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Reflections

Laughter in a time of angst

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Laughter in a time of angst
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I wanted to write about sex. My theory was that Kenyans are having more of it. It is one of the ways we deal with the onslaught of political and social trauma to seek out intimacy. That in order to go out and live life every day, we numb ourselves to the pain of what is going on around us. And so we self-soothe. We seek out pleasure. Release. We look for moments where we come alive. Where we can escape. Where we can feel human in a country that too often dehumanizes us.

However, everyone I spoke to about this theory had the same response:

‘It’s the comedy, stupid.’

Yes, we like to laugh. We take pride in our wit. Less than an hour after the latest political scandal breaks, the twitter army unleashes a battalion of memes that swiftly make their way via WhatsApp to parts of Kenya that aren’t on social media. And we laugh. In our offices, shops, roads, shacks, mansions, matatus, cars, boda bodas, we laugh and it makes us feel good.

But do you remember what we were laughing about last?

I think about how laughter has become such an integral part of the national coping psyche that it is now standard practice for radio stations to have a comedian on air in the morning to soothe our commute and distract us from our distress.

When I speak to the comedian and radio presenter Jalan’go (Hot 96) about this, he tells me what we already know; that Kenyans love to laugh about their problems. That we find solace in comedy, but that even as people laugh, the pain is still there. He doesn’t smile. It’s very dangerous, he says, because you drown yourself in temporary happiness but you can’t run away from your permanent situation. He is so different from the Jalan’go I just saw bouncing up on the stage, wisecracks spitting out of every corner of his mouth, laughter bubbling from his belly. He is quieter. I ask him if he thinks we are in a state of angst. He doesn’t hesitate before he says, we are not peaceful, we are calm, but make no mistake we are broken to the core.

If we don’t laugh, we’ll cry.

I remember performing on stage at Kigali’s Genocide Memorial Museum. Five Kenyans exorcising the ghosts of our post-election violence. Our heads down as we recited Sitawa Namwalie’s poem,

Would you wield a machete in Burnt Forest,
Cut a stranger down?
Slash a man as he pleads with you for life,
Lead the crowd baying for his blood
A human being!
He cowered and cried out, bleating like a lamb
Innocent of any crime
Death unwilling to take him,
He died long and hard, way before his time
His blood waters your farm like acid rain
Would You?

The audience laughed. Not just giggles. Outright laughter. And we were confused, us Kenyans would be. How was this funny? How could a country like Rwanda, so intimate with this kind of pain, find humour in it?

But then later, I remember being in the audience at the Kenya National Theatre watching a scene take place in Nyayo Torture Chambers from the Too Early For Birds show. The killer held a knife. He spoke about the unspeakable things he would do with that knife. And people giggled. The laughter spread. And I wasn’t confused anymore. This was a way of taking back our collective power, of laughing as a form of rebellion.

Because if you get the humour, you share the pain.

I remember as a teenager, watching the grown-ups convulse in laughter as Nyambane danced like the man whose name we couldn’t say out loud. How did we go from whispering his name to laughing in his face? It’s the beginning of the end, I heard them say.

Like many in my generation, we had grown up studying the way our parents’ mouths shifted on their faces. The biting of tongues to stop from saying a thing that could get you disappeared. The sucking of teeth as the country’s coffers drained into the pockets of politicians. The twisting of lips in anguish at the humiliation and pain of living in a country that seemed bent on trapping you in perpetual survival mode. But every now and then, reading Wahome Mutahi, looking at Gaddo and Maddo’s comics, watching Redykulass, the closed mouths grew into grins. Then cracked into chuckles. And so we learned, us young ones, that if your country is opening its mouth to eat you up, you too open your mouth and laugh in its face. We learned that when you wake up in the morning, and every morning brings a new wave of crap that sits on yesterday’s pile of crap, rotting and festering into one massive heap of crap that oozes into your skin and starts to dissolve away hope, you find a way to laugh. We learned that laughter was a way of practicing hope instead of hopelessness. Because if you can find humour in a traumatic situation, perhaps somewhere you see the possibility of it changing. And that is hopeful.

