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Reflections

We Are Doctors, We Don’t Die: A Damascus Moment on a Kenyan Highway

11 min read. “Daktari amesema mulete pesa ya mafuta.” (The doctor says bring money for fuel.) The officer in charge said this in a matter-of-fact way. We knew we had to do what he had requested; he had all the power over the ambulance – the same power we wielded in Siaya.

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The Unkindness of Strangers: Death, Disease and Disillusionment in Siaya
Photo: Vittore Buzzi on Unsplash
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September 18 is my younger brother Kevin’s birthday. I was in Siaya, and I wanted to travel back to Nairobi to celebrate with him. There was not much to do in Siaya after dark. The town turns ghostly after sunset. The local traders in the market slowly wrap up their wares in a choreographed fashion and walk together, mostly as a band of women to their households in the villages. The men stay a little longer on their motorbikes waiting for customers or catching up with the day’s political gossip. The shopkeepers and butchers quickly follow the women, trying to close before the scheduled power blackout. It’s strange, but electricity supply from Kenya Power consistently disappears between 7pm and 9pm. Both of these times are crucial for the few people with televisions who tune in to listen to the local news broadcasts from Nairobi. When there’s power, Siaya residents religiously watch the news broadcast, tuning into both the Kiswahili and English broadcasts, two hours apart, even when it is a repetition of the same broadcast.

In any case, darkness brings most things to a standstill. Siaya hospital, where I worked, is flung into total darkness. The generator often lacks fuel and it takes partners like the organisation I was working for to chip in monthly with some sort of supplementary funding. It was this darkness that we were running away from. I made a few phone calls to my colleagues Vinnie, Christina and Eric and we all huddled in Vinnie’s brand new Toyota and set off for Nairobi. We were in high spirits. We had had a long week of providing care to hundreds of children, and collecting terabytes of data to support licensing of our malaria vaccine study.

Local communities in Siaya are magnets for public health research. A rural community, with basic infrastructure and poor health indicators is fertile ground for local research organisations like the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to set up shop, attract funding and conduct research.

The men and women of Siaya are probably more famous than they will ever know, though mostly as statistics in peer-reviewed papers and publications. The educated world of infectious disease probably knows much more about these households through malaria and HIV data than the local chief does. A PhD student at an American university could probably model an accurate predictor of mortality in these villages from the troves of personal data collected from these people.

I had worked in Siaya hospital for a few years. I had very little business going into any wards except the paediatric one, where children participating in our vaccine study were hospitalised. We worked hard to make “our side” (the research side of the ward) live up to the required standards expected by the donor. Five feet away, on the government side, was a sad reminder of what lack of funding and resources looked like. It was cold and uncertain, and had a perennial shortage of essential supplies. The “research side” and “the government side” were on the same floor, yet they were worlds apart in terms of resources and health outcomes.

I wonder what went on in the minds of the mothers in the “government side” when they walked through the “research side” to use the bathrooms. I wonder what they felt when they noticed no one was sleeping on the floor, or sharing beds with strangers. Or that kids on the research side received a better diet, or that the process for discharging patients recruited in research was efficient, and no family would spend an extra day or two detained for not having enough money to cover their hospital bill. On the research side, there was always an ambulance on standby to get participants to Kisumu for specialised care when needed. Our side had the facilities, equipment and adequate staff; the government side had hope as the only sure intervention within crumbling infrastructure. I knew this reality, though it seemed so distant to me outside my privileged life.

My colleague Vinnie was driving that day. We were probably speeding when we lost control and plunged into a huge ditch off the road. We managed to get out with the help of a few well wishers who rushed us to a nearby paramilitary camp for first aid. I had sustained minor head injuries. My colleague Christina had significant back injuries. Vinnie and Eric had minor scratches. The car was extensively damaged.

The clinic at the camp was managed by a nurse, whose first aid box only contained cotton wool and methylated spirit. We were surprised – this was a paramilitary camp after all and we had expected a little bit more. These supplies were too basic to manage our conditions. We had to move to a better facility so that my head could be examined and attended to. Christina was also in excruciating pain and we were worried she had extensive injuries that needed urgent attention.

The reality of our situation started to dawn on us. The only transport option available to us was a Land Rover with a flat, open bed at the back. The officer in charge of the camp was gracious enough to offer us the Land Rover, though we were worried that a ride at the back of it would aggravate the injuries Christina had. We thought of trying our luck stopping random vehicles on the road but it was late, and very few people would have risked stopping for strangers at that time of the night. The camp officer suggested that we reach out to the medical officer in charge of Molo District Hospital for help. The hospital had an ambulance that was better suited for our needs. Besides Christina’s injuries, my head was swollen and throbbing wildly. I feared that I may have extensive head injuries and I knew I needed to get to a hospital fast and get a CT scan. Whatever privilege we had in Siaya was nowhere in sight in Molo. The more helpless we were getting, the more paranoid I was becoming.

***

One of the thoughts that engulfed my swollen head was about a close encounter with a patient from my past. I didn’t know him, but I remember him because he shouted my name from the male ward where I had gone to see a friend. I am not sure how he had come to know my name. I went and sat next to him in the bed, feigned acquaintance and lent him an ear, preparing myself for the usual request for some sort of financial or social help within the hospital. He was quiet for a long time. I noticed there was a thick discharge from his ear; there were stains of discharge on his bed sheet too. I called out to the nurse to alert her about the discharge. She told me that a doctor had already done ward rounds and made plans with him and his family for treatment. He had been a victim of a motorcycle accident and had been brought in a few days ago.

