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

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“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

Letter from the New American Pariah State

Our flaw is that we denied we ever had any; vanity and pride will kill off the American century in a hail of faux arguments, overwhelmed COVID wards and conservative values.

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Letter from the New American Pariah State
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American values during the coronavirus pandemic have become a contagion unto themselves. The very ethos of the country has become clear now, crystallised over six horrific months that will only fully have their gravity realised somewhere around October of 2025. To paraphrase James Baldwin, simplicity and immaturity are the values of this country, especially if one is sincere. I’m now 31 years old and throughout my entire life, the all-American concept of “liberty” has been elusive to me. Now, in the age of corona, as I hear it more frequently, I understand that it means ignorance, and because I am a white American exempt from consequence, it is inherently my liberty to refer to “liberty” as a term used exclusively by the ignorant.

The US right now is more clearly the location where ignorance and immaturity intertwine as cultural norms, sustained by the righteous rich to keep us all in line and the world turning as it does. When you look at this country, in its white-enough-for-history-books form, it makes more sense: America as a colony was made up of a bunch of puritans — White Christians — too uptight to remain in 17th century England.

They came here and stewed for years, decades, centuries in their self-righteous stiff ignorance; and let no one impede their ideals, especially those endowed with melanin. That heavy-handed colonialism-tinged brand of Christianity requires one to adhere to it; rocking the boat can get you ostracised, or, if you are non-white, you could face a more sinister fate. When unfettered capitalism grabbed the reins then realised that the two rigid parameters, puritanical Christianity and the profit motive, could be melded, those ideals distilled into a marketing ploy called the American Dream. Buyer beware however; normalcy in the American context is continuation of subservience. Ignorance is bliss as long as someone above you gets “theirs”.

Keep the wheels turning. Die for it. Be a Patriot. Do your job.

All resistance to these parameters must be swiftly struck down by the American soldiers of God. Bucking the system, bucking one’s own ignorance, is not a part of the plan; “How dare you not buy the newest Nikes? How dare you question their methods of slave labour? Are you some kind of subversive?” As we pushed globalisation forward into the late 20th century, it came with some resounding grace: “Through accessing information, we’re closer together than we are apart” while also realising that “since we all have so much in common, everyone on earth can (and should) become addicted to Kentucky Fried Chicken.” Clearly, the latter ideal has won during COVID-19.

It is a pandemic that cuts across race and ethnicity, gender and nationality. But that is for future historians. Blacks and other people of colour have less and less access to capital, and this systemically reinforces their position as disposable to the capitalist mantra. They have died in greater numbers during this crisis, forced back to work at corporate entities that are now pushing for protection from any sort of liability from a bought-and-paid-for Republican Senate. The pandemic suddenly became less urgent as it became evident who were the majority that were dying from it. Arguments about wearing masks are still going on in the media while some politicians tell us all is well and we should continue spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need that benefit people infinitely richer than us. Otherwise, we’re too lazy to work at jobs that don’t exist.

Proposals about how to handle the situation have become mired in bickering and weirdness since March, as the richest country in the world nickel-and-dimes the poor for short-term profit margins that don’t actually exist outside of Jeff Bezos and about 157 other random nameless titans of industry. “Economic stimulus, for who? Well, that will disincentivise the poor”. We don’t understand yet that this could be our fall. Rome wasn’t built in a day but it came undone in a generation or so. Machismo and stupidity ushered in the Asian century; cruelty and lies will be America’s exit.

We have done so terribly in this crisis that our once privileged passports are now handled with latex gloves and sanitiser. We are unwanted and deservedly so. For Americans it’s an unfamiliar position — we are used to having doors opened to us, smiles granted, courtesies extended, to being hurriedly ushered through customs checkpoints. At this point, one of the only regions that will accept Americans through their points of entry is East Africa; as of 1 August 2020 we can enter Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda. Our creeping financial reach carries us through checkpoints but such allowance is disgraceful international relations. It is telling of Kenya, of how deeply the market-capital Kool-Aid has been drunk; only 24 hours after taking America off the non-quarantine list, Americans were back in the good graces of the non-quarantine camp.

How will letting red-blooded Americans back into East Africa go in the coming months? Don’t worry about it, they have dollars to spend. Other nationalities have money, so what is so special about American dollars? From every corner there is new money and old, black market and “market share” money. The paradigms have shifted since March 2020 and it is hard to see them rapidly changing back to the global “norm”, at least in any sort of respectable sense. That’s where the globalisation bandwagon of the latter half of the 20th century can get ugliest; we were just too good at marketing our failing model.