The purveyors of hope when we were growing up were armed with biting pencils and gnashing pens. The work of those satirists opened our eyes. It was dangerous work. They criticized the politics of the day in a way that nobody else dared to do. They spoke the things we couldn’t. And I began to understand how powerful comedy was. Because when the ridicule was exposed, in between our laughter, we too saw the situation for what it was, ridiculous. Not infallible but Ridiculous. And when something ceases to be infallible, it can start being broken down.

Yet things didn’t transform the way we expected them to when the big man fell. There were other big men. Always so many big men. And in the moments of helplessness, when they were stealing everything, including our freedom, there was one thing we refused to let them steal. Our sense of humour. The one that belongs to the Kenyan people. The one that is rooted in such deep pain, inherited trauma and in such perpetual angst, that all we can do is hide it in memes and gifs and lols.

But there’s a difference between using humour purely for entertainment and using it as a way of exposing truths. I worry sometimes that we’ve got stuck in the ridicule. In the slapstick and accents. Because how do you satirize a country where the absurd has become the normal? Yet for every meme or routine that soothes and temporarily heals, we also need to pay attention to the humour that digs deeper, that excavates, that investigates who we are and reveals how we got here, humour that tears down so that we can begin to build.

Scientifically it makes sense that we are so desperately drawn to the mindless laughter. When we laugh, endorphins and dopamine are released; the chemicals that make our bodies feel good. And so we stay chasing the next high. But maybe it’s more than that. I read about how the use of humour literally calms down the amygdala, the part of our brain where fear sits. How it helps us change the way we see something threatening, to reframe it so it doesn’t seem quite so dangerous. And yet perhaps that’s where the greatest danger is. Maybe we need to be alive to just how dangerous a time we are living in, and not to let that go.

Elsewhere, I read how laughter is perhaps simply a release of nervous energy. I think about how living in Kenya feels like being in a pressure valve. And with each laugh, we let go of a little-repressed emotion, we release a little of that tension. So important national conversations become a punch line. And the politicians know it. They take advantage of it. They wait for us to crack the joke, so we can process the situation in the way we know how, and then accept and move on. Until the next scandal emerges, the next meme makes its rounds. And the outrage is diffused. Yet I suspect it is only our outrage, not laughter that will save us in this time of angst.

Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps: for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be. ~ William Hazlitt

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Reflections

Reflections on Tyranny and Terror in Kenya Then and Now

How do we channel our emotions when the tyrant is this amorphous cold gel of capitalist corporations and totalitarian organisations?

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Reflections on Tyranny and Terror in Kenya Then and Now
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I am over half a century old now, bald, aching in new places everyday, with more and more of my peers signalling the quickening approach of our generation to our graves by their affliction with new health problems every passing day.

Growing up in the Moi era in Kenya, one just grew up. No one I knew had any sense of teleology ; most of us just tried to survive, others endeavoured to prosper if they could.

This is the outcome for a society whose entire existence is premised on kowtowing to the desires of one man. All thought, speech and action — outside of those actions undertaken in the pursuit of fulfilling organic needs — were measured against the risk of offending Moi.

This obviously had the effect of stunting individual and collective thought.

Stunting collective thought regresses a society into superstition and imbecilic reasoning. For those who can remember that era, any tragic motor accident with massive casualties was always explained as some form of “occultic sacrifice”. Such tragic accidents had to be the consequence of some “unseen forces”. Institutional incompetence was never even remotely considered. Who’d have dared blame the Big Man’s government? Moi was “No.1 in everything”: agriculture, engineering, education… there were songs and poems praising the greatness of his genius, culminating in the highpoint of then Education Minister Peter Oloo Aringo’s declaration that  Moi was “The Prince of Peace” himself! And this of course served “the Big Man” well. Being bankrupt of thought and vision, “the Big Man” could not tolerate the slightest criticism.

In such an environment, fear is not just an indispensable tool; it is the only tool by which a tyrant can maintain his rule. From the oldest and most infamous tyrant, Firaun (Pharaoh) of polytheistic Egypt, to the land of the brutal Count Drakula, atheistic Romania under Ceausescu in the 80s, belief in sorcery, witchcraft and magic becomes the refrain of the collective mind when dominated by irrational fear. Even elites do not escape it; Elena Ceausescu, the tyrannical wife of Nicolae Ceausescu, was said to retain a personal witch, in spite of the atheism of the state they ruled.

