“Each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it. In underdeveloped countries the preceding generations… fought as well as they could… we must realize that the reason for this silence lies less in their lack of heroism than in the fundamentally different international situation of our time.”
Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
Nairobi, 2003: Following the indefinite closure of Moi University due to a students’ strike against the system that privileged self-sponsored parallel students over the regular ones, I teamed up with a friend who had graduated from Catholic University and set out to mentor and inspire primary and high school students in the name of Preparing Leaders Of Tomorrow (PLOT). However, we had limited access to the students owing to Michuki era matatu strikes and watchmen who, lumping us together with religious missionaries, turned us away or directed us to officers least interested in our proposals. While we contested the misrecognition and missed opportunities, the fact that we spoke to more watchmen than students and the contradictions of our own lives was also a cause for laughter at the time. However, with the insight of hindsight (mediated by significant ideological shifts), I came to learn that this was not a laughing matter.
Here I was, a public university student whose comrades were now serving long suspensions due to resisting the privatization of higher education walking side-by-side with an unemployed private university graduate (then postgraduate) trying to prepare leaders of tomorrow while being ill-prepared to make sense, or inhabit the present effectively. Also significant for me was our inattention to the political lives of the readily accessible watchmen who, knowingly or unknowingly, had prevented our short-lived, and ill-conceived initiative from reproducing the same maladies that we were desperately seeking to break away from.
Reflecting on our inattentiveness to the watchmen’s lives often returned me to childhood memories of an episode of the KBC TV drama/ situation comedy Plot 10 where the plot watchman Munai (Ronald Kazungu) reminds the caretaker Kajogoo (Joseph Njogu) of the cold nights he endures while the tenants sleep in their houses and the end-of-month hunger experienced due to salary delays while the tenants go for their monthly feasts. However, Munai’s own suffering does not translate into empathy for tenants such as Adam (Thomas Onsongo) who requests for an extension on his rent payment due to his wife’s medical bill.
Munai’s lamentation and impatience with Adam was crucial in helping me to see differently, and in more politically perspicuous ways, the tragic inattentiveness that makes it difficult, if not impossible for urban inhabitants to compose lives in common even with those with whom we share a time/space — our contemporaries. From the intimate space of the plot, we learn of the multiple webs of assistance and resistance that tenants create in order to survive. We are also reminded of adaptation, self-help mechanisms, and resilience developed in response to the privatization of key services and amenities that make urban life more precarious.
Like actual multi-occupancy, low-rent, tenement spaces, the fictional Plot 10 is hospitable and hostile in equal measure. But this understanding of the word plot does not exhaust its meanings. Plot also has connotations of the designs/plans for a ravenous night out (plot/ plan/mpango) and an undeveloped piece of land. More recently, the desire to have a plot of land of one’s own has turned associational life into a means of individual gain, credibility/creditworthiness, entitlement, self-actualization, and ultimately, pleasure. It is a guarantor of intergenerational hope for those who possess it and a cause for hopelessness and rage for the dispossessed.
With the moralization of plot ownership, being plotless or homeless is considered an individual rather than structural and systemic pathology related to the institutionalization of private property and disposal of unalienated land in ways that benefit those closest to the sites of power. Similarly, the plot, the dark underside of the colonial ideal of the green garden city that kept the black native quarters separate, unhygienic, overcrowded and male-dominated is normalized. In a postcolonial city characterized by fragmented rhythms and fortified enclaves the simultaneity of concrete plots and green gated communities make it difficult to imagine common times and a generational politics that is not predicated on class.
When inequalities such as those alluded to above create an existential rift between age-mates, the idea of generational mission becomes frivolous and unattainable. Accordingly, Fanon’s call for each generation to find its mission and a politics attuned to the weight of international structures from the standpoint of time raises fundamental ethical/political questions regarding how to live (well) with those with whom one is in synchrony with. Better still, we are forced to ask what it means to be contemporaries, to share a time/space, or even a mission with others in a world characterized by alienation.
