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
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
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.
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.
VIOLENCE OF POWER: How reform failed to muzzle the political establishment
At 10am last Friday, the sky above Kisumu shook with the sonic crack and roar of fighter jets circling overhead. There was no apparent reason for this military exercise—no national holiday or celebration—yet everyone below looking up knew exactly what was happening.
Ahead of a planned announcement from opposition party National Super Alliance (NASA) that day, the central state was sending a warning.
Its message in the sky was not a new one. In what is arguably the most iconic photograph of opposition protest from this year’s election in Kenya, a single protester faces two military lorries, unfazed beneath arcs of water cannons and rising tear gas. In the foreground, as if a watermark of the moment: a Kenyan flag held high.
This image of defiance—one every-man against the violent, faceless state machine, came to define the antagonism with which the state has treated NASA supporters, led by longtime opposition leader and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
But it is also an image, of posturing in bad faith and intimidation, that has no place in a post-reform democracy, or so it would seem.
The events that have unfolded since August 8 suggest that the Kenyan state has regained a monopoly over instruments of political violence. The environment in which this year’s election took place included the all-too-familiar “peace at all costs” narrative, as well as the decommissioning of ethnic militias that, for much of Kenya’s history, were part and parcel of campaigning for office.
This year, in a manner much less contested than that of Kibaki, Uhuru’s immediate predecessor, state actors openly intimidated the opposition, civil society, and the judiciary and, above all, killed, raped, and terrorized civilians.
According to the Kenya National Human Rights Commission, seventy-six people, including ten children, had died from opposition protests and police backlash by the time Uhuru Kenyatta was sworn in for his second term as president on November 28. A joint report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch submits that the police behaved appropriately in some instances but, in many others, shot or beat protesters to death.
After a protracted election process, Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto were re-elected for a second term in office. Their victory from the original election on August 8 was overturned by the Supreme Court due to irregularities in results transmission. The re-run on October 26 was boycotted by NASA, resulting in a landslide victory for Uhuru.
Kenya, currently in its sixth electoral cycle since the return to multi-party politics in 1992, has undergone democratic reform for years, including the promulgation of a new constitution in 2010, which fundamentally altered the balance of power. One central promise of liberal democracy is that multi-party elections and institutional reform can cure political instability, encourage participation in public affairs, and increase responsiveness to popular demands.
So why does the political establishment seem more empowered now than ever? Kenya’s 2017 electoral experience raises concern about the prospects for democratic consolidation for the rest of the continent.
Privatization of State Violence
In the aftermath of the 2007 elections, Kibaki attempted to deploy the security machinery to quell opposition but did not succeed. Announced as the winner amidst extreme controversy about the veracity of results, Kibaki was sworn in for his second term in a covert, highly secured environment. Opposition protests erupted across the country, from the Coast region, across the Rift Valley, to Nyanza in western Kenya, as did retaliatory attacks on Kikuyus, especially those perceived to be “settlers” living on Kalenjin land in the Rift Valley.
The country came to a standstill, as over 1,100 Kenyans were killed—many brutally executed—while hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Kenyans fled to their “ethnic homelands.” Left with a relatively divided police force and broad disapproval from the international community, the central state under Kibaki had little leverage to rein in an unprecedented collapse of public order.
Long before the 2007 election, there had been patterns of state-sanctioned electoral violence, notably in the Rift Valley massacres that took place in the 1990s. It was during that time, the dawn of political liberalization, that electoral violence actually became increasingly institutionalized. When multi-party elections were reintroduced for the 1992 election, the influx of new players and the “winner takes all” nature of elections heightened competition, incentivizing dependence on ethnic and clientelistic bases.
Trust among the political elite deteriorated, which led to the organization of various militia groups. These militia operated in the marketplace of political competition where elites acquired power by instrumentalizing violence and ethnicity.
With a police service that largely remained incompetent, corrupt and violent, the emergence of these ethnic militia dissolved the state’s monopoly over means of violence.
By the 2002 election, this pattern was amplified by the growing presence of criminal gangs in cities, who were deployed by political patrons. Many gangs, which did not have inherently ethno-political origins, emerged in the economic uncertainty of the 1990s and gained control over districts of Nairobi. They too became “available for hire.”
