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

“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

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

Search and (Maybe) Protect: Stop and Frisk, Nairobi-Style

I find it humorous that the guards at some buildings never search my pockets when I have a bag. On the other hand, they are very quick to find out what is in the bag. They mostly find either a rugby kit or a book and packed lunch.

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Search and (Maybe) Protect: Stop and Frisk, Nairobi-Style
Photo: Bigstock

The other day, a friend of mine told me about something he witnessed in a matatu. Two post-secondary school students boarded the matatu and sat down. As they waited for it to fill up, all the other passengers uneasily stood up and walked out one by one. The reason? The other passengers felt under threat by possible terrorists.”

The same students had moved into a hostel that week and some residents of the area had called the local OCPD to alert him of the presence of some strange and suspicious people. The OCPD deployed a police unit near the hostel immediately. Traumatised, the students eventually opted to move to a neighbourhood that had more residents of a similar ethnic origin to theirs. They would feel more comfortable there. What was their crime? They were of Cushitic origin and people from other communities had branded them as “suspect terrorists”.

Kenya has experienced several terror incidents over the last five years. There have been major attacks at Westgate Shopping Mall, Mpeketoni Town, Garissa University College and Dusit Hotel, which have left numerous fatalities and many others injured. Other attacks have also occurred at a Nairobi’s police station, in Mandera Town, and parts of Lamu County. The attacks have heightened the sense of insecurity in urban areas, the coast and the north-eastern part of Kenya. In addition, the country is also grappling with internal security concerns. We occasionally read or hear in the news of armed robberies, roadside muggings and spiked drinks in pubs leading to robberies.

Many have put the blame on the porous borders with neighbouring countries. It is understood that these enable the easy movement of arms into the country. Added to this is the high level of corruption within the immigration system and some security organs. Youth unemployment and hopelessness have also enabled easy radicalisation.

As a resident of Nairobi for over 36 years, I have witnessed a gradual shift from a very open society to one that now habitually interacts with suspicion and a deep sense of insecurity. In the 1980s and 90s it was the norm in many residential areas to have cypress or bougainvillea fences. School gates remained open throughout the day and shopping areas had entrances wide open. Serious robberies were the preserve of famous armed bank robbers though occasional muggings were reported. The newspapers even had a “Lost and Found” column.

Things began to change in the 1990s, perhaps due to the impact of the austerity measures of the structural adjustment programmes (SAPs). Growing cases of burglaries forced us to start installing burglar proofing to fortify our doors and windows. Many of us went ahead to replace natural fences with walls. Around the same time the country experienced political riots, often accompanied by looting. These forced shop owners to start completely sealing off their displays during non-working hours. Window shopping in the Central Business District became a thing of the past. The streets increasingly came to host large numbers of street children who would threaten to smear you with human excrement if you didn’t give them a few coins.

At the start of the new century, the government made an effort to improve the situation by re-installing street lighting. One of the individuals in the private sector who was instrumental in this initiative was the current women’s legislative representative for Nairobi, Esther Passaris. Through her company’s “Adopt a Light” campaign, Ms Passaris promoted the commercial value of street lights through advertising. Informal areas, parks and public spaces also received the benefit of high mast lighting. The city felt safer.

But the past few years have witnessed a change in major security threats. Although petty theft and armed robberies remain a concern, the threat of global terror has taken the limelight. Kenya had experienced prior terror attacks, notably, the August 7th 1998 US embassy attack and the Norfolk Hotel attack in 1980. As serious as they were, however, such attacks were infrequent and not viewed as a common trend. Terror attacks have been on the rise since 2008, and particularly since 2011 when the Kenyan military crossed over into Somalia to fight Al Shabaab militants.

The effect of this new trend in urban areas is visible in shopping malls, churches, buildings and public transport. Twenty years ago it was unheard of that one would be stopped and searched as one entered buildings; today it is the norm. Entry and exit points are highly controlled in these buildings. One is at times left to wonder how occupants would escape in case of a genuine emergency. Government buildings have also sealed off pedestrian pavements in the city centre under the pretext of “security”. Standing and waiting somewhere or appearing to be idle has become a crime.

The security infrastructure is formidable. CCTV cameras are now common in many buildings, as are properties guarded by electric fences. Guards sitting in control rooms, with access to alarm response units and several barriers for vehicle access to parking lots and basements have become a feature of most buildings in the city.

