There’s something uncomfortable about looking at pictures of your parents at a time when they made each other happy. – Aminatta Forna
Our parents are an example of two things:
What marriage should be like;
What marriage should not be like.
I met the husband I never married when I was sixteen. He became the biological father of my child a few years later and he was proud to call me his wife. We never had a wedding albeit living together … in theory – as he often travelled meaning we did not really spend much time together. And by the time we reunited, we had spent so much time apart that we felt like strangers. We had become accustomed to making separate decisions in separate countries and over time, our worldviews evolved in divergent directions. As I had become a mother at a very young age, I started, as many women might, feeling a little empty. My child was growing older and being a mother could not define my whole identity. What happened to all the things my younger self-thought I would one day do?
My parents, who are card-holding members of the Baby Boomer generation, modeled to me as a child, that in a marriage, one stays put until death do us apart. You may hurt and drain yourself, but in the end, you will have done the honourable thing by staying wedded.
Later in life, parents resting in their graves, married to death, you look back at old photos and realise they were once possibly happy. They had good times. They kissed, loved and laughed. Then I mirror that against my own relationship that did not stand the test of time.
Old photos with your former partner, only tell one little part of the whole story – the part that is most hopeful and happy.
Happy … that little word people have written hundreds of books about because we are socialised to seek happiness all our lives. These popular notions do not really capture the full spectrum of the human experience but they continue to prevail over the choices we make and do not make.
I did not choose to be born to a Kenyan father and a Russian mother. Yet, they informed a large part of the insecurity I both consciously and subconsciously developed around love and marriage. They informed the choices I made and they informed the choices I did not make.
As a woman in her 30s reflecting on my parents’ complex marriage, I have developed a curiosity about what really built their union; why did they stay together, despite the unforgiving conflicts?
I do not have any easy answers but in the process of dissecting the complexities, I came to realise how daring my parents were. They ventured outside the bonds of their culture, and, merged to find solace in each other, creating new identities in worlds that were distinct from the worlds they were born into.
My father was an intellectual, who studiously worked toward a success he had defined in his mind. He was among the privileged Kenyan Baby Boomers, from his hometown, Kuria, and from the country in general, to travel abroad for higher education circa 1965. Not only did he travel overseas, he travelled into the tensions of the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war.
I have tried to recreate the past in my mind. What was life like for a young black African man in my mother’s hometown, the southern city of Krasnodar, close to the Black Sea – the warmer part of the country. If only I was older during his final days, we might have had these conversations, and I would be better informed. There were times, as a child, I felt he wanted to tell me more but he did not know how too. We would sit and stare at each other. He would murmur something incomprehensible to my young mind about his regrets. Years later, I hold vague memories of what might have transpired. He wanted to speak of the hardships of his past. He wanted to talk of the racial hardships in the USSR. The Soviets, who had been isolated from the rest of the world found African people completely alien and projected all manner of negative stereotypes. In my view, it was not an overt kind of racism with a historical context common in the West. It stemmed from a profiling of the unknown given that exposure to black people was nearly none existent. The name-calling took place mainly amongst the men, who over a few drinks could become fast friends. This is not to say grave and violent incidents did not occur, more so among the less educated or jobless. Being the studious man he was, he persevered through it all and gained the respect of the Soviets, going on to earn a PhD in Agricultural Engineering.
I also heard he handled quite a number of substantive projects and began to earn money that distinguished him from the rest of his peers. In time this made him something of an outlier and an exotic catch for the Russian ladies. Many women of the time harboured dreams of any ticket out of the USSR. They were told of a tropical location with succulent mangoes and sunny days throughout the year. The commonly viable escape was the West and Africa in its remoteness, held a certain allure for the adventurous.
The alcoholic addiction that afflicted the troubled Soviet men further made the foreign men a more appealing option regardless of race. The strong Soviet women kept the homes going and the broken men found solace in war songs and vodka shots. The contrast in modest behaviour and disciplined lifestyles displayed by African men made them objects of curiosity for many women. They were hard-working and appeared to have clear visions for their future. They all dreamt of the big things they would do back home. Mixed-race children like I came to be known as ‘mulatos’. But it was not that simple. While my grandmother was against the idea of mixing blood and polluting the purity of their race, the Baby Boomers dared to be different. Not all had the courage to do so, as my mother did. Several women would end up aborting their mixed-race babies. My mother bore my sister in 1980, and as normally happens, the family grew fond of the baby. Although my sister recalls having a happy early childhood there, it was deemed not the most suitable option to raise a mixed-race child in the Krasnodar Krai.