Rule is either by consent or coercion, there is no other method. Consent is acquired by mass adoption of an overpowering vision that encapsulates certain ideas and values. Coercion needs no explanation. Therefore, in a political medium devoid of ideological proselytisation, police are the primary tool of rule.

This creates an environment of paranoia with a vicious feedback loop. Thoughts driven by irrational fear, lead to irrational action. Irrational action heightens paranoia, both in the masses and in the ruling class, which leads to further irrational action by the ruling class, on and on without end until there is a revolution or a coup. Both of which start the process all over again if the elites fail to anchor the society in a rational doctrine with a consistent and  transparent  system of governance.

This was Moi’s world.

Like any tyranny, everyone was suspicious and relatively fearful of everyone in a political sense, even colleagues and friends. Everyone fears everything in such an environment; even “walls have ears“, an aphorism turned adage.

The police love such a world.

They preyed on us everywhere, no public space was safe, no private space was sacrosanct.

They could strip you naked if they wanted, they would riffle through your pockets like robbers if you claimed you had no money, they would fondle women and even rape them in police cells with absolute impunity. They were hyenas in a sheep enclosure.

A close elder with whom I discuss the politics of the day, one day revealed he was a veteran of the infamous Nyati House torture chambers when, to our consternation, in the middle of the conversation, cracking us up with dark humour, he suddenly started stating bizarre and irrelevant facts, “Mama yangu anaitwa Rebecca Anyango (my mother is called Rebecca Anyango)”, “Alisoma shule inaitwa Busonga Primary (she went to Busonga Primary School)”. He explained that after several rounds of torture one would start answering questions without waiting to be asked. The security agents no longer needed to speak to you, you would volunteer anything and everything you knew, unprompted.

What had been my elder’s crime?

He had denounced Moi while having a drink in a bar, unaware that the next table was occupied by state security agents. To date, he looks around suspiciously before airing his opinion and uses a whispering tone even in private conversation.

This was Moi’s world.

While the fear in the mind of the ruler is largely paranoia born of his own certainty in his illegitimacy, the fear in the mind of the masses is legitimate.

Today I feel the same fear I sensed in my parents.

The difference is that today it is global, it is pervasive and it is not fear of a man; it is the fear of expressing a thought.

For everyone, it started as fear of expressing the idea of political pluralism born of the Cold War. Then the War on Terror was declared, and for Muslims it became fear of expressing the idea of Islamic law, then Islamic Jihad and now Islamic caliphate.

Now, every society has, for want of a better term, it’s “domain of discourse”. In the formal sciences “domain of discourse” is the set of entities over which certain variables of interest in some formal treatment “are allowed to range”. So for instance, in some tribe of valiant horsemen “T”, if the set of entities allowed for dowry are horses “H”, the suitor can include any type of horse in payment of said dowry but cannot present a mule or a car. It is not a question of means of “transport”. Certain “formal rules” determine “the allowed range”.

An alternative definition of “domain of discourse” is a class of objects considered within a given context. Any proposition outside is considered false. If a society believes their queen is a deity, then the proposition that she will one day die isn’t just heresy; it is — in the words of former Attorney General of Kenya Charles Njonjo — “treason”, given the political context. This of course assumes that the definition of god includes immortality as an attribute of god. There can be no social order without an agreed “domain of discourse”. This “domain of discourse” is unfashionably termed as “the officially-sanctioned religion” of the state. This is the nature of society.

The problem in a tyranny is that the “domain of discourse” is calibrated by the whims of the tyrant. Given his paranoia, the boundaries and nature of the domain of discourse keep being shifted by whatever demon or bogeyman plagues his dreams at night or his mind in the present. This has the effect of crippling social functioning and stagnating society.

This is why all absolute tyrannies not only do not progress, but regress into superstition.

Today we have no visible absolute tyrant but we live in the same fear.

The police prey, assault, extort, rob and kill with the same impunity they did under the tyranny of Moi.

The economy is in the same decline, public pilferage has compounded and we have returned to the same sense of hopelessness and fear we experienced during the Moi «error».

We are suffering the same psychological, physiological, economic and political dysfunction.

But who is our tyrant now?