In cases where the ideal of the generation does not acknowledge how different people are situated in the world/time, it becomes difficult to imagine a new human due to fidelity to the land, to the (mother) tongue, shibboleths, oaths, bloodlines, race, or class. Generational lines here involve the passage of things and meanings between variations of the same in ways that maintain foundations while disavowing foundational and other forms of violence. This desire to stay true to the name of the father, the son, and any other thing that they find holy, which in most cases is race, property, and group propriety, makes people inattentive to the lives of some of their contemporaries.
However, it is possible to compose a dissensual sense of time, ‘other’ contemporaries, and a common world with those who we are told are carriers of an insurmountable difference. In the Kenyan context, this involves refusing colonial inscriptions and narrow crisis-based sympathies that invoke old bloodlines as moral lines and even lines on the map. It is also a refusal to join alliances that invoke elite destiny/destinations and origins while being inattentive to our co-presence, people’s material conditions of existence, and ambiguous ethical relations.
Unlike co-presences that bring together multiple lifetimes, there are conceptions of the contemporary and generational times that fetishize a consumption of the present that erases the past and ruins the earth. These presentisms makes life in the present intolerable for many and the future improbable for other generations of human and non-human beings. They also invoke alternative histories and family stories that treat past injustices, dispossessions, and broken promises as anachronistic threats that call up ghosts that are too old for us to be concerned with today. So, they go on their knees and call on us to Forget! Forgive! They want a chance to develop the present without the burden of the past and responsibility to the future.
This is the mantra of the leadership of ‘our’ generation. In its quest for reconciliation, it shies away from the truth that the dry bones from the past constantly throw at it. It remedies the quest for justice, or dissenting voices through violence first and then development projects underwritten with human blood. With blood-soaked hands, they point upwards invoking gods of forgiveness. Downwards, they point to rails and roads that project today’s debts into the future. Pointing east, they contract comrades who pour concrete over the blood-soaked lands quickly entombing the dry and not so dry bones. To cover up their tracks, they accelerate time. They turn history into ethnology; compare one group to another, crunch numbers, and then project them into a perverse developmental scheme. Schools, roads, hospitals, language and other common entitlements become communal favours and bribes that individuals can plot to plunder.
In defence of this time of development and/as plunder, young tongues are sharpened. They sing praises and lick crumbs from the floor. They silence their own multi-lingualisms and disavow their impurities. These young tongues traffic in diglossia— two versions of the same language— one for the people that they now want to constitute as a single and unproblematic whole, and another for those that they consider part of their proximate, exclusive, and intimate world. A world that, even in the face of gaps in material conditions of existence and incommensurate world-views, considers itself to be one with the potentate, the potentate in waiting, or the one who is robbed of the status of potentate and pursues it perpetually.
As committed presentists, the figureheads of generational wars and cleavage stand hand-in-hand. They claim to be forming something new but only speak the old language of Peace, Love, and Unity now recast as grand projects of anti-graft and neoliberal development. In this monolingualism, the oneness of tongue ensures that only a few lick the bones dry. For them, being a contemporary is a perverse gastronomy. It involves eating together and then devouring those who serve them. It is a potential cannibalism that turns away from the cries of their contemporaries – “Watameza mate sisi tukikula nyama.”
During this orgasmic feast, we are told to suspend politics in the service of the economy. For these brothers turned foes, and then turned brothers again, the present is “our time to eat.” Others, other generations, must wait for their turn. In the meantime, their tongues can be put to better use…speaking in tongues, singing praises, and hurling abuses. After all, we are a generation of forgivers.
For the impatient, the generation of leaders-in-waiting, and those whose time has come and passed, they are summoned to hustle! Gamble and speculate. To be a plotter of one sort or another. To learn many trades and always throw their eyes askance. To learn how to wink and lick their lips. Engage side-hustles, side-kicks, and ‘side-dishes’ “…you never know which one will land on your lap. You never know which one will be an economic boom, or which one will make your loins ‘burst.’” They are told to plot and have no time for the plotless.