Among the Africans, the Kenyans were deemed reliable and quite a number of them proudly brought their dainty Russian brides home. My father was fluent in Russian. So fluent that if someone spoke to him on phone, not having seen his face, they would assume that he was white and possibly blue or hazel eyed. I know he was also a charmer, for I recall him fondling my mother in front of other guests at parties, who themselves were too conservative to do the same with their partners. He was a man defined by his zeal, swinging between extremes of utter joy and frightful bitterness, as if he embodied two different people.
His public displays of affection toward my mother embarrassed me. Compared to the restraint of his peers, he seemed inappropriate. I questioned the authenticity as well. I would normally walk away from the scene thinking of it as a short-lived façade. By the third day of the week, they would be throwing unpleasant curses at each other. This was my normal, outside the fixed smiles in the family photos.
My mother was also an educated woman with a Masters degree in Economics and a beautiful cursive handwriting that I worked hard to emulate. The quality of the education, for all men and women alike, was high; the one thing the country did not compromise amid the chaos leading to the fall of the USSR was educational standards. While the men were burdened by the trauma of the cumulative conflicts of the time and the patriotic duty as the state’s soldiers, who put their lives forward for their country – willingly – many at a steep price, the women ended up filling the ranks as the brains of their institutions. It was common to have a significant number of women in varied fields from accounting to aeronautics. The first Russian woman in the world to fly to space in the 1960s was Valentina Vladimirovna – coincidentally, my mother was also a Vladimirovna.
There is a subtext to this inclusivity. The legal equality of women and men in Russia came circa 1917 under Lenin, who believed that women had a crucial and economic role to play in the communist revolution and need not be tied down to domestic roles. For about a decade (before much was reversed) not only was abortion legalized, but marriage was separated from the church and children born out of wedlock enjoyed equal rights. It always positively baffles me that the likes of my mother were born into Women’s Rights and still prioritized domesticated roles and motherhood above other pursuits of self.
My father, on the other hand, had been away from home for about 15 years. Through his hard work, the young family moved to Kenya around 1985, to start a new and supposedly free life under the sun. There were high expectations placed on my father, having been a pioneer of high education and interracial marriage in his community. He felt obliged to come back with a family, look settled and successful, with several not-so-well-off relatives waiting for the ‘benefits’ of his achievements. As Yvonne Owuor wrote in Dust, they would, “show up in every inconvenient season with a long story, one thin dead chicken – stolen – and hands outstretched to receive alms,” from him.
To his community, he was a new man. He returned wearing his one of a kind velvet suits, reading Russian books and playing vinyl records from our very large collection. I clearly remember Donna Summer among them. Mother blended into the Kenyan workforce and even joined a Kuria women’s chama. Her outward calmness, elegance and dedication to being a homemaker, disguised her actual bravery. She had rebelled against a system; left her homeland, found ways to sink roots in a new land and raise a family. She spent occasional nights missing Mother Russia- when she’d sit in the verandah after dinner, the glass door shut, looking out into the darkness in deep thought, having a cigarette whose puffs took her back home – the only times I saw her smoke. I would watch her silently from a corner of the sitting room, out of her line sight trying to read her pensive mood.
Like the round leaf and a lily flower that floats on the surface of the water in a pond, my parents sustained each other. A symbiotic relationship, picturesque on the surface and turbid below. So they floated, one upon the other, content in regiment, solid in growth only to be fragmented in loss.
Is that what marriage really is? A deep-rooted binding institution, further complicated by our heritage, nurturing, beliefs; something that I misunderstood while I fixated on my parents’ photos? How could I trust this institution?
So a few years into my own, so-to-say, customary marriage, the union finally came to an end. It was not a one-day affair. It was a steady decline; an airplane preparing for landing in bad weather accompanied by a series of drastic actions, and regret that it could not have gone any other way. It was not a smooth landing.
