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A Healthy Serving of Reality

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A Healthy Serving of Reality
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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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Kevin Mwachiro is a Kilifi based writer, journalist, podcaster and human rights defender. Twitter @kevmwachiro

Reflections

When We Lose Our Fear: A Saba Saba Day Reflection

On the 30th anniversary of the Saba Saba day, grassroots human rights defenders and allies held a protest and appeared in way that was not sanctioned by the authorities to confront state power and exercise their right to be seen and heard.

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When We Lose Our Fear: A Saba Saba Day Reflection
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On the thirtieth anniversary of the massive pro-democracy Saba Saba day ( 7th July) demonstrations in Kenya, Tuesday’s People’s March began in the very places where state violence is still laid bare: Mathare, Kayole, Dandora, Kibera, and other informal settlements in Nairobi. From as early as 7AM that grey cold-season morning, human rights defenders at the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) and allies from the community began preparing for their march. They lined posters and banners along the front of the centre. They raised up large flags, one in each hand, and spun, watching the fabric billow. They tested loudspeakers. They sang and danced to protest music together.

Thirty years ago, hundreds of demonstrators flooded the city centre, led by a coalition of pro-democracy political leaders, to demand multi-party democracy and the end of authoritarian rule under President Daniel arap Moi. On Tuesday, grassroots human rights defenders organised a People’s March—a leaderless event that was, on principle, neither branded and sponsored by any organisation, nor “approved” beforehand by authorities—to demand a set of basic human rights necessary to live a dignified life.

Ironically, in 1990, the first Saba Saba demonstration under Moi’s dictatorship was able to at least get within the vicinity of the Kamukunji grounds, though it was eventually met with lethal police force. This time in 2020, before demonstrators were able to even leave Mathare, Dandora, Kibera, Kayole, and other meeting places, clots of police officers had already begun blocking their passage and arresting leading organisers. Only minutes after demonstrators at the Mathare Social Justice Centre began singing, police shot tear gas at them.

After the inaugural plumes of tear gas cleared from the front of MSJC, Mama Victor walked up to me, gave me a long embrace, looked to where the police were gathered, and abruptly said, “I’m going there to take tea.”

Mama Victor has a face like calm waters, smooth and serene like one of Picasso’s monumental women. Like the other members of the Network of Mothers and Widows of Victims and Survivors who had gathered at MSJC to participate in the march, she wore a white gown over her clothes, like those for baptisms. Written on the front of all of the gowns were the names of loved ones killed by police. She clenched in her hand the poster she had intended to march with: a large photograph of a young man, with the words “Victor Okoth Obondo. 1994-2017.”

Three years ago, Mama Victor lost both of her sons on the same day. It was August 9, 2017, when post-election unrest led to violent police crackdowns in informal settlements across the country. Victor, 22, and Bernard, 25—the son of her deceased sister, whom she raised as her own—were on their way home to Mathare when they were caught up in protests contesting election results. Police shot live bullets. Bernard was shot in the head and died instantly; Victor was shot in the stomach and died before he reached the hospital.

At the time, Mama Victor’s shock and grief was forced into the confines of a politically charged election. Victor and Bernard’s burials had to be rushed, but, in her account to journalist Isaac Otidi Amuke, she says she was “fortunate” to even have that. Other mothers, grandmothers, widows, and relatives, are often denied the “privilege to mourn,” as people can be arrested for even holding vigil for those killed by police.

“In the beginning, I would just wake up, see the photo of my sons, and cry,” she says. But as the once-searing pain subsided with time, she realized that it was only people like her who could sit with other mothers of victims and “share the pain we feel.” So she and a few other core members formed the Network of Mothers and Widows of Victims and Survivors.

When We Lose Our Fear: A Saba Saba Day Reflection

Photo. Anthony Tei Mutua

The word “activist,” and the cynicism around it, often obscures the fact that some like Mama Victor never chose to be activists. Rather, it was the decision of some police officers sent to control “riots” on August 9, 2017 to pull the trigger—and Mama Victor’s refusal to accept impunity as an answer—that has landed her here. Taking tea in front of police officers on Saba Saba day.