The dramatic shift over the past year begs heavy questions, ones that the “developing” world will hopefully learn from and flee as though they were the coronavirus itself. These questions range from “what if one ethnicity gets to ask constant questions while another gets beaten for merely raising their hand?” all the way to “is everything in the modern system a lie?” Because things are impossibly worse than you ever thought possible.

In this doomed nation, 199,000 had died by the 21st of September. Meanwhile we are mired in our own filth; the richest economy in the world decries public assistance even as we are lapped by nations like Germany, New Zealand and Rwanda.

At the right Nairobi embassy party, a keen eavesdropper will hear frequent mention of the Singapore model, a “developing state” becoming a first world economy in one generation. Do-gooder development types speak of Singapore as though it is a miracle; “How could they impress, adhere to and benefit the West? What a progressive little country they are”.

The inverse is much more plausible and frequent; ask a Kenyan about the differences between Moi in 1979 and the 1989 incarnation of the same man, paranoid and sliding deeper into ill-fated financial dealings.

The only difference? That Americans literally have a theory of thought called “American Exceptionalism” that is easy to instill when you give examples of mediocre daddy’s boys somehow turning 35 million dollar fortunes into 50 million dollar caches.

In that sense, the Trump administration is the most quintessentially American of all; Trump is us at our most base. He is the embodiment of deadly privilege wielded through stupidity and a misplaced sense of manifest destiny. The Trump administration represents global entitlement just as white America does — a gathering of aging idiots who think the stripper is really into them. Our desire to be special has led to global norms becoming horrific injustices; masks-turned-fascism, lockdowns-turned-atrocity, public good-turned-Stalinist Russia. Inconvenience doesn’t equal oppression unless you make it so.

The very awkward leader of our doomed little experiment has to date held the biggest indoor gathering since the pandemic hit in March. Stalin himself once plucked a chicken alive, leaving it writhing in pain, only to lead it begging and bleeding around the room by feeding it stale bread crumbs. The masses, he explained, would put up with any injustice just as long as you gave them something little. Millions of Americans have long considered kernels as grand gestures, ones that they probably don’t deserve.

During all of this, schools are looking to open in many districts, often at the urgent behest of a Republican leadership calling for “normalcy” in vastly odd times, clinging to the belief that “normalcy” in the modern context is a good thing. The next six months will bring this government’s dereliction into sharp focus; the Republicans will probably lose in about six weeks, then immediately sit on their hands and blame the Democrats for winning. For some, the strategy will even work, but the damage may just be too great to bear this time round. Make America Great Again, surely.

I must admit that it is a strange feeling to have my dark blue American passport looked at with suspicion. it was an undue golden ticket in the age of globalisation, opening any door I knocked on as long as I could make the nut to afford a flight. Now, the hoops are mounting, rapidly and consequentially. And deservedly so.

If for nothing else, it may be prudent to start to look at what the future of global travel will look like. Not in any “tech” sense but in terms of the biases that travellers face. If as of August 13th anyone can fly into Rwanda provided they can provide negative COVID-19 certificates, isn’t that a model worth following? The merit of one’s health and ability should trump nationality, and now that the cat may be out of the bag as some nations beg to regain a tourism foothold, it is unlikely to go back.

Even now, as schemes and plans come together, anyone seeking to leave the US feels like a rat escaping a sinking ship where all the passengers remain stuck in denial. Our flaw is that we denied we ever had any; vanity and pride will kill off the American century in a hail of faux arguments, overwhelmed COVID wards and conservative values.

East Africans must have been reading the tea leaves of the last four years of American politics with a feeling of “I-told-you-so”. But in the US it was never understood — as the people of this region have long been aware — that no one is beyond the grip of a truly corrupt system. I used to get side-eyes from a wide swath of American acquaintances with my constant compare-and-contrast-Trump-with-various strongmen but such people are now sheltering in place, out of a job or being forced back to one.

“It is what it is”. I don’t think Trump has ever spoken truer words throughout his entire wretched political career. Now he floats ideas like banning Americans from returning home — with the obvious subtext of suppressing the vote of those at large.

Now steeped in our jingoism, it is impossible to look inward. It is impossible for us to distinguish that the “profit motive” that drives capitalism is the same motive that keeps us turned inwards, ignoring our greatest problems whilst elevating our lesser ones. Blissful ignorance has never been quite so putrid. Modern America is to be studied as a cautionary tale as the world shifts away from coronavirus towards a more equitable future. Beware a failed experiment.

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Reflections

In the Shadow of a Liberation War: Ethiopia, Kenya and the Oromo Quest

The Oromo Liberation Front leadership views Kenya as an important player and believes that peace will come sooner if Kenya steers the talks between the Oromo and Ethiopia.