Mungiki, for example, originated in the rural areas of Kenya’s central highlands, a Kikuyu ethno-religious movement in its earliest form. But by the early 2000s it, like many other urban gangs, had staked an economic claim in Nairobi’s criminal underworld, with that influence, political patronage. The gang, among others, would gain notoriety for its contribution to massacres in 2007-08.
While police were responsible for about a third of the deaths during the 2007-08 post-election violence, the majority of killings were conducted by militias, armed and mobilized by politicians from both the party of Kibaki, the Party of National Unity (PNU) and that of Raila, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM).
In the chaos that erupted after Kibaki’s swearing in, Kalenjin youths were said to have killed scores of Kikuyus, women and children included, throughout the Rift Valley, according to the Kenyan trial of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and in reports of human rights abuses. In response, Mungiki was deployed to conduct retaliatory attacks on ethnic communities deemed to be supporting the opposition, such as the Kalenjin, Luo, and Luhya, who resided in the Rift Valley towns of Nakuru and Naivasha.
However, compared to Uhuru’s experience since 2013, when he came into power, the physical appearance of the security apparatus during Kibaki’s regime was not a true reflection of its ability to demobilize the political opposition. Though, institutionally, the police force was much the same as it was in previous regimes, under Kibaki in 2007-08, it could not guarantee the power that matched its appearance: powerful, violent, legitimate, forceful.
When Kikuyu militia were deployed into Kibera, a predominantly Luo and ODM-supporting area, armed civilians and Luo militia fought back. Perhaps what best exemplified the toothlessness of the formal security infrastructure in 2007-08 was the murder of the much-politicized Administration Police (AP) by civilians after the officers were caught in opposition strongholds masquerading as PNU agents observing in voting centres.
In the end, Kibaki’s regime found it difficult to contain the centrifugal forces within Kenya’s political system, where political liberalization since the 1990s had occasioned a dissolution of the state’s monopoly over the means of violence, and declining trust amongst the political elite meant that excluded politicians were well capable of mobilizing their ethnic bases so as to put pressure for the center to accede to their demands.
Trends Since 2007
After the atrocities of 2007-08 post-election violence—in which decades of tension and feelings of exclusion and marginalization converged—Kenya’s political elites united briefly to install structural “guard-rails” for formal government conduct. The Constitution, which had been under debate for decades, was re-drafted.
While its promulgation in 2010 and its nationwide support were driven by the ghosts of the 2007-08 violence, the document also introduced reforms that would alter the nature of political competition, and thus political violence, in Kenya.
The document’s provisions on political devolution, established 47 counties and, as a result, more sites of electoral competition and decision-making. This released some pressure from elite competition for the presidency and diminished the incentives for violent campaign strategies. The stakes were lowered; even if voters did not get their preferred presidential candidate at the national level, they could still vote for change at the local level.
Of particular note, however, was the pervasive “peace narrative” which served to perpetuate the message of “peace at all costs.” Many Kenyans, especially in the Rift Valley, the epicentre of violence in 2007-08, understandably feared a repeat and accepted the notion that stability must come before justice.
This is how two candidates who were indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their roles in the 2007-08 post-election violence, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, were elected. Uhuru and Ruto had emerged from the 2007 elections as the most prominent Kikuyu and Kalenjin politicians respectively, and both faced separate charges for their alleged roles in organising violence against one other’s communities.
In a careful reframing of overarching communal narratives at the time—that the Kikuyu and Kalenjin would never unite politically due to past injustices—the two joined forces to recast the ICC cases against them as a performance of injustice, neo-colonialism, and a threat to Kenya’s sovereignty, peace and stability. They named their new political alliance the ‘Jubilee Alliance’, a team of young politicians that could bring about peace and change.
The Jubilee alliance came to power under an American-style presidential system with complete separation of powers between Executive, Parliament, and Judiciary—as provided by the 2010 constitution—which effectively locked out Odinga from any formal political seat, and as a result, weakened the political opposition.
Unlike in 2007, where ODM’s leadership was comprised of politicians, including Ruto, representing a wider base of ethnic constituencies, and as such, posed a more robust threat to Kibaki, the Jubilee Alliance’s dominance was buttressed by the majoritarian presidential system it took over, albeit with only a slight vote margin.
