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Reflections

We Leave Our House to Go Home

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We Leave Our House to Go Home
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Sometime in 2010, I had the idea of writing a poem to explore the trips that my family made several times a year back to our rural home, when I was a child. This desire gave birth to the long narrative poem called “We Leave Our House to Go Home”, which resonated with audiences in Kenya and beyond. Yet the poem is deeply personal and reveals a journey of transformation and becoming, beginning with my family’s move from our rural home to Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, and my emergence as a city girl. The city girl lives a two-edged status of inevitable alienation from original roots on one hand; and on the other the pioneering opportunist creating a new way of living in a new country. As a consequence my life at times feels like a rapid fire pendulum, quivering in one place, then another, and not making much progress in either direction. But let’s start at the beginning.

According to my parents the late William Ndala Wamalwa and Rose Nanjala (nee Uluma) Wamalwa, in April 1963, my family relocated to Nairobi from Namirama in Kakamega, western Kenya. I was five years old. Four years later, my father announced quite brusquely, with no preamble at all; because-of-course-we-children-should-just-know; that we were going back to our “real home”, back to Namirama. I was then nine years old. Although only a scant four years had elapsed since our leaving, new experiences from the world I now inhabited in Nairobi, had so profoundly reengineered me, my memory of this “real home” had all but disappeared. For me, Namirama was like one of those relatives who comes to you, expecting you to instantly jump into her arms because she developed a strong bond with you, when she saved your life and nursed you back to health after a terrible accident when you were three; and to her horror you don’t recognise her.

That first trip etched itself on my mind, as a consequence of the unbelievable levels of discomfort the family suffered on the road trip home. But this was just the beginning. Over the years we made many trips to this perplexing place I learnt to call home, all reliably uncomfortable. It’s perhaps not surprising I married someone whose “real home” was only two hours away from Nairobi, or that I wrote a long narrative poem about those horrifying experiences. It’s not astonishing it took many years for me to see the beauty of “home”, this green equatorial paradise with rolling hills, rivers and streams, amazing bird life, perpetual rain, the Kakamega Forest, and my relatives.

When I wrote the poem, I thought the experiences of the road trip home were confined to me, and my family, until I shared it. The poem’s first public outing was a reading to a young woman who had grown up in South Africa, but came originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo. I read and read then I stopped, embarrassed that I was boring her with the never-ending words. I looked up ready with my apology only to find rapt attention. No please, don’t stop, she said.

In 2014, I crafted a show of dramatized poetry called “Silence is a Woman” and placed this going-home poem at the end of the production. After one performance, a woman came up to me and whispered, “What about the trees, you can’t leave out the trees!” I was delighted, I knew exactly what she was talking about. Yes, the trees! But I was so surprised, how did she know about the trees? I thought that was just my experience. You see, when I was a child of three, my mother took me, my sister and my baby brother to Kilifi District, on the Kenyan coast, by train, to join my father who had just graduated from Makerere University in Uganda and was now working as a colonial District Officer. As the train moved, I watched trees run, they chased our train, running beside us for a time and then speeding past us, showing off their love for speed. At the end of our journey we found them gathered in a huge welcoming forest at our destination.

Had other people seen the world, this way? It never occurred to me that this was a typical childhood experience – the sight of trees moving past you, and almost with you, as you sit in a car, bus or train. We humans live life in self-contained silos, separate and alone, yet so much of our experiences are exactly the same. So here is the verse crafted from that experience with the trees.

“Trees chase after our car, as we speed home,
Eucalyptus lope with wide steps,
Tall yellow Acacia’s flash past us, in wild chattering gangs,
Ponderous flame trees, dressed in bright orange, plod along, waving their heads from side to side.
The trees are sneaky, when we stop; they stop too,
As soon as we move, they start running again,
They race us and win.
We arrive, and find ourselves in a land of many trees.”

I have since found that although “We Leave Our House to Go Home” is many-layered, it is first a story about the dissonance and dislocation. It is about arriving at your new location and looking quizzically at the place you used to call home, which in turn looks at you and wonders how strange you have become.