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In the Shadow of a Liberation War: Ethiopia, Kenya and the Oromo Quest
Photo: Unsplash/Nemuel Sereti
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A Kenyan Journalist was arrested in Addis Ababa in the wake of the assassination of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, a popular Oromo musician. Yassin Juma was arrested alongside prominent Oromo opposition political figures like Jawar Mohammed, the founder of the Oromo Media Network. Juma was later charged with “incitement and involvement in violence, plotting to create ethnic violence and plotting to kill senior Ethiopian officials”.

A court freed him but the police continued to hold him.

Yassin Juma is perhaps the only Kenyan journalist to show interest in the Oromo liberation movement. In Kenya, both the media and government functionaries view the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) as a security threat, with journalists rehashing half-baked arguments about what the OLF means in the region’s conflict.

It was Yassin Juma who introduced the Oromo cause to a larger Kenyan audience with his TV documentary, Inside Rebel Territory, 10 years ago. In it we follow Yassin as he goes in search of OLF fighters: “It was a journey that finally yielded [the] faces of one of Africa’s longest albeit low-key rebellions . . . the OLF was for decades a mystery”.

Inside Rebel Territory earned him the respect of the Oromo and the ire of Meles Zenawi’s regime. Five months ago he was invited to Finfinnee Radio’s 5nan Show where he spoke about the state of the media and reflected on his coverage of the Oromo movement.

My reason for being here is to make a follow-up documentary to [. . .] Inside Rebel Territory . . . I am doing a documentary about the rebels I met then, their life now, after Dr Abiy took over [as Ethiopia’s prime minister] . . . how they find life and so forth.

We can already guess what the new Ethiopia looks like. Guracho, who featured in Yassin’s documentary, is now in jail. Falimatu, a woman he had interviewed, may have been killed two or three years ago. He was in Addis Ababa when Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was killed and the country erupted into violence. Ethiopia prefers to hide its face from the roving cameras of the likes of Yassin Juma.

On Finfinne Radio Yassin reveals who he is, how the story he had done on the OLF was almost killed. How he was offered $150,000 by the Zenawi regime to kill it. How he had received threats. How the owners of Nation Media Group had not been happy with that coverage. How it had caused a diplomatic row between Kenya and Ethiopia. How it triggered a series of events that eventually led to his leaving NTV. How since then his life and that of his family has not been very secure: “In 2009 I was almost shot dead twice in front of my house . . . In 2016 I had to move to Uganda for three months for helping to organise Oromo protests in Kenya”. He was officially banned from entering Ethiopia.

Yassin Juma had covered the Oromo Liberation Front at a time when the movement badly needed the coverage. Ethiopia’s notorious media laws, stemming from the US-backed antiterrorism law, had forced its outspoken journalists into prison. That coverage was important on many counts; it came out at a time when the Oromo cause was transitioning from armed rebellion to an ideological youth- and artists-led movement at around the same time that Haacaaluu was breaking onto the music scene. A scroll through Yassin Juma’s Facebook page shows how important a player he had become in the Oromo cause; he is seen posing with Jawar and Haacaaluu and appears in most Oromo events held in post-revolution Ethiopia.

Kenya, Ethiopia and the Oromo question

For Kenya, Ethiopia is a landlocked market of 100 million people, a destination for goods from its ports and, more recently, a partner in the LAPSSET (Lamu Port, South Sudan, Ethiopia Transport) corridor project. In this context, complex stories such as Yassin Juma sought to tell were to Kenya an unwelcome initiative, going against sixty years of close cooperation built around keeping Somalia’s aggression in check. For their part, both the OLF and successive Ethiopian regimes have recognised the strategic importance of Kenya.

As an immediate neighbour, Kenya was important for the Oromo cause—as a refuge for thousands of fleeing Oromos and as transit territory for Oromos escaping oppression at home. Kenya’s importance in the Horn’s geo-politics, it’s appeal as a regional “bastion of peace” and as the regional capital for all manner of international media outlets and posh western think tanks, as well as Kenya’s role in Somalia’s pacification efforts and its shuttle diplomacy in South Sudan’s independence, have fuelled the Oromos’ desire to secure Kenya as an important ally. But how Kenya perceived and portrayed the Oromo struggle spoke volumes about the liberation movement’s international image.