I began rebuilding the parts of me I had shattered. He too left to pick up the parked parts of his life before my existence. I was the interlude that gave it an ideal neither of us could live up to. I once thought leaving was strength until I realised the strength was in the staying. I did not have the courage my mother had to stay. Neither can I be certain that she should have.
Having made peace with the paradox of choice, I went through a period of exploring life stories – memoirs and autobiographies. Among them was Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed where she explored what I would call a traditional childhood, girlhood and transition to womanhood in the context of her Kikuyu upbringing.
Roles were defined, expectations were clear – no surprises. Family and marriage were a communal affair necessitated by the need to organise life, retain values and manage the community’s resources. You could not wake up one morning and decide to unlove someone. Neither could you voluntarily neglect your role.
Her parents were of a time when polygamy was a norm. Co-wives were friends and the children played together, calling all the wives ‘mother’. Wangari writes that she did not sense any discrimination and if her parents had any problems they were kept out of it; she never saw them argue. Perhaps it was not acceptable for a wife to be confrontational with her husband. Nonetheless, roles and expectations were not ambiguous. It was not about the individual, it was about the community. Marriage was an expectation and families in the same homestead often married from the same community, expectedly grooming certain young men and women for marriage. This generally meant you married someone with shared communal values. You learnt to love and respect each other. We cannot ascertain that this would always be the case, but longevity of marriage was in some way guaranteed.
Wangari herself, who pursued her higher education in America, never witnessed the traditional longevity of her marriage. Her husband called it quits. She said her husband claimed that she was, “too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control.” But rather than defend these reasons (of which I suspect were traits she was, in fact, proud of) she beautifully captured the fragility of contemporary marriages when examined objectively.
“When we go through profound experiences, they change us. We risk our relationships with friends and family. They may not like the decisions we have taken or may feel threatened by our decisions. They may wonder what happened to the person they once knew. There may not be enough space in a relationship for aspirations and beliefs or mutual interests and aims to unfold. For a couple, this is particularly so because most people marry young and are bound to grow and change in their perceptions and appreciation of life.”
Regardless of this opinion, she wanted to keep her marriage for social reasons but did not wish to give up any of her aspirations for a more traditional role. Her marriage was officially annulled in 1979 but her bigger picture still stood as, “I was still the chairman of the National Council for Women of Kenya and I was still developing the Green Belt Movement.”
Influenced by the American school of thought, she needed to accomplish what she felt was her mission in life. “I also took America back to Kenya with me … There is a persistence, a seriousness, and a vision to America: it seems to know where it is going and it will go in that direction, whether you like it or not.” Wangari held onto her aspirations, my mother held onto her family- both strong choices for women who came from family-oriented communities. Wangari showed her strength overtly, my mother held it silently.
So I say to myself, let bygones be bygones as I examine contemporary marriages in search of role models to follow. In this new age, many of my millennial peers have had the opportunity to study abroad, subscribe to western notions of love and romance and have bought into the idea of one’s individual aspirations as the epitome of the pursuit of happiness and fulfillment. Those I looked at for hope in marriage have not survived the institution. Some are living in the same home-like ghosts, at the brink of sanity. Others settled for companionship and neglected the institutional commitment of marriage. Others, like myself, have developed a phobic awareness of the responsibilities of marriage, and have acceded to the idea that it is bound to fail.
Marriage comes down to choice: the choices mama made, the choices Wangari made, the choices I am making. Their choice to leave or stay, evolved into my choice to marry or not, on the backdrop of my reflections and attitude toward their marriages. In as much as I judged their choices harshly in my younger years, I now look at them with empathy – an empathy that does not seek to explore that path. An empathy that looks at my modern life as an advantage in the freedom we think we hold and in how we navigate our lives. An empathy that elevates the value of companionship in our chaotic urban lives and dismisses the idea that marriage is crucial for its attainment – for after all, their stories show the loneliness their marriages hid and the irony of committing to a life partner but craving freedom. So much for the myth of Happily Ever After.
In retrospect, I feel I have found a new (but detached) appreciation for the institutional and dutiful nature of marriage in a world where choice has become narcissistic. Everything depends on the individual. Your happiness depends on you. Your misery depends on you. It is your fault for attracting a flawed partner. We continue to await the unattainable, The One. These are the egoistic ideals we ruin our communities chasing. We forget that by the very act of holding an identity card, we represent civil principles, we forget that marriage is supposed to give us certain rights in how birth, death and resources are organized, besides the traditional legitimacy within our community.