Beyond the shared games, our generation is forced to ask what it means to inhabit a rift between oneself and those with whom one shares a living space but whose rhythms of life, recent tongue-waggings, and eating habits, make it impossible to share a common world/time? Are they still your contemporaries? We are forced to speculate on how we can live with those who, owing to their dealings, do not only live in an exclusive space, but have fractured our present such that they can afford to live in another time. Those who shared our childhood but, in order to secure the future of their own children, have accelerated accumulation and destabilized the present for today’s children.
Speaking of our times in common involves breaking hegemonic temporal rifts between those who declare that it is their time to eat and those who live in perpetual hunger. Between men, women, and all others. Between those who are made premature elders complete with ceremonial adornments irrespective of their age and experience, and those subalterns who remain perpetual children. It involves disabusing ourselves of the times of otherness that is assigned to those who, according to Johannes Fabian, are located allochronically – in another time of human development (infantilism) or of social development (primitivism) and therefore must be represented, converted, developed, and brought into national or capitalist time even if they resist. For, according to the owners of our time, these people from another time do not know any better. If they resist, watajua hawajui.
But hope persists. Not due to a panglossian optimism that always announces that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds,” or a focus on the soul (for which it is well) even when things are evidently broken. Hope persists because we believe it is possible to compose new, ethical, and more equal ways of being-in-common while refusing to adapt and live with otherwise intolerable indignities. For a generation that had its hopes domesticated through the mantras of positive thinking, the fetishization of the hustle, funny memes, fancy civil society themes, and the language of adaptability and resilience rather than resistance against the intolerable, a new and raging hope becomes an imperative. One that breaks up with those children of the first and second liberation who salivate waiting for their turn to sit at the table as it is currently constituted. Like the South African Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements, this hope that is all the rage invokes old names and devises new revolutionary games for the dispossessed who refuse to be crushed any further.
This hopeful rage for a postcolonial age exists in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s novel Matigari where Matigari ma Nijirũũngi returns from the bush and finds a new generation of neo-colonial collaborators such as Johnny Boy Junior (the son of the colonial collaborator John Boy).With new contemporaries from another generation— Muriuki , a poor boy who lives in the wreck of a Mercedes , Guthera, the sex worker, and Ngaruro wa Kiriro, the leader of the workers’ strike—, Matigari imagines and works towards a dissensual, yet more life-affirming present and future. These dissenters, children-turned-comrades do not only tell us what is amiss but point out that what we think is a gap, is really a gaping abyss. They make it apparent that the land problem, police brutality, education, and exploitation of labour, are not things to be solved through individual effort or some perverse form of self-help. They can be addressed by composing a more affirmative commonwealth.
Like the old laws of the fathers that Matigari contests, an old bifurcation is descending upon us today. One where familiar and familial handshakes on screen or behind the scenes are presented as solutions to ‘our’ problems without acknowledging their spectral character, their sacrificial logic, and their global connections. Standing hand-in-hand, the sons vow to get over with politics and return to economics (not political-economy) as if the economy were a domain devoid of politics.
But ‘our’ generation should know otherwise. Having lived through the tragedies of structural adjustment programs, the explosion of neoliberal self-help and occult economies, we know the violence of moves to naturalize the separation of the market and the state. We know that the economy is political and that the public / private split has been mobilized for the ruination and privatization of the commons as part of our neoliberal common sense. We know what IMF letters of intent mean and tremble when the appetite for borrowed money pushes us to live in borrowed space and borrowed time.
We have seen how the things we “cannot not want”; development, democracy, life, have been projected into the logic of sacrifice, enmity, and abandonment where some lives have to be given up in order for ‘our’ democracy or development to survive. For those who lived through the Moi years, we know the death-deploying force of emergency measures geared towards getting rid of traitors and ‘treasonous plotters’ by constantly asking people whether they want to be free or secure. Whether they want peace and security or free and fair elections. Whether they want politics or development. Whether they want peace, love, and unity under a single party and the ‘stability’ it guarantees or chaos and disorder of democracy and pluralization. These false choices affirm the sacrificial logic and sovereign violence that has always been part of our national plot.