In Kenya, the roots of the OLF rebellion were whitewashed and a truncated history was often told, the Oromo liberation struggle being portrayed as a threat to regional peace. The Kenyan media has reduced the OLF in the Kenyan mindset to illegitimate militias out to destabilise the region. Ethiopian ambassadors have reinforced the local political and media narrative that the Oromo cause is a quest to establish an Oromo super-state stretching all the way to Tana River, a narrative intertwined with other stories about the skirmishes between the Gabra and Borana in Marsabit. The OLF thus became the regional insecurity scapegoat, blamed for the October 1998 Bagalla Massacre in which 140 people were killed in Wajir and the July 2005 Turbi Massacre in Marsabit in which almost 90 people perished, and for the proliferation of arms in the north, for banditry, and even for livestock rustling.

Yet, this conclusion glossed over the complexities at play; the Ethiopian army’s harassment of Kenyans at the border was either ignored or the frequent abductions, killings and harassment of Kenyans by the Ethiopian military were dismissed as being the work of locals.

Following the Turbi Massacre, the OLF’s Dr Fido Ebba said that the OLF’s image was wrongly tainted and that the problem in Marsabit is two-fold, some of the raids are purely tribal. They pit civilian communities against each other over scarce resources and cattle. The rest are diversionary tactics by militias engaged by authorities within Ethiopia’s ruling class. They aim at inciting communities on the Kenyan side and possibly the government into fighting the OLF back.

Ethiopia also issued a similar counter-argument, for example in April 2006, when the OLF was blamed for the killing of two herders in Dukana. Ethiopia’s then acting ambassador to Kenya, Mr Ajebe Ligaba Wolde, insisted that it is the OLF that provokes and incites people along the border with Kenya. “They [OLF] put on Ethiopian soldiers’ uniforms to defame Ethiopia . . . OLF is not only a threat to peace in Ethiopia, but also to Kenya and the whole region. They want to destabilise the region”, said Mr Wolde.

Oromo Liberation Front ideologues and leadership view Kenya as an important player to whom they look with hope, believing that peace will come sooner if Kenya steers the talks between the Oromo and Ethiopia. “If Kenyans mediated between the Ethiopian government and the Oromo they would understand the problems better, just like they did with Sudan and Somalia”, said Dr Fido Ebba.

Ethiopia, which contributed to the liberation of Kenya’s struggle for independence (and was gifted an embassy in appreciation), has enjoyed a long, peaceful diplomatic relationship with Kenya, having signed a defense pact and a treaty of friendship and cooperation in the 1980s. Dr Fido Ebba wishes that the OLF could have its administrative base in Kenya, and not in the US (Washington) as is currently the case. “Our push for liberation would then be coordinated from close proximity”, he says.

Incursions into Kenyan territory by the Ethiopian army in search of the OLF are very common. In 2015 the Ethiopian army crossed into Kenya six times, once even taking over a police station in Illeret, Marsabit. Cross-border massacres—like the March 1997 Kokai Massacre in which 80 people including 19 police officers were killed—have been raised with the Ethiopian regime.

The OLF pointed an accusing finger at the Kenyan government and army, claiming that the Kenyan army has supported the Ethiopian army to wage war against the OLF, that Kenya had broken with several international protocols to abduct and repatriate legitimate Oromo refugees and that Oromo activists have been assassinated by Ethiopian security agents on Kenyan soil.

The decades-long struggle and the fraught relationship between Kenya, the OLF and Ethiopia seemed for a brief moment to be water under the bridge when the Oromo Media Network (OMN) was launched in Nairobi in the wake of the Qeerroo revolution. During the launch, Jawar Mohammed said:

I have come to this place many times before. I had to change my name and look. I am happy that we now can reveal our names and faces to each other. We didn’t plead for this . . . We fought for it . . . We threw those who made us hide our faces in a hole and came out . . . It’s not play that brought us here . . . We lost people like Jatani Ali to arrive here . . . I would like to say thank you to the government of Kenya even though they were not open and fully supportive of our struggle . . . There cannot be liberation for Oromos or for Ethiopia without its neighbours.

Mohammed spoke of how the OMN would lead to the establishment of a bridge between the two countries by bringing the Oromos in Kenya together and by connecting the Oromos in Kenya with the Oromos in Ethiopia through listening to the OMN.

In the constructed narrative, this talk could easily be misconstrued as alluding to the establishment of an Oromia republic stretching into Kenya.

The Oromos of northern Kenya

When Dr Abiy Ahmed became the Ethiopian premier, there were celebrations in Nairobi and in the streets of Isiolo, and a commemoration for all the slain Oromo people was held in Marsabit.

The Marsabit County Woman Representative, Safia Sheikh Adan, organised a memorial day for slain Borana heros and waxed lyrical about the Oromo liberation—Bilisumna—weeping as she recited a poem and read the names of leaders slain through political machinations.