Right off of the main road where over a dozen police officers were gathered, behind a kiosk selling medicinal herbs, was a breakfast kibanda. Mama Victor sat down on the mbao-bench to take chai and chapati. On the bench next to her, she set down the poster of Victor and another poster of Yassin Moyo, the 13-year-old boy who was shot in Kiamaiko on March 30 by police enforcing curfew, while he stood on the balcony of his family’s house.

Almost immediately, two policeman approach Mama Victor. They ask her what she is doing, and she says drily that she is taking tea. One orders her to get up and leave. “I can’t,” she says, “because I am taking tea.” They say no “gatherings” are allowed here—referring to the protest songs that had just been silenced by tear gas—and once again she says she is not gathering anything, she is just taking tea.

The humiliating interrogation continues. One officer asks her why she is wearing white, to which she responds that those are her clothes. He sees her facemask, draped loose on her neck, and with his wooden baton, prods at the human rights logo printed on it: “What is this?” Even with his stick pointed at her neck, Mama Victor didn’t let her chin drop. She raises her voice and reaffirms that she is not doing anything wrong by wearing her own clothes and drinking tea. She takes two cups and pours the hot, milky tea from one cup into the other, in a long, white cascade, to cool it.

Mama Victor is not naive about dealing with the police. As a human rights defender at MSJC, she collects evidence to document police brutality in Mathare, which means that, like other grassroots organizers unprotected by international institutions, in the past, she has received threats from anonymous callers and been followed for days by strange men. If she talks back to police, it is not because she believes she is untouchable.

One police officer orders Mama Victor to remove the white robe and throw away the posters of Victor and Yassin. A crowd gathers around this image of a thousand words: a policeman with his stick, standing above a woman seated on a wooden bench, trying to take her breakfast. Mama Victor refuses to throw away the posters and, her shouts reaching a fever pitch, she points to the poster of Victor on the bench next to her and asks the wrenching, simple question: “Can I not even take tea here with my child?”

Despite the fact that the state has already heaped layers of violence on this woman—murdering her sons, denying her justice, leaving her to solve her own children’s murders, plus the baseline systemic neglect that Mathare and other informal settlements suffer—the state has denied Mama Victor the dignity of even appearing before the Kenyan public by choking the Saba Saba day demonstration before it started.

They cannot, however, strip away the eternal truth that she is—and always will be—Mama Victor. Victor Okoth Obondo, frozen forever in that crouch, his arm resting on his knee, with a cool, easy smile. Her baby.

Mama Victor grabs the poster and, breaking into a flow of Dholuo, speaks straight to Victor. “Victor, you were so handsome, everyone said. You were kind, hard-working. We shouldn’t have come to Nairobi. Perhaps if we were home….” Another woman in the back begins to wail, and the police slink away.

In The Appearance of Black Lives Matter, visual activist Nicholas Mirzoeff writes that for Black people in 2014’s BLM protests to show up in the way they did was for them to “appear as Black in a way that is not codified by white supremacy.” To “appear,” he writes, is to confront state power that says, “Move along, nothing to see here,” and to demand to be seen. To “appear” is to be grievable, worth grieving, and to force others to look.

All of the grassroots human rights defenders and allies who weren’t already arrested by 10AM and furtively hopped onto matatus into town, knowing that scores of police would be waiting for them there too, understood this. They rejected the idea that a demonstration could possibly be first approved by the government, and they claimed—as victims of structural violence themselves—their right to “appear.”

Human rights defenders on Tuesday’s Saba Saba day, knew that Kenya’s comfortable class is not ignorant of plight of the poor but, rather, chooses to ignore it. Like Black civil rights activists of the U.S. in the 1960s, they knew that the most powerful message would have to be communicated through the medium of their own bodies: kneeling together, unfazed and fists up, within a storm of tear gas, or proclaiming “Whatever happens, I am not afraid” while being dragged by officers into the boot of a car.

It worked. Photographs and videos from Tuesday show the full, militarized force of the state concentrated onto the unarmed, vulnerable bodies of the city’s poorest, bodies which already bear the violence of living in districts with no water, going to bed hungry, loving people who were murdered by serial killer cops.