Unfortunately, many security features/responses are on a high alert only immediately after a terror threat or attack. After a few weeks, laxity sets in. I have worked in buildings where nobody is in the security room over lunch hour. Security guards are also less rigorous with individuals they are used to seeing, and turn the searches into mere formalities. I find it humorous that the guards at some buildings never search my pockets when I have a bag. On the other hand, they are very quick to find out what is in the bag. They mostly find either a rugby kit or a book and packed lunch.

For bloggers and photo enthusiasts, photography is generally not permitted in most public places. While carrying out some transport and urban planning research recently with some colleagues from the United Kingdom, we were stopped by security officers and had to explain why we were taking pictures. To the visitors it appeared strange that one can be questioned for photography of infrastructure. But in any case, I was recently able to reconstruct the entire site in 3D using images from Google Maps!

Two years ago, one of Kenya’s top photographers and bloggers who runs the blog nairobinoir.com was arrested on suspicion of terrorism while taking photographs near a shopping mall. He was eventually released after a campaign by activists and bloggers who used social media and other channels, but the ordeal left him traumatised and had a negative effect on his business. It is regrettable that it has become the norm for many citizens to be treated as suspects on flimsy grounds.

I also remember a few years ago when a parent of Asian origin at a local school dropped his son off and decided to take pictures of some birds. Another parent who was dropping off her child saw him. Alarmed, she took a photograph of him and shared it on social media, warning people of a “possible imposter”. The image trended for the better part of the day. When it got to the man’s attention, he had to take to social media and explain who he was and what he was doing.

As a person of mixed racial heritage, I have become accustomed to being forced to identify myself to the police in various parts of the city. The reason they give is normally that “you don’t look like a Kenyan” (as if there is a textbook definition of how a Kenyan should look). It happens so frequently that these days I even make a joke of it when I am stopped. When this happened recently in December 2018, I joked to the young policeman that I could predict the order of the questions he would ask. He looked at me in surprise.

Not too long ago I asked a group of biracial friends to share their experiences with the security organs. There were several amusing responses. It was clear that all had experienced some “confrontation” with the police. A common theme was that they were used to it and did not hold any hard feelings. This included taking the cops in circles by answering questions in their African mother tongues! One who happens to be a linguist once chose to respond to a policeman in deep Dholuo. He left the officer baffled, as he could not follow half of the conversation. Many say they simply opt to identify themselves and move on with their lives.

The two students’ experience in the matatu, however, is one of those occasions where citizens are treated as suspects because of mere assumptions related to their external appearance and ethnic origin. Such people are searched more thoroughly at buildings like shopping malls and are treated with suspicion when walking in groups. The arbitrary arrests and detention of several people of Somali origin in 2014 left many of them scarred. It is believed to have widened the divide between Cushites and people from other language groups in the country. As detailed by Owaahh in From ‘Shifta’ War to Al Shabaab: Why Kenya is her own worst enemy, it is clear that there has always been some sense of friction between the inhabitants of Northern Kenya and the rest of the country since independence.

But we are all caught up in this security dragnet one way or another – some more than others – and I wonder what it does to our sense of who belongs here, what a city is for, and how one can feel at home in a place like this.

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Reflections

Trapped: My Twelve-Hour Ordeal in DusitD2

The sound of the gun was so loud that we thought he had shot at us from inside the building, perhaps from the ground floor through the staircase. And because of the terror, I remember freezing on my way up for a few seconds before I regained my senses.

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Trapped: My Twelve-Hour Ordeal in DusitD2
Photo: Africa Uncensored footage of 14 Riverside attack

On Tuesday, January 15, my editor sent me on what I thought would be a routine, if unnecessary, assignment. I was to do an interview with George Ooko, the chief executive officer of the Commission for Revenue Allocation (CRA), which was to run in NTV’s 9pm bulletin. As the reporter, I thought my story on county revenue was strong enough with the video clips we already had, and that it could run without it. But I was overruled, and along with my cameraman Dickson Onyango, I grudgingly set off for the DusitD2 complex on 14 Riverside Drive where CRA’s offices are located.

The afternoon was sunny, hotter than usual, and dry. Our interview had been scheduled for 2:30 pm, but because of logistical challenges, we arrived at the venue some minutes past 2:40 pm. I was already anxious and irritable.

We were ushered into the boardroom of CRA’s offices, located somewhere on the third floor of Grosvenor building, which is adjacent to the Dusit hotel.

