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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
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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

We Need New Words: A Reflection on the “War on Terror”

The “War on Terror” is a disruption, that makes normal, absurd reality, a privation of humanity, a shape-shifting enemy that yearns for innocent lives and souls; the menacing colonial state with new fangs.

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We Need New Words: A Reflection on the “War on Terror”
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7th August 1998.

Friday, 10am: Parents, students and teachers are all seated in the school hall, and prize-giving day is about to begin. I had obtained the highest grade in GHC (Geography, History and Civics) and I was to receive a prize. I was elated, because it was the last day of the school term. At home, good grades were a pass to indulge in activities forbidden during the school term.

At 10.34am: The headmistress walks to the podium to give her opening remarks when we hear a blast in the distance. Moments later, the crowd starts murmuring, and the few pagers in the room start beeping. Parents anxiously take custody of their children and a state of anxiety descends on the gathering. Vehicles begin to speed off and the prize-giving day comes to an abrupt end.

A terrorist attack targeting the US Embassy in downtown Nairobi has just happened. The neighbouring building, Ufundi Co-operative House was reduced to debris. 213 people die and more than 5,000 get injured. At the age of nine in Standard Four, I felt the fear and anxiety.

Before August 7th 1998, Kenya had never witnessed a terror attack of such magnitude. The Al Qaeda terror group led by Osama bin Laden took responsibility for the attack professing it was retaliation for US presence in Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The national psyche was bruised. President, Daniel Arap Moi regretted that peaceful Kenya had suffered the tragedy of a geopolitical dispute.

My holidays were never the same again. At home, strict curfews were introduced; my mother would call every other day to check on the whereabouts of my siblings and I. My parents introduced holiday tuition as a means, I suspect, of surveillance to protect and curate our movements. “The fear of the public space” had been cemented in my parents’ minds. From then on, I heard my parents add a new phrase in their lingua: “Terrorism” which after the September 9/11 attacks in the United States morphed into the “The War on Terror”. It sounded like they pronounced it in capital letters to imitate the manner the subject of terrorism was broadcast in the news.

********

Over a decade later, in 2009, my brother and I were walking home from an eatery at the Oil Libya petrol station along Mombasa road on a Thursday at 9:17 pm. We lived in South C, a middle-class suburb in Nairobi that had in the last decade bourgeoned into a cosmopolitan neighbourhood with the influx of nationals from Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. South C transformed into a place of refuge for nationals fleeing conflict in their home countries.

On this fateful day, a police patrol unit accosted, threatened us with arrest and threw us into a police vehicle on the suspicion as terror suspects.

Mnaranda randa usiku, kwani nyinyi ni Al Shabaab?” barked a policeman. (Why are you loitering about, are you Al Shabaab?)

Hapana boss, tumetoka kwa duka, tunaelekea nyumbani.” (No sir, we are just headed home from the shops), replied my elder brother,

Unadhani mimi ni mjinga? Wale wa kutoka kwa duka ndiyo hutembea na bomb. Ingia hapa nyuma haraka sana.” (Do you think I’m a fool? In fact those who are ‘just from the shops’ are the ones who walk around with bombs. Get into the back of the vehicle!)

In the patrol vehicle, I noticed that my brother and I were the only suspects who did not bear the physical resemblance of Somali people. The state-led counter-terrorism operations had led to the profiling of Kenyans Muslims, particularly from the Somali community. Members of the community were subjected to police harassment, arrests and human rights violations while publicly scorned as associates of Al Shabaab terrorists.

In the patrol vehicle, one of the police officers remarks that were effectively Al Shabaab terrorists under arrest and our freedom rested on our ability to ‘speak’. This was a new experience for my brother and I. Our fellow “felons” seemed to get the drift and reached into their pockets. Each one parted with a bribe as they alighted from the vehicle and we followed suit. There was little choice to make. The “War on Terror” had robbed us of our moral agency.

*********

I met Leila through a mutual friend. We struck a rapport immediately, and shared many intellectual interests. We would often meet up after class, and walk down from the University of Nairobi, talking as we meandered through the maze of Nairobi’s central business district. She was tall, beautiful. Muslim and Somali. Despite coming from different worlds, religiously, culturally socially and politically, our friendship grew. We created our own little universe where we could share our feelings, ideas, grief, hopes and dreams.