The man was obviously not doing well. I asked the nurse what I could do to help and she told me he needed to get to Kisumu for a CT scan and specialised care. I asked the man what the plan was, but he was lost in thought and I did not want to interrogate him before understanding his situation. I left with plans to return to see him the following day.

The next day, I did not find him. I was told he had sneaked out of the hospital and no one knew where he had gone. Apparently his family had left to go look for money for a CT scan and two days later they had not returned. He had also not received any message from them, so he apparently left to go and find them. In such circumstances, the family needed money for ambulance costs, on top of treatment costs and any other extra costs. A simple accident can have major financial ramifications for poor families. They were probably trying to sell an animal or some property to get him the help he needed. Or they had lost hope and abandoned him. I don’t know. I learned from one of the doctors we worked with that the discharge was from cerebral-spinal fluid forced out by intra-cranial pressure from his head injury. The man was facing imminent death. He left and never came back. So I knew I had to get a CT scan urgently.

While at Siaya, we were privileged to hold senior positions and so we could always put in a request and two SUVs, sometimes three, would be at our disposal for project work. We also had a fully equipped ambulance that responded to emergency needs and facilitated emergency transfers of staff and study participants from Siaya to Kisumu. A few months before this accident, I had received an emergency phone call from one of my staff members in the field requesting for an ambulance to pick up a father of one of children enrolled in our studies and rush him to Siaya Hospital. My colleague had been at the home when the man was hurriedly brought in by his friends. From the commotion in the background, I could discern distress. My staff member’s voice was also strained and heavy with emotion. The father had been bitten by a snake, and his condition was deteriorating rapidly.

There is a lot of pressure that comes with having the responsibility of deciding if a person has access to a service, such as transport to a hospital, which has the potential to save his or her life. We had reached a compromise with the main management of the research study that I could make a call for community use of the ambulance if one of our study participants was in danger and needed urgent rescuing. But technically speaking, this man wasn’t a participant in our study – his child was. We had the ambulance, but the challenge was how to manage urgent requests from the broader community and respond to them while not jeopardising our good relationship with the community.

We had decided that such requests would be escalated to the transport management at the headquarters. This though was a unique call because my colleague was stuck in this situation. He was at the home, at the heart of this emergency. I quickly called the ambulance driver and told him to be on standby. I also reached out to the headquarters and it took me some time to get through with the request. While we were still sifting through the bureaucracies, peeling off one layer after another, there was commotion at the emergency entrance of the hospital. A woman I could faintly recognise was crying her lungs out while others tried to hold her back. It was the man’s wife; she had brought him to hospital but he did not make it. He died on the way to the hospital on the back of a motorcycle where he was precariously balanced, hanging onto dear life.

This particular case woke me up to the reality and complexities of health care and research in rural settings. There was death and chaos hidden behind the quiet grass-thatched houses and one never knew when it would spring out and grasp the next victim. I would later call the field staff to enquire if the wife had said anything about us. A sense of guilt hung over me every time I thought about him. I deliberately started to avoid this particular woman whenever she brought her child for routine check-up at our study clinic.

It came as a relief when I later learned that not much could have been done in this particular case. It was not easy to get anti-venom in this hospital and considering how quickly the man had succumbed to the snake bite, I was told there was little the hospital could have done to save his life. I took comfort in this; any guilt for personal failure was quickly erased by the glaring failures in the health system.

***

The officer in charge of the camp placed a call to the medical doctor at Molo hospital. It was midnight, so there was no guarantee we would find the doctor awake. Luck was on our side though. He picked up the call. The officer in charge explained the situation to him. From this end of the call it seemed that the two were agreeing on a lot of issues. This was a good sign. The call ended and we waited for the good news.

“Daktari amesema mulete pesa ya mafuta.” (The doctor says bring money for fuel.) The officer in charge said this in a matter-of-fact way. We knew we had to do what he had requested; he had all the power over the ambulance – the same power we wielded in Siaya. We also knew we could bargain over the amount, but we could not escape paying for it. But we also had no doubt he actually needed fuel. This was a government hospital; everything is hard to come by and everything costs money. We had some money in our Mpesa accounts in our phones.

However, unbeknownst to us, there had been another development with our belongings at the accident scene. While were worrying about Christina and my swollen head, our friend Eric had made his way back to the car to salvage our belongings. He had encountered two men rummaging through the wreckage of our car. These men had taken our phones and Eric’s efforts at negotiation failed to get back the phones. One of them – he said his name was Biwot – actually sympathetically assured Eric that at a fee, he could come back for the phones the following day after we had received care. There we were, unable to send money to the medical officer in Molo because a stranger called Biwot had stolen our phones. We thought quickly and borrowed the officer’s phone, called a colleague who sent 6,000 shillings to the doctor’s phone number. An ambulance was promptly dispatched. We immobilised Christine and set off for Nakuru.

The next day, all of us, except Christina, were discharged. But I was angry at how callous and soulless this Biwot guy was. How he had robbed Eric when all we needed was help. The thought of him getting away with this act bothered me greatly. My brother Kevin had come to Nakuru to pick us up, and I requested him to drive us to Molo police station to file a report.