A logic of sacrifice holds multiple generations captive. It asks them to choose between friends and enemies, politics and economics, modernity and tradition, good and evil with violence being deemed permissible if not necessary for the maintenance of order. As liminal figures, the uncertainty-generating youth become a problem to be solved through uncritical pedagogy, entrepreneurial services that turn them into a lootable resource and discipline. To maintain order, youth disorder or dissensus is dealt with violently at home, on the streets, at school, and across the border. Putting the youth in their proper place becomes a state fetish that ‘our’ generation silently condones or loudly cheers on in the name of restoring discipline, certainty, preserving the sanctity of property, and securing the nation.
But loss of certainty is more than a youthful concern. The uncertain times that ‘our’ generation is living through are tied to larger displacements of certitude on one hand, and the emergence of new forms of certainty or resurgence of old ones on the other. Under such circumstances, familiar political codes and coordinates do not hold. Calls for peace serve as a moral alibi for pacification, and developmental encroachment on wetlands and accelerated ventures into extractive carbon economies (like oil and coal) cover up the slow violence, corruption, and environmental destruction that is already here and that which is yet to come. They also pave way, not only for the end of the world as we know it (as Immanuel Wallerstein put it), but for the possibility of a world without us. A world marked by more drought, floods, smoke, choked seas, and more blood owing to backhand plots that decimate spaces that human beings (not a generation) share with other non-human beings.
These are the signs of our uncertain times where seemingly small acts in this small part of the world have effects elsewhere. After all, aren’t the fault-lines in Mai Mahiu causing speculation about continental drifts in the anthropocene — an epoch where man is recognized as a geophysical force. As UoN’s Amollo Kenneth Otieno (2016)states, we cannot continue relating to the land and construction in the same way in light of increased flooding and subterranean erosion along the existing fault line as well as the fissures arising from the liquefaction of less cohesive soils. However, the hustle continues. We people of the plot, even in the face of the earth opening up see opportunity in the weak volcanic ash/sand from Mai Mahiu. With this sand, we mercilessly build the ever-collapsing vertical plots of Huruma.
The episodic killing of contemporaries is part of the political imaginary we grew up with. It is not merely part of the assassin state’s extra-judicial violence, it is also a demotic people-sanctioned violence. Today, we cannot be critical of the militarization of the police in Kisumu without seeing its connections to the violence in Kismayu and the martialization of society. All the talk of “Our boys in uniform” in Kismayu intensifies hatred of the enemy without and prepares the ground for the violence, preemption, and revenge of ‘Our boys’ in Kisumu. The scandal, the tragedy, is that ‘we’ cheered on the KDF when they ravaged the Somali as part of Operation Linda Nchi. We turned a blind eye when they threatened to close Dadaab and deport the refugees. Silence…when the police ransacked Eastleigh and incarcerated the Somali in Kasarani as part of ‘Usalama Watch.’ ‘We’ are silent when Boni forest is bombed as part of Operation Linda Boni. We cheer politicians who wear military fatigues and dare each other to a fight.
Now that the guns are turned inwards and contemporaries deported, we put our faith in the handshakes of the sons of founding fathers even though we know that they conceive violence narrowly. With each embrace, with each song, with each prayer, we see new capitulations each generating a narrower sense of those one considers their contemporaries. These capitulations show that the old games do not work. The political appeal to the human conscience and moral good sense of the state and the ‘international community’ is falling on deaf ears. The Kenyan democratic order, borne out of popular struggle in concert with allies is now being sacrificed based on business and security interests. Based on the imperatives of the War on terror, AFRICOM strategies, Chinese business partnerships, and a gluttonous political elite that misreads diplomatic codes and trivializes the suffering of Kenyans, and non-Kenyans in Somalia, Palestine, and elsewhere. In their dealings, they reproduce the complicities of a previous generation that sat silently, exploited, and turned a blind eye, to the violence of apartheid in South Africa.
Whither the reformers of yester-years? They are both the subject and object of betrayals. In their perpetual calculations, capitulations, and political realignments, they too lost the plot. They betrayed the cause. The liberal democracy they summon is no longer compelling for it is taking place in an era when liberal ideals and the neoliberal economic order is in its terminal crisis globally. An age characterized by what some call illiberal democracy. An age that privileges resilience over resistance and as always, holds Africans and African politics to a lower standard… “rigged peaceful elections are good enough.”