Mama Victor says that, when she reached the city centre, she was followed closely by several police officers—so closely that other organizers arranged for a cab to take her directly home. That is how much the state fears a middle-aged woman wearing white and holding a poster of her son, whose smile can never fade anymore. Even though the state had stripped Mama Victor of every other opportunity to express her grief and demand justice, the one they could not take away—her own self, the mother of two men they killed—is indeed the most powerful.

At first, this particular kind of protest seems like a paradox: how can leaning into one’s vulnerability possibly be an expression of power? But if you think about it a bit more, it makes intuitive sense. In a widely shared video from Tuesday afternoon, MSJC co-founder Juliet Wanjiru Wanjira is cornered between two parked cars, surrounded by several armed police officers attempting to arrest her. Without flinching, she says she will not cooperate and asks them, “Why are you arresting me?”

One officer asks back, “Why are you protesting?”

“Because you’re killing us!”

“Who is killing you?”

“You! Police!” The officer begins to walk away, and she continues: “You are killing us in our communities! Poor communities!” Both Wanjira and Mama Victor display no fear, and they lean into her identity as the victims of police violence in the face of police themselves.

When We Lose Our Fear: A Saba Saba Day Reflection

Photo. Anthony Tei Mutua

The police leave Wanjira alone. She turns to those around her, throws her fist in the air, and shouts, “When we lose our fear, they lose their power!” Her courage doesn’t come from the security of privilege, but rather defiance even in the face of her own vulnerability, as someone who faces the real risk of being disappeared or executed, a tragic fate that has met many other Kenyan human rights defenders.

Those with a lived experience of state violence have the most powerful things to say to the government. Indeed, even if they marched silently in town, their bodies would speak volumes. Perhaps that is what the state fears most—people who see not only their own scars but also see clearly who inflicted them. Perhaps that is why police coordinated so thoroughly to block demonstrators from even stepping foot on the road to the city centre.

This completely counters how certain newspapers reported the day’s events: that the Saba Saba demonstrations were shut down, somehow failed, or didn’t happen at all. Ultimately, the entire country witnessed the physical violence that police officers inflicted on peaceful protestors. But, more than that, they witnessed how this violence was doled out on people who already bore state violence within their own bodies.

People like Mama Victor, a living testament to the bloodied hands of the state. Her survival is resistance. Her dogged commitment to documenting extrajudicial killings is resistance. Her sitting down to take tea with her son in front of those who killed him—that, above all, is resistance.

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Reflections

Confronting Racism in the Shackles of a Miseducation

I cannot claim to have been a victim of the odious, brutal racism of the kind daily suffered by – predominantly – African American men in the United States. The racism I encountered during my time abroad was of the insidious kind, the kind that lets you in through the door and feigns to accept you as an equal while reminding you that “the hand that receives is always beneath the hand that gives.”

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Confronting Racism in the Shackles of a Miseducation
Photo: Unsplash/Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona
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Paysage avec homme nu dans la neige.

That was the title of the book and the subject of the exam.

Landscape with a naked man in the snow.

I cannot now remember the title of the course but I have kept the book and clearly remember the lecturer who taught it; a small, pasty-faced man with a balding pate and shifty black eyes. There we were, in his office on the second floor of the Faculty of Letters, Monsieur le Professeur behind his desk and me on the opposite side facing him, nervously ready to sit this oral exam. It started off well enough, my confidence growing as I responded to the lecturer’s questions.

Then out of nowhere, like a violent slap across the face, his beady eyes boring into mine, came this: “Tell me Mademoiselle, naked white men fascinate you, don’t they? Do you like the title of the book? What does it make you think of? You black people are really fascinated by us whites, aren’t you?” I sat there utterly gobsmacked, unable to conjure up any sort of response, in outrage or even in pretense at a smart literary comeback. Then Monsieur le Professeur seemed to snap out of it, dismissing me with a peremptory Vous pouvez disposer!