I take comfort in my choice to refrain from binding myself to the institution only to let it down. A comfort bred in the art of singlehood, while subconsciously in the search for that which I know I will never find – the Happily Ever After. Something my mother already knew when she chose to stay.
Coronavirus Outbreak out of Control in US
American social practices, as well as entrenched cultural values like individualism, have greatly contributed to the spread of coronavirus even as doctors struggle to contain the pandemic amid fears that there will not be enough beds or ventilators for the critically ill, nor enough supplies to protect healthcare workers.
A new, deadly disease is exploding virtually unchecked in the United States of America, threatening the global economy and public health worldwide.
The US, as it is known, is the largest economy in the world, a position secured unfairly by its imposition of the US dollar as the global trading currency. The country regularly styles itself as “the leader of the free world”.
That leadership has failed miserably in recent weeks, as a pathogen known as SARS-CoV-2, or “coronavirus” for short, has spread, with very little detection, across the country of more than 300 million people.
“It’s spreading like wildfire from person to person,” said Papi Kabongo, a bus driver in Kinshasa whose uncle, Jean-Jacques Muyembe, discovered Ebola in 1976.
“There are clear, simple, easy things we know can help, but people there don’t listen. They don’t even wash their hands!”
The spread has largely overrun the country’s crumbling healthcare system and outmanoeuvred its byzantine insurance infrastructure. Doctors now fear there will not be enough beds or ventilators for the critically ill, nor enough supplies to protect healthcare workers.
“We’ve been telling them for years, ‘Your system is fragile. You need to be ready for this’”, said Albert Williams, Liberia’s minister of health during that country’s unprecedented Ebola outbreak. “But they’re deeply uninterested in international cooperation or advice”.
A frightened population has begun hoarding chloroquine pills following the recommendation of the American president, Donald Trump, who has acted as a kind of “witch doctor”, or traditional healer, during the outbreak. Trump has said he believes the pills may treat the disease. A supposed preventive dose has already killed one man, in the hot, dusty region of Arizona.
Some US government officials have made efforts to encourage or require people to distance themselves from each other—measures which are known to have helped contain or end outbreaks in China, South Korea and Hong Kong—but the US president, Donald Trump, is prioritising the economy over public health, and Americans themselves have largely refused official advice.
Meanwhile, traditional American social practices, as well as entrenched cultural values like individualism, have greatly contributed to the spread of coronavirus, whose carriers can be highly contagious even without showing any symptoms.
“If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying”, said Brady Sluder, a student on spring break in the infamous party town of Miami, Florida. “I’ve been waiting, we’ve been waiting for Miami spring break for a while”.
Experts say that even young, healthy individuals can contract the disease without their knowledge, putting anyone they come into contact with at risk.
“Before you know you have it, maybe you’ve given it to five people. And who did they give it to? And if they are elderly, you maybe have signed their death warrant”, said Muhammed Abubakar, dean of humanities at National University in Abuja. “This is a sad example of American exceptionalism in its purest form”.
In addition to Americans’ almost magical belief in their immunity to rules of all kinds, the country has faced a serious erosion of trust in official institutions in recent decades.
“These people don’t trust their government,”, said Emmanuel Mawema, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Zimbabwe-Harare. “They still manage to hold what we would technically call elections, but the wider society has been broken for a long time.”
This breakdown in trust has a deep history. Though the country has not experienced violent conflict recently, the United States is wrought with long-standing political divisions between its urban and rural tribes, which have repeatedly renounced efforts to find common ground.
“It’s almost as if they are opposed to the common good on principle”, said Tesfaye Haile, who spent eight years as Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. “This kind of division and the institutional inertia it creates is simply the way of life there”.
Experts say the US is poised to soon look like neighbouring Europe, where cases of the virus have soared in recent weeks, and doctors in some countries are disconnecting life-support services from patients over 65.
“In countries like the US, where life is cheap, it can create painful choices”, said Simon Odhiambo, who directs the Global Human Rights Network, headquartered in Nairobi. “We’ve been saying for years that health is a human right all states must respect, or it can put everyone at risk. This is what we meant”.
Other countries, too, fear the failures of the United States will put their own populations at risk.