But one name was repeated again and again by Governor Mohammed Ali, by Jawar Mohammed and by the Woman Representative. Mebastion Jatani Ali Tandhu, the former Provincial Governor of Borana Province in Southern Oromia who was assassinated by Ethiopian security agents on 2 July 1992 at Tea Zone Hotel in Nairobi. Jatani Ali Tandhu had been in Kenya to seek political asylum from Zenawi’s Ethiopia. Over the past three decades, he has become an Oromo political liberation martyr and cultural icon, his words revisited in songs and Oromo protest poetry. In commemoration, a message was carried in Kenya’s Daily Nation on the 10th anniversary of his death: “Exactly 10 years since you were brutally murdered by the operatives of Tigre Peoples Revolutionary Front (TPLF)/Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary “Democratic” Front (EPRDF). The course for which you died is still alive”. With Abiy in power, his glory was resurrected and an equestrian statue was installed in the centre of his hometown of Yaballo. New songs were composed in his praise. Jatani Ali Tandhu had been buried in Marsabit and when Abiy came to power, his grave at the Marsabit cemetery was repainted.

It was Safia Sheikh Adan who financed the commemoration day. She spoke about Jattani Ali Tandhu’s contributions and mentioned other prisoners like Jatani Kunu who she said was still being held in an underground prison in Ethiopia. “We have lost many brave and strong people . . . Jatani Ali Tandhu, Galo Wolde, Qala Waqo, Sheikh Hassan, Hussein Sora Agole, Mohammed Halakhe Fayo and Hersi Jatani”.

In her overly sentimental tributes, Safia Sheikh Adan mentioned the names of slain former Kenyan parliamentarians like Guyo Halakhe, Philip Galma and Isacko Umuro. Their assassinations, like that of Daudi Dabasso Wabera (the first African Colonial District Commissioner who was assassinated by the Shifta in 1963), were unrelated to anything Oromo.

But the poem Safia Sheikh Adan recited, her tears and her actions were out of sync with the local politics and current feeling. A few understood her but most people watched her and wondered where her emotions were coming from and her efforts were finally without significance or consequence, dismissed as part of the initial euphoric joy that an Oromo was finally the Ethiopian premier.

Marsabit, music and protest poetry

When popular musician Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was killed on 29 June 2020, our hearts were broken and the sense of grief that engulfed us had a familiar weight. As Ethiopia descended into mourning and chaos, in Marsabit I listened to Haacaaluu’s albums anew. My friend and I paused and replayed certain songs to try to decipher what he meant and our sadness was deepened by the raw honesty of the injustice he described. That this was the soundtrack of a now stolen revolution added to the feeling that Ethiopia was a place of great injustice.

I remembered the image of Haacaaluu bursting onto the music scene about 10 years ago, a skinny boy in oversized shirt and trousers. We spoke about his music and his political education, his 5-year jail term when he was just 17 years old. We revisited the words of the Oromo liberation struggle as if we were reminiscing, as if it was about us. And we said aaaayyyiii, expressing the turmoil in our hearts. But at the end of the day, none of the political pathos and calls to action were about us, and nor were they happening on our doorstep. The deep articulation of the injustice that we listened to was in our own language but that struggle was not ours.

The aftermath of Haacaaluu’s death and the blowback in Oromia leads me to thoughts about what the Oromo struggle means to those of us who have come of age under its shadow.

To grow up in a liminal space like Marsabit is to be in an endless interregnum of something not quite yours. The earliest memory of the Oromo liberation struggle for me dates back to when I was six years old in mid-1990s Marsabit. Back then, a tape of a poet would be shared across the town, and we would listen alongside our parents, picking up words that sounded funny and made no sense to us.

It was hard, then, to link those words to concepts like oppression and injustice. But over the years, the OLF became the subject of whispers in Marsabit. OLF stories circulated in the manner of a secret; tales of disappearances were told, of men whose wives were taken in the night, of people whose lips had been cut off for snitching. The whisper was a mix of many fears, of the Kenyan Special Branch, of District Commissioners who had lists of OLF sympathisers, of the OLF itself, of Ethiopian spies. In Marsabit some of the murders in the town were linked to these fears.

In our home, the land of our grandparents’ past, Ethiopia, was the unspoken and unacknowledged thought. But its music was the future we aspired to; our heartbreak, our love, our longing for elusive dreams were in those lyrics.

Once, my dad came home with a small OLF flag, with the tree in the middle and the star above it. He stuck it up one side of our wall. It was the first symbol of the OLF as something good that was forbidden.