An example. After I reached adulthood and my grandmothers and aunties started to die, I created my own tradition of taking with me their old water pots and other vessels after their funerals. It started with Kukhu Jedida Khasandi my mother’s mother who died in 1995 at the age of 75 years. After her funeral I bequeathed to myself her old wooden milking vessel which was about to be thrown away. When Senge Lukalesia Alasi Nangila, my dad’s eldest sister and the eldest daughter of their father, died at 93 years in 2010, I took her old clay water pot. Along with my grandmother’s wooden milking vessel, I now have four clay water pots, which keep me company and remind me of these beloved relatives.

Photo Credit: Wamboi Nasaka Muragori

Senge Lukelesia Alasi Nangila with a cigarette in her mouth. Senge Lukalesia helped inoculate me against the toxic masculinity found in the city with the dictates that limited a woman’s life. She showed me that a woman can do anything she wants, and still smoke, drink whisky and still be loved. Photo Credit: Wamboi Nasaka Muragori

Senge Lukelesia Alasi Nangila with a cigarette in her mouth. Senge Lukalesia helped inoculate me against the toxic masculinity found in the city with the dictates that limited a woman’s life. She showed me that a woman can do anything she wants, and still smoke, drink whisky and still be loved.

But meanwhile I have earned a reputation as that weird Nairobi relative who likes useless old things. My relatives laughed at me and treated me like an eccentric cute poodle, but are now no longer surprised when I ask for a pot. The latest water pot belonged to my Senge Nasambu Akeso who passed away in April 2017 at 95 years. This one is large with a broken mouth. Apparently, I missed the good one by a week when it broke just before her death.

The poem “We Leave Our House to Go Home” is also about how the world occurs to a child versus how it occurs to an adult. The road home from Nairobi starts with a relatively safe section from, Kangemi, to Limuru. At Mai Mahiu the road becomes the “dreaded” or “scenic” escarpment road, (depending on whether you are a child or adult,) as it begins its ascent to Mount Longonot before it starts its descent down to Naivasha town.

Every time we approached the Mai Mahiu section, my emotions churned as my stomach tied itself in knots and I intermittently closed my eyes trying to shut out the many sources of danger that I could see looming around me. The so-called escarpment road was a thin and winding ribbon, perched on top of a cliff on the Great Rift Valley, which had fractured the country many eons ago.

Pots from my Senges: Lukelesia Alasi Nangila the eldest daughter of Ndala (1917 – 2011) , Dina Nanjala (1928 – 2014), Navkembe Salome (1921- 2015), and Nasambu Akeso (1922 - 2017).

Pots from my Senges: Lukelesia Alasi Nangila the eldest daughter of Ndala (1917 – 2011) , Dina Nanjala (1928 – 2014), Navkembe Salome (1921- 2015), and Nasambu Akeso (1922 – 2017). Photo credit: Wamboi Nasaka Muragori

As we drove, the grown-ups ooohed and aaahed at what they claimed were panoramic views of valleys, savannahs, lakes, rivers and mountains spreading all around us. But all I could see was danger. On the right, signs warning of the possibility of falling rocks were written in bold panicked capital letters. “BEWARE OF FALLING ROCKS”. But those weren’t even rocks, most of them were huge boulders imbedded into the side of the steep cliff-side. Just one could smash our car into smithereens. And then there we were, stuck behind a long line of lorries, petrol tankers and buses for miles at a time; crawling at 20 kilometres an hour, making us even easier targets for those falling rocks. What were the warnings for? What exactly were we expected to do if one of those boulders dislodged itself and started to roll down towards our car? Really, who had selected this place to build a road?

Throughout the escarpment phase of our journey, I played a game in which we would only be safe if I did not look down into the wide steep valley. But even this game did not keep visions of our small VW Beetle missing the next turn and flying off to plunge and scatter all eight occupants; five children, two parents and a cousin-maid, onto the waiting jagged rocks and boulders. Our car would not grow wings like the ones in cartoons and swoop back into the air at the last-minute, saving us from destruction.