My mother was impressed when she met Leila. By her poise, respect for elders (important for my mother), her confidence and emotional intelligence. In spite of all these good attributes, my mother harboured some cultural prejudices towards Leila. A few days later, she sat me down and told me: “You are now in fourth year and about to finish university and start life. As your mother, I want you to get a good Christian wife and succeed in life.”

I didn’t have a response. It was one of those things that parents ostensibly say with love but cut you deeply. We never talked about the incident again but I was affected by her words even as I tried to understand my mother’s prejudice. I finished campus a few months later and my friendship with Leila drifted apart. We soon lost touch.

After the 1998 terror attack, the bombings in New York during 911 and the emergence of Al Shabaab, it seemed that my mother, like many, needed an image to embody the angst, fear and anger that “terror” had brought into her life. Perhaps the need to put a face to the enemy influenced her prejudice and denied Leila her individual autonomy and humanity.

I partly understood it. This was her way of defending herself, a coping mechanism. The “War on Terror” had erased her ability to recognise the humanity of Leila and her story. It simplified her view to labels: brown, Somali, Muslim and danger.

********

4:10 pm: #DusitAttack is trending on my Twitter feed.

4:12 pm: I check my Twitter news feed for a reliable source. I find one, Africa Uncensored’s Twitter handle: “Terrorist attack at DusitD2 hotel, 14 Riverside underway”

4:15 pm: I call my wife. “Babe, are you okay?” “Yes, I am” she responds. “Okay, I’m leaving the office now. Be safe.” I hung up.

4:20 pm: I send out a generic message, “I’m safe,” to my WhatsApp groups to calm my friends and family.

4:28 pm: I packed my bags and I leave the office.

On the afternoon of Tuesday, 15 January 2019, armed gunmen stormed into 14 Riverside, an office complex in Westlands, Nairobi that hosts offices of various organisations, a restaurant and a hotel, DusitD2. The attack began at 2:30pm and was concluded a few minutes before 10:00am the following day. Initial reports were of gunfire and two explosions at the hotel. The attackers, estimated to number between four and six arrived in two vehicles. One of the attackers went in discreetly and blew himself up next to the Secret Garden restaurant. After the blast, the remaining terrorists fired on the guards at the gates of 14 Riverside Drive and lobbed grenades setting some vehicles parked in the parking bay ablaze. The attack left more than 20 people dead.

On my way home, I scribble on my notebook the words. DUSIT ATTACK AND WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE WAR ON TERROR! This is an opening line to an editorial brief I think of writing so that I can commission a few think pieces to shed light on this issue. I would spend the next couple of days thinking about this, until it dawned on me that I had only viewed the Dusit attack as a function of my job: A story to be written, an analysis to be done and a conversation to be had. Not what it really was: pain, death, trauma and dysfunction.

As far as terror goes, I had been alienated from my humanity and myself.

*******

Political vernaculars, writes Keguro Macharia, “are the words and phrases that assemble something experienced as the political and gather different groups around something marked as the political. They create attachments to the political, and they also distance us from something known as the political. They create possibilities for different ways of coming together—from short-lived experiments to long-term institution building—and they also impede how we form ourselves as we from formations, across the past, the present, the future, and all the in-between times marked by slow violence and prolonged dying. Vernaculars are ways of claiming and shaping space.”

Keguro goes on to say that vernaculars are a discipline producing habits, dispositions, behaviour, feeling and thinking. Most of Kenya’s official political vernaculars—corruption, impunity, national security, for instance—are disciplinary. They name real issues, but they also manage how those issues are handled. They shape the possibilities for what is thinkable. They flatten thinking into habits, repetitions, and negations…they create frames on how we see each other, the world and what possibilities we can conceive.

The “War on Terror” is one of Kenya’s political vernaculars. It is the go-to word to arouse fear, anger, racism and religious hatred; to justify bombing, invasion and illegal detentions; to call for major new investments in military capabilities; to justify dependency on the western nations and to muzzle and curtail freedoms.

The implications for African governments governed by despots, warlords or even democrats is an incentive for tyrannical rule. The War on Terror serves the interests of retaining political power and justifies terrorizing of disenfranchised citizens. To the citizens, the word represents disruption, a normalising of an absurd reality, a privation of humanity, a shape-shifting enemy that yearns for innocent lives and souls; the menacing colonial state with new fangs.