We have been betrayed. Like their predecessors, the younger leaders remain inattentive to precarious lives at home and abroad. They reproduce the phallic logics of an older generation rather than composing something totally new. Because we are held captive by the law of fathers (patria) and the fetish of the fatherland (patriotism), both elite and subaltern classes articulate a phallic logic of comparative entitlement: “My suffering is bigger than yours, we are a bigger community than you are, our cut is deeper than yours.” The resultant phallocracy, if we are to borrow Grace Musila’s words, haunts Kenya’s politics. It is transgenerational and involves one generation of men learning the phallic logic from the other men in their lives. It permeates institutional and popular narratives about the ‘return to tradition’, fidelity to ‘our son/ our people’, the impossibility of co-habitation or mwanaume ni kujisimamia. The contest of sons, and protection of ‘our’ corrupt sons/daughters has become the basis of new friend/enemy distinctions. It is the basis of moral calculations about lesser or necessary evils and ultimately, the possibility or impossibility of co-habitation with those contemporaries marked by an insurmountable difference. It is the basis of the desire for more virile versions of an old self as a guarantor for ‘our’ survival. It is a most tragic and self-perpetuating sovereign ‘cock-fencing’ based on anxieties over ‘spending power.’
Can we, in search of a different plot, in the name of a new hope, dis-identify with the familiar/familial categories through which we are counted today? Can this generation, this composition of contemporaries, betray the forms of affiliation, phallic logics and fantasies, as well as the violence, and desires cultivated by the generations past? Can we decolonize our bodies and minds? Can we proceed in ways that question rather than merely assert what it means to be a part of a community (broadly conceived) or to be contemporaneous with others? Can we compose commons rather than seek our seat at the table farthest away from the commoners?
To do any of the above requires the betrayal of some of the things ‘our’ generation holds dear; its plots, its hopes, and speculations. It involves dis-identifying with the ideal of the generation and composing new contemporaries. From Matigari, a man who composes new contemporaries in the struggle against oppression, we learn that struggle and hope in struggle and life is vital. That victory, if there is one to be won, “is born of struggle” and even in crushed times and moments of darkness; “There is no night so long that it does end with dawn.”
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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.
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.
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.
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.
The Paradox of Choice: Just Another Family Tale
I am thinking about the miracle of being born, a one in 400 trillion chance. Even without this statistic it is hard for me to consider that my birth might have no meaning beyond the self-constructed value I give to my experiences of life through you; the fact that your death was not the end of your life, that you continue to live through me.
Say something to me
What does one who grants you the kindness of a living body
want from you in return but an understanding of what it means to feel alive?
~ Forough Farrokhzad
I was told that I was born a healthy baby at Consolata Hospital in Nyeri. My father, who is of the Kuria people of southwestern Kenya, was working on a project in central Kenya as an agricultural engineer. I was named Boke after his mother. In Kuria tradition girls were not as celebrated as boys, but my father looked at me as keenly, with that same sense of indebtedness, as he would at his own mother.
We thank our parents for the gift of life. Our parents expect us to thank them. Each and every day you should demonstrate gratitude for this special gift; no matter your experiences, you owe it to the givers of life – for better and for worse.
We lived in Nyeri for two years. And then I was taken to my maternal grandmother in Russia, where I spent two, three years with her in Krasnodarsky krai in that southern part of Russia that borders Crimea to the west and Georgia to the south. Krasnodarsky krai is in the Caucasus, a popular getaway because of the warmer climate, the ski resorts and the seaside. But I didn’t get to visit any of these places then; only later in my life did I spend time on the Black Sea while living there as a teenager.
While everything before this time remains with the custodians of the stories, my first memory is that of abandonment, my mother taking me away from Nyeri at only two and leaving me with my grandmother. Her soft long fingers slip away from mine and I realise that I am not going with her. I break into a cry but it is too late; the tram is moving away and we are separated.