Many years later, I asked my Dad what that flag had meant to him and where he got it from. He had been in a car heading to Nairobi when he met a man who had engaged him in talk, telling him how liberation for the Oromo would benefit us all, how my dad in Kenya had to be conscious too, how the war being fought needed him.

My inquiry was short but in my father’s clipped answers I found an explanation I could relate to. I knew what his words meant and I knew what his silences meant. He had, like me, grown up on the poetry of Oromo oppression and on the songs of their hopeful salvation. Yet this long political induction had never called him to any action.

What did the Oromo of Kenya want for Oromia?

Calls for independence have a liberatory romance about them that is inviting to sympathisers. And nowhere is the Oromo call for liberation, and the reason for this call, and the status of this call, as articulated as it is in the music of the Oromo. The Oromo songs we listened to in Moyale, Marsabit, Isiolo and Nairobi arose from the liberation struggle. They were songs and poetry that articulated Oromo suffering and encouraged resistance. Through the songs, the turmoil and suffering of the Oromo was transmitted to us in Kenya. But in Kenya, we seemed to run away from it all, not learning how to speak of the injustice that followed us.

In Marsabit we carried other stories of Ethiopia in our hearts, stories of an unacknowledged past as we forged new Kenyan identities, stories of the Amharas and how the gabbar system had forced our grandparents out of Ethiopia. Stories of slavery and of Abyssinian expansionism into southern Ethiopia.

We followed the Qeerroo protests keenly and vouched for them. But stolen revolutions break the heart even more. Haacaaluu’s murder was testament to a stolen revolution, an encore to the 1974 Derg, when the army through Mengistu stole another revolution. How many of the men in Marsabit escaped conscription in Ethiopia’s many wars with Eritrea and on its own people? How many had had hopes that their suffering would come to an end before the revolution was stolen from them in 1974, in 1991 and again in 2018?

I sit with a local musician in Marsabit and try to understand the influence of Oromo music on the Borana music produced and consumed in Kenya. How devoid of politics the songs in Kenya seem. I ask, “how come Borana musicians from Kenya haven’t contributed to the Oromo protest tradition?”

He says, “birds from different places speak a different tongue”.

It is a common saying about how things that look similar can be unrelated. In his answer, I understood so much. It is the caged bird that sings better of freedom.

A social-cultural state that defied the Westphalia model did exist in a section of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia. A cultural state called Oromia did exist but, more than political aspirations, it was language, music, traditional political institutions and contiguous populations that marked its boundaries.

Is the Oromo cause over? Is it legitimate? How has their struggle progressed? Which parties speak for the Oromo? Where are they? What’s happening in Ethiopia? Asking Kenyan Borana/Oromo these questions is asking them far too much. None of these questions have been considered before. Yet somehow, a version of the Oromo pain has been inscribed in the psyche of the Kenyan Oromo through the Oromo music and protest tradition. The revolutionary spirit is appealing but there is no substance beneath the thin veneer of solidarity.

It was thus easy to romanticise the struggle itself. To hung posters of Lemma Megersa in khat shops while not knowing which party speaks for who. Yassin Juma had tried to put a story to this romantic idea of a political rebellion.

The Kenyan government’s choice of silence as a strategy and its hush-hush attitude towards the Oromo or the Ethiopian army’s repeated aggression on the border is just a convenient excuse, as is the simplistic idea peddled by security analysts that Kenyan Oromo also desire an Oromia super-state. It is reading too much into a romantic idea.

I know now that sympathy for—or identification with—the Oromo cause became intertwined with local politics as early as the 1990s, and allegations that local politicians had begun enlisting the services of OLF fighters were rife in Marsabit and that that there was some truth to these allegations.

For the states of the East African region there is a need to understand the Oromo cause and what is happening in Ethiopia. The Oromo call and the Ethiopian regime’s response to it should not be considered inconsequential, for the response is an indicator of how oppression, inclusion and participation of the marginalised are viewed in those states.

The old pattern in the region’s attempts at reform has been to gain one kind of political progress and lose another. To allow for the judiciary to be pseudo-independent but to cut it back when it does its work. Extrajudicial killings, mass arrests, clamping down on the freedom of association and freedom of speech, the arbitrary arrest of journalists, torture and detentions without trial, draconian and controversial laws like the social media tax in Uganda, the controversial hate speech law in Ethiopia, Internet shutdowns in Uganda and Ethiopia, declaration of a state of emergency to suppress legal and peaceful protests, all these speak of identical regional infirmities. For activists, pseudo-revolutionaries and politicians there are lessons here on the pitfalls of revolutionary nationalism in mainstream politics.