Who are we to blame?

Whose effigy are we to burn?

Now I realise, whether rightly or wrongly, that there was value in knowing the tyrant, in having all our problems represented by one man. We could channel our thoughts and our emotions, or more specifically our curses and our hatred. This not only had a placebo effect, but it also gave us hope that we could surmount our problem; since our problem was a clear, measurable, defined, finite object, it was therefore resolvable, it was a question of time. We could look forward to the tyrant’s death; that was something to hang on to.

So, this gives us a question, a starting point to frame the problem of our time — who is defining and shaping our dystopian reality? And the next logical question is: who shapes a society’s reality?

If the answer is The Sovereign, then our tyrannical sovereign can only be identified by the powers he exhibits.

Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century scholar who first most comprehensively defined the Sovereign in his magnum opus The Leviathan, first published April 1651, goes into great depth in describing the characteristics of the Sovereign, mainly in terms of his rights. But they can be largely grouped or reduced to four broad categories.

The first and most important, is the right to legislate. The Sovereign calibrates all social relationships through legislation. Second, he decides the religion of the commonwealth. This is intrinsically linked to education and culturing on everything from morality, what is right or wrong socially, to ethics, what is right or wrong individually. The third is the right to take life — to kill. This can be defined as the right to punish by death within and the right to declare war without. The fourth in place but no less significant than the rest, is the authority to levy tax – economics.

Applying this criteria, let us look at the most significant phenomena in our time in each of the described elements.

The most significant legislative initiative in the last two decades has been the passing of “terror-related” legislation around the world. It suspended the fundamental values of modern civilisation that have hitherto been taken as completely obvious, that is, Human Rights and even the Geneva Convention. It abrogated legal tenets that are the basis of modern civilisation, such as “The right to trial” and “Habeas Corpus”. It created a secret police force and a prison network around the world, introducing to modern vocabulary the terms “extraordinary rendition”, which is really just supranational kidnap and detention, and “waterboarding”, which is really drowning someone alive. These laws remain in place, and are often used against political dissenters.

Our lives have been defined by the “War on Terror”, the Iraq War, the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and a host of other countries since the assassination of American Imam Anwar Awlaki and Iranian General Qasem Soulemani in absolute contravention of the already torn illusion of international law.

Who is the sovereign capable of waging war unilaterally, kidnapping, detaining and/or killing citizens of disparate nations around the world without fear of consequences?

Our taxation is now directly linked to our level of debt. Our currency is pegged to the dollar. “Our” here is global humanity. Therefore the state of our economic welfare is in a long-winded way determined by the printer at the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Fort Worth Texas, United States of America. Well, at least materially.

Who is the sovereign who dictates our Tax regime through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank?

Of late, the COVID-19 pandemic has served as the political cover for the largest rollback of political rights of assembly and suppression of political organising and activism. Under the guise of “Public Health” concerns, we have witnessed the most brutal and savage acts of police aggression on even the most innocent crowds; people struggling to get home.

Governments have expediently weaponised the pandemic globally. Even in Europe, where an entire generation has grown up completely unaware of the nature of police brutality, COVID-19 has revealed the imperialist underbelly of the modern Westphalian Nation-State. The brutality of the normally benign police of “civilised Western Europe” has stunned media elites.

Who is the Sovereign shaping COVID-19 policy so consistently across the globe?

It seems that globalisation did not only globalise markets; it globalised the tyranny of the capitalist police-state.

Our tyrant is a supranational system of totalitarian state-funded entities and organisations, unaccountable to anyone and only subservient to capitalist imperialism. Where does one protest against a World Bank loan that has been advanced and signed in the citizens’ name without their consent? How would one hold to account the opaque global Anti-Terror Police deathsquad infrastructure that was created via the terror-related legislation worldwide? How does anyone challenge the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 policy which is the basis for the current political suppression and police brutality around the world?

How do we even channel our emotions when the tyrant is this amorphous cold gel of capitalist corporations and totalitarian organisations? The psyche needs a tangible finite target to focus on, a crisp image; the humour may be macabre, but one misses the ol’ days, when we knew exactly who the bad guy was.