There is something about knowing that you have no choice that leaves more room for acceptance. How that acceptance, or rebellion, manifests itself is a different story. Days went by and I settled into a routine in my grandmother’s home. In the winter we would light firewood to keep warm and in the summer we would eat strawberries and crimson cherries, and pickle cucumbers for the coming winter. I had no real sense of time other than day, night and seasons, and I do not remember thinking as much about being left behind as I did about what would be happening in my day to day life – fighting with my twin boy cousins, their mother bringing us hot dog treats overflowing with tomato sauce and mustard, taking a bath in a bucket, picking walnuts (fallen from a tree I still miss as my connection to the roots it held), running to the river, walking to fetch water from a nearby well, my tattooed uncle getting me out of the cupboard where I hid when I was upset, his golden teeth shimmering back at me. “Katyusha”, dearest Katya, he’d say.
Every so long, babushka would announce the arrival of a letter and she’d read out words that came from the heart of my “real” family in Kenya: my father, mother, older sister and newborn brother. But of my family, I remembered only my mother, so potent was that first memory living a life of its own somewhere at the bottom of my soul’s well: an unprocessed flashback of her hand slipping away from mine.
Whatever else, I cannot say it was a dull childhood.
This taught me that I did not find places but places found me.
My life was stable. Days, seasons, letters. Until one day, the strangest looking man walked into my grandmother’s house. He was black. I could not hide the shock on my face. Living in a neighbourhood where I only saw white people, I fell prey to the thought that all people were white. Ironically, I did not acknowledge my own difference from those around me – the honey-coloured skin, brown almond-shaped eyes and unruly hair. “Your papa has come for you,” babushka said. The four-year-old me could not fathom how this alien looking person could be my father and want to take me away. Deeper than that, though unable to name it, I felt a sense of betrayal from my grandmother, who seemed so ready to give me away. I hid behind her and refused to approach this stranger, who interestingly enough, spoke “our” language so fluently. In an effort to persuade me to approach him, she tried to bribe me with my favourite treats, “You can have as many pickled cucumbers as you like and more sugar in your porridge.” When that did not work, babushka said that if I left with this man, I would meet my mother who was waiting for me on the other end, where it was always summer. That triggered something in me and I felt the need to touch my mother’s hand again and mend the separation. I planted that seed in my mind and it held me together for what would turn out to be a longer trip than I had imagined.
This taught me that my life was choosing me rather than me choosing my life.
The journey back to the land of my birth started with a long train ride. The longest trip I remember ever taking was from my grandmother’s home to the Christmas show children attended at a theatre in the city centre and this took no more than 30 minutes. The one day on which we dressed up. After the show, the Russian version of Santa, who wore blue (not red) and whom we called Ded Moroz, Father Frost, would give us a bag. In it was an orange (a special fruit in that part of the world at that time) and chocolates. I reflected on this memory on the train, my only source of comparison as I embarked on another long journey that filled me with anticipation. The ride from Krasnodar to Moscow, which today takes 18 hours on the fastest route, was a very long ride indeed.
When we reached Moscow, we spent the night at an old couple’s home. Merry making over dinner revealed an awkwardly jovial side to my father. He was laughing and speaking loudly. I noticed white teeth as a distinct feature for the first time in my life; they sparkle in contrast to his dark complexion. And even though he spoke Russian, my language, all I could do was stare as I tried to fathom that this was my father and that suddenly, my life had completely changed.
I am in a strange place, with strange people, and when I wake up the next morning, the first sound will not be that of my grandmother at the stove yelling that we should all get up and be useful, bellowing a-ya-yai ya-yai! if we didn’t move.
A sofa bed is pulled out for my father and I. We sleep side by side in this open space. He quickly falls asleep as I cuddle myself on the other side thinking about what’s to come. Will I really meet my mother? Will I be safe? When will we arrive? Is this a dream I am about to wake up from?… My thoughts are abruptly interrupted as my father, having made too much merry for our own good, vomits all over me. It’s putrid, lukewarm and slimy but he continues to sleep, unperturbed. I get up and walk down the corridor not knowing what to do. The old lady hears the movement and finds me in the corridor. She cleans me up and takes me to sleep somewhere else. I do not recall if she woke my dad up or what happened next but it took me 25 years to get rid of that pungent smell that it seemed would follow me around for the rest of my life, until someone told me that I had a choice, and I listened.