For the people of northern Kenya, whether viewed as potential citizens of a future “Oromia” or as relatives of disenfranchised, broken OLF fighters, or as the inhabitants of places invoked in Oromo songs, the sooner Ethiopia addresses the Oromo plight the better for the region. But even as Ethiopia sorts out its politics, the region also needs to formulate the ways in which the armed fighters are going to fit back into the community and not become a security threat by being enlisted to serve Marsabit politics.

In August 2017, four days after Ethiopia lifted its 10-month state of emergency, and as Kenya was in the throes of post-electoral violence, I crossed the border into Ethiopia at Moyale. In southern Ethiopia, in towns like Mega, Yaballo and Soyama, I counted a few T-Shirts adorned with the portraits of gubernatorial contestants in Marsabit. My grand-aunt was very worried that Kenya would burn with her daughter in it. After 10 days of drinking copious amounts of Ethiopian bunna in many towns and even in a restaurant at Akaki Kaliti, a sub-city of Addis Ababa, I returned to Kenya. On the way to Yaballo, political campaign songs about Marsabit’s politics played on the matatu’s stereo.

Back to Yassin Juma

It is in this larger context that Yassin Juma found himself in a prison in Ethiopia. He has since been released and is back in Kenya and we are waiting for his documentary about what Ethiopia is doing to its youth.

Parallels can be drawn between the struggles in Ethiopia and the situation in Kenya, how a minority wields economic and political power, keeping out the majority of citizens by means of elaborate political machinations. Keeping Kenyan youth in check with guns is not any different from the Ethiopian government’s incarceration of its youth and its heavy-handed reaction to dissent.

But there is something markedly different in the civil response in Ethiopia; 10-year-olds are active in the streets of Ambo.

It was important to observe Kenya’s reaction to Yassin Juma’s arrest and his release as this could be a signal to northern Kenya of a change in the government’s attitude towards the killings and assassinations that have been perpetrated in the name of the OLF in Kenya, and that the border regions will finally be treated with the seriousness they deserve.

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Reflections

Policing Black Women’s Hair

The policing of black hair often begins at a very young age, in the most subtle and intimate spaces, long before you get to school.

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Policing Black Women’s Hair
Photo: Unsplash/Leighann Blackwood
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The thickness and texture of my black hair was under constant scrutiny when I was a child. My aunt used to call me bossiekop (from the Afrikaans, meaning bushy head). The kids at school would use terms like Goema hare (candyfloss hair) and kroeskop  (fuzzy head). My cousin would joke: “You can’t even put a comb through your hair.”

Black women’s hair has been big news in South Africa over the last several years. In 2016, protests at South African schools across the country saw brave young women stand up against racist policies in the various ‘codes of conduct’ enforced in their places of learning. The demonstrations at middle class, Model C (former whites-only public) schools like Pretoria Girls High, Sans Souci in Cape Town and Lawson Girls High School in Nelson Mandela Bay – all schools where the students are mostly black and the teachers mostly white – were about much much more than hair, but these protests spoke to our roots as a site of struggle, and a route for resistance.

The policing of black hair often begins at a very young age, in the most subtle and intimate spaces, long before you get to school. I hated when my mother “did” my hair. From a young age I knew the hairdryer wasn’t hot enough and the rollers not tight enough to tame my curls. I knew the brush she was using would never leave me with hair straight enough to flick back, or cut a fringe.

My sister and I would sit between my mothers legs. Her on the couch, us taking turns on the pillow at her feet. Armed with a hairdryer and a brush she would pull and tug at our scalps, trying her best to get it “manageable.” My hair would turn out big. Just big. A huge soft afro that was long enough to tie back for school, but nowhere near “tame” enough to delicately shake off the shoulder.

When my mother was done with my hair I would stand in front of the mirror in the room I shared with my older sister, look at my reflection, and cry. I felt so ugly and so helpless with my afro. I knew that my mother could never make me look like the white women in the shampoo adverts. It was only the aunties at the hairdresser who had all the right tools to “fix” my locks.

I have more memories of the hairdresser down the road than I do of nursery school. I must have been as young as five when the women with the dye-stained apron, hair clips gripped to the bottom of her t-shirt, would stack white plastic chairs at the basin so that my head could reach the sink. My neck would ache in the basin dent, the water would always be either too hot, or too cold and the hairdressers’ vigorous shampoo scrubbing would make me dizzy. The rollers were always too tight, the hair pins would be jabbed into my tender, young scalp and the hour sitting under the hot dryer felt like a lifetime.