Our interviewee Ooko arrived, and Dickson and I spent a few minutes setting up before settling down for the interview. But just before I asked my first question, we heard a loud explosion that must have lasted a few seconds and shook the entire building.

At first, we thought that the explosion was from a different building, perhaps from another office compound. But then, it was followed by gunshots. I remained unmoved in my seat, because I had not wrapped my mind around the fact that our building was under attack.

Ooko suggested that we hold the interview until we figured out what was happening. But just then, we heard a second explosion, again closely followed by gunshots. It is at this point that the CEO dashed to his office, leaving Dickson and I in the conference room.

From the windows, we could see people on the ground floor running for safety using the back exits with the help of the security guards. By this time, staff members who were on our floor started running up and down the corridors. We got up and followed them, not really knowing where we were going.

I was running for the stairs holding the camera bag, which had other equipment inside; it weighed about 10kg. Dickson was holding the tripod and the camera.

On reaching the stairs, we found a crowd of people scampering for safety. Nobody at this point had figured out what was going on; the flight down the staircase was confused and disorganised. In my hands, I was still gripping the bag.

Dickson, thinking like a journalist, asked me to carry the tripod with the camera bag. He wanted to capture some video. But just before he could frame his shot, one of the assailants shot at us, forcing everyone to scamper for safety. The sound of the gun was so loud that we thought he had shot at us from inside the building, perhaps from the ground floor through the staircase.

And because of the terror, I remember freezing on my way up for a few seconds before I regained my senses. Dickson was running for the lifts, which I thought was not a good idea, but driven by panic I followed him. But the lifts did not open.

I ran into the nearest open door, which turned out to be the door that led to the washrooms on the first floor. Inside, I found some people, whose number I could not figure out at that moment. It is in this washroom that I remember mumbling some prayers to God for safety.

But once we entered one of the cubicles, our fears grew. Someone whose identity we could not figure out was trying to gain access to the washroom from the ceiling, which was cracking under his heavy weight. I didn’t have time to think of how bizarre this was, or how on earth that person got there. We were just looking for somewhere to hide.

We ended up in an open space just outside the washroom, which was a room under renovation. Again, a shot was fired towards the window, I guess after one of the attackers saw us from outside. We ran back to the washroom without thinking twice, just that this time around we ran into the first cubicle, the second one’s ceiling having proven unsafe. It later turned out that the “intruder” was one of the staff members of the CRA, who was stuck on the second floor. By this time I had abandoned the camera bag and the tripod in the empty room.

As it Happened: Attack on 14 Riverside, Nairobi

WATCH: As it Happened: Attack on 14 Riverside, Nairobi

We were seven people in the first cubicle, its small size notwithstanding. The second one now had other people. Our first thought was to lock the main door of the washroom from the inside before we locked the door of the small cubicle. I do not remember the person who offered to lock the main door leading to the washroom. All I can remember is that the last man who entered the cubicle, a tall clean-shaven man, was the one who locked the door of the cubicle.

I remember one of the people I was hiding with in the cubicle was breathing heavily, loud gasping breaths which scared most of us. In our thinking, any slight sound would alert the attackers to where we were. Our attempts to ask the good old man, who I later learnt was Prof. Edward Akong’o Oyugi, to manage his breathing, fell on deaf ears, adding to our turmoil.

I was sitting on the toilet seat, which I believed was the safest position and was away from the door, just in case one of the attackers gained access and tried shooting through the door of the cubicle.

But my comfort did not last. Since Prof. Oyugi, who by this time was leaning on the door of the cubicle, could not control his breathing, someone asked me to give up my seat for him. It meant that I would take up his position, which I thought was riskier since I would be standing directly opposite the door. But I got up, and gave the old man the seat.

The other people had taken up all the safe spots away from the door. I decided to squeeze myself to the side of the toilet seat. The other two men squeezed themselves on the opposite side, while another two stood on the opposite direction, but away from the door.

The heat inside out cubicle was beginning to get thicker and hotter. My standing position was also getting uncomfortable. Because of the squeezed space between the toilet seat and the wall, I had to stand on one leg, and switch to the other often.

Any slight noise sent us all into a panic. I remember at one point someone in the opposite cubicle had tried flushing the toilet, I do not know for what reason, throwing the whole washroom into further panic mode.