As we were waiting for the officer commanding station (OCS), we started to tell one of the policemen about Biwot and our unpleasant encounter with him. The police officer’s face lit up. It turns out he knew this Biwot. He called his colleague and we quickly set off to find the man. The police officer quickly located Biwot’s house that was not very far from the accident scene. He kicked the door and demanded to see him. A woman who I suspected was some form of acquaintance in the single room that served as a kitchen, a bedroom and a living room, all in one, told us Biwot had left just moments before we arrived. It did not take much persuasion from the policemen for the woman to admit that Biwot was hiding in a neighbour’s house. The two policemen quickly fetched him and used whatever methods they learned in training to coax out our phones. Violence of any form is hard to watch. But it is also hard to understand why anyone would steal the belongings of accident victims in need of desperate help. Biwot produced our phones, which appeared to be damaged. We exchanged glances as the policeman slid them in his pocket. They were now evidence under his care. I was eager to have to have my phone back so this was a bit disheartening.

Back at the police station, my friend Vinnie had already met with the OCS. Vinnie told us that the OCS has generated a small list of items that he wanted Vinnie to “authorise” him to salvage from the wreckage for his personal use. He wanted the tyres, the car battery and the radio. He promised not to charge any of us with careless driving and assured us that the insurance people would receive a great report in exchange. We did not care. Neither Vinnie nor anyone else wanted anything to do with the badly damaged car, but the veiled power play was distasteful – he kept telling us he wasn’t going to charge anyone and reminded us of the powers and options he had at his disposal.

While listening to Vinnie, the policeman who had our phones showed up and requested to talk to me privately. He wanted me to show him some appreciation for getting our phones back. I reached into my pocket and fished out crumbled notes amounting to Ksh300 and gave them to him. He looked a little surprised and quickly demanded for more. He wanted Ksh3,000. My head was aching, and here I was negotiating with a police officer for my phone. Our accident had turned into a huge enterprise for a number of people. I was also surprised by how little charity we had been accorded by these strangers so far. It looked like every corner we turned, someone saw an opportunity to make a quick profit from our circumstances. We were getting introduced to a Kenyan reality that our status had insulated us from for very long.

We eventually made it to Nairobi. The CT scan was performed by a doctor who we exchanged jokes with throughout the process, another privilege afforded to us by our medical insurance cards. A radiologist quickly read through my files. My card was on file so there really was nothing to worry as far as my ability to pay was concerned. I was a little nervous when she looked into my ears, but she smiled and told me she saw no fluids except some need for ear cleaning. She gave me a clean bill of health.

I was ready to go back Siaya. I was also hoping to meet two people. I was hoping to run into the guy who had the fluid flowing from his ear. I knew this was impossible but I was hoping for a miracle of sorts. I learned that no one ever heard from him since he left the hospital. And no one had his contacts either. I wanted to tell him I understood.

I also wanted to meet the mother of our study participant whose husband died from the snake bite. I wanted to let her know I was sorry, and to explain how the system works and that I had followed a protocol I did not believe in.

But first I needed a phone. We all needed new phones. We had paid the policeman three hundred shillings for our phones. The only problem was that the phones had also died.

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Norbert Odero is a Kenyan author, writer and scientist based in the USA.

Reflections

In Search of Grandmother’s Osuga Seeds

8 min read. OYUNGA PALA mourns the loss of indigenous crops and farming methods that were buried by capitalist modes of production that focus mainly on high yields and profit.

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In Search of Grandmother’s Osuga Seeds
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They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.

This poignant quote is attributed to the Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos. It formed part of a defiant response to the Greek literary community who criticised Christianopoulos’ poetry as provincial. The poem is part of a collection translated into English by Prof. Nicholas Kostis (1995). The original text read…

What didn’t you do to bury me
But you forgot that I was a seed.

True to text and like a seed, those lines have sprouted many versions of that phrase as mainstream metaphors for resilience and hope in the face of injustice, where individuals or groups of people go up against systems that are designed to bury them.

My own paraphrasing of those famous Christianopoulos’ lines would read:

They tried to bury us, we survived but we lost our way and forgot we are seeds.

The importance of seeds, and indigenous seed cultures, in particular, is a lost consciousness among the contemporary generation of African farmers. The introduction of hybrid seeds in post-colonial Africa progressively altered farming cultures and food systems. Commercial and certified seeds accompanied by a retinue of inputs, fertilisers, pesticides and the promise of high yields but only good for one season, have entrapped rural small-scale farmers in exploitative systems of the dominant agro-industry. Indigenous plant genetic varieties have lost significant ground to hybrid varieties, and consequently, the disappearance of indigenous food cultures and seed knowledge.

Discovering my roots

My own awareness of this crisis evolved over decades. I was brought up in a middle-class family, sojourned in Nairobi, chasing the Kenyan dream. My parents had one foot firmly planted in the ancestral village home, back in Gem, Siaya county.

As second-generation labour migrants to Nairobi, my parents arrived in post-independence Nairobi to secure residence, courtesy of the civil service, in the formerly “white” sections of the city. In these new upper-middle-class spaces, backyards were for recreation and not farming. Nonetheless, my parents never lost touch with their roots, perhaps informed by their acute awareness of the politics of belonging in Nairobi. The capital city was a marketplace where capital was accumulated and transfered from the centre back to the deprived margins. To augment the living costs of large households in the city and establish a security blanket in the event of political dislocation, they maintained a steady link with rural homes.

The importance of seeds, and indigenous seed cultures, in particular, is a lost consciousness among the contemporary generation of African farmers.

My father took us to the village every school holiday without fail. We learned to farm, mainly cash crops (maize and beans) as the staple. It was a labour-intensive crop when planted at scale without the aid of mechanisation.