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Reflections

To the Brothers and for the Women in Our Lives

We were made husbands before we became men, and it might benefit us a great deal to restore the trust we once had in the guidance given to us by the women in our lives.

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To the Brothers and for the Women in Our Lives
Photo: Flickr/Ninara
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Since childhood, my great aunts, my grandmothers and the older women of my clan have referred to me fondly as their husband. “Nga uyu mundu wange,” here is my man, here is my husband, they would always remark in Maragoli whenever we met, never failing to claim this very unusual relationship to me with the biggest village smile on their faces. This, if you can imagine, was one of the few things that didn’t exactly excite my curiosity as a teenage boy. They were women in whom I had unquestioning trust, but what kind of humour! I could not understand where the grace of a woman that old had gone for her to say such a thing. Why? How? It was something too big for my brain to bother with at that time. Now that that boy is a few years older, the message is decoded from the different words of another group of Maragoli women in a closer space and time.

Highrise Estate Kibera is a special place to me. Apart from being my refuge during times when “the situation” seems unbearable in the adult world, where I retreat to the cradling love and care of my aunt and my cousins, it also happens to be a space where I get to experience the village from my interactions with Maragoli laundry ladies. There are a lot of Maragolis here, and most of them live on the other side of the wall in Soweto Kibera — where the real ghetto is. The lives of the people of Kibera, how they make a living, you will find very interesting.

In the early hours of the day, Mbagathi Way’s pedestrian paths might easily be mistaken for the venue of a serious racewalking event as Kibera residents — Nairobi’s labouring class —  race past each other as they trek to Industrial Area. At around mid-morning, the journey becomes shorter for some, those opting to make stops midway as others turn back all the way. While it might seem like a foolish thing for them to do, it is a well-informed decision.

Some of those who woke up earlier are on their way back, they need not say anything about where they’re coming from. Neighbourhoods such as South C, Nairobi West, Madaraka Estate and finally Highrise Estate become their checkpoints; you never know, someone might need a parking lot swept, a house cleaned, some laundry done, some dishes fixed. No functioning human being wants to gamble with energy they lack the resources to replenish. So they change direction, reversing from an industrial vision to a domestic one.

Women are the majority among those changing direction, coming back home, not because their muscle mass will not allow them to finish the race early enough, but because it has made them unsuited for the roles industrial work provides for the labouring class.

So, what is the significance of the relationship between Highrise Estate Kibera, Soweto Kibera and this labouring class? Or, what is left of it in this story? It is more or less the same significance my great aunts, my grandmothers and the older women of my clan share with the laundry ladies of Highrise Estate K. in my life.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit us in early 2020, a lot of women in the employment class just above the labouring class started working from home; a good number of them were sent on compulsory leave without pay. With less cash at their disposal and more time to spend around the house, many of them had to let go their domestic workers. Were they to go back to the ghetto? In Highrise, at my aunt’s and the neighbouring blocks, these women sit outside their sources of employment.

A keen eye will easily lead you to the Maragoli laundry ladies’ base in the area. You will see them seated next to water jerrycans and buckets, stoically bearing the Nairobi heat as they wait for the few opportunities available to them. When the pandemic was at its peak in mid-last year, some of them would go for days without finding a single client, but still, they would not ask for anything from the people they knew. Rather, they hollered out at them like friends and would only insist on us promoting their side-hustles. One such woman is Maggie.

Maggie, a middle-aged woman with a son she recently disclosed to me was in medical school, would shout out to me, “Maragoli!”, caring nothing about whether I was a block away or just on the other side of the road. She would easily convince me and my cousins to buy a few of the avocados she was selling, it mattering not to her whether we had ready cash; we would pay when we had it.

From being her customers, our relationship with Maggie grew over the months to that of neighbours who have no problem commenting about how the other is looking today — not flattery, just raw, honest village banter brought to the city. Recently, Maggie made a personal comment about me; she said, “Sahizi mwili wako unaonekana vizuri, last year ulikuwa unaonekana na wasiwasi sana”, now your body appears alright, you had lots of worries last year. This was weeks after another powerful remark made on the first day of February 2021. Remarks that decoded the message in the words of the women who claim me as their husband back in the village.