“We don’t have any cases right now”, said South Sudanese President Salva Kiir. “We’ve closed the airport and our land borders. This may create real economic hardship for our people, but we won’t allow anyone coming from or through the United States to put our people at risk. It’s a matter of national security”.
CORRECTION: Europe is not a neighbour of the United States. We regret the error.
If we covered coronavirus like we covered Ebola
In 2014, I spent more than six months covering Ebola in West Africa, two of them in the “hot zone” of Liberia. Global press coverage spurred clichéd response back home in the USA, from negative stereotypes about culture and hygiene to irrational panic. This is a piece of satire that imagines covering America’s global health emergency in the same way the US looked at one “over there”—revealing both the absurdity of imperial exceptionalism and the unwelcome fact that the weaknesses of the American “superpower” are not so different from those in so-called “s**hole countries.” But of course they are. Yet most of us are schooled to see the familiar as better than the foreign, and it’s easy to forget that we share the same weaknesses—and the same risks—as those we are taught, implicitly and explicitly, to see as less capable, less valuable, less worthy.
All the names here are fictitious, unless otherwise indicated (with a link to verifiable, accurate information).
This is the Season We are In
This is a season. Its length and breadth we do not know. And if we all look at our respective lives, we’ve all been here before.
January to March is my favourite time of year, despite the heat and the dryness, or the humidity, depending on which part of the country you are in. I’m a sun worshipper and this season accords me numerous opportunities to wrap around a kikoy or wear shorts and a vest almost daily. I like the blue skies even though I have to plan my movements to avoid the noonday sun.
When the rains do kick in—and they seem to have checked in almost on time this year—I’m ready for the grey leaden skies that pelt the earth with rain. A new season has come. It has to. Funny thing is, I get impatient when the rains delay because I know prolonged seasons come with their consequences. There has to be a time for everything. Acceptance is a tough word, I’ve discovered. A friend and I were talking about acceptance, and he reckons acceptance is giving up but I disagree with him. Acceptance for me is recognising the situation that you are in. Acceptance is recognising the now. This present moment.
There will be tomorrows but who knows what they will be like? Finish dealing with today first.
I’ve been social-distancing and moved into self-quarantine just over a week ago. For someone who works from home and is an ambivert, this situation is almost kawaida. I don’t like how it has been imposed and its indefinite nature, but I’m in a familiar space. This was an easy situation to accept. I can’t hit the shops the way I want to and nor can I go down to my local pub in the evening for a serving of human contact. I’m grateful that we aren’t on total lockdown and I have the luxury of going for a bike ride and staring out to sea. But again, I live in Kilifi town, where we as a community are on tenterhooks following the irresponsible actions of our Deputy Governor.
I was angry for two days. Very angry, because so many lives had been put at risk. But I’ve come to accept this situation for what it is and put in place measures that will not expose me to possible infection.
I won’t lie; it’s tough. Tough learning to accept and deal with a situation that is not of your own making. It was only this week that I was reminded that I have been in this place before and I hope that remembering that experience will see me through this period.
As a cancer survivor, I’m in the category of vulnerable groups. My immunity isn’t what it used to be and I need to protect myself. I’ve read about safeguards against COVID-19 in relation to myeloma and cancer, and I’m keeping tabs on other survivors like myself. My friend Muthoni has a way of articulating things in a very gentle “you-go-deal” kind of way and her words resonated very well in our WhatsApp group.
“We are back to the initial days of stressing and anxiety about not knowing what to expect. I joked and said the world is now having a taste of a typical cancer patient’s world. The anxiety, the seclusion, the insane fear of picking up an infection and reading all information coming your way with all manner of advice and tips (even the outrageous ones) and basically getting to the point of understanding that we are totally not in control of our daily lives. The best we can do is appreciate every minute/hour/day and this helps one slow down and appreciate the simple things in life. Dropping all the shenanigan things we bandika [put] on ourselves and prioritize the crucial aspect of being alive—building meaningful relationships and leaving a legacy and not a CV.”
Acceptance. It is important to live in the now. We don’t know how long we as a country or the global community will be in this period. Yes, it is unsettling and at times fearful. But this is the season we are in. Let’s be honest; as human beings we’ve had an uninterrupted good run on this planet for a while. The last time we had a worldwide pandemic was in the 80s.