By this time, the shooting was rampant, punctuated by tense silence.

I remember one man who had taken refuge in the wash area where the sinks were mumbling a prayer. In the adjacent cubicle, I could hear some people whispering what I believed were their last prayers. One was on the phone, telling the person on the other end that we were under attack.

The time now was heading towards 4pm. At this point, I decided to alert my colleagues in the newsroom on what was happening.

I checked my phone and news was already spreading that DusitD2 complex was under attack. I was scared for my life. I remember making a prayer to God asking him not to send me to hell if I died.

The ensuing hours would be some of my longest. We would swap sitting positions, but carefully so as not to make noise. My legs grew sore at some point, but the thought of getting killed in case I went outside the washroom kept me stuck in my position.

Lucky for us, the washrooms were air-conditioned, which helped cool the damp air that was increasingly filling up the space. My fear, however, was the gap underneath the cubicle door, which easily exposed our legs. We all tried as much as we could to push ourselves as far from the door as possible.

As time went by, the air in the washroom become thicker and heavier. I took off my tie and waistcoat, and so did the others. Seconds turned to minutes, and minutes into hours. We didn’t speak much to each other. How could we? What can you tell six other strangers in that moment?

To keep myself distracted, I stayed in communication by text message with friends and colleagues, who were encouraging me to keep strong.

There were occasional gunshots, which made us jump every single time. At some point, we heard someone try to gain access of the main door that led to the washrooms where we were in. We could not tell who it was, because they never gained entry.

We kept silent, and the good old professor tried to control his breathing, even though he occasionally went back to his “default setting”.

I remember telling the people I was hiding with that help had come after my colleagues in the newsroom informed me that the police had arrived at the scene. This was sometime after 4pm. Little did I know that I would spend the next 12 hours holed up in the same place.

I had by then not informed my parents about the situation since I knew they would get too anxious and panicky. But I kept contact with my colleagues. My bosses had also reached out to me, asking me not to lose hope as they were trying all they could to get me help. I remember speaking to Dickson just a few minutes after we separated, telling him that I was hiding inside one of the washrooms on the first floor. I later learnt that he was hiding on the same floor, but in a different room.

I remember one dear friend from work asking me to keep communicating with her through text messages. I know she was trying to keep me calm. This, however, did not last long, as my phone battery died. I do not remember what time it was, but before my phone went off, I gave her a number of one of the people I was with so that she could reach me.

I informed my parents of what was happening some minutes past 10 pm with the help of a friend. And since I knew how agitated my father would become, I told my friend to notify my mother first. I can’t imagine what she felt at that moment.

News had by this time spread that two NTV journalists were part of the hostages trapped inside the complex. That in part got me worried, because I could not imagine what would happen if the terrorists got wind of this and stormed our hiding place.

At some point, I lost hope, thinking that we would only be rescued in the morning. But we resolved that we would fight the attackers, and at least die fighting in case they got to us.

Sometimes towards midnight, we heard loud noises and the lights suddenly went off. We agreed not to open the doors until we were sure that those knocking were the police.

We stayed in darkness for another two to three hours before we finally heard footsteps inside the building. When the police got to us, we were ordered to walk out one by one, with our hands raised up. They frisked us before asking us to sit down at a central place as they combed other rooms looking for hostages. The time was about 3:45 am.

Those 12 hours taught me the value of family and friends, and that life is a gift. Live every day as if it was your last day alive, because one of these days, you might just be right.

I occasionally get paranoid. I am still afraid of being in the dark. Noises and bangs on the door scare me a lot. I am afraid of staying in crowded places. I get anxious being by myself. I still live scared. But I hope it will end soon.

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Reflections

Decolonising My Soul: My Journey to Reclaim African Spirituality

After seven years of being on the journey, I can say that I have arrived at several shores of knowing and understanding. Even more, however, I have begun to wonder about the silence around African spirituality, and its persistent labelling as sorcery or devil worship.

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Photo: Ocean rahan on Unsplash

At 11 pm on Thursday, 20th October 2011, I turn the last page of Coconut by Kopano Matlwa, and I know that I’m not going back to church again. I don’t know what that means at that moment, having been a staunch Catholic, but I know that I’m not going back.

