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.
The Day That Shook Nairobi
A former Indian diplomat recalls the terrifying moments after the terrorist attack on the US embassy in Kenya’s capital city.
August 7, 1998.
This date remains etched in my memory. Professionally and personally, it is one of the most significant and terrifying experiences of my life as a diplomat. At the time, I was in Nairobi, Kenya, serving as the Deputy High Commissioner and Head of Chancery at the Indian embassy in Nairobi, Kenya.
The day started out normally. Nairobi’s cool August breeze made for a salubrious day. As usual, in the morning, I went to the Indian High Commission on Harambee Avenue in Nairobi’s city centre. I took a quick look at the schedule, and I knew it was going to be a busy day. We were organising roadshows to promote the Resurgent India Bonds seeking Non-Resident Indian (NRI) funds, which were launched on 5 August 1998. India’s Independence Day celebrations were a week away. Furthermore, we had significantly increased our diplomatic outreach as India had conducted nuclear tests
in May 1998.
At about 10:35 a.m., I got a call on my landline. I left my computer, which was by the window, and picked up the phone at my desk. (It was the pre-mobile phone time though dialup internet and email were in use.) The call was from an old army colleague, with whom I had worked in Colombo.
A few minutes into the call, I heard a loud bang. I paused for a few seconds and said: “It sounds like a bomb.” My colleague joked that I had not gotten over my Sri Lankan memories. Even before he finished his sentence, there was another huge explosion. This time, the sound was deafening. The whole building shook.
The reverberation from the explosion was so severe that it shattered all the 16 window panes in my office. The impact of the blast ripped the partition between the rooms, which fell on my head. Fortunately, I was on the phone and not at the computer terminal by the window. I told my colleague that this was certainly a bomb and hung up.
My mind started racing with questions. Why would someone plant a bomb of such intensity in Nairobi? And, that too, two of them? Who could have orchestrated such a blast? The bank workers and teachers were on strike. The teachers had demonstrated for a few days behind the commercial buildings, in which our High Commission had several floors. I could not imagine that the bank clerks or teachers could do such a thing. The market street below us witnessed the occasional lynching of suspected thieves, but this was nothing like that.
Within minutes, many staff members came rushing into my room, horrified and alarmed about what had happened. Some of them thought it was an earthquake. Having lived through earthquakes in Japan and bombings in Sri Lanka, I was certain that this was no earthquake. In Nairobi, we never expected an earthquake or a bombing.
Our first reaction was to secure the embassy and evacuate everyone else, excluding the guards. All embassies have crises management plans and we had, fortunately, revised ours two years earlier, before the 1997 general elections in Kenya. We knew what to do. Before leaving my room, I called my wife’s office at the United Nations complex and asked her to ensure children of all mission personnel were brought home from schools.
Amidst the chaos, my staff and I made our way down the stairs. When we reached the street, we witnessed utter devastation. The street was covered in the wreckage; pieces of glass strewn all over the street. Hundreds of people were bleeding, their faces lacerated. Amidst the chaos, we decided to help wounded people. Using our embassy cars, we transported some wounded people to the Aga Khan Hospital, which was on the way to the Indian embassy’s residential complex.
Meanwhile, though the phones went dead in the city centre, we managed to establish contact with the High Commissioner through his car phone. When we informed him of the blast, he went directly from his UN meetings to India House and took charge of crisis management.
This was Al Qaeda’s first attack on American assets in Africa, with simultaneous bombings at Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. In Nairobi, the first explosion was a grenade attack. The second more powerful explosion was the detonation of a truck bomb. 214 people died, over 500 injured. Of them, 13 were US citizens. Most were Kenyans who happened to be at the crowded city centre when the bomb went off.
The five-storied Ufundi house building behind us came crashing down, burying most people beneath the rubble. Most were staff and students of a secretarial institute there. The rescue missions managed to extricate about 120 people from that rubble over two days. Some survived longer, but could not be rescued. The US embassy, barely 60 metres from our building, was damaged. The car park, where the truck bomb detonated, was wrecked.
That day, Kenya was grievously hurt. The nation had no idea why it was the victim. The story, from the US point of view, is well documented. Let me recount the unsung part of our story.