Twenty-twenty was going to be my year. Seriously! It was not said as we crossed into the new year in merriment, with a drink in hand. Thought that night was something else. For me, Olympic years seem to hold wonder. This year, I’ve gone as far as creating a vision board for myself. This is the year. Now twenty-twenty is more like twende, twende, (let’s go, let’s go), the phrase you hear matatu touts use often. We’ve been shown dust and it is only the first quarter. They are many that want to cancel this year and have already written it off. Economically, the books aren’t looking pretty, I’ll admit. But we still have nine months to go and I’m still hoping that this year will still bring some wonder. I’m learning to be an optimist. Seeing the glass as half-full doesn’t come easy to me. So, this global pandemic is teaching me things and taking me to uncomfortable spaces internally. That’s where I am now. This season has taken me to back to October 2015 when, in a Nairobi hospital, I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a type of blood cancer. I didn’t know what lay in front of me, but I decided to accept my situation. It was tough. It was kinda rough, for I was thrown into a whole new season.
It takes a lot of strength to pick up those lemons and start making lemonade or whatever you choose to make with them. Those lemons represent the now. This moment. Our present.
Acceptance. June 2016, Mumbai, India. A room at the BLK Speciality Hospital. Kenyan patient, age 43, has been prescribed confinement to a room for at least fourteen days. The room temperature is strictly regulated. My only exercise was in the corridor outside my room. And whenever I left the room, I had to wear a face mask. I had a total of thirty minutes of exercise a day. I spoke to my visitors through a glass door. That now sounds familiar for a good many folks. The internet became a lifeline, I watched at least an hour of news and even started watching Cake Boss! And my phone and meds knew nothing about social distancing. I prolonged all meals (when I had the appetite), and in between those meals I was mentally writing and rewriting my five-year plan. By day five, I didn’t care about tomorrow. I just wanted to get through the day and deal with whichever side-effect came with the treatment that was given on that day. If I wasn’t watching the news, it was MTV India, Master Chef Australia or even more Cake Boss. Being quarantined isn’t easy. The toll it takes on your mental health cannot be overstated.
You may have the luxury of being in self-isolation or quarantine within your home, with your loved ones around you. If you are alone, you start naming the geckoes on the wall. I have a golden orb spider called Freda and two frogs that show up religiously each evening at six o’clock like askaris. I’ve tried kicking them out but I’ve been unsuccessful. It was only yesterday that I accepted that they are here for the duration of the curfew. I hope. Isolation can do that you. You may have resorted to spending a little longer in the loo or shower so that you can get a little more me-time away from either the partner or the kids. Count yourself lucky that your isolation isn’t within a hospital. During my sixteen days in confinement the “fun” activities were measuring my pee and recording its colour and describing my poo on a chart. You have no idea how excited I was when I started having solid bowel motions. It meant I was getting better. I appreciated each victory during this period when every day was just that, every day. Fortunately, I had my step-mom with me as my carer and roommate.
It was during this period that I willed my body to get better. Every day was another chance to fight on. There were battles with nausea, constipation and then diarrhoea. However, the main battle was willing my stem cells to be re-accepted by the body that they had been harvested from. Every day was hoping that my blood markers were better than the previous day. It was tough and all I could do was bide my time, wait and believe. Acceptance.
I’m back in that space of accepting the new normal. The difference here is that I’m not alone. There are billions of us in this place. But there are shed-loads of battles and fears that are being fought within the confines of our minds too. In these days of the University of YouTube, swiping left or right, Tik Toking, globetrotting and just-add-water happiness, the uncertainty of tomorrow is unsettling. There are fears about incomes and deals put on hold, separation from loved ones, not being able to touch or even sneeze or cough without getting stared at. We all just don’t know. I mean, even our election years now look tame! Many have cancelled the current season and would rather wake up in 2021. Sadly, life isn’t like that. We’d gotten used to the season of plenty to do, people to see and places to go. My vision board can testify to that. And I think along the way we overlooked the people, the planet and the peace that makes us human. I’m a fairly laid back guy, so when cancer came knocking on my door, I was told to pace it. Now, we are all being told to pace it.