“Genye’kana munyo’re zi’gasi mtange’ kuhinzira.” You are supposed to find jobs and start working, functioning, Maggie said to me and my older male cousin late that February afternoon. I had no idea what observations led her to utter such remarks, but they were delivered in a tone so light that we almost laughed. So detached was her position as she made them that it would have been really easy to miss the concern and interest she had for us. And it bugged me, more than the thought of being my grandmothers’ husband bugged me as a young boy. It did not help that both of us had quit our jobs a few months before the pandemic exploded to “focus on our art”. What humour! Why would she say that to me? Now this appealed to my sense of curiosity just as it confounded me. Was she simply asking us to find jobs so that we could in turn provide employment opportunities for her? Was she encouraging us to keep on looking for opportunities and not give up? Or was it a witty rebuke to Maragoli youth walking around the estate in the peak of the afternoon, pretending to be in the same position as her, lacking opportunity?

I remain unable to place these remarks. Nevertheless, if Maggie Maragoli sees me essentially as a Maragoli man then, truly, I am her husband. The women of my clan must have been teasing me with the responsibility that comes with being a man in the community. That as a Maragoli man you are answerable to more than one woman in your life; your functioning does not just benefit the woman you raise a family with, it is essential for the whole community’s prosperity. It might also be that we fit the image of the man Maggie would like the daughters of the community, her daughters, to have, and that she is playing her role in moulding these functional partners. Whatever the meaning of the remarks, they remain a response given in an attempt to show direction.

Only one message is clear.

A deep concern seems to be building up among a group of women from the ghetto. Not about themselves, not about their children, not about anyone really close to them. Just their husbands. A concern that manifests itself as a wound, an old wound, a very visible wound which regenerates into the painful thing it was many years ago when it was first inflicted by our fathers. We, their husbands, are that wound.

In the ghetto, Kibera at least, based on the selective principle industries apply in recruiting workers of the labouring class and the number of women in domestic work, there are more men in meaningful employment than there are women. Is it, then, beyond us to say that when the vision for women is reversed from industrial roles to domestic roles in the labouring classes of capitalist systems — worse in a corrupt country — the people become poorer?

Oftentimes, I find myself promising to give something back to these women in the future. I want to make them happy, these distant but very present wives of mine, these very close but physically distant wives of mine, for the priceless education they have given and continue to give me. But time is limited, and it would break so much to go beyond oneself, I am just one among many men of the community. And what makes me think that I carry the key to their happiness!

The surest thing I could give is my ear.

I get it, I think, I feel as though I have gained understanding. I have to function.

We were made husbands before we became men, and it might benefit us a great deal to restore the trust we once had in the guidance given to us by the women in our lives. Our mathes, our sisters, our senjes, our gukhus. These women whose presence, physically, emotionally and in memory, has never failed to check us at every stage of our growth as human beings. We should trust the women in our lives to give us direction, not answers, on what proper manhood looks like.

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Reflections

Life on the COVID-19 Frontline: The Use and Abuse of Kenyan Nurses

Nancy’s cohort was not trained in the care of COVID-19 patients. They were dropped in at the deep end – the deep waters in which they outnumbered their colleagues of long standing who have permanent and pensionable contracts.

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Life on the COVID-19 Frontline: The Use and Abuse of Kenyan Nurses
Photo: Marcelo Leal on Unsplash
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As the novel coronavirus traversed central China and made its way across the seas to wreak havoc in Europe and the Americas, there were those in Kenya who wished the calamity would also befall us. My cousin Lyn, who works for a medical charity, was appalled to hear an official of the Ministry of Health express the hope that SARS-CoV-2 would arrive on Kenyan shores “tupewe pesa” — so that we can be given money. That was in February 2020; less than a month later, that maleficent official’s prayers had been answered and the funds soon followed in COVID-19’s wake, to be swiftly embezzled by Ministry of Health officials in cahoots with the directors of hastily incorporated tenderpreneurial companies. It can be safely assumed that the avaricious official was well positioned to be a prime beneficiary of the windfall.

It seems a long time ago now, when a wave of indignation swept through the nation as the news broke that funds and equipment meant to help Kenyans weather the COVID-19 storm had been stolen. Here in the Nyandarua County countryside, hawkers of hastily tailored cloth masks selling at a hundred shillings apiece soon exchanged them for the now ubiquitous sky-blue face masks once they became more readily available on the market, selling the prophylactics at ten shillings each.