My team at the High Commission and all the families who lived at the Highridge estate rose to the occasion with great responsibility. In a few hours, we had set up dialup internet connectivity, opened an office and a crisis centre and established contact with Indian diaspora organisations. We also set up a meal ferry to the guards at the High Commission.
The Asian community, as the people of Indian origin are known in Kenya, reacted swiftly and generously. Many community organisations coordinated their responses and set up evacuation and rescue teams to support the administrative machinery that was struggling to understand the situation as well. Before noon, they managed to bring in heavy machinery from construction companies and set up functional kitchens
at the periphery of the damaged area, serving people who were part of rescue reams.
The Kenyan Asian community stood shoulder to shoulder and provided the much-needed support to all people at those critical times. They provided ambulances and many volunteers supported Kenyan efforts. But unfortunately, their role has not been fully documented or acknowledged.
By the time the full impact of the explosion came to light, after a day or so later, we were relieved that some of our friends in the US embassy, including Ambassador Bushnell, though injured, were safe. However, their Consul General, Julian Bartley, whose children went to school with ours, perished. A US diplomat of India origin, Prabhi Kavaler, who joined her husband in Nairobi on a couple posting a week earlier, was a casualty that unfortunate day.
The glass shards from the blast caused irreparable damage to hundreds of people. Several children from the Shree Cutchi Leva Parel Samaj School sustained severe eye injuries. Hundreds of people, who rushed to their office windows when they heard the sounds, were wounded by broken glass.
Many Asian doctors provided round the clock trauma and ophthalmic services for several days. The Aga Khan Hospital provided splendid services at that time. They refused financial support, which many hospitals obtained from the United States. The Asian Foundation led many initiatives, the Kenya Society for the Blind trained many affected people for computer literacy. The US embassy gave way to a memorial garden.
Kenya realised it was now in the crosshairs of international terrorism. It was the victim of terrorist attacks again in 2013 in Nairobi, and in 2015 in Garissa.
The Indian High Commission is still in the same commercial building. It has, of course, undergone many renovations. But the lacerations in our hearts have not healed.
Twenty-two years later, as I saw the horrific explosion in Beirut, I was reminded of the bomb blast in Nairobi. It remains fresh in my mind and I pray for the souls of all those innocent people who fell prey to terrorism that day.
This article was first published in the Madras Courier.
Head Teacher’s COVID-Induced Headache or When the Government Abdicates Its Responsibilities
The coronavirus has laid bare the government’s failings in the education sector over the last 60 years. Even now, faced with the challenges brought by COVID-19, it has opted to place the responsibility of ensuring that students can safely return to school squarely in the hands of school managements.
The head teacher of our local primary school reminds me of Mr. Musili, who ran the primary school I attended in downtown Nairobi back when Kenya was newly independent. He was greatly respected, little feared, and much loved by the pupils, as is the head teacher of our local primary school.
The school is old, built in 1947 by the colonial administration and, up until very recently, had pit latrines that were prone to flooding every time it rained. Kids barely out of their nappies would chase after Head Teacher across the quadrangle, “Teacher! Teacher! Choo zimejaa!”, and off he would go to call the exhauster, throwing 52,000 shillings down the toilet with each exhauster visit.
Head Teacher’s budget for running the school is meager; he receives each year – in three tranches – the grand sum of 335 shillings for each of the 846 pupils that are enrolled at the school. With that sum, Head Teacher must pay the electricity and water bills, buy firewood for the kitchen, maintain the school in a proper state of repair and generally keep everything ticking nicely. Luckily, his financial management skills are peerless; each of the 335 shillings is milked for all its worth and, somehow, the 11 shillings per year that the government deems sufficient for the purchase of sanitary towels for each pubescent girl suffice.
The fees paid by the parents of the 297 pupils that board at the school (26,500 shillings per student per year) are crucial to Head Teacher’s budget, bridging the gap between the government’s disbursements and paying the salary of the groundsman (who also takes care of the two cows that provide the milk for the morning tea), as well as the salaries of nine other support staff. That money also covers the cost of all meals and the sorghum, millet and maize flour uji the boarding pupils enjoy during the mid-morning break.
Head Teacher is a true educator; his is a calling driven by a passion to mould young minds and bring the best out of each of his charges. And so, despite the challenges and the lack of resources, our local primary school has built itself a reputation, drawing pupils from as far away as Nairobi, and attracting pupils away from local private schools.