This taught me that sometimes the world expects too much of humanity.
There was nothing memorable about this trip, and certainly not the nausea I experienced from flying. Perhaps this should have served as a premonition. I most vividly recall my first impression: arriving at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi made this long uncomfortable journey seem like it had been the road to heaven. First it was the black and white striped animals by the roadside as we left the airport; magical creatures. I thought only dogs and cats existed in this world. Then the sun hits you, it is all green and lush, and further out into the busier roads are trees shaped like umbrellas and huge birds with prominent beaks comfortably perched on the slender branches, making sounds that could almost pass for frogs croaking. But mainly it was the sun, it felt so close that I could hold a portion of it in my hand, and I instantly fell in love with this country, forgetting for a moment that my main goal was to mend my separation. We ride in the car with the windows open, the warm breeze kissing my face.
And there she is. Mother. The glorious delicate being I wanted to attach myself back to. I notice that the sense of familiarity embedded in my mind has faded and I have to find her again. While I mend this separation, a new one is born, as I try to get further away from the scent spreading distance between my father and I.
Years went by and in them father remained a source of … interruption … between my mother’s wholeness and I, even if the gift he gave us – Kenya – was something none of us could afford to take for granted.
This taught me that one separation leads to another; like a chain necklace.
I write this on a warm morning in March. I wake up to the beautiful Kenyan landscape luring me out of bed. I stare out of the window; the crescent moon presents itself just slightly behind a tall old tree on the left, and on the bottom right the sun is slowly awakening and beginning to brim its rays subtly into my day. I watch them both and I am thinking of you. I am thinking how much you would have savoured this morning. I am thinking that it has been two decades since you left. I am thinking I was thirteen. I am looking at my thirteen-year-old daughter and I am seeing a child who needs her mother next to her, and I am feeling empathy for my younger self. I am thinking how father left nine months before you did and I am realising that we were both delusional in our thinking – that the interruption was gone and life would give us a second chance to truly mend that separation. I am thinking, you did not deserve that cancer, yet it was your lot. The lot that your genes gave you. I am thinking I had to grow up to understand that inheritance was not a choice. I am thinking of the time the doctor told me that if I test positive for the gene, it is not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when”. Boom!!! I am looking at your grandchild, this our daughter, who has her mother and I wonder – how will I make her understand that I can save her from a rainy day with shelter, I can save her from hunger by the work of my hands, but I cannot save her from our inheritance. I cannot promise to stay, I cannot, like a sculptor, reshape her genes.
This taught me that this life had to be enough.
What I really have been wanting to say is, I am sorry. Sorry I never learnt to love you like a daughter should love her father. Then I passed that on to my daughter by raising her alone. I am sorry you could not give me a safe space to grow in love. Or maybe you could? You know, there were always the remnants of that scent and your small dark eyes like darts, staring at me accusingly. I reflect on what I did not understand about you then. You were happy but you did not have happiness. That is why your eyes seemed hollow. Why it was hard to find a photograph of you smiling or laughing. Why merry making was your way of leaving yourself but the failure to do so was your source of anger.
The end was not only physical pain but the intangible pain of knowing you messed us all up, that your PhD ultimately did not get to live up to the glory it aspired to. Still, I thank you for this country. What more can you really give someone than a whole country! So that when you both left, I still found a nurturer in its landscapes. The warm breeze kissing my face, the sun holding me at its centre, the croaking birds reminding me that I am never alone.
This taught me there is more than one way to be left; many forms of abandonment.
I am thinking about the miracle of being born, a one in 400 trillion chance. Even without this statistic it is hard for me to consider that my birth might have no meaning beyond the self-constructed value I give to my experiences of life through you; the fact that your death was not the end of your life, that you continue to live through me. That I perpetuate your education, that I display mama’s sensibilities. That which I inherit and that which I pass on. The miracle itself.
Everybody wants somebody to be their own piece of clay
~ Marvin Gaye
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