After that first time, we went to our real home at least two to three times a year, to visit the strangers my parents called our up-country relatives. Real home? More like surreal trip home. And then the 1980’s arrived and brought potholes and deteriorating roads with them. The escarpment road was not spared and soon the valleys became strewn with the carcasses of vehicles that had missed their step. I remember the World Bank stating quite categorically that the 1980’s was a ‘lost decade for Africa’. The continent went backwards rapidly and for me the most visible evidence was in our cracked and deteriorating roads which made the family’s journey back home an even more terrifying prospect.

I wrote “We Leave Our House to Go Home”, in 2010. It came tumbling out of me effortlessly, and full of so many words I thought it would never stop. My plan had been to write the poem in two parts, with the second part, called “Home”. But that mysterious place from whence my poems come has refused to give up the goods; all my “part two” attempts have been stilted, contrived, self-conscious and just not as good as part one.

The old Rift Valley Road. Photo Credit: Wamboi Nasaka Muragori

The old Rift Valley Road. Photo Credit: Wamboi Nasaka Muragori

 

Photo Credit: Wamboi Nasaka Muragori Photograph of my lush garden with sculptures and elephant ear ferns

Photograph of my lush garden with sculptures and elephant ear ferns. Photo Credit: Wamboi Nasaka Muragori

 

 

WE LEAVE OUR HOUSE TO GO HOME!
By Sitawa Namwalie

We start,
We are told we are going home.

What?
We are home.
Is this not home?
This place we live?
This is home!
I have climbed those trees,
Fallen and broken my hand in that ditch,
I have raced my brother and won on that wide green lawn,
I have hunted tadpoles in that pool over there,
You can’t see it now; it only fills up with water when it rains.
Is home not this?

No. 

No?
My father hands me an un-embellished, ‘No’.
My mother gives me a flat ‘No’.
On this, they speak as one.
No.

No?

“This is just a house”, they reply,
“Not even ours!
It is owned by the government.”

Oh! 

We leave our house to go home!

We pack our bags;
Clothes, shoes, Vaseline, toy cars, dolls, books, Monopoly, transistor radio.

We pack more bags;
Sugar, tea leaves, butter, oil, maize meal, cocoa, sausages, bacon; we can still afford these things.

And 8 long loaves of Kumanina bread!
Kumanina?
What a rude word.
Why is it called that?
Does anyone know?

No?

We leave our house to go home!

We get into my dad’s car,
A brand-new VW Beetle.
Five young children, a mum, a dad and a cousin-maid.
We take turns sitting on each other, 

Except Dad of course,
He must drive.

We leave our house to go home!

Limuru!

We children speak up hopefully,
“Are we there yet?”
My father laughs indulgently,
“Hahahaha!”

“No.” 

There’s that un-embellished ‘No’ again!
“Not yet,” he says, his eyes twinkle at me through the rare view mirror,
I’m perplexed.
We have never gone this far in our fun-filled-after-Church-Sunday-drives.
It can’t be much further!
It will be over soon!
Where are we going?

We leave our house to go home.

Kinangop!

30 more kilometres, hope returns.
It bounds back, panting, joyful like a puppy.
“Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”
“There I can see it, there!”
“It’s there over that hill. There!” 

“No!”

No?

Mum’s says, “Stop disturbing your father, let him drive.”
Her voice is sharp.
There is no joke in it anymore.
No.
None.
I exhale all my hope.
How far do we have to go to get home?

We leave our house to go home!

We start a steep climb on a narrow road.
Sheer cliffs rise on one side and fall on the other.
Up, up, up we go, through savannah, alpine forest, dry scrub land, wooded dry-lands, white highlands;
Then down, down, down to an equatorial green land that belongs somewhere else.
Not in this dry country Kenya.

We leave our house to go home

Trees chase after our car, as we speed home,
Eucalyptus lope with wide steps,
Tall yellow Acacia’s flash past us, in wild chattering gangs,
Ponderous flame trees, dressed in bright orange, plod along, waving their heads from side to side.
The trees are sneaky, when we stop; they stop too,
As soon as we move, they start running again,
They race us and win.
We arrive and find ourselves in a land of many trees.

We leave our house to go home! 

Don’t think I saw the wonder of the changing landscape,
The backdrop movie, shifting, around us,
Leaving, arriving.
I saw none of it.
No.
My mind echoes city lights.
Nairobi is my jewel.
I ask my father,
“Is there light at home?”