My father was a civil servant securing measure of comfort after retirement and the loss of government perks. He invested in mono-cropping modern systems focused on high yield and scale for profit. It was during these excursions that I began to understand the clear gendered distinction between how men and women farmed. Men approached farming from a capitalistic frame modeled on the colonial imagery of “I had a farm in Africa” – that famous line by Karen Blixen in the book and movie Out Of Africa – while the women engaged in peasant farming, often associated with allotments around the home dominated by indigenous vegetables.

My grandmother’s permaculture garden

While seasonal farming of maize was a group family activity, my grandmother maintained a garden located outside her kitchen throughout the duration of her life. The kitchen garden was distinguished by plant diversity and the presence of diverse categories of food. Fruit, tubers, bulbs, rhizomes, an assortment of vegetables, fruiting creepers, medicinal herbs, spices and some grain.

Every plant in her garden had a function. To the unaccustomed eye, it appeared to be an unkempt and overgrown allotment, in stark contrast to the neat rows of maize that occupied our family’s three-acre farm. My grandmother practised an alternative style of farming that involved no pesticides, save for firewood ash, minimal tillage, composting and the allotment remained productive throughout the year. My grandmother’s generation employed permaculture principles that Bill Mollison, the Australian educator and co-founder of permaculture, brought to popular consciousness. Her philosophy of food production is captured in Mollison’s articulation of permanent agriculture.

“The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”

In hindsight, these gardens, a common background feature in most homesteads, served as the main source of the family’s daily nutritional needs. They acted as alternative food sources in the likely event of crop failure due to vagaries of the weather, the sporadic pest and wildlife damage and fluctuating market prices. Additionally, these granny kitchen gardens held something even more precious: a seed bank and a botanical lab where constant experimentation was taking place and heirlooms were preserved. The gardens epitomised food sovereignty in complete revolutionary terms.

My grandparents, who came of age in the nascent days of the British colony, suffered the disruption of an oppressive colonial order. The introduction of a cash economy and wage labour led to new methods of food production, initially as forced labour, and later as a necessity for economic security. While the men farmed to earn money, the women created alternative gardening spaces, delicately negotiating autonomy. A core part of the success of these allotments was seeds.

The loss of heritage seeds

We lost nearly all of the heritage seeds that my grandmother retained in her little garden. The tall pawpaws and red bananas that I thought grew wild as a child are non-existent. The chillies are gone, as are the medicinal herbs and the diverse indigenous vegetables. The traditional yellow-coloured maize known as nyamula of my grandmother’s time are rare sightings. All that I have left is lemongrass that I only went in search of after reading a feature article on its economic viability as a poor man’s cash crop.

In my ancestral village, the keepers of the seed are a generation of grandmothers whose significance is lost in the new agriculture order. The pockets of agribusiness prosperity in the village are exemplified by lush green maize fields propped by agri-tech groups like One Acre Fund that Christine Mungai writes about. Most of the village farms have been reclaimed by bush. Those outside the support network of agricultural companies or who lacked capital to fund farming activity sought alternatives after years of diminishing returns on depleted plots. The culinary habits, a quest for sophistication as an outcome of the colonial project, elaborated by Joe Kobuthi in an article on the hierarchies of food, are now fixated on processed staple substitutes of chapati, bread, mandazi and rice.

In hindsight, these gardens, a common background feature in most homesteads, served as the main source of the family’s daily nutritional needs. They acted as alternative food sources in the likely event of crop failure due to vagaries of the weather, the sporadic pest and wilidlife damage and flactuating market prices.

In a generation, I have witnessed the disappearance and loss of this oral knowledge on indigneous seed in not only food crops, but in trees as well. The predominant attraction to commercially viable eucalyptus, pines and cypress varieties has created tree farms in small holdings following the same ethic of plantation agriculture. Fast growth, high yield and maximum profit.

The indigenous fruits of Kenya are lost to memory and the fruits I now consider traditional, such as mango, guava, and avocado, have roots in Asia and South America. These fruit tree species dismissed for their poor market potential ultimately could not keep up with the evolving culinary habits. The nutritional value of indigenous fruits, such as tamarind, baobab, plums and berries, which grew in the wild, is well documented but restricted to the corridors of botanical research institutes.

Re-imagining food production

The industrialised food systems, with all their detrimental consequences, play havoc not just on our physical selves, characterised by the explosion of diseases of affluence but also on physical land through environmental devastation of water and air pollution and the depletion of biodiversity.

My foray into commercial farming was motivated by profit in an uncertain economy; it was an alternative source of income. I approached it armed with soil tests, fertiliser, certified seed, pesticides and the service of a freelancing agronomist. I decided to try my hand in scaling indigenous vegetables with a boom in demand for local veggies on supermarket shelves. I sourced my seed, the Giant African Black Nightshade (locally known as osuga) from a reputable company. My strategy was monocropping with a rigorous pesticide regimen. Despite my marginal success, it took two pest attacks on a half-acre plot to seriously consider alternative seed. The Catch-22 of hybrid seeds is the heavy reliance on agrochemicals for guaranteed yield. A Route To Food, an alliance against food insecurity in Kenya, conducted research that showed:

At least 32% of pesticide active ingredients that are currently registered and being sold in products in Kenya, have been withdrawn from the European market, due to their serious potential impact on human and environmental health.

This is what set me off in search of my grandmother’s osuga seeds.