The initial anxiety brought on by news of the sudden death of a middle-aged woman in May from COVID-19 two dozen kilometres further down the road from us gradually abated as it became evident that her death did not augur a hecatomb. Little by little, as the year wore on, life returned to a semblance of normal; the masks slipped off, the soap and water dispensers in front of the shops stood unused, market days returned and the police retreated to their usual occupation of extorting matatus and boda bodas. Pandemic fatigue had set in.

Over in Laikipia West, in Marmanet, my friends Patrick and Dorothy had been fanatical about sanitising ever since the news broke that the pandemic had reached Kenya. You were met with soap, water and sanitiser at the gate, a good hundred yards from their house, and the exchange of news about the weather and the state of the crops took place on the veranda under the shade of the creeping jasmine and honeysuckle.

Then early this January Dorothy called to tell me that Patrick had been hospitalised with acute pneumonia and I feared the worst. Patrick wouldn’t go to hospital when he first felt unwell and by the time it became obvious that he needed urgent medical attention, he couldn’t walk. He’s a very big man, overweight, and so Dorothy put a mattress down in the back of their pick-up truck, laid Patrick on it with the help of neighbours and drove through the night to a private hospital 30 kilometres away. Updates from the hospital were not reassuring; Patrick had contracted COVID-19 and his lungs were in pretty bad shape so he was put on oxygen. Tests also found his heart deficient and his liver malfunctioning. Miraculously, ten days later, Patrick was discharged from hospital with strict instructions to drop weight.

I was relieved to hear the good news and selfishly thankful that Patrick and Dorothy are an hour away from me; to my knowledge, no neighbour of mine had yet contracted the deadly disease. Then in mid-March my friend Isaac fell ill. Aches and pains all over the body, shortness of breath, dry cough, raging headache, no appetite. All COVID-19 symptoms. Isaac is an ordained pastor and missionary, bringing help and succor to the least among us, his days filled with meeting people and finding solutions. A week of treatment did not improve his condition and Isaac was hospitalised at a private clinic in Nyahururu. I feared for him and I feared for all of us who have been cozily ensconced in our personal cocoons that have given us a false sense of security that we shall be spared the COVID-19 scourge.

The small private hospital where Isaac was admitted is not testing for COVID-19. Patients also have to go to a private facility in Nyahururu town for chest x-rays. But the level of care is beyond reproach and the medical staff attentive. The young woman doctor treating Isaac seemed experienced beyond her years, explaining Isaac’s prognostic profile with clarity and taking critical decisions with authority, all the while imparting a sense of hope that Isaac would make a full recovery.

Hearing that Isaac had been taken ill and hospitalised, a young woman who had been a beneficiary of Isaac’s sustained efforts to uplift the lives of the poor of Ngobit and give their children a fighting chance by supporting their education, came running to his bedside. Nancy* had successfully completed her nursing course and was now stationed at the Nyahururu County Referral Hospital, a stone’s throw away from where Isaac was laying on a hospital bed fighting for every breath. She arranged for Isaac to be tested for COVID-19 at the government facility and insisted on paying for the cost herself.

That Nancy offered to pay for the cost of the test is testament to the regard with which she holds Isaac. Nancy has not been paid since early December 2020 when she received five months’ salary arrears. She is one of a cohort of nurses that was hired by the Ministry of Health in June 2020 in the face of the pressures brought on the medical sector by the COVID-19 pandemic. A Zoom interview was quickly followed by a job offer and Nancy arrived at the Nyahururu County Referral Hospital in early July to find that the Kenya Medical Training School lecture rooms had been converted into COVID-19 wards. But they were soon closed down and COVID-19 cases returned to the general wards once the KMTC students resumed classes in January.

Nancy tells me that there is no isolation ward at Nyahururu County Referral Hospital; surgical and medical cases are housed under one roof in the male ward and the same goes for the female ward, where female patients with gynaecological issues are also admitted. Patients with COVID-19 are “put in beds in a corner of the ward”, as Nancy heartbreakingly put it. There they wait until a doctor with Personal Protective Equipment can attend to them, administering the care that the nurses daren’t, for fear of contracting the virus. There is not enough PPE for the nursing staff; the county surveillance officer doles them out as parsimoniously as he does the COVID-19 test which is reserved for patients displaying symptoms and those with whom they have been in close contact. Nancy says that their only protection is “prayers, masks and sanitising”. Nancy says that “we are not doing things the right way but it is the management that is failing us.”