No one understands the phrase “pain is beauty” like a young black girl who has just been to the hairdresser. And after all that pain I would indeed feel beautiful. I had long, straight hair that I could leave loose, flick and comb through. But it was temporary. My hair would “last” for a mere two days, more specifically, my hair would “last” until school swimming lessons on a Wednesday.

Throughout primary and high school, the code of conduct stated that hair should be “neat,” and is just one example of the many way these institutions, which have their own roots firmly growing from our colonial history, govern not only children but also parents. The outdated and outright racist rules were something our parents tolerated during term time, but over school holidays our curls were left to grow.

Summer holidays would be spent at my cousins house in Atlantis, about an hour from downtown Cape Town. They had a caravan, a massive garden and a huge swimming pool (our favorite). We would swim until our feet and fingers turned rubbery. Our eyes would turn blood red from the chlorine, and we would lie belly-down on the hot bricks to warm our shaking bodies before jumping back in to the freezing cold water. Those were days of Kreol chips, fizzers and two-rand coins pushed into your palm by an adoring aunty or uncle for a Double O soft drink. Bompies (frozen juice) and sugary bunnylicks (ice lollies) would leave your tongue rainbow green, red or orange. But most importantly, they were days of afros, when parents rarely fought the tangles (there was really no point considering we spent most of our time in the pool) and left our hair to it’s natural state because there was no “code of conduct,” no threat of punishment.

The joy of swimming, and bunnylicks and afros was limited to school holidays. During term time swimming would more often than not be followed by tears. I recall my aunt sitting on the edge of the bath and pulling at my cousin’s long, mousy-brown hair as she sat in a tub of amateur alchemy. Everything from whiskey to egg was sworn by to nourish and soften. Half-used jars and tubs of the latest conditioners, oils and moisturizers would line the windowsill above the bath like ammo, a site of battle between mother, and daughter’s curls, all for the sake of looking “neat.”

My white friends hair always looked neat and they didn’t know the amount of time it took, or the pain I had to endure to get my hair looking like theirs. They would plait each others thin, blonde strands while I looked on with envy. After swimming their hair would dry “perfectly” whereas any form of humidity or moisture was my nemesis. Anything from shower steam to a light mist was enough to provide extreme levels of anxiety about whether my hair would “mince” or “go home.”

By that point my curls were long internalized as a mark of shame, and what I was expressing on the outside had much to do with how my hair was managed within the home and at school. A prime example was weekend family gatherings. You see, in my family, Sunday lunch would always be followed by “Sunday hair” in order to get ready for the week ahead.

As the aunties washed the dishes and the uncles read their newspapers waiting for tea at five (I shake my head thinking about the gender norms enforced through mundane family rituals, but that’s for another time), the cousins (all girls), had our own rituals. Relaxer would be followed by curlers, blow drying and a swirlkouse, which would leave the room hot, and smelling like product and burnt hair.

With the money I earned from my first job, for instance, I bought a large hairdryer, rollers and an assortment of round brushes and as a teenager I saw these tools as allies. It was only at university that I threw them all out.

Reuniting with my curls was less a conscious decision to rebel against the system of whiteness that taught me self-hate, and more about being free from the pain of curlers, the dizzying heat from the hairdryer and the hours spent fighting what naturally grew from my head (I would “blow out” my hair almost three times a week, it would take as long as three hours a time).

But of course you’re not free from the arrogance of whiteness once you’ve taken this route. Since going natural I’ve had numerous instances of my hair being touched, patted and pulled at by strangers (mostly white women), who’ve called it “exotic,” have compared it to a pineapple and referred to it as “surprisingly soft.” Hairdressers tell me that they don’t do “ethnic hair” and an Australian tourist once grabbed onto my curls and said “It’s like a sheep” before turning to her husband to say “go on, touch it, she won’t mind.”

To this very day, my grandfather will pass comments before the Rooibos tea has even been poured “Leila, what’s happening to your hair, why don’t you brush your hair?” Why is black hair such a threat?

Thinking back to those Sunday hair sessions, above the hum of the portable hairdryer, we laughed, we shared secrets, we gossiped, we spent time. Isn’t that the real beauty when it comes to black women’s hair? The ritual between sisters, mothers and daughters, spending time and passing down knowledge. Why were we not styling afros and dreads, why not twists and braids, cornrows and locs?

Every black woman has their own stories about their hair, their curls and societies endless need to tame, manage and straighten whether at school, in the home, or both. But the young black women who used their natural hair as a form of protest this month have clearly stated that they will no longer tolerate the racist frameworks, formal and informal, that teach them self-hate.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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