Sowing seeds of hope

The seed stock was not available in my village and in the surrounding villages. Whenever I posed the question, I received a cursory response of “koth nyaluo tinde olal”. Indigenous seeds are no longer available these days. My persistence led me to the vibrant Luanda town market in Vihiga County. To my relief, I found a constituency of women selling regional varieties of indigenous vegetable seed, measured by the bottle top from as far as Ukambani. The seed retailed for a fraction of the cost of the certified seed I sourced from the local agrovet. When I asked the women about the stocks, they replied without hesitation, “Mbegu iko”. We have seed. They had formed communities where they collected, selected, exchanged, and preserved seed.

Seed developers have commercialised indigenous leafy vegetables with the emergence of several seed companies selling indigenous vegetable seed. The huge appeal has followed health concerns of meat and processed food-based diets and a return to healthy revitalising traditional plant-based diets.

In a generation, I have witnessed the disappearance and loss of this oral knowledge on indigneous seed in not only food crops, but in trees as well.

I remain aware that these market women in Luanda are an exception rather than the rule. This deliberate stewardship of resilient self-propagating seed is a response to the commercialisation of indigenous vegetable seeds, and in the face of capitalised seed control, they become the face of the resistance movement.

Their actions embody generations of knowledge and a tradition of survival in the midst of a sophisticated assault on the diversity of food crops. The number of peasant farmers on small-scale holdings that once produced the bulk of Africa’s food supply are dwindling. The place of seeds and their preservation is a conversation that happens in the margins amongst groups of community women creating alternative seed economies.

Seed movements

North America has witnessed a revival of native seed exchange banks as indigenous communities re-imagine management systems to store and protect native heirloom seeds that sustained Native American plant-based foods. Seed Keepers Networks are emerging to revitalise native plant species and the inherent rich cultural knowledge that accompanied traditional food pathways. Alongside that are foodie movements returning to tradition of reclaiming and re-imagining pre-colonial African diets that were largely vegan.

Similar initiatives with global visions, such as the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)’s Smallholder innovation for resilience (SIFOR) project, examine traditional knowledge-based innovation systems to strengthen food security in the face of climate change. Many of these initiatives abide by a funding model that involves foreign experts jetting in with capital to solve local problems that were exacerbated by neo-liberal economic policies. Where the women are acknowledged, they merely serve as mascots for narratives of rural poverty that appeal to saviour mentality complexes.

It is over two decades since my grandmother’s passing and I have only now come to terms with the significance of her garden and the loss we experienced. It is loss of knowledge, memory, culture and food sovereignty that is replicated among communities in the global South enduring the trauma of colonial dislocation.

The future of seed commons is going to be grassroots-based and sustained by networks of conscious actors organising to dismantle the power of the agroindustrial complex. The confluence of challenges arising from modern food pathways has triggered a case for re-imagination, not only of what we eat, but how we produce what we eat. What we need is culture recovery that revitalises the relationship with land and the foods we produce and consume.

And at the heart of this is replanting our grandmothers’ seeds that we ignorantly forgot to bury in fertile ground.

Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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Reflections

Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt: A People’s History Through Photographs and Stories

8 min read. It was the women of that time that intrigued me most and I was watching their lives with the impatient envy of a child. I wanted to grow up and wear those cat-eye glasses and cute kitten heels, burn my hair straight, drink Babycham and laugh like they did, with a hand full of bangles held out at just the right angle.

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve been inviting people to share photos of their mothers, grandmothers and aunties looking stylish in the fashion of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The idea, which we are calling “Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt”, is simple enough, crowdsource photographs from Kenyan homes of women dressed in the style of that era; the photographs will be accompanied by reflections, essays, short stories or poems. The aim is to capture a history of ordinary people and to share this history through physical exhibitions, an online archived exhibition, and a coffee table book. I see the project as a celebration of Kenyan women and gives a snap shot of the emergence of the modern Kenyan woman.

By the time we staged the first mini-exhibition with a selection of 27 photographs submitted by people from around the country, I had come to understand that projects are not easy in that they all require planning and careful execution, even if they excite people. Getting people to send their scanned photographs from precious family albums has been challenging. The project goes into the intimate spaces of families and asks them to override their tendency towards privacy and share their lives with strangers. Of course this was always going to be a trial. It was not surprising that although the daughters or granddaughters were enthusiastic to participate in the project, their mothers and grandmothers — the subjects of the photos — sometimes refused to allow them to share these images. But I’m glad the images are trickling in.

Implementing the project over the last few months has helped me see its possibilities and expanded its scope in so many ways. Most important I am now looking for photographs before the 1960s and of Kenyan women wearing a variety of dress and hairstyles. The secret to the power of the project has furthermore revealed itself in the act of crowdsourcing. This approach has allowed people to connect and own the project, much more than if the photos were purchased from a media source.

My Childhood: 1960s and 1970s

The photographs have unleashed a collage of memories for me. I was a child in the 1960s and the 1970s watching Nairobi slowly emerge from its colonial yoke and my parents seemed to be at the centre of it all. They were amongst that group of Africans who were literally stepping into the shoes left by our colonial powers. My late father’s (William Ndala Wamalwa) career developed quickly and after only two or three years in government service, he stopped driving himself and moved to the senior government ranks.

But it was the women of that time that intrigued me most and I was watching their lives with the impatient envy of a child. I wanted to grow up and wear those cat-eye glasses and cute kitten heels, burn my hair straight, drink Babycham and laugh like they did, with a hand full of bangles held out at just the right angle. But most of all I wanted to wear those glamorous clothes that I saw women wear to parties and dinners – there seemed to be a party or dinner every other weekend! Miniskirts, bell-bottom trouser suits, halter tops, maxi dresses, stilettoes, kitten heels. I wanted to dance to the very dangerous James Brown, the elegant Supremes, the cool Fadhili William, the revolutionary Miriam Makeba, and the handsome Harry Belafonte. I thought all these musicians were my parents’ friends. Imagine my shock when I grew up enough to understand that these were distant celebrities.

