceive ourselves, as we live in Kenya, we are not too far from experiencing the ‘other side’ of our health care. I keep on imagining what if I was to have an accident in public either in Nairobi or elsewhere? I would probably be rushed to public health hospital before my insurance provider is notified. I have thought about it constantly. What if the only place that I would have been able to afford or receive treatment for my cancer would have been from a public health facility? If I had to receive chemotherapy intravenously and not orally, I’d be making an early morning pilgrimage to KNH and camping on the hospital grounds as I wait my turn. It would be a process of waiting hours to see a doctor for minutes and hoping that on that day they would show up.

Over the last 24 months, I have met other cancer patients who have lived that experience of waiting, wondering and hoping. There was six-year-old Waithera who was scheduled for surgery on the day the doctors’ strike began. She was only able to get badly needed surgery when her father was informed about the Faraja Cancer Trust, but before this, the hospital in Nakuru had become a second home.

I learnt that it was faster and cheaper if you got admitted as an overnight patient at Kenyatta for chemotherapy treatment. I hope the new equipment at Kenyatta will reduce patient waiting times. I was told that it was faster for patients in the western part of the country to go to Uganda for radiotherapy treatment rather than coming to Nairobi. Yes, Uganda, whose only radiotherapy machine hit the global headlines when it broke down last year. Yet, there is a radiotherapy machine in Kisumu lying idle because there aren’t enough numbers to justify the cost of operating it. Apparently, there aren’t any oncologists in Kisumu. One must go to either Eldoret or Nairobi for treatment.

In rural medical centres, there are numerous stories of misdiagnosis because of some patients (some now deceased) were tested and treated for malaria or typhoid before the discovery of cancer or either a preventable or treatable malady.   I still get angry thinking about this. Early diagnosis of breast, cervical and prostate cancer make these three cancers treatable and affordable. Being diagnosed with cancer doesn’t necessarily mean death.

Our healthcare system is us. ‘Naomba serikali’ does not cut the mustard anymore. The mode of referrals for specialists, surgeons, pharmacies, and hospitals both in Kenya and abroad is word of mouth. I created a spreadsheet of the different outlets that I could source my medicine from and the phrase, ‘naenda kutafuta dawa‘ became real. There was one time I went to three hospitals looking for a drug because it was in short supply. That was when I realised that there are many of us on this journey. A journey to find the best possible healthcare that our money can afford to buy.

I followed the doctors and nurse strike keenly, read the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and cried tears of joy when an agreement was reached. We need to put more into our public health system. I am sure we know of cases of patients being transferred to KNH from private hospitals because it was cheaper cost wise. Remember those bottomless pits? They don’t exist. We have a cadre of men and women who are passionate about their work in public health. We can only reward their duty by making sure that they work under the best possible conditions. I have seen it work in the UK, through the National Hospital Service. It is not perfect, it has its critics, but it works. I look forward to the day when we will have a system that we too can boast of. One can dream, right?

But until then, our healthcare system will continue to be us. Where we look out for one another, attend medical harambees or give towards Mchanga campaigns, share a referral or WhatsApp messages on cancer, diabetes and blood pressure cures! We cannot afford to have a health system that ‘others’ individuals or provides care that is dependent on the size of one’s purse.

For we all know that death and disease do not discriminate.

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Reflections

Counting People in a Broken Health System

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Counting People in a Broken Health System
Photo: Shutterstock

I remember, a young woman, a freshly minted teacher named Leah- who was very fond of my father. I was a little boy then. She looked up to father as a senior teacher and a mentor to help her grow into the profession. My father and mother were fond of her and she was a common visitor to our house. In our young minds, age sets were binary: you were either nyithindo or jomadongo, children or adults. Children were the people you could play with, the people you called by their first names and complained about to your parents. Adults were a whole other matter, separated by a chasm that moved through time. They were people who even when informal in their manner, had to be treated with the formality that adulthood conferred.

Leah was confusing for my binary world. She was at a stage my elder siblings had not gotten to yet, somewhere in between a child and an adult. When she was around she cooked with us, referred to my mother as “mama”, and seemed more at ease with my teenage sisters and cousins. Yet she held adult conversations with my parents and could gently disagree with them in conversation. I probably had a little puppy crush on her. She straddled that space with some aplomb. My parents loved her. My elder brother’s eyes never left her swaying hips as she navigated the ten metres or so between our detached kitchen and the main house holding a tray of food or kettle of tea in her hands. My sisters could not wait to be her- she had all the big girl privileges: she could choose her own clothes, she wore jewellery, and she earned a salary at the end of the month!