That night was the beginning of my now seven-year quest to discover, recover and live African spirituality. The quest has involved many locations and people – many of them not in Africa – and has helped me to re-evaluate and reconstruct a world that had come crashing down that night. It was not a direct or easy journey. People had many questions, especially those who had known me as the person who would constantly invite others to Mass, or who would confess the mortal sin of having skipped Mass. I didn’t have the answers, and I was making this journey far from home and without much (worldly) guidance. The crash that happened that night hadn’t left a map of where to go, much less where to begin, so I had to make the way as I went.

After seven years of being on the journey, I can say that I have arrived at several shores of knowing and understanding. Even more, however, I have begun to wonder about the silence around African spirituality, and its persistent labelling as sorcery or devil worship. And as a researcher of the environment, I see the connection of these silences and the colonial enterprise, which forced a forgetting of an all-alive Earth, the ancestors and other un-embodied beings like nature spirits, and rendered the Earth as a space for domination. We’re all living with the ecological fall-out from this kind of worldview. I started asking myself: can we recover these ways of being, knowing and doing, and re-engage with the living Earth from a place beyond coloniality?

But back to the night of the crash. In the book I had just read, Fikile, a waitress living in a township, aspires to make it big and be white. She visits her grandmother, Gogo, and participates in her prayers that go on for several hours, a dramatic performance accompanied by wailing and sobs. Gogo moans the lot of black South Africans, the violence, the unemployment, the pain, the assault…The prayer was moving to read until I got to the end where Gogo inexplicably made peace with the God she was praying to, convinced that this God would resolve the issues and make a way. That jarred. This same God that she was praying to was brought by the same people whose coming caused the troubles she was praying about. And that was the end for me.

Walking into the uncertainty was not easy. For weeks and months after, I would scour the Internet trying to find apologies from the church for their hand in colonialism. There were none. Not even in that most progressive Vatican II Council where they finally decided that Africans singing in church and praying in their languages was okay. So I kept walking.

The questions propelling me were in the silences. Whereas Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and even Buddhism, had some form and reality for me, I wondered what African religion was; I had never been told about it or come across it. I had grown up in Nairobi, or more rightly, in Ongata Rongai (yes there are people who’ve lived here all their lives), and without grandparents – they had died before I was born or soon after. I did not have much contact with any “rural home”. On both sides, family members had long been swirled into urban Nairobi pursuits. My brothers and I were third generation “uprooted” in a way. But I was sure that my people had had religious or spiritual practices of some sort. The question was how to find those out while I was studying in the United States. So I started with the one thing I knew I had: my grandmother. My grandmother died a year and seven days before I was born, and I feel she went to call me, the last of the granddaughters named after her. I began my quest by calling to her.

Soul Searching
I am…
Soul searching, seeking to find
Pieces of clay, mud and morning’s breath,
Evening light, sounds and fire stones,
The human warmth that makes me, me.
The touch of my cũcũ – and the others that I didn’t know-
Her stories by firelight, the food we might have made together.
I wish she had taught me to weave,
To warp and weft and tie the knots of this life’s kiondo.
My gogo’s spittle in blessing…
I call on it on this journey I’m taking,
To sound the depths of my heart
And avoid treacherous waters.

One of the ways I was calling her was through poetry. I had written poetry in high school but stopped when I got to university, so I began writing again. This time I was writing a different kind of poetry, one that was calling out to my ancestors, seeking a path, seeking clarity on where to go. I also began to do libations as a way of praying, without necessarily knowing the formula (there isn’t really; ritual is more about spirit than form, though form can carry spirit). I would call on my grandmother, and as I poured libations I repeated the one line of Kikuyu prayer I knew: “Thai thathaiya Ngai, thai”, a call for peace, in between my imploring: help me on this journey, I’m trying to figure my way back, I’m trying to learn these things, open the way for me, show me, teach me.

On the path of sounding out the silences, I started reading more writing by African authors. Up to that point I had been an ardent consumer of the so-called classics – William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and the like. I had not encountered much African literature besides the mandatory high school set-books and I was thirsty for anyone who could tell me anything about African traditions. So I began a self-guided course on reading African authors, going to the library to look for fiction by Africans, asking for recommendations from friends and devouring all that I could find in between my classes: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Chimamanda Adichie, Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, Okot p’Bitek, anthologies of short stories… As I kept reading, ways of thinking and worldviews (on women’s clothing, on prisons as justice, on men’s beauty) that I had never questioned began to fall away. Histories of Kenya’s colonial period, and of colonialism in the Americas, also helped me understand the world as it exists now was created and was not a matter of fact, unchangeable. Reading was a way of beginning to see with new eyes.