Now the coronavirus has come to put a spanner in the smooth workings of Head Teacher’s finely calibrated budget, with the government placing squarely in his lap the responsibility of ensuring that the school is COVID-prepared when pupils return next year. Head Teacher has been advised by the education ministry that he will have to find ways to ensure that handwashing facilities are placed outside each classroom and office, outside the dorms and the kitchen, by the door of the school hall, in the toilets, at the gate and in the playing fields. Liquid hand soap must be provided, and a thermo gun foreseen, as well as hand and surface sanitisers.
A sick bay must also be established and a qualified nurse engaged. The non-teaching staff will need to be equipped with personal protective gear and the cooks in the kitchen will require food-handling certificates. The government doesn’t say where the money for all this is to come from, or indeed how adequate water supplies will be maintained come the dry season when water is prone to rationing.
To adhere to the one-metre social distancing rule, the school would need 48 classrooms. But a sudden increase in classroom space is unlikely to happen in an institution where the number of classrooms has risen from one, when the school was established in 1947, to 24 today. The Education Cabinet Secretary, George Magoha, has proposed the installation of temporary tents and the use of teleconferencing by teachers to ease congestion.
Well, as far as computer technology is concerned, Head Teacher is in possession of exactly one projector (without a screen) which was supplied by the government, together with the tablets that now lie gathering dust in their purpose-built strongroom for want of material that is suited to the recently introduced competency-based curriculum. In any case, the school only has five teachers who have received basic two-day computer-skills training as part of the government’s now collapsed Digital Literacy Programme. So CS Magoha’s proposal is moot.
The government also says that pupils found sharing textbooks shall be considered to have committed an offence. Well, at our local primary school, a textbook is, of necessity, shared between two pupils and so, based on that threat alone, the school will not be able to reopen. It used to be that the government would allocate a budget for books according to the size of the school population. With his usual careful use of resources, and zero tolerance for loss or damage of learning materials—and by organising book harvesting events—Head Teacher had managed to bring the number of pupils sharing a textbook down from one book for every ten pupils in 2013 to one book for every two pupils within five years. Then in 2018 the government decided to take over the supply of books to schools, but even today, in half the classes, one textbook is still shared between two pupils.
It is also highly unlikely that the boarding facilities will be expanded in time to meet the social distancing requirements and so, either the number of boarding students will have to be drastically reduced or the section will have to be closed down altogether; in either case, Head Teacher’s finely tuned budget will take a direct hit.
And as if the headache of ensuring that the school will be COVID-ready when classes recommence is not bad enough, Head Teacher has also been given the responsibility of “ensuring access to education [through] guidance and counseling” for those pupils who have fallen pregnant or have been caught up in drugs and alcohol abuse during the long COVID-induced break. Needless to say, even if Head Teacher were in a position to discover which among his pupils have been whiling away the time indulging in alcohol and drugs, there is not one trained counsellor on his staff to deal with the problem, even though the education ministry’s directive asks Head Teacher to “strengthen the guidance and counselling departments to help pupils and staff deal with the psychosocial issues in the wake of corona pandemic [and] prevent stigmatisation and hysteria in case of a detected case”.
The coronavirus has laid bare the government’s failings in the education sector over the last 60 years. That a school established over 70 years ago only recently managed to raise enough funds to build modern eco-friendly, wheelchair-friendly toilets is a clear indicator of the government’s neglect. It took the inventiveness of Head Teacher and his management board, the collaboration of parents and the support of the old students’ network to come up with a solution to save the 160,000 shillings lost annually to pit latrine exhaust services. And so, the toilet ratio of one urinal for every 30 boys and one toilet for every 25 girls is the one requirement that the school will be able to respect when schools reopen.
Still, something good for Kenya’s pupils might yet come out of this coronavirus pandemic; the government is reportedly considering moving the preference to day-schooling, with boarding schools reserved for pupils who must of necessity travel long distances to get to a school. This, in my view, is as it should be. Head Teacher should not have to confront an irate parent, fed up with having to deal with a troubled youth at home, or the complaint that the food budget has gone through the roof because the school holidays have been too long.
We Kenyans have long abdicated our responsibilities towards our youth, abandoning even the raising of our children to teachers, thus unwittingly widening the emotional gulf between children and parents and creating intergenerational alienation even as the government criminalises the youth, and issues edicts laced with threats each time it is confronted with a problem affecting them.