Burning Hair

For African women, hair means everything. Women spend large sums of money on our hair and even more woman-hours on styling it. Braiding can take eight hours. Typically a myriad of products are used on African hair, from oils, pomades, sprays, gels, dyes, treatments, conditioners and shampoos. How seriously do African women take their hair? Well in the days when we still had plastic bag around, Kenyan women could be seen risking their reputations by wearing plastic bags on their heads in broad daylight, to stop their hair from getting wet during an unexpected downpour.

But when it comes to hair, there was a simpler time. In the early 1960s, hair straightening was not yet fashionable and chemical relaxers had not yet arrived in the country. Kenyan women still wore their natural hair and fashioned it using African hairstyle traditions that involved elaborate cornrows, braids and plaiting. Saturday was the day when hair was dressed, typically with the help of skilled friends or relatives. Hair salons were still a faraway concept and the hair industry was a rudimentary affair and not the billion shilling industry of today.

In our home, many Saturdays found Aunty Truphena dressing my mother’s hair. Aunty Truphena was not my mother’s sister. But she and my mother were closer than sisters. They came from one of the smallest of the eighteen Luyhia sub-tribes, the Abanyala ba Ndombi, who are located in Navakholo division, north of Kakamega forest, in western Kenya. At that time, not many people seemed to have made it out of my Bunyala and it was rare to meet a Mnyala in Nairobi.

Sometimes Aunty Truphena straightened my mother’s hair using a hot comb heated on a charcoal jiko. She divided the wet hai,r drenched it in liquid coconut oil, and burnt it straight with the hot comb. Next she rolled the hair onto pink rollers and pinned it down. I wondered how she had learnt to dress hair like that. Her own hair was forever hidden under the flowered scarf that she always wore.

Nigerians Come to Town

The late 1960s were marked by an influx of Nigerians who came with their loud laughter, outsized personalities and strange food. They were mostly Igbos who had fled to Kenya as refugees from the Biafran War (1967-1970), but there was nothing “refugee pathetic” about them. In fact they came and took over our live,s adding flavour and passion like I had never experienced. I remember the names of one family in particular: Chief Jerome Oputa Udoji[1], his wife Mrs. Uzoamaka Udoji (Aunty Uzo) and their three children Scholastica, Osita Paul and Peter Ebelechukwu. The photograph of my mother below was taken at that time, and it was Aunty Uzo who made me realise just how beautiful my mother was, when she loudly exclaimed that my mother looked like Miss Kenya.

Mrs Rose Nanjala Wamalwa (Sitawa Namwalie’s mother) as an executive secretary at the Ford Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya (early 1970s). Photo Credit: Studio One.

Aunty Uzo was a force of nature. She and the other Nigerian women introduced me to a different way of being African. They were militant in taking on any vestigial racism that still had the temerity to cling on and even fight back, so soon after Kenya’s Independence. Aunty Uzo often regaled us with stories of the many battles she fought when white people dared to assert their colonial-era privilege. For us Kenyans, would so often acquiesce to everyday racism from the British, but not a Nigerian and definitely not Aunty Uzo. She fought with the priests at St. Mary’s school in Lavington where her sons were enrolled and she fought when white people tried to jump queues in banks or supermarkets and she argued with African waiters who tried to ignore her in restaurants. She was strong and assertive, always encouraging Kenyans not to be cowed by white people.

There were days when Aunty Uzo took over our kitchen and taught my mother how to cook Nigerian food, subjecting us to strange new flavours and aromas. Every so often our kitchen was overwhelmed by the strong smell of a dried fish imported direct from Nigeria which was even more pungent than our sivambala catfish dried in the hot sun of western Kenya. I learnt that Nigerians waste very little, cooking all parts of the goat,:the skin, meat, innards and hooves. The one dish that really tested my rather narrow palate as a child was a soup that combined beef, fish and chicken which Nigerians seemed to particularly love. When the war in Nigeria ended, our Nigerian friends left, leaving us changed for ever. But soon their place was taken by Ugandans fleeing the abuses of Idi Amin who began his rule in 1971, but that is a story for another day.

About the Exhibition

These photographs have triggered so many memories for me and it is my hope that they will do the same for all who see them. They document the social history of ordinary people in Kenya. I’ve learned that the past can be another country, sometimes a more interesting country than the narrow ideas that populate the present. I shared the premise of “Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt” with a young man, Basil Ibrahim who taught me the word hagiographic when he wrote the following in an email about the project;

“…a particularly interesting deviation from the hagiographic custom of The Great Men model of history-making…It is a model for bringing the archive to life, using memory, popular culture…in an experiment to provoke us to think about the implications the past has on the future we want.” (17 August 2019)

What he meant was that we tend to make saints of certain “great men” of the past (hagiography means the making of a saint), while ignoring the stories of ordinary people, who lived through those times. I hope that this project will correct that tendency towards hagiography.