There is no critical care unit at Nyahururu County Referral Hospital. In fact, there is no critical care unit in the whole of Laikipia County. Not in the public hospitals. Not if CCU is understood to mean the availability of life support equipment and medication, and highly trained physicians, nurses and respiratory therapists specialised in caring for critically ill patients.

At the Nanyuki Teaching and Referral Hospital — the only other major public hospital in Laikipia County — there is a building whose façade bears the name Critical Care Unit but that is all the building is, a façade. Speaking at the facility on the 23rd of June 2020, Laikipia Governor Ndiritu Mureithi announced to the press that “we are preparing a 6-bed ICU and a 12-bed HDU”, adding that “the most important issue is ventilators, five of which were already at the Nanyuki hospital while another five were foreseen for the Nyahururu facility. Well, Nancy says that between June and December 2020, the only ventilators in use in the temporary isolation wards set up at the Nyahururu County Referral Hospital had been borrowed — together with the beds — from other public medical facilities in Laikipia County. The beds and ventilators were to be returned whence they came when the isolation wards were shut down in January.

The January to March 2021 issue of the Nanyuki Teaching and Referral Hospital Quarterly  publication reports that “we now have also completed at 17-bed critical care unit with 6 beds reserved for intensive care unit (ICU) and now have just obtained an anaesthesiologist to get the service set up and running. A nurse has been sponsored by the hospital to specialise in critical care, and more will continue to be developed in this manner.” It is unclear which “ultramodern intensive care unit” was “unveiled” by Governor Muriithi in June 2020.

Nancy tells me that, because the Nanyuki hospital does not have the facilities, critical COVID-19 cases at the Nyahururu hospital are referred to Nakuru Level 6 Hospital in Nakuru County. If there is no room there, patients are pointed in the direction of the Kenyatta University Teaching, Referral and Research Hospital. But relatives must first deposit KSh200,000 with KUTRRH before the patient can be admitted there. The elderly mother of a colleague of Nancy’s who contracted COVID-19 last November could find no help beyond being put on oxygen at the Nanyuki hospital and so the family raised money and had her treated at a private facility in Thika. She survived.

Nancy’s cohort was not trained in the care of COVID-19 patients. They were dropped in at the deep end – the deep waters in which they outnumbered their colleagues of long standing who have permanent and pensionable contracts. Nancy and her colleagues were offered 3-year contracts with a basic salary and no benefits take it or leave it. They took it.

Last December Nancy’s cohort was split in two and she found herself in the Universal Healthcare group (UHC), falling directly under the Ministry of Health. She has not been paid since, while her colleagues who fall under the responsibility of the Laikipia County Government have been receiving their salaries every 27th day of the month like clockwork. Nancy says she doesn’t know the criteria that was used to split the group. She says that she and her UHC colleagues often call on the understanding of their colleagues who are on the county government payroll for financial help. Which is why her offering to pay for Isaac’s COVID-19 test is so significant.

Now it seems that the Ministry of Health has lost their paperwork. Their files have “disappeared” and so they cannot be paid. Nancy and her UHC group have been asked to resubmit all their diplomas, certificates and all other supporting documents. Each document must be certified by a magistrate as conforming to the original. The magistrate at Nanyuki charged 50 shillings the copy, a small enough sum until you take into account the number of documents that must be submitted and the number of nurses submitting them. And the fact that none of them have been paid since the 4th of December 2020. The county government took possession of the resubmitted documentation for onward transmission to Afya House but could not tell Nancy and her colleagues when they might expect their salary arrears to be paid.

Thankfully, Isaac tested negative for COVID-19. He had suffered a particularly nasty bout of pneumonia. He is out of the woods and back home where he haltingly (talking still makes him breathless) admitted to his wife that in the dark hours of a particularly difficult and frightening night he had yielded to his God, leaving his family in the care of the Almighty.

* Name has been changed.

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