I left his office and stopped to stare out through the large bay windows that overlooked the square below, too stunned to immediately leave the building and join the throngs of students lazing about in the summer sunshine. I felt sad, mad, sullied, impotent. I knew I could lodge a complaint but how would I frame it? With what words? There had only been the two of us in that office so it would be his word against mine. Also, I was the only black female student in my faculty that year so I had no one to compare notes with. And besides, I knew I had passed the exam; otherwise, as was the custom, Monsieur le Professeur would have informed me that I would be taking a re-sit come September. Why then would I start a fight I wasn’t sure I could win?

Yet now I believe that this acquiescence, this doubting of self, this not fighting back, had been inculcated in me, and that I had internalised it well. I remember being in secondary school and the Mother Superior informing us that Africans were required to attend national celebrations at Uhuru Park. Africans. Not the Asians or the Europeans that were in class with me, many of whom were, at least from a citizenship point of view, as Kenyan as I am. Africans. Black. Everyone else stayed behind as we Black Africans made our way to Uhuru Park that day. We did not complain. I did not complain.

An Irish nun given to long digressions into her distant childhood in County Cork taught us African history. Apartheid and Bantustans came up, a map showing the various desolate locations to which black South Africans had been relegated pinned to the classroom wall. Yet I do not remember any sense of outrage on the part of the teacher. Or on the part of us students. Kenya’s colonial history, with its native reserves, its racism and its violence, was certainly not taught. It was a time to forgive but never forget, we were constantly reminded, the not forgetting bit invoked as an after-thought, sotto voce.

And nor was Kenya’s painful history invoked at home; we were not a political family by any measure. The parents worked and the children went to school and did what was expected of them. Only much later did it occur to me to wonder what it might mean for my family that my grandfather had been a chief in colonial times.

We learned to recite Shakespeare, and became intimate with the Mayor of Casterbridge; the English classics held no secrets for us. I fell in love with the language of love, taught to me by one Mrs Kiprono (why on earth would anyone study Swahili?) and flew off to take a degree in Romance Languages the minute I could. And thus did I come face to face with my miseducation.

I had been on campus a year, struggling to dominate the language of Molière, when the time came to renew my student residency permit, having done well enough to progress to second year. Of I went to the immigration desk of our local authority one October morning, joining a line of foreigners there for the same reason when, suddenly, up at the top of the queue, a young black man lost it. “What?! I am exploiting the Belgian taxpayer?! Do you know how long we Congolese suffered under your rule? Do you know that we built this country? Do you know what King Leopold did to us? Do you? Well, if you think I’m profiting from you I haven’t even started yet Madame! I have come to repatriate what you took from me!”. Apparently, the prim madam attending to the queue had questioned his motivation to remain in Belgium since he had failed his year but the young Congolese man was having none of it; he threw a monumental, show-stopping fit and got his residency renewed there and then. I had never witnessed anything of the sort before. I realised there was another whole history out there I knew nothing about.

That young man made me feel emboldened and when, some time later, a couple of cops jumped dramatically out of their patrol car in that neighbourhood of Brussels known as Matongé—on account of its numerous Congolese businesses—and barked, “papiers!”, at Jean and I, clearly hoping that we were undocumented illegals, we laughed in their faces as we handed over our student IDs. A young female lecturer of African descent recently arrived at the department of history had me transfixed when she took on a white professor at an international students event. In his cravat, floppy hat and carefully cultivated air of the worldly dandy, the prof had been waxing lyrical about his time at the Université Lovanium in Congo-Kinshasa, practically working himself into a state of ecstasy at the recall of the beauty of Congolese women dancers during faculty parties. Her “je danse, donc je suis?”, I dance, therefore I am?, abruptly put paid to that self-indulgent, paternalistic, walk down memory lane.

The scales had fallen from my eyes and I had come to the painful realisation that I had been lied to and that things were not as they seemed. I started reading properly, discovering the works of Cheikh Anta Diop and promoting them with the zeal of a recent convert, once eliciting the comment of a white friend that he would henceforth have to regard me in a totally different light, now that he was having to contemplate the notion that Africans had entire civilisations behind them. I was astounded.