As the legacy of the ICC cases meant that open instrumentalization of militia violence would have to come to a stop, the “peace narrative” stigmatized political protest as incitement. Protest was looked down upon, cracked down on, and basically became less popular and less effective.
Even peaceful demonstrations that focused on electoral reform were not welcome. The media joined the peace bandwagon and begun self-censoring. In this way, the state regained its dominant position in directing political debate, and protesters would be branded as criminals.
Political Violence in 2017
On October 16 in Kisumu, eighteen-year-old Michael Okoth Okello was shot in the back of his shoulder as he fled from police in broad daylight.
That day began with a peaceful demonstration calling for electoral reforms in advance of the repeat presidential poll, but turned violent and, unlike normal riot control scenarios that go back and forth for hours, ended abruptly in a cold halt.
Okoth—who, according to friends and witnesses, was not even a demonstrator but had just gone to buy flavored ice—was suddenly caught among a panicked sea of people when police streamed from the station and pursued civilians. Within minutes, Okoth lay on the dirt, dead.
What fueled the rumours, however, was not his gunshot wound. It was the clean-edged slash wounds left on his neck: macabre, brutal, and crude. While the bullet represented a hated but tragically familiar story of police violence, the blade symbolized, for many, something much more chilling, from a dark chapter in Kenya’s history. Whispers of “Mungiki” kindled into a wildfire of widespread, public accusations.
Ethnic idioms like “Mungiki” carry a deep violence in Kenya’s political imagination, especially given the ethnically charged political discourse.
The chaos in Nyanza in the wake of these rumours, plus the very real evidence of killing, raping and plundering, left large gaps that were easily filled by the worst fears evoked by these familiar symbols of ethnic dominance, terror, and oppression.
The existence of such rumours—regardless of whether the Kikuyu militia was actually involved—are a powerful metaphor for a collective feeling of powerlessness, of being on the wrong side of hegemonic imbalance, and of being targeted by what is perceived to be a fundamentally Kikuyu regime.
While the targeting of the Luo community—Odinga’s community and political base—is not new, the targeting this year was more efficient and brutal precisely because the establishment has been empowered by more recent political trends. As such, the heaviest forms of police crackdown—and the flagrant violation of human rights—were delivered to Luo Nyanza, even as the results of the 2017 elections angered people in other non-Luo opposition strongholds.
Upon the inauguration of Uhuru and Ruto, which marks the end of the formal election process as we know it, fundamental questions about exclusion and inclusion, those that drove political discourse during the electioneering period, are now meant to be forgotten, discharged in some way, but at least not publicly.
Once again, incessant calls for “national unity” seek to silence those for “justice.” The result is an acute sense of marginalization and exclusion among some communities, which raises prospects for unrest in the future.
Yet one of the central promise of liberal democracy is that multi-party elections and institutional reform can cure political instability, encourage participation in public affairs, and increase responsiveness to popular demands. The results, as the Kenyan example has shown, is that democratic transitions can be marked by unintended consequences, and can entrench, rather than curtail, the power of the political establishment.
When the System is Unwell, Everyone Falls Sick
Mwalimu Henry was a respected man of my little village of Genga stuck deep in the valleys of South Nyanza, where the rolling Gusii hills meet the plains that extend from Kanyada to the shores of Lake Victoria. Genga village folk still epitomize the traditional ideal of communality. You are the son of every granny in Genga, each one insists on feeding you if you so much as stray into their homestead.
Mwalimu Henry was a wise fatherly figure with a missionary education teaching background. He was pious, disciplined and a bit of a colonial relic from the good old days when success in life was directly attributed to academic meritocracy. I knew Mwalimu Henry long after his retirement from the civil service back in the 90’s. I literally grew up under his wings and patronage.
Mwalimu Henry earned a reputation as a vocal proponent of education as the primary means of uplifting a community. He was a constant fixture at fundraisers for students joining the university. It did not ever matter whose child it was that needed funding for higher education, or how many times a school was fundraising for one classroom. He believed in the principle of education as a human right for all.