We are in need of another lexicon to explain us to ourselves, to frame our sensibilities, our histories and our humanity, in the mists of absurd political vernaculars. We need words that can help us imagine what kind of world we want to build together.

We need new words untethered to the state that can help us imagine how we want to live with each other. Now, more than ever we need the strength to love and dream.

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Reflections

Millennials II: Speaking up in the Silences

We are still trying to understand who we are and how our society got here, and in doing so we reject the mantra of ‘accept and move on’ or ‘don’t rock the boat’ like many of our parents embodied. There will be a culture clash, but maybe it is necessary, so we can redefine ourselves, redefine family, and redefine Kenya.

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MILLENNIALS II: Speaking up in the silences
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“Kenya’s official languages are English, Kiswahili, and Silence.” ~ Yvonne Owuor

It is always interesting to see the confusion in our parents and older generations with Millennials. It is a clash of cultural values. They may have raised us, but we occupy a place in a global and information culture that they never imagined possible. I see them struggling to understand.

I was born in the 1980s, when the attempted coup was still fresh in people’s minds, and the screws of repression were increasingly tightening. I was too young to know about the agitation for multi-party elections and only later read about it from my grandfather’s collection of The Weekly Review magazine, one of the few publications at the time that was consistently speaking truth to power.

In the 1990s came the liberalisation of the airwaves, and my generation was exposed to much more music, television programmes and movies than our parents were aware of. I remember for the longest time wanting an FM radio so I could listen to Capital FM and later Kiss FM. My evenings from school were often spent shifting between doing homework, and dancing to the music on Rastrut, Jam-a-delic and other weekly music shows. This was a time when African American culture had a kind of golden age on TV. The shows we watched were everything from Sesame Street to In Living Color, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, Renegade, Sarafina, The Bold and Beautiful and so many more. Today, if someone my age who grew up in the urban spaces that I did starts a discussion on our childhood, we have many common memories and attachments through these experiences, even though we might have disparate upbringings in other ways. Even from many miles away, we were part of that collective cultural moment, and social media now unites us with our peers across the world, over both the mundane and serious. While we too have many points of differences there is a unique connection to each other from the global and local exposure we have.

It was a time when Kenyan art, and especially music, was starting to find its identity. Hip-hop, comedy and poetry were on the forefront of this shift. A strong emphasis of the art being created at the time was questioning of the status quo, extra judicial killings, and the dysfunction of the political state. It created a healthy skepticism in authority and authority figures. Some of my earliest ideas and understanding of another Kenyan narrative from the streets and the grassroots came from hip hop artists like Ukoo Flani, Kalamashaka, Mashifta and others. The comedy trio Reddykyulas was hugely influential too, allowing us to see ourselves, and critique who we had become as a people, without fear.

On the other hand, our parents grew up in a fractured culture straddling the traditional cultures and the colonial ethnocentrism that despised and looked down on traditional culture. Kenya is 55 years old and still grappling with what colonialists did to us, whether we realise it or not. The colonisers subscribed to notion of Social Darwinism that believed that the closer a culture was to European (and in our case British) culture, the more advanced it was. Given that African culture was completely different, we were seen as uncivilised, despite the fact that we had lived and thrived for centuries before.

Colonialism systematically destroyed our families and destabilised all aspects of society that had functioned until then. Colonial tax obligations pushed people into the cash economy, creating a migrant labour market, and thus separating families. They confiscated land, leading to a large, landless class of laborers who traveled from place to place in search of work. Breaking communities up like this was certainly an easier and more secure way of obtaining money for taxes and for selling goods to them. This economic subjugation still continues in various forms today, with insecure land tenure systems, and families still vulnerable to eviction, land grabbing, and cartels.

The colonisers employed violence against grown men and women if they were not only obedient but also sufficiently deferential. Alyse Simpson recalled whites in1920’s Kenya: “They boxed their own and their neighbours’ servants’ ears if they failed to be servile enough, which in their childlike simplicity they sometimes forgot to be.” That notion of Africans having ‘childlike simplicity’ was not a benign one. It means that we were assumed to be incompetent in our own governance. It upended the structure of society where adults were adults, and were worthy of making decisions. It is highly likely that the violence visited on them resulted in powerless frustration that was then transferred onto the next generation.