When arranged chronologically, the photographs begin with one from1945 of a woman named Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari, dressed in the traditional dress of the Tharaka ethnic community. The type of dress she wears was worn by married women. The unmarried ladies had their breasts left uncovered. The photograph was submitted by Mr Simon Mitambo, Gatoro’s nephew and shows her in what can only be described as a brief miniskirt. The photo was taken in Meru town in 1945, after entertaining the then colonial governor of Meru. In discussing her traditional dress, Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari — who is over 90 years old — had the following to say: “Although we looked almost naked in miniskirts, there were no cases of sexual harassment.”


Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari,
from the Tharaka ethnic community. 1945, Photograph submitted by Mr Simon Mitambo.

In another story entitled, “The Village Woman and Son, Bound for England” John Sibi-Okumu pays tribute to his mother Maria Ajiambo, wa Agostino Munika nende Sarah Mbaye (the names of her parents.) She was also addressed as Naliali, her clan name from the Samia of Western Kenya. John estimates that she was born in 1936.

Maria Ajiambo wa Agostino Munika nende Sarah Mbaye, mother of John Sibi-Okumu. The photograph was taken in 1958 at Noble Studio in Nairobi when John, her first born son, was four years of age.

John’s story of his mother reveals many intriguing circumstances, first being that his mother was born on a sisal estate in Juja, Kalimoni, where his grandfather worked as a nyapara or ‘overseer.’ John notes that Tom Mboya was born in similar circumstances, showing the country had already started to change with people migrating from their homes and making new homes in different parts of the country.

Rosalie Kere wearing a “Stiff” skirt and her “Beehive” hairstyle (1961). Photograph submitted by Caroline Kere.

Caroline Kere shared the photographs of her mother Rosalie Kere – the first photo above – who had the distinction of being a poster girl for soap called “Nakasero” and “Lux” in the early 1960s. Caroline’s tribute story to her mother has the intriguing title, “The Amazing Story of How my Father Found my Mother”. Her mother and father’s story is such an improbable romance story worthy of a blockbuster Nollywood film, that you can read for yourself at the exhibition, the online archive or in the coffee table book that is to come.

What follows is an exhibition of selected photographs.


Grace Ntini, from Narok County. The photograph was taken in Nairobi in 1969. Grace was 24 years old and worked for Avis Rent-A-Car Company. The photograph was submitted by Grace’s sister-in-law, Rosemary Mesopirr.


Rosemary Mesopirr, who
was 14 years old and a primary school pupil in the rural areas of Narok County. This photograph was taken in Mombasa in 1974. This was the first time she travelled to the Kenyan coast to visit her father who was a civil servant then. It was her first time to board a bus.

 

My Stylish Mother
By Doris Rutere

My mother Cecilia Kanyoe was a copy typist at Marimanti Rural Training Centre back in 1975. She was always detailed and careful in her choice of office wear. In this photograph she is wearing closed toe heels and has broken her suit with a turtleneck that matches her head gear, a chain and a wrist watch. I think they present a level of sophistication making her refined and chic. Next to her is Esther Muthoni, who was my mother’s friend. In the picture, she wears a wide belt on her cute mini-dress to create contrast while matching her head gear partly with her shoes. 

Both women are quite careful in how they let their hands rest on their thighs.

 

Joyce Akoth, pregnant with her fifth born in 1973. This picture was taken in the early 1970s when Joyce worked as a teacher and before joining the Ministry of Public Works. The photograph of Joyce Akoth was submitted by her daughter Esther Adiambo.

***


Nancy Wanjiku Kimani , the photo was taken outside Kijabe Nursing Institute, where she was undergoing training as a nurse in Kijabe Town (1969). The photograph was submitted by her daughter Ruth Kimani.

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Reflections

A Letter to Stella Nyanzi: “You Teach Us to Lay Blame Exactly Where It Belongs”

6 min read. Too often we are willing to believe that if we are calm enough, if we are silent enough, polite enough, eloquent enough, poised enough, then the tyrants will listen. We believe that if we are ‘’well mannered’’ then we will be heard. You remind us that this is deception.

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A Letter to Stella Nyanzi: “You Teach Us to Lay Blame Exactly Where It Belongs”
Photo: Facebook/Stella Nyanzi
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My sister Nyanzi,

I used to think tyranny means one-party rule, one media station and army garrisons everywhere. Now I know tyranny also means that who we love, how we live, how we die and even the speed of our death is chosen for us by people that never have to face us, by people that have learned not to fear our wrath or our collective pain. You have taught me this, because both of us live under tyrannies. As I write this, you are in Luzira Maximum Security Prison contending with the tyrannies of the prison authorities, the judicial system, the police, Makerere University, Museveni and his state and personal machinery. We live under multiple tyrannies at once, some more immediate than others, all of them intent on silencing us.

I am writing this from Kenya. I am writing from a country reeling through an economic recession that the state’s press statements will never admit exists. A manmade recession fueled by the looting that seems to grow more arrogant with each day. As I write this, many Kenyans are dying in public hospitals because there is no medicine or the doctors have not been paid or someone stole the money for the equipment. As I write this, there are young people attending endless seminars on entrepreneurship because they face grim rates of unemployment, this too is manmade disaster. I don’t know how many young men the police have killed today; I don’t know how many women have been sexually abused or killed by a country that just seems to hate its women. There are also the university students who are teargassed and beat up every time they try to march, and the many communities unhumaned by the state. I don’t know how many queer people have been stripped or raped or mocked or told to prove they are human beings today. These are the tyrannies I live under.

We share some of these tyrannies and for this, I call you sister. Allow me to call you Stella.