For his zeal, Mwalimu got elected as chairman of the local secondary school, leading the Parents and Teachers’ Association (PTA) and he championed the interests of poor parents of the village.
I remember a fundraising committee meeting I once attended. The child’s mother was dirt poor and could not raise the mere basics for her boy’s upkeep, leave alone school fees after admission into a university in western Kenya.
That afternoon, a huge rainstorm kept members of the committee marooned in their homes, except one. Mwalimu Andrew showed up, saddled up in gumboots and clutching a broken umbrella ravaged by the storm. The chilly conditions began taking a toll on him the very moment he arrived at the venue. His legs were swollen and he could not take the tea offered to wade off the cold. He did not look well.
For all his enthusiasm, the good teacher was just a stubborn invalid who had lived with diabetes since early the 1980s. His resilience had kept him going through the decades. Sometimes he would collapse while walking, fall ill and get bedridden for days but he always bounced back to his feet.
Mwalimu Henry was diagnosed as diabetic only a few years before retirement from the teaching service. I had been accustomed to seeing him on insulin medication literally my whole life. In his house, he maintained a mini-pharmacy of bottles of medicine, tablets, needles, syringes and cotton wool.
Despite his diabetic condition, he always wore a brave face, with intermittent periods in between hospitals and doctors. His adherence to discipline extended to his diabetes medication regimen.
I had checked on him while home in the village in the month of October, 2016 to announce my upcoming graduation. He exuded his usual confidence and we reminisced how far we had come. It was a sunny afternoon and as we posed for pictures, he confided that his immobility was becoming a concern. He could no longer attend meetings and church on Sundays as he grew extremely tired and his legs would swell after a long walk.
“I am not sure if this disease would be merciful enough to let me see you graduate.” I dismissed his concerns.
In November, a month after our talk, I received information that he was not doing well. I was very worried since it coincided with a protracted doctor’s strike that had brought the public health sector down to its knees. This meant that Mwalimu faced the dire prospect of a daily commute to far-flung private hospitals for treatment.
As fate would have it, the medication he badly needed was suddenly unavailable. That meant he had to travel 20 kilometers to Kisii town to see a medic only to find long queues at the District hospital and empty doctor’s parlors. Then he would be forced to try his chances in different Kisii town pharmacies. Too many times, insulin supplements and complementary medication on which he had survived on over the years were not issued and there was no doctor at hand to write a prescription or conduct a clinical examination.
The irony was that a man who had spent his entire life trying to supplement the broken public education system had become a statistic of a dysfunctional public health system. Mwalimu was the unlikely victim of his own generosity.
The long trips and queues at public hospitals in Kisii town became unsustainable. Growing concerned, the community fundraised for Mwalimu Henry to relocate him for medical care in Kisumu in late December 2016, where it would be affordable.
His health deteriorated fast and the intervention to private hospitals was a little too late. The damage had been done in two straight months of a lapsed treatment regime. On January 29, 2017, I received the heartbreaking news of Mwalimu Henry’s death and my disbelief quickly degenerated into bitterness.
A generous man, who spent his entire life mobilizing funds to educate young minds for a better society, had suffered at the hands of a broken system. A government on a warpath with its healthcare givers was taking casualties of its own in collateral damage. Mwalimu Henry died at the hands of a healthcare system defined by economic profiling, inequality, greed and prejudice.
Little did I know that I would become a victim of the same system preceding the birth of my son. I came to face to face with the viciousness of economic profiling and prejudice when two Eldoret private hospitals flatly refused to admit my heavily pregnant wife a couple of months after we laid Mwalimu Henry to rest. She was categorically denied outpatient examination twice on account that my health cover paid for by a private company was not of the public service category even though she had been allowed a choice of those hospitals for inpatient services.
Both of these hospital facilities did not even bother to inquire if we could settle the bill by other means, other than the insurance cover the moment we mentioned that we did not work in the public sector.
The said private facilities in Eldoret did not care that doctors in public hospitals were on strike. The need to grant a clinical check-up for my pregnant wife was secondary to financial guidelines that ensure non-public servants do not get out-patient services on the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF).
Such a money-first-life-later approach to provision of healthcare services by private hospitals who are key players in provision of healthcare services in the country is clearly one of the reasons so many lives were lost during the doctor’s strike. The 100-day nightmare came to bear on me the morning my son was born mid-April 2017.