As Wandia Njoya says, “We have to grow up and think maturely about solutions such as restructuring our education system, revisiting the question of boarding schools, and treating adults who abuse the children they are supposed to take care of as criminals. Portraying youth as cheats and criminals, while failing to provide the education and social institutions they need to be functional adults, is irresponsible and an abdication of our responsibility as adults to care for the young. And we must care, not just as individual parents of nuclear families, as the evangelical narratives driven by the churches tell us to do. Instead, we must demand, collectively as voters, better political decisions that nurture our youth.”
A George Floyd Moment and the Reality of Being African in China
To a smaller but yet equally profound extent, Eric Jackson became our George Floyd, not dying under the knee of a racist cop, but under the crushing weight of a deeply racist and complacent system that denied him a duty of care.
I was at a trendy French salon in the heart of Beijing’s popular Sanlitun neighbourhood organising a photoshoot for the magazine I work for. The model on the shoot was a young Russian woman, our photographer Chinese and the owner of the salon was from France. As we went about prepping for the shoot, I noticed a little girl cowering behind one of the stylists. She appeared anxious. I was concerned, so I tried to get closer to find out what the matter was only for her to jump back and let out a shriek.
She told one of the Chinese stylists that a scary, ugly black man was looking at her. It took me a moment to realise it was me she was talking about. I am not sure whether the child and the stylist both assumed I didn’t understand Chinese, but the stylist proceeded to extol my virtues to the inconsolable child, saying how nice I was, how cool my hair looked, and telling her that she had no reason to be afraid of me. But the child repeated the same thing over and over again. I was black, ugly and scary. That coloured the rest of the day. I picked a corner in the waiting area where I had little chance of bumping into the little girl and stayed away from the styling area where the model was having her hair and makeup done until it was necessary for me to be there.
In Kenya, I had become used to the crippling ethnic profiling that was part of my life because of my last name, and the comments made about my appearance, my skin tone, or my facial features which were deemed undesirable or not conforming to those of the people from my ethnic group. I had learned to navigate the stereotypes, working to dismantle those that worked against me, while embracing the positive ones as a rudder towards growth. In this clash of numerous cultures, I had an identity. I could find my bearings easily, and remain grounded. But leaving Kenya confronted me with a whole new identity. I was no longer a Kikuyu guy from Nairobi’s Eastlands with all the baggage that came with that. I was black.
I have come to learn that being black has nothing to do with my culture, and very little indeed to do with my skin colour. It is a global metric by which my worth as a human being is measured.
China is not the easiest place to be black. It is a country with a long history of colourism amongst its own people and against outsiders, and a tendency to push towards homogenisation. Therefore, being black creates a visceral reaction among many locals which results in xenophobic and racist sentiments. Being proudly African, in whichever way that exuded from me, was quickly met with incomprehension at best and absolute disgust at worst. Why would anyone wish to be black, African and proud of it? I encountered a broad definition for people who looked like me, an extensive catalogue of black, ranging from the mildly acceptable, to the tolerable, to the unacceptable.
I have been told that I am not as dark as “real” Africans. And I have seen relief sweep across people’s faces when they realise that I am not from Nigeria. To be dark and Nigerian is to embody a negative stereotype both within and outside the black community. People tend to cling to those of their nationality, forming chat groups on WeChat, China’s version of WhatsApp, where they share their stories of racism and offer support to each other. For the chosen few who are welcomed into African American circles, the situation is no better as conversations and sentiments almost exclusively centre around the Black American experience in China and around the world. Many African Americans I have encountered in China, though proud to be affiliated with Africa, are often ignorant of its peoples and its cultures. It comes then as no surprise that when the Black Lives Matter movement started getting traction globally, Africans were expected to show solidarity, yet the conversation about what it means to be black and African in a country like China is not a single story.
As an African who identifies as Kenyan in China, my cultural and national identity are subsumed by a greater racial-cultural one. In North America in particular, being black represents an entire culture of Afro-descendants. Such broad identities leave no room for ethnic, regional and national identities from Africa. I have often been engaged in conversations with African Americans in China who automatically assume our lived experiences are to a large extent similar if not entirely identical. They refuse to engage with the notion that, as someone from a majority “black” country, my experiences of systemic oppression are not within the context of race. The man at the top consolidating power for himself and his cronies isn’t white but black. The face of oppression in my experience is my own.