“If you think about worry, it’s an energy that’s used up thinking about all the ways things could go wrong, or not happen or not go according to plan. But it’s just that, In your head. If it doesn’t translate into action or spur us into movement then it’s wasted energy . . . Which in our [cancer patients/survivors] situations is a precious commodity”, says my friend Muthoni. “Adversity will not change. Life will always throw us curveballs. Having been able to beat this monster has given most of us clearer perspectives of what’s important and what isn’t”.
Acceptance. This is a season. Its length and breadth we do not know. And if we all look at our respective lives, we’ve all been here before. It could be a cancer diagnosis or another malady, or a loss in the form of a death, a marriage, work, finances or even heartbreak. You’ve managed to get through it. There may be scars, there may be lessons learnt or not, but, man alive! that was one hell of a season then. You are still here now.
Life Upcountry in a Time of Coronavirus
It has been barely two weeks since the first case of coronavirus was detected in Kenya yet the ramifications of the pandemic are already being painfully felt within my community.
It’s ridiculous I know, but I have been reduced to hoping that the lady I met at an agrovet in Nyahururu town last week is right after all, that above all other peoples of the world, God loves Kenyans the most. She made this extraordinary statement when I hesitated to shake hands with her, citing coronavirus fears and pointing to the critical situation prevailing in Italy, which had gone into lockdown in an attempt to contain the pandemic. “We shall be ok, God will make sure of that because he loves us very much”. More than the Italians? Much more!
A few days later, a retired veterinary officer of my acquaintance came to have a look at Dolly-the-calf; the girl had weeping eyes and I was a bit worried. Upon arrival, the vet found me on the phone and I was able to avoid shaking his proffered hand by vaguely waving at him instead. He was clearly miffed and took off in the direction of the cow pen before I had got off the phone. When the vet was done with Dolly, I explained to him that I had not meant to be rude but that avoiding shaking hands and keeping at a distance from each other was the recommended thing to do but he pooh-poohed me and said that those were problems of Nairobi people. Here in mashinani we were perfectly safe from the virus, he said.
The following morning, as I was driving off to run an errand in the next township, I was waved down by a woman who looked vaguely familiar to me and, thinking she wanted I lift, I stopped. The woman came straight at me, grabbed my hand, shook it vigorously and proclaimed, “Praise the Lord! We will not die! The Lord is with us!” What could I say?
I live on the edge of a small township, about 30 kilometres from Nyahururu town, which nevertheless boasts a Level 3 health centre complete with a maternity ward and a functioning ambulance. The township is also host to many churches of various denominations; I have counted ten, including three of the main established churches, within less than a square mile. Sunday mornings used to be a competing cacophony of hallelujahs and hello-hellos as the pastors in their tin-shack churches tested their microphones before blaring out their summons and silencing birdsong. But a quiet word with the sub-chief seems to have worked and the noise has largely abated, with the loudspeakers back inside the churches and the volume significantly reduced. This is a largely church-going community and the arrival of the coronavirus in Kenya had not changed that in any significant way. When I enquired with the pastor of my church about the measures he was taking in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, he informed me that handwashing facilities would be placed outside the three entrances to the church and that the service would be shortened. Otherwise, life was continuing as usual.
Well, news of Nairobians beating a hasty retreat to their homes in the Kenyan countryside – or at least to the homes of their parents and relatives – have got me worried that the virus is already lurking among us, shortly to manifest itself to devastating effect. And so, being a mild hypochondriac, and convinced that the slight tightening in my chest does not augur well, I have decided to commune with my God from the relative safety of my house and compound.
Born and bred in the city, I came to live here a few years ago armed with a copy of John Seymour’s The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, a highly romanticised view of country life, no practical skills and absolutely no knowledge of farming. But I have endured and could remain behind my gate for a couple of months, living off my vegetable patch, my maize reserve, Daisy’s milk and the eggs from my chickens. The rains have been unseasonably generous and the locusts flew high up above our heads a couple of weeks, ago, headed south, sparing us that particular scourge. How the market traders will fare is what I’m wondering though. Last Saturday morning county officials did the rounds of the township and asked the market traders, who flow in from the surrounding countryside and neighbouring townships twice weekly, to pack up their wares and leave.