When you staged your first nude protest at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), several academics gave media interviews to say that they condemned your protest and found it to be ‘’too much’’, they mockingly asked if negotiations had failed for you to go to such lengths. More insultingly, some said while they agreed you had legitimate grievances, you could have been more civil. They seem to think that you should have spoken more sweetly. I laughed when I heard them. You know how tyranny works Stella, how it works especially well in bureaucracies. You know how good bureaucracies are at silencing and ignoring. You and I know that bureaucracies move at exactly the speed dictated by tyranny, no faster and no slower.

It is a maddening thing to realize that even in the hallowed halls of universities, we are ignored and insulted and treated anyhow, as our people say. It is more maddening to know that our emails, our eloquent letters and our pleas will go unheard when tyranny is present, as it was at MISR. Tyranny often wears a nice suit and can be well spoken and well respected. At Makerere, you used the tools at your disposal in defense of yourself. The tools on that day were red paint, cellotape, your body, your voice and camera. Those were the tools available to you. The other important tool in your arsenal, arguably the most potent, is your refusal of respectability.

So often, women are only celebrated when we protest in service of the men in our lives — our brothers, our fathers, anyone but ourselves. I think of all of us who are scared of speaking in our own defense, scared of organizing for our own wellbeing, our reproductive freedom, our sexual freedom, our safety. I think of how we have been intimidated to believe that this is entitlement, as if being entitled is a bad thing. How many of us have swallowed indignity after indignity because the only person being humiliated is us?

Here, I pause, in the middle of my letter to acknowledge and greet you in the movements you come from, the movements that have shaped you and supported you. We know that often people are isolated from their movements in order to make them messiahs. But messiahs always fail because they don’t really exist. I greet you in the name of the #RotAtMISR , #WomensMarchUG , #ThisTaxMustGo , #PeoplePowerMovement and the many offline political actions you have taken. From standing in solidarity with students of Makerere when they protested arbitrary inclusion of fees, to caring for the Arua 33 that were victims of state violence, to dealing with menstrual injustice through the #Pads4GirlsUG movement.

It is from your movements that you have dealt with the effects of Museveni’s tyranny intimately, by seeing how your comrades are brutalized and seeing how relaxed the dictators can be even in the face of impassioned pleas for even a small measure of justice. You have seen your movements forced to wait on the dictator’s time. We all do so much waiting after all. We wait for enough money to take our relatives to decent hospitals and decent schools, we wait for courts to vindicate us and for the churches to speak for justice and for the police to stop killing. On both sides of the Malaba border, we wait. A feminist sister, Mumbi, has written about how we are forced to wait on the state’s time, wait on tyranny’s time, in order to live as human beings. Mumbi considers that one of the ways we can disrupt the state’s time is through the communities we build and how we care for each other.

You have given us another answer to how we can disrupt the state’s time; by abandoning respectability and politeness. After all, the tyrants know exactly what they are doing when they abuse our humanity. From your political actions, your Facebook posts, and your court appearances, we learn to call the tyrants by name and declare their shame to them. I read somewhere that your father died because of the poor healthcare system in Uganda, and in your writing, you lay the responsibility for this on Museveni’s head. Rightfully so. Another feminist sister, Sunshine, says that this is reminiscent of what Fela Kuti did when his mother (and our feminist ancestor) Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti died from injuries she got after the Nigerian police raided Fela’s home. Fela took his mother’s coffin to the army barracks, to Olusegun Obasanjo, who for all intents and purposes had killed Funmilayo. When you call Museveni a pair of buttocks, that is exactly what you are doing, connecting the tragedy of all the deaths and suffering caused by a sick state to the head of the state. Truth telling can start there, by us clearly naming the tyrants and abusers.

For some reason, tyrants hate this. They are shocked at the idea that we might call them what they are: abusers, misogynists, sexists, thieves, robbers, murderers, homophobes. You teach us to lay blame exactly where it belongs, to practice the radical truth telling that refuses to be distracted by bureaucracy. Stella, you say that politeness has been held captive, and the powerful don’t listen anymore, and sometimes we have to say fuck it and then people will listen.

Too often we are willing to believe that if we are calm enough, if we are silent enough, polite enough, eloquent enough, poised enough, then the tyrants will listen. We believe that if we are ‘’well mannered’’ then we will be heard. We think if we bend ourselves enough, the tyrants will feel some pity for us. You remind us that this is deception. Good manners are decided by the powerful, and after all — isn’t it the worst manners to steal and oppress? Yet no one accuses tyrants of having bad manners. No, bad manners are left to be a cross for us to carry to hasten our own silencing, our own internal and final deaths. Respectability protects the comfort of the tyrants. Your political actions show us that when we shed politeness, we can disturb their peace in potent ways.

You, like Audre Lorde, know that our silence will not save us. Not only that, but politeness and niceness cannot save us either. You know that we only get silent to work out our internal convictions and from there, we use whatever tools we have to shout, be it our bodies, our phones, our voices. We shout. We shout because we are being killed either way. Your poetry, court appearances and nude protest are all political actions, asking us what we are still afraid of. What do we gain by protecting the comfort of these tyrants to enjoy their theft, their tyranny unoffended?

Stella, you are a woman who has reached into herself and taken joy, taken brazenness and categorically refused shame. Your body is your manifesto, as you say, and with it, you declare and live your radical queer feminist politics every day. We are affirmed by you.

Some people think you are fearless, others believe you are unashameable, I don’t believe either of them. Even with the best intentions, they are trying to make you iron, invulnerable, and otherworldly. I know different. You are not otherworldly Stella, you are fully human.

In care and love,

Karwitha

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