And this subsuming of my cultural and national identity is adopted by the Chinese community, where the parent identity of people who look like me is African American, and so it is my job to align myself with that identity as much as possible if I hope to survive. China acts as a petri dish for how the world is stratified, not only along racial lines but along national identities as well. Towards the tail end of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in China, Chinese landlords in Guangzhou province systematically targeted African tenants, making unfounded claims that it was they who had and were spreading the virus. This was despite ample evidence to the contrary. The fear had been sparked by the growing number of cases imported into China before the borders were closed indefinitely. A negligible number of the imported cases were attributed to foreigners returning to China, and fewer still were attributed to Africans. This however didn’t stop the evictions, leading to a public outcry both in China and in the rest of the world.
However, to a large extent, African Americans were not singled out. This is because, according to popular belief in Chinese society, “blacks” from America and Europe are better. They can be trusted more. The hierarchy of races in China is ordered from the top in this way: white English speakers, white Western Europeans, white Eastern Europeans, white South Africans followed by Black Americans, South Americans, black South Africans, East Asians, Middle Easterners, Southeast Asians, Pacific Islanders, blacks from the Caribbean and, at the very bottom, the African, the generic term for sub-Saharan Africans. There is a premium placed on being from countries classified by the Chinese government as Native English speaking countries. These are The UK, the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, and South Africa. It narrows the pool of potential candidates for the highly sort after English teaching jobs in the country. Since there is little else in the way of jobs for foreigners in China, anyone who has passable English jostles for the few opportunities. Often, African nationals from English speaking countries are passed over for these types of jobs, even when the employer is willing to hire illegally. Some Africans resort to claiming American or South African nationality, a fact which angers Americans and South Africans in China, as they claim such individuals soil their national reputations.
A recent revision of the Chinese Greencard application process, which sought to make it easier for highly skilled professionals to gain permanent residence in China, laid bare the fear of the African. Chinese netizens took to Weibo (Chinese Twitter) and other Chinese platforms to express their displeasure at the possibility of an influx of foreigners into their land. The outcry took a decidedly dark turn as Chinese nationals expressed their displeasure at a possibly blacker, more Africanised China in future. Africans are already stereotyped as unhygienic, disease-infested layabouts, and the possibility of their being granted permanent leave to remain in China was more than many could contemplate.
China’s perception of people of colour is largely informed by the media. Stereotypes played out in TV shows and reinforced by sports are held as gospel truths. All African Americans are therefore either gun-toting gangsters, or tall pro basketball players, while Africans, especially Kenyans, are incredible marathon runners motivated by the need to run away from lions since we all come from the Maasai Mara. The African is an alien other in the Chinese consciousness. I have had to resort to showing photos of Kenya, of Nairobi, videos of the hustle and bustle to prove that I come from a city just like any other in the world. That phenomenon is not unique to the Chinese. I was once in an argument with an African American friend of mine about where Kenya was located in Africa. He insisted that Kenya bordered Nigeria and could not be dissuaded. Not until I showed him a map but even then, he fell back on his “American innocence”.
The stereotype of Africa as a disease-ridden, famine and war-ravaged continent is still taken as the gospel truth by many in China. There is an unwillingness to engage with the “masses of African people” who populate Chinese cities and study in Chinese schools. This misconception that all Africans are poor has spawned the belief that all Africans are economic migrants to China, constantly taking advantage of the Chinese government’s generosity in the way of the scholarships extended to seemingly undeserving African students, while Chinese students allegedly continue to go without. But these are the same scholarships extended to other Asian, European and South American countries, with the key link being the bilateral agreements forged between China and countries far and wide. Oftentimes, the students on these scholarships only receive them on the condition that they return to their countries of origin upon graduation, because Chinese-educated Africans are a greater asset to the Chinese government back in Africa. In actual fact, investing in African students is investing in China’s future. But your average Chinese citizen will be oblivious to this fact, instead choosing to vilify African students and the merchants who are a direct source of capital for Chinese businesses.