Even after she moved to a different school further away, the warmth of her company whenever she returned to visit did not change.

One day, word arrived that Leah had died. The whole family was left reeling. My sisters cried. My brother went off to the simba- my second to last unmarried uncle’s house- lost in a daze of disbelief. Although my parents were stoic, they could not hide their pain. Nobody wanted to explain death to a little boy. Up until then death was an exciting and rare occurrence associated with screams tearing the bucolic night air from the direction of the home of an ailing elderly man. They were not people I knew. In my little sheltered, small town rural existence, I had never met anyone who later went off and died.

Leah died. She was the first person I had met, known, even loved, who died. She had died during childbirth. One moment she was full of life and carrying the promise of a brand-new life, the next moment she was dead. Cause of death. Maternal mortality. Leah had come up against maternal mortality and lost.

Maternal mortality is a sterile pair of words. It is impersonal and jarring. I did not know who the father of Leah’s child was but I felt for him. Maternal mortality is the sudden shot between the closed eyes, blissfully sucking on the lollipop of life. Maternal mortality is a rusty serrated knife piercing your back. One moment you are tingling with excitement and looking forward to holding a new life in your hands and looking at the incomparable poem of joy that is the face of a new mother. The next moment you are planning a funeral.

A woman went out, and two coffins came in. A big one and tiny little one.

I did not know these things then. But, I know them now. I became a pharmacist. Then I drifted, a journeyman into public health with a penchant for math. So I count things. I count ratios and rates, odds and people’s chances. I create pivot tables and run scripts. I find blips and upticks and trends. And to stay human I try not to think of counting Leahs and little babies who have not had the chance at a name. A simple name.

2017 has been a rough year for mothers, babies and families across the country. The year opened to a doctors’ strike that was a month old and would continue into March stretching for a 100 days. Public health facilities were on their knees. Clinical officers and nurses did what they could and sent those they could not handle to private health facilities, which sometimes is the same as being sent home to die. After a brief respite, the health system would once again go into the convulsions of massive labour unrest with the nurses’ strike. That strike would last 5 months before getting called off.

If doctors are the analytical mind of the health system, nurses are its beating heart. A formidable nurse-doctor team, with the backing of a working health system, is what makes maternal mortality quake in its shoes. For the better part of 2017, there has been no team. No team means that Caesarean sections and assisted deliveries are not happening. Blood transfusions and resuscitation are nowhere to be found. Incubators are not whirring; bleeding mothers are not stirring. Ambulances are running across the land blaring sirens of death.

One of the simplest pieces of health data that indicates the health of the health system is vaccination coverage rates. It is simple because vaccines are given at predetermined intervals and ages. When a baby is born they get BCG- the tuberculosis vaccine- and the polio vaccine. Kenyans have about 30 babies for every one thousand people every year. If there is a community of about 5000 people then we expect that a baby is born every two days or so and 12 children get birth vaccines every month. Vaccine coverage responds quickly, positively or negatively, to failures in the health system- when people cannot get to the health system for reasons such as flooding, when medicines or syringes are not available, when there is no energy supply for refrigeration and when staff are not at their posts because they are on strike.

Vaccine coverage has dropped precipitously in communities that rely primarily on the public health system. Less than 5% of Kenyans have private health insurance, so this means almost every mother who is not on Facebook. Vaccines protect children individually but also as a group in what is called herd immunity. The chances of a vaccinated child getting the infection they have been vaccinated against is lower than for an unvaccinated child and if they do get the infection it commonly runs a shorter course and is less severe and less likely to lead to death.

This means that they are less likely to spread it to other children who also, if vaccinated, are less likely to catch it. Vaccination is therefore equivalent to children locking arms and standing shoulder to shoulder against vaccine-preventable diseases. Unvaccinated children are a big hole in that wall- their own risk rises massively but they also increase the risk for vaccinated children.

More ominously still, falling vaccination coverage is an outward sign of an ailing health system. For four years of my working life, I kept verbal autopsy tables: Excel sheets where in a community the size of a small district it was my business to know who died, where, when, and why. I learnt what makes people die. In what seasons people killed one another and when people killed themselves. I got to know intimately how the health system fails babies, children, mothers, and other people and how the consequences are felt in communities are far removed from tables and graphs.

As the Kenyan health system convulses, children are dying from immunizable diseases. People are missing precious doses of chronic medications such as diabetes and HIV medicines. Women are bleeding to death in ambulances and that is one Leah, too many.

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