I also learnt how to cook, researching on indigenous African crops and trying out new things with traditional ingredients – a way of reimagining the old. Cooking was significant for me because I had always resisted learning at home; I was sure that I would then be expected to cook for my elder brothers. But away from my mother’s kitchen, I made my own world by experimenting, baking with nduma and millet, learning to make pilau, mahamri and mukimo and so on. That was also the semester I enrolled in voice lessons and began to sing in an a cappella group. In high school I had been labelled tone-deaf and asked to stand in the back and mouth the words during the inter-house singing competitions. In subtle internal ways, singing rearranged me, opened me up, and helped me to regain a sense of self and voice in the new becoming.

The following year, I travelled on a programme studying cities in Brazil, South Africa and Vietnam, and I took the opportunity to learn from other traditions. I figured ancestrality and indigenous spirituality are not only African, and I could learn from different systems of connecting to and venerating one’s ancestors. In every place, I would ask people to tell me and show me how spirituality was done. In Brazil, my host-mum took us to an Umbanda temple, Umbanda is one of the major Afro-Brazilian religions syncretised from practices and beliefs of enslaved Africans taken to Brazil. I wasn’t there as a tourist spectator; I was there to learn and practise alongside others. At the temple, one of the practitioners broke out of the circle of the initiated worshippers and approached me to pray with me, something that my host-mum later said never happens. I took this as a confirmation that I was on the right path even though I didn’t have absolute clarity.

In South Africa I met an academic professor at the University of Cape Town who researched African traditional religions. Something he said helped me understand one of my difficulties with accessing indigenous spirituality in East Africa. He said that traditional religions in West Africa tend to be more public. There are shrines and priests and priestesses devoted to different gods and goddesses and you can go to them and learn. In East and Southern Africa, religions are more private and family-oriented. Even though sacred sites may exist, large community rituals are less common. So if you want to learn outside of family, there’s no place you can say, “Let me go there”.

Vietnam was fascinating because ancestral veneration is absolutely integrated in the culture. Houses have an ancestral shrine where family members place food and other items, food that we later consumed. Walking down the streets you are bound to see, and perhaps be shocked by, people burning money. Upon asking we found out that they were burning dollar bills (fake ones) to send to their ancestors in other realms. Seeing the seamlessness of these practices in daily life was useful and inspiring. In later years I have wondered what difference this holding on to indigenous philosophies and practices in East and South Asia makes compared to Africa’s seeming rush to black out her own.

When I went back to campus for my last semester, a bit less uncertain, I joined a dance group whose main repertoire was dances from Haiti connected to vodu, another syncretised African religion created from the mix of traditions carried by enslaved Africans to the Caribbean. I began to learn the history of the Haitian revolution, and to dance for the gods and goddesses (Lwas) of a tradition that sparked and sustained the revolution that birthed what was the first black republic in 1804.

Later that year, I continued exploring spirituality through dance when I travelled back to Brazil and began dancing the Orixás of Candomblé, yet another syncretised African religion. My host-brother, Dimas, was an activist and practitioner of Candomblé. Observing his practice in song, drum, dance and prayer, having conversations despite my struggling Portuguese, was special. The Orixás, or Oriṣas, are a deity pantheon in Yoruba Ifa tradition that embody particular traits and are often connected to certain nature elements. To this day I feel a great affinity to and respect for these African-based religions as they exist in and have been preserved and added to over time in South America and the Caribbean, and I continue to dance and teach these dances.

Travelling to Mexico afterward, I joined weekly Aztec/Mexica dances at the invitation of my friend Lupita (not Nyong’o; the name is common in Mexico, here short for Guadalupe) that happened in a public square under moonlight. In this dance that would last two hours or more, we saluted all six sides (North, East, West, South, up and down), danced the stories of different animal gods, and ended by claiming the continued glory and fame of Mexico-Tenochtitlan whose roots had not and would not be decimated.

The scroll reads: “Destruyeron mis hojas, cortaron mis ramas, cortaron mi tronco…pero mis raices jamás podrán arrancarlas. Netzahualcoyotl” – They destroyed my leaves, cut my branches, cut my trunk (some versions say burnt my trunk), but never will they be able to uproot my roots.