To exist as African is to exist in a state of apology. The proximity to whiteness that African Americans and Black South Africans have spares them the inconvenience of negative stereotypes. Africa sends some of its best and most brilliant to represent them in Europe and Asia. The African who does not fit into the negative stereotype becomes an exception to the rule rather than an example of what Africa has to offer. It means that in a society as stratified along racial and national lines as this one, the few opportunities available to foreigners in terms of work and education are measured out in relation to one’s proximity to whiteness. The African remains at the bottom, a position from which he is still expected to be gracious and grateful.
This ignorance is exhibited not only by the Chinese against Africans in China but also by African Americans and Europeans, who display a lack of interest in fully engaging with my story of blackness. This is particularly ironical considering the overwhelming support which Chinese netizens have shown the Black Lives Matter movement in America, with the protests in America and across the world receiving massive airplay on national Chinese news outlets.
When tenant evictions started happening in Guangzhou, however, it was through friends and families abroad that most found out what was happening. The horrific racism against Africans did not receive any news coverage beyond the government’s denial after international news outlets started reporting about it. The same government that called racism in America a social ill remained silent as its own citizens shared racist, xenophobic sentiments against Africans evictees in Guangzhou.
Anyone, regardless of race or nationality, can display a geographical ignorance of the world and the peoples that inhabit it. But this classification of nationalities and races by Chinese society has ensured that certain groups achieve and maintain superiority over others. The “Native English Speakers”, whether black or white, possess that thing so desired by China’s nouveau riche; to become an English speaker and thus attain the ultimate status of upward social mobility and be welcomed into the Anglophone world, portrayed as the world of the accomplished.
Africa is a massive continent with a population of 1.4 billion people. We come from 55 countries that are as distinct in their populations as they are in their cultural compositions and heritages. To some extent, one might describe African nations more as confederacies of distinct ethnic groups under various national flags rather than a united body of Africans.
Every crisis presents an opportunity. As African Americans confront systemic racism, Kenyans are also turning their attention to our own political history. In various WeChat groups, Kenyans in China are engaged in fervent discussions, expressing their political hopes for the future. It is to these groups that Kenyans turned when their situation was dire in places like Guangzhou and Shenzhen, receiving help from fellow Kenyans when the Kenyan embassy was slow to act. And it was to these same groups that those stranded in China—unable to afford the Sh80,000 airfare for repatriation—turned for donations when they were told in no uncertain terms that ndege sio matatu, you shouldn’t expect to catch a flight as you would a minibus taxi. In Kenyan WeChat groups, members are spoiling for a revolution of some kind. We all want change, but it falls apart at the seams when mention is made of tribe or political party affiliation. Yet we know that our silence and our refusal to engage with issues of social justice, equality and corrupt systems will not save us.
A disturbing event recently took place that fully encapsulates the terror of being black and African in China. In Kenyan and African groups across the country, people began sharing the photos and videos of Eric Jackson, a Ghanaian man who was turned away from four hospitals due to fears that he had COVID-19. A hospital eventually took him in but it was too late. Jackson died while undergoing treatment. He died of cardiac arrest. Videos of Jackson’s agonising last moments, and of his corpse on a gurney at what I speculate to be the entrance to a morgue, were a stark reminder of our place in this country. It was a terrifying manifestation of the Chinese rejection of our colour and our race. In one of the videos, his friend is heard pleading to be let into the hospital in fluent Chinese but the guard at the gate refuses and sends them away. He is heard asking, “Is this not a hospital? Do you not treat sick people here?”, and getting no response.
This incident knocked the air out of my lungs. To a smaller but yet equally profound extent, Jackson became our George Floyd, not dying under the knee of a racist cop, but under the crushing weight of a deeply racist and complacent system denying him a duty of care. In the Kenyan WeChat group, an outpouring of grief was followed by an important question; even if Jackson was dying of COVID-19, did he not deserve to be treated? Had he been a Chinese national, or even white, would he have been turned away? COVID-19 was the pretext for medical professionals to not only shirk their responsibility, but for individuals to go against that very human instinct of preserving a human life under threat. Jackson was denied medical help because to them his black skin and his origin meant his life wasn’t worth saving. Jackson wasn’t worth fretting over, and his death was not a loss. His friend’s desperate pleas, in their own language, did nothing to weaken their resolve.
We all recognised in that moment that Jackson was us and we were him. That could have been my dead body on a gurney somewhere in the south of China. Those could have been my final moments captured on short WeChat video clips for the world to see. That could have been my life devalued and ultimately lost because I was born black and African.
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