A first full-time job after graduation brought me into the world of trade unions, a world where I expected that the rallying call—“Workers of the world, unite!”—excluded racists from the ranks of its diverse membership. That is until I found myself sitting between two Italian delegates to whom I was providing consecutive interpretation when a white speaker, referring to Namibians, ejaculated: “But these people are animals! You can’t do anything with them!”. (The man had a contract to undertake trade union education among the said “animals”.) I could not translate that statement, did not know what to do with it even as the two Italians kept asking me, “What did he say? What did he say?”. The meeting broke up in pandemonium.

I moved jobs a while later and found myself working under a Belgian director who liked to advance his reputation as a friend of Africa and Africans, holding court in his office through the doors of which hopeful African immigrés would flow, many met in the African nightclubs Monsieur le Directeur liked to frequent. Which did not dissuade him from treating very ill a young man to whom he had offered a job as his PR man, holding him by the contractual balls and giving them a squeeze every so often, just because he could. That young man eventually lost his job. And his mind. He was Congolese.

I cannot claim to have been a victim of the odious, brutal racism of the kind daily suffered by – predominantly – African American men in the United States. The racism I encountered during my time abroad was of the insidious kind, the kind that lets you in through the door and feigns to accept you as an equal while reminding you that “the hand that receives is always beneath the hand that gives”, as one senior manager, a Frenchman, put it to staff to justify why African beneficiaries of international development cooperation largesse needn’t expect to have their views taken into serious consideration in the execution of a project.

In the meantime, other books were published. Like King Leopold’s Ghost, a quick primer on the brutality of the agents of King Leopold II in the Congo Free State. My heart went out to the Congolese after that one. Or the horrifyingly detailed Britain’s Gulag, which at first I was unable to read to the end; the torture casually perpetrated in the Kenyan concentration camps by the colonists and their local collaborators was beyond anything I could bear to know. It took ten years for me to go back to that book, and to start asking questions about that time. I was shocked to learn from an aunt now in her early 70s that she knew of women who never did get married, could find no one to marry them, because they were daughters of known Ngati, the Kikuyu Home Guards that did the colonial government’s dirty work.

There was still the question of my grandfather who had been a chief in those times. I loved and revered that man, and did not want to have to contemplate that he might have been a party to the suffering visited upon Kenyans by the colonial government and its craven collaborators. And so I did not probe. Then, quite by chance, I fell upon The Swords of Kĩrĩnyaga: the fight for land and freedom, a book written by H.K. Wachanga, a former freedom fighter and, in those pages, I learnt something about my grandfather that freed me from the fear that my family had been on the wrong side of Kenya’s history.

[W]e met the Muhĩto Location Chief, Jeremiah Kĩnyua s/o Kĩru. He was a most unusual chief, because he had taken the second Mau Mau oath. He warned us that the government was searching for Kĩmathi, Mathenge and myself. He said Kimathĩ and Mathenge were to be tried for murder and that I was to be detained. He implored me to escape to Nairobi and hide there.

I learnt very recently from a contemporary of my grandfather’s that his chieftaincy was short-lived. Jeremiah Kĩnyua son of Kiru would not commit exactions against his people, and eschewed violence and corruption. And so he was quietly removed, never again to hold public office, living a dignified life and dying an honourable death four years shy of his 100th birthday.

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Reflections

Covid Organics: Towards an African Renaissance

Following the outbreak of a pandemic in the city of Wuhan during a Chinese winter that will forever remain etched in the annals of history, Madagascar has been dramatically thrust to the fore on the international stage with its announcement of the development of a herbal remedy for COVID-19.

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Covid Organics: Towards an African Renaissance
Photo: Gov. of Madagascar
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Unlike other former French colonies in Africa such as Benin, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Senegal and Mali that have been acclaimed for placing the continent on the world map musically, Madagascar is not known for its musical prowess. The country pales in comparison to Cape Verde, that tiny island in the Atlantic Ocean that produced the gifted voice of Cesária Évora, and gave birth to Amilcar Cabral, the anti-colonial revolutionary and theoretician. But with the outbreak of a pandemic in the city of Wuhan during a Chinese winter that will forever remain etched in the annals of history, Madagascar has been dramatically thrust to the fore on the international stage.