On Easter Monday morning, I had travelled back to work in Nairobi and an emergency scenario was the last thing on my mind. My wife had slept very well, only reporting the usual occasional and slight abdominal contractions of pregnancy.
We had not anticipated she would go into labour so soon. The doctor’s estimation had placed birth at three weeks ahead so when it happened unexpectedly at the height of the doctor’s strike, our first instinct was private facilities, in event of any unfortunate birth-related complications.
This time we opted to try a different private facility. By the time my wife arrived via a taxi ride through bumpy and potholed roads of suburban Eldoret, her condition was aggravated, the waters broken and in no position to listen leave alone negotiate financial details and payment modes.
One private facility laid down multiple terms and conditions including down payments before admission that we did not object. They came up with loads of paperwork, to be signed, beforehand by the spouse. The papers contained financial agreement terms and conditions and medical consent forms running into tens of pages.
No amount of pleading would grant my wife the option of signing and filling in the details later since her husband was stuck in Nairobi trying to catch a flight. This point worked me up immensely. Fortunately, a relation in the medical industry suggested an alternative facility and we rushed her to the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital (MTRH), well aware that it was a dicey prospect with the doctors on strike. The gods were kind and my wife delivered a healthy boy through normal birth in the MTRH maternity wing
Lady luck was clearly on our side for the conditions of the maternity ward left me bewildered when I finally arrived a few hours after the birth of my child. In the hallway comprised 8 beds, each shared by two new mothers, lying side by side, facing away from each other on a two by six inches bed.
The newly-borns were lying precariously on the edges of those beds either feeding or asleep, as their worn out mothers struggled to keep them from falling off the edges of the tiny beds.
The ward was congested. Imagine new mothers coughing right into the face of the other and trying to shield a newborn from any possible mishap. No doctor was on site. The only single nurse doing rounds kept reprimanding new mothers whose babies would not stop crying. I still recall what my wife said the moment she saw me: “Am either coming home with you right now or if they won’t release me, be sure to take us home first thing in the morning when it’s daylight.”
Our healthcare system in Kenya is akin to a war-zone, where the sick pay the ultimate price in collateral damage due to government negligence, corruption and the greed of health profiteers. In our public healthcare system, to be poor is like a punishment for a crime you did not commit. Health care should not be a privilege enjoyed by the upper classes. It should be a right that is as fundamental as giving every child a chance to a good education. But what we have in Kenya is not even a system. It is a gamble with life.
Choices in my Lifetime
In my lifetime I have so far missed two critical turning points in the country of my birth, Zimbabwe.
The first event was Independence Day on 18 April 1980 which marked the beginning of our freedom from colonialism. Legend and a few grainy video clips and images show that the day was full of ecstatic celebrations with the legendary Robert “Bob” Marley playing before a capacity crowd, punctuated by promises of a better Zimbabwe for all from Robert “Bob” Mugabe. I missed that day because my parents decided to given birth to my elder sibling before me, making me a born-free and him nothing that we have a term for. I was born into this ecstasy, with my parents, just like everyone else, hopeful of a bright future full of options for their children. From an early age I was told of how we had come out of the liberation war to be a free country with abundant opportunities and for many years, this nostalgia for things I had never seen and his continued eloquence on the need to fight neo-colonialism spurred on my love for Bob.
It took most people many years to realise that even though some of us were born-free, the country’s freedom was born anaemic and has forever been unwell since that day the new multi-coloured flag was raised and the Union Jack replaced. It took me the end of university and numerous years of non-yielding job searches to realise the disease was too far advanced to make me a free person, despite my being seen as a born free. One cannot be blamed for this blindness to the rot. We the born-frees were weaned of choice with phenomenal and unending propaganda about the beauty of our land even as it lay destroyed. Secondly, “that which afflicted our Freedom had been deceptive; an illness that did not show itself at first, choosing to do so only when it was too advanced for us to do anything about it.”