“No!” 

No?
My father laughs again, this time amused,
“Hahahaha!”
His eyes touch mine in the rear-view mirror.
“Electricity does not stretch so far,” he says.
No.
He is, matter-of-fact, “There is no light at home.”

No?
No? My mind reels.
No disco-dancing neon light?
No hanging out at Carnivore on a hot night out?
No chilling with a hoard of hungry girls at night?
No!
No light to bathe me, wash me clean?
There is no light at home?

We leave our house to go home!

Eldoret.

Punctures come thick as rain!
The first is a joyous affair.
We all believe it won’t happen again.
By the third puncture, we all know how to change a tyre, even my kid brother.
First, push the car off the side of the road, onto the verge;
Second, find stones!
To prevent the car from rolling away!
Third, put broken tree branches on the road!
To warn other motorists!
Step four, fix the puncture.

By the 4th and 5th puncture, I am worried,
Home speaks in code.
Maybe home is sending a message in its own crude way.
It does not want us to return.
Home speaks secret words buried in repetition.
It sends a celestial whisper, 

No! Do not return. No! Do not return.
There is nothing left for you here! No!

We leave our house to go home!

Kisii,
Kapsabet,
Kisumu,
Kakamega.

The tarmac road turns to dust,
The car starts to bump, list, sigh, it slows down in protest.
There are no roads here, no.
Just tracks made by cattle, barely visible in the bush.
We reach a river; with a bridge made of old wooden planks and colonial memories. 

This river is not a memory.
An empty long gorge, with wide banks, a bed of rocks and boulders, with the name ‘River Something’ on a sign post.
This is the real thing,
The River Nzoia. 

Yes!

We leave-our house-to go home.

Mumias,
Sivilie,
Chebuyusi,
Navakholo,
Nambacha,
Namirama.

We arrive.
Grandmother ululates; a loud long, piercing sound,
She holds her hands outstretched,
Her body rigid in a rictus of astonishment.
She leads a crowd of women, children, men;
They embrace us,
A tangle of humanity, noise, movement, singing, dancing;
Tears of joy lifted in celebration!

Grandmother stops her singing delight to ask,

“How is Kenya? How is Kenyatta, your president?” 

I understand.
She and I come from different countries,
She doesn’t speak English, we don’t share a president; no wonder she looks foreign.

We leave our house to go home. 

We stand still as Grandmother prays her foreign prayer,
Filled with images of Jews, wandering about for 40 years in deserts,
Crossing the Red Sea, which parts unexpectedly, to create a path.
It is only God who can manage such miracles. Baba!
Like the Israelites in Egypt escaping Pharaoh and returning to the Promised Land,
He has come back, and not empty handed. Baba!
He has prospered, Baba!
Returned. Baba, Jehova Jire!

After 10 years of wandering in the dangerous city lights,
Where men have no souls. Baba!
Where people can disappear without trace, as if consumed by wild beasts. Baba!
He has come back with children,
(Most of whom I have never seen.)
We thank you, Baba.
We thank you, Baba.
Baba! We thank you.
For you have been with him, Baba!
You have smiled on him, Baba!
He comes home with children; a car,
With a car, Baba!
Oh, that my son can find the riches to buy a car…
Like the son of Manyonge,
Like the son of Makokha,
Like the son of Siganga, like my son!

 

And on and on and on, her prayer, sings, and shouts, hums and flows, rises and falls and…
Riswa! PAP!
She ends the prayer with a loud abrupt sound.

I am startled. And wiser.

I learnt a lot from that prayer.

We are Jews from Israel!

We leave our house to go home.

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Sitawa Namwalie is an award-winning Kenyan poet, playwright and performer known for her unique dramatized poetry performances which combine poetry and traditional Kenyan music.

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Reflections

To the Brothers and for the Women in Our Lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only one message is clear.

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

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

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

The surest thing I could give is my ear.

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

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

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Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Name has been changed.

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Reflections

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.

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The Paradox of Choice: Just Another Family Tale
Photo: Unsplash/Aditya Romansa
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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.

Mother

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.

Father

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.

Epilogue

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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