Madagascar caught the world’s attention in April 2020 after announcing that it had made an extraordinary breakthrough in the field of (indigenous African) medicine. The Madagascar Institute of Applied Research (IMRA), which describes itself as “dedicated to biodiversity conservation and the discovery of drugs from natural products”, announced the development of Covid Organics (CVO) from the artemisia plant. Promoted as an herbal remedy that prevents and cures those who have tested positive for COVID-19, the drug has caused a sensation in a continent that has been marginalised by an international scientific community that views Africa as a spectator rather than as a player. But let me put a few things into perspective.

Long before CVO, the island nation’s flourishing plant life had been used for medicinal purposes, a tradition dating back to its pre-colonial days. The colonial epoch, however, disrupted this practice in order to introduce conventional medicine just like in other colonised African countries. In Madagascar, the practice was revived through the establishment of IMRA and deliberate emphasis was placed on the “value of plants in healing”, confirmed by the scientific tradition of investigating their chemical compounds to improve their efficacy. Remarkably, this revival began in the late 1950s when most African countries were on the cusp of independence and self-rule, with Ghana taking the lead (in 1957), and Madagascar and others following from 1960 onwards.

Political independence and self-rule coincided with the need to reclaim old practices and traditions that had been suppressed in the colonial era. The COVID-19 herbal remedy which continues to elicit excitement is, therefore, part of a long and rich African tradition that has resisted erasure.

Covid Organics comes against the backdrop of other encouraging and bold African interventions to combat various diseases that have plagued the world in recent decades. Before COVID-19, another viral disease stalked parts of West and Central Africa, resulting in more than 10,000 deaths. First reported in the DRC and in present-day South Sudan in 1976, the fight against Ebola has over the decades underscored the importance of the active involvement of local populations in deploying indigenous knowledge and remedies. Not many Africans are aware of the indescribable bravery of Sheik Umar Khan, a Sierra Leonean virologist who helped scores of Ebola patients before succumbing to the virus. Very few have heard of Dr Matthew Lukwiya, a Ugandan doctor who generated a substantial body of knowledge in the fight against Ebola before falling victim to the disease.

These few examples arguably contest the pervasive idea that conventional medicine and, to a large extent, western intervention are the only antidotes to African problems. The paradox in all this is the economic impoverishment of Madagascar, Sierra Leone and Uganda where a majority of citizens still live below the poverty line as compared to, say, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Egypt. There are, of course, other factors that explain the economic differences, but the most important point here is that innovation tends to occur where the need is greatest.

No one epitomises this innovative spirit more than IMRA founder, Prof Albert Rakoto, whose earlier studies on the artemisia plant have contributed immensely to the development of Covid Organics. (The research on Covid Organics has been falsely credited to Jérôme Munyangi, a Congolese researcher.) Rakoto’s insistence on blending indigenous and conventional medicine is vital because it is likely to solve two problems with a single solution, retaining traditional medicine practices that are readily available within most African communities while adapting modern scientific trends to improve the effectiveness of plants such as artemisia in order to complement the strained healthcare infrastructure.

It is safe to say that so far Madagascar is reaping the benefits of its discovery if the coronavirus figures in the island nation are anything to go by. At the time of writing this article, the country had recorded 1,724 confirmed positive cases with only 15 deaths, and 732 recovered and discharged. The figures nearly mirror those of other former French colonies like Guinea Bissau and Equatorial Guinea which have reported under 20 deaths each so far, and are also the beneficiaries of the Covid Organics. Therefore, as the global pandemic continues to evolve, it will become increasingly foolhardy for the international scientific community to ignore this very interesting trend.

Recently, there have been thinly veiled attempts—mainly by western mainstream media outlets—to cast aspersions on the drug. Reuters described the herbal remedy as a “cure” , the quotation marks serving to cast doubts on the claims made by Madagascar about Covid Organics, while FRANCE24 brazenly and without batting an eyelid went ahead to call it “The president’s controversial ‘miracle cure’” in one of their news stories. Some of these problematic media framings go beyond the often false premise that nothing good can come out of Africa. Instead, they are part of a deliberate, but subtle ideological battle that persistently discredits anything African that might be of benefit to the world.