For years the disease had shown itself in the crushing of non-conformist and opposition voices and devouring those of its own who have dared show signs of being different to the status quo. It took a seriously ugly form when it led to massacres in Matabeleland in the 1980s and country-wide in 2008. Even then, it never looked to the masses like it was a dictatorship that would one day show its full flame-lily bloom and so some still believed in our freedom. It was therefore not surprising that even after all the signs and symptoms of a sick and dying freedom had been shown, we still believed that the man who had sold everyone the Zimbabwean dream on that day in 1980 still had what it took to bring a Zimbabwe that was free for all.
In a shocking result for the previously vibrant opposition parties led mainly by Morgan Tsvangirai, I was one of the people who gave Robert Mugabe a new mandate in 2013. The vote had marked the end of my previously held abstinence from voting and I would soon regret my choices when I realised that the manifesto that promised among other things 2.2 million jobs was nothing more that the disease giving us temporary mental reprieve but like always, no real change. Again, it may be because after the 2008 election violence, each of us secretly knew that we had no other option except to endorse a vote whose outcome would not be affected by our own voting patterns.
I again rued my having chosen to vote for a 90-year old when he, satisfied that nothing else could remove him from power began, to hint at that he would not be retiring anytime sooner or later. This, coupled with a growing presence on the public sphere of his rabid wife Gucci Grace, appointment of relatives in top public posts and a flaunting of wealth by his two young boys, Robert Jnr and Chatunga, showed growing symptoms of the disease morphing into not only a dictatorship but also a family dynasty. But if I still had any blind love for dear old Bob, increasingly wobbling through his speech and walk and now on character too, it was all lost on 6 November 2017 that he fired Emmerson Mnangagwa, the Vice President and his once trusted junior. While I could admit that I had a slight liking for Emmerson, it was the realisation that we had now entered a stage where choice would be non-existent, that chaffed me off the most.
For two weeks or exactly 3 Mondays thereafter I could neither work nor do anything productive while I pondered every possible exit strategy out of the country. It was not like I had any choice anymore if I had to give the same hope to my children as my parents had fed me while I grew up. While in 2013 I had hoped, maybe foolishly so, that once voted in Bob would redeem his legacy by appointing a younger successor within his party, I was now clearer he had never intended to do that. It was now apparent to me that Bob was the silent disease, the anaemia that had bedevilled our freedom from the day we rid ourselves of colonial rule.
In those two weeks, I became irritable, spent my whole time arguing on Whatsapp groups and eating just a little enough to keep the dying hope on life support. And yet in those two weeks, the most productive thing, at least according to my conflicted born-free-self happened. A military intervention which was unofficially dubbed a “coup not a coup” and officially running under the banner Operation Restore Legacy was led by Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, General Constantine Chiwenga on 15 November 2017.
For days on end, I walked aimlessly in town just to see the army tanks parked at various government institutions. I listened to the coup speech endlessly to convince myself that maybe for once an antidote for our disease had been found. The words “Firstly we wish to assure our nation, His Excellency, the president of the Republic of Zimbabwe and commander in Chief of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, Comrade R G Mugabe and his family, are safe and sound and their security is guaranteed. We are only targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice” spurred me on even as talk about Mugabe refusing to resign rang louder and louder and the optimism in the masses of a breakthrough shrank smaller and smaller.
Finally when the deed was done and the affliction that had been with us for 37 years was declared gone, for once did I see my people regardless of their colour or tribe, genuinely celebrating the end of another era. I know it is never a wise choice to celebrate a coup but I had no choice as it meant the end to the disease as I knew it. Many have told me that the military intervention marks the end of any civilian choice, especially free and fair elections and I only nod in agreement, too spent to argue with them or tell them that, I have never had any choices all my life so far. And while I can never vouch that the disease didn’t leave dregs of its venom in those who took on after it, I have chosen optimism over everything else.
Now, I must state that I missed the second major event in my country, which was the inauguration of Emmerson Mnangagwa on the day 24 November 2017. My friends who insisted that we attend together since I seemed so much to be touting for the man were disappointed to hear that I had decided to spend the day away from Harare with my family. What I could not tell them was that I had no choice but to be home, trying to make a second generation born-free who would maybe have a different story from mine to tell about choices. My parents taught me to hope and I will live by it.
 From the story Our Freedom first published in Weaver Press’s Anthology Writing Lives, 2013.
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