Those who sell second-hand clothes can always store them until the Wednesday and Saturday market days are reinstated – whenever that will be – but what will the vegetable sellers do with their stock? And how will the traders get by if they cannot trade? I buy avocados from Mama Wangari who recently introduced me to her last-born daughter, a charming girl who, against the odds, had done extremely well in secondary school and was hoping to enter university to study pure mathematics. Her mother is the family’s sole breadwinner and sending Wangari off to college was always going to be a challenge. Given the uncertainties linked to the coronavirus pandemic, the odds of Wangari sitting in a lecture hall any time soon have just diminished.
The shops remain open for the time being but business is bound to suffer without the custom of those people who come into the township to trade and buy goods on the weekly market days. Bars have already taken a direct hit and those who like their tipple will have to take it in the comfort of their homes. The police did the rounds of the local watering holes last Sunday night, supervising the ordering of last rounds and, on the stroke of midnight, all bars in the township were closed until further notice.
Soap and water dispensers have been placed outside most shops and the grocery store that my city nephew refers to as The Mall – on account of its having two tight aisles and a large assortment of juices – is well stocked in toilet paper, although I doubt its sudden disappearance would cause as much distress here as it would in the city; maigoya (plectranthus barbatus leaves) are in plenty along the hedges. Prices of goods have already gone up, however; a kilo of sugar that I bought at SH95 last week is now trading at Sh105, a two-kilogramme packet of a popular brand of maize meal that was going for Sh110 is now selling at Sh140 and my butcher tells me that the number of customers crossing his threshold has diminished considerably in the last week.
“Andũ aingĩ gũkũ matihotaga kwĩigira mũthithũ, marĩaga iria mathũkũma mũthenya ũcio”, he says (Many people have no savings, they consume what they earn daily). Five hours of casual work will earn you Sh250, Sh300 if you’re lucky. And if you’re lucky to find the work.
Esther Wa Tu-Twins called me early this week, enquired after my health and assured me that she and her children were equally fine. We talked about the rain the night before, and how the patch of maize that she had recently planted was doing. Then she came to the point of her call and informed me that her store of maize meal was finished and she couldn’t find any work. Esther and her family of five – four children and a younger brother in her care – are among the 4,000 families that were resettled by the government at the Makutano Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Laikipia West following the 2007-2008 post-election violence, a region where the rains are uncertain and the hunger season long most years. Esther’s crop of maize and beans is still some months to harvest and the coronavirus pandemic has only come to compound an already serious problem for her family.
The police are also back on the roads, white masks over their mouths, ensuring that matatus are respecting the directive to carry not more than eight passengers and booking recalcitrant crews. It had been a relief for many, not least the boda boda riders, when the police were ordered off the roads in an attempt to put a halt to the rampant bribe-taking. (A pair had recently been discovered hiding in the bushes along a dirt road from which they would suddenly emerge at the approach of a boda boda, hoping to cow the rider into surrendering a bribe. Their business was short-lived, however; our boda boda community is no longer prepared to put up with that nonsense). Matatu fares have gone up though; a trip into Nyahururu town, a distance of just under 30km, will now set you back Sh200, a 100 per cent increase. And it is expected that shortages of diesel and petrol are soon to be experienced in my neck of the woods; a friend called me with advice that I should tank up and limit my movements to the absolutely necessary. I have no plans to leave my compound any time soon, however, so that quarter-tank remaining is sufficient for any emergency that might cause me to venture beyond my gate.
It has been barely two weeks since the first case of coronavirus was detected in Kenya yet the ramifications of the pandemic are already being painfully felt within my community. May the prayers of the woman I met in Nyahururu be heard.
Reflections1 week ago
Open Letter to President Uhuru Kenyatta
Politics2 weeks ago
Religion in the Age of Coronavirus
Politics2 weeks ago
Why Colonial-Era Edicts Will Not Defeat the Coronavirus in Kenya
Op-Eds1 week ago
Thoughts on a Pandemic, Geoeconomics and Africa’s Urban Sociology
Politics2 weeks ago
Unfair Trade: How Dutch Rose Growers Avoid Paying Taxes in Kenya
Op-Eds1 week ago
The Coronavirus: The Political Economy of a Pathogen
Politics4 days ago
A Short History of Constitutions and What Politicians Do to Them
Videos2 days ago
The Political Economy of Coronavirus: Dr David Ndii Speaks