The use of the word “miracle” by FRANCE24 captures this vividly because it implies superstition – some irrational belief in the healing powers of the drug – instead of the deployment of homegrown science and logic in responding to a virus that has ravaged western countries more than any other part of the world. Some Africans have joined the fray in ridiculing the wonder drug, provoking a déjà vu moment reminiscent of Ocol’s infamous lamentations to Lawino:

We will round up
All these priests
[…] And herbalists,
[…] Dealers in poisons
Extracted from plants

The leading proponent of the drug is Andry Rajoelina, the wiry-looking Malagasy president with his signature toothy smile. Before he ascended to power, the 46-year old was an event organiser. He has progressively become the poster boy for the drug, and more importantly, for the shaping and reimagining the course of the African Renaissance. Through various interviews granted to media platforms, Rajoelina continues to insist that nothing will stop the continent from devising homegrown solutions to respond to local and even global problems. His memorable rallying cry was expressed during a television session with FRANCE24 when he asked: “What if this remedy had been discovered by a European country, instead of Madagascar? Would people doubt it so much?”

Rajoelina is not the first African to challenge the institutionalised racism that has plagued people of colour the world over since the advent of European imperialism. Pioneer pan-African thinkers and philosophers like Marcus Garvey, W.E.B Dubois, Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon dedicated their lives to fighting racism in a world that had been designed to minimise the contributions of non-white peoples. Accordingly, how did one reconcile with the nightmare that Dubois called “double consciousness”? The “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” that currently informs the discourse on Covid Organics? Lately, Julius Malema, who leads South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, has been at the forefront in challenging and questioning inherited ideas of self-doubt and inferiority complex that Rajoelina also now contends with. Malema, like Rajoelina today, has been a fierce proponent of Africa and has even called for the dismantling of colonial borders that prevent ease of movement and trade among Africans.

Despite not being geographically located on the African continent, Madagascar identifies as African, not just because of its significant Bantu population, but because of a growing continental pride, especially among the younger generation. In the last few years, the rise and rise of African music like afrobeats (West Africa), kizomba music (in lusophone countries), rumba (in Central Africa), bongo (in Tanzania) and gqom and amapiano (in South Africa) has galvanized young Africans to new forms of negotiating and asserting their racial and geographical identities within a globalised world.

Madagascar’s development of a herbal remedy for COVID-19 has become an extension of this ongoing negotiation with identity that constantly invokes the slogans Africa Unite and I am proud to be African. Therefore, its location several kilometres further into the Indian Ocean has not dissuaded the Malagasy people from identifying with the pan-African goal of a strong, unified continent ready to determine her own destiny.

There are, of course, those who may voice criticism that Rajoelina’s COVID-19 remedy is not enough to catalyse the important conversation of the African Renaissance, and that it is a passing fad that will soon be forgotten as long as COVID-19 continues to mutate. While this argument is valid, the critics fail to acknowledge that indigenous strategies of confronting diseases, particularly those that are viral, including HIV/AIDS, remain instrumental in instilling optimism and hope in a continent that has been battered by persistent narratives of despair and Afro-pessimism. Madagascar essentially provides the continent with a new incentive to sustain, for example, the debate around patents and intellectual property rights that have received scant attention from African governments. The island nation further acts as a symbolic incubation centre for creative, radical and innovative ideas that are not afraid to confront mainstream thinking (on matters medicine) in the 21st century.

Madagascar’s story has just begun and it will continue to follow the same trajectory as long as the beneficiaries of the herbal remedy recover from COVID-19. Western media stations will have to rethink their reporting on African issues because the old ways will no longer work. African sounds, not just music in the sonic sense, but the capacity to speak and be heard will increasingly become the norm rather than the exception. A deepening African consciousness, that in the past was considered an anathema, will progressively influence new ways of engagement between fellow Africans within and outside the continent and between Africans and non-Africans. It is highly probable that the engagement—time is on Africa’s side (considering the youthful population)—will always be of equals and not that of a master and subordinate. With Rajoelina and Malema and Bobi Wine and many countless others accelerating these pan-African conversations through music, art, speeches, and most importantly, home-grown science, Africa’s voice is set to soar.

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