This declaration at the end of each dance never failed to bring tears to my eyes, as it explicitly recognised the violence of colonialism, and declared the continued resilience of a people’s spiritualities and ways of being. The sense of community and welcoming amongst these dancers was also beautiful. After each dance we would gather and share food, gratitude and updates from the week. In participating in all of these dances I recognised that these were not my traditions, but were traditions that had similar tenets and elements as the tradition I was trying to get closer to. Dancing became a vehicle to reach my people. Vodu, Candomblé and danza Mexica-Chichimeca connected me to my body and my spirit, and then through that reconnection, to my ancestors, because my ancestors are in me and I am in them.

I went back to South Africa and this time had the opportunity to meet with a sangoma for a bone reading. He was recommended to me by a colleague who had struggled for years with debilitating depression that no doctor or medicine seemed to be helping with. She went to the sangoma as a last resort, figuring, “well nothing else has worked”. I had just one question for my ancestors: am I on the right path? My ancestors said yes. They said keep going, keep asking and finding out.

Considering I was due to move back to Kenya, I had one question for the sangoma: who in Kenya can I speak to about this, where can I go to continue to deepen this journey? He gave me a four-part prescription to formally introduce myself to my ancestors and pilgrimage to their lands. He also gave me the name of a woman also on her indigenous spirituality path and who works with communities to revive their ecocultural practices for freedom and well-being. When I met Wanjiku she introduced me to a tens-of-thousands-year-old African cultural and spiritual tradition in the form of African rock art, a heritage that had been unknown to me up to that point. Meeting Wanjiku was also a relief because I now had living proof that it was possible to live one’s African spirituality in East Africa.

San* rock painting in the Dâures Mountains, in what is today Namibia. Image source: Trust for African Rock Art/David Coulson

At home, I was met with the same barrage of questions that my friends had thrown at me when I first left the church. I came back without a job or money (a no-no if you’re coming from abroad), having left the church, and having dropped the three English names my parents had given me at birth. None of this went down easy for them, and the pushback I experienced was so intense that at one point I wasn’t speaking with one of my parents. My parents have never really come round to this new self that I am. They think I am lost, and they still try and get me to go back to church. But I am known for my stubbornness.

It’s been seven years and I’m at the point now where I introduce myself as a practitioner of African indigenous spirituality, no longer afraid to show up in my fullness. Africa, ancestrality and the Earth are a core part of who I am. When the crash happened, I thought I would have to go through the rubble picking piece by piece, and evaluating what is useful to keep and what is not. Along the way I have done a lot of reconstruction and reimagination, picking up and discarding. Much has been embodied, and has happened in doing: libations, writing, singing, dressing, dancing and cooking. My journey has also had lots of gifts along the way – of knowledge, instruments, conversations, practices, movements, songs, rituals, food, and connections. All of these elements were researched, reconnected to, reimagined, reconstructed, and welcomed into, and form a part of my practice today.

I’ve also learned to engage with nature spirits and recover the ontology and practice of a living Earth that is integral to African cultures. Like sitting in a garden. Like speaking to whoever is around me – animal spirits, plant spirits, water, rocks, all allies in the journey to reconnect to self, to ancestors and to Earth. Paying attention to animal messengers. Giving thanks to and paying full attention to my food, to water, to air. I have learnt to salute new lands that I travel to and acknowledge the land as sovereign and alive. I have learnt to listen and sing songs and dance dances that are gifted through such interactions. And the journey continues.

For my Master’s dissertation in African Studies last year, I researched what African ways of being, knowing and doing have to offer for healing and thriving past colonial wounds and today’s continued coloniality. I wanted to think about ideas and practices that are beyond a governance centred on the colonial state, beyond justice practices that are restricted to a Western model retributive justice, and beyond a view of the Earth that only sees her as dead resources to be exploited.

Still, in reading and engaging with post-colonial academic African works, I kept having the feeling that we have not yet gone far enough. We have not yet taken the jump to imagine complete freedom, and the absence or transformation (not reform) of some of our shackles. We have been hard at work decolonising our minds for several decades, but I see less work to decolonise our bodies and even less to decolonise our spirits and restore a relational philosophy and practice in relation to our ecologies, societies and unembodied relations.

It takes some courage to step forward and declare certain things when all around you there is reluctance to hear that or see that, but that is the medicine required for these deeply troubled times and spaces we’re in. My ancestors tell me that this is medicine necessary for Africa today, and that the Earth and all who make home with her require it.

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