Despite being supposedly ‘independent’ since 1963, we never really sat to examine what had happened to our society and technically just exchanged one ruler for another. You see it in the way we casually infantilise grown men and women by assuming the state will make better decisions than they ever could for themselves. We do it too in our families to our poorer relatives or those who dare deviate from the norm.

I sense that our parents were brought up to obey unquestioningly, a result of the kind of violence and censure that defiance would bring upon them. My generation however learned to ask questions, perhaps as a result of the global culture we were exposed to, and so we do. Even though we may not have been as inquisitive in the open as we were in private – we are still our parents’ children, after all, and we were taught to behave in public – the Internet and social media have recreated a quasi-private space that allowed us to continue to question the status quo.

Traditionally Africans had structures for bringing up children and teaching them how to handle themselves as adults. We would learn to cook, herd animals, care for children, find herbs that could cure diseases, prepare for seasons, and so on. This all happened within a certain social context, where an older person would teach a younger one. With colonisation, and especially the disrupted social ties that urbanisation brought, these teaching moments fell away. Those lucky enough to live around aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents learned a lot from the community. Those who didn’t have these structures simply ended up learning from older siblings who may not have always had the right information. More than that we learned from each other, from our neighbours, our classmates and other peers around us.

Teaching requires a voice. But many of our parents had lost their voice and hope, perhaps without knowing. Maybe it was the difficult economic conditions, the secret police and the threat of torture chambers that hung ominously over their heads. Confronting their own situations and the loss of their dreams at the hands of a powerful and corrupt government that killed many who stood up to it must have been an impossible task then. With time I believe the silence grew to encompass even more of their lives and who they were. I wonder if we will ever truly understand what they went through. Facing up to this anguish and loss was avoided by just forging ahead in some ways and at other times acting out in the private family arenas. It has become the ‘norm’ of Kenyan social conditioning for people to turn social media as a space for confessions and on FM station talk shows. Those who could leave Kenya emigrated to Western capitals, those who chose to stay and fight became pariahs, and the rest kept their head down to avoid trouble in a sense of learned helplessness. For those who accepted the status quo it meant a constant adjusting to the changes, a constant policing of their own behaviour and of those they loved to save them from the state sanctions of the day.

Many of our Kenyan notions of respectability can be traced to British colonialism. As long as the orange is waxed, shiny and orange on the outside it does not matter if the inside is rotten and full of worms. In Kenya a person’s importance is often based on what they do, which family they come from or which influential person they are close to, who their spouse is and finally how wealthy or famous they are. It often does not matter what vileness they have been part of, the wealth and fame become like a sanctifying agent. No wonder folks say pesa ni sabuni (Money is like soap).

The breakdown of traditional African society and the public accountability that came with it was replaced with a desire to be respected according to colonial values. For many of our parents a sense of worth was built on how others saw them and spoke of them. Their children were often extensions of this. Many times our own personal choices, even as adults, were not seen in the light of the people we are but as active antagonistic choices against them and the reputations they hold so dearly. Our personhood is not known to them no matter how hard we try to show them.

This is a journey I see many of my peers going through. We are still trying to understand who we are and how our society got here, and in doing so we reject the mantra of ‘accept and move on’ or ‘don’t rock the boat’ like many of our parents embodied. There will be a generational clash, but maybe it is necessary, so we can redefine ourselves, redefine family, and redefine Kenya.

When many of my peers sit and talk to recall our childhood very few of us had good childhoods or teenage years. The truth that our parents did not want to face was that one can only keep up appearances for so long – it always happened that glass of respectability shattered at one point, destroying everything in its vicinity. It would be in the discovery of infidelity in one or both parents, or that there were other entire families who called your father dad. It was in finding out about a secret child your mother had before but kept hidden. It was financial ruin, domestic abuse, rumours of witchcraft in families, evil in-laws, or unexplained absences of parents for years, all hidden under a veneer of respectability.

Discovering any of these for a child or a teenager is traumatic; it’s even worse so if there is no reliable adult to help them talk through these things and make sense of them. But it’s impossible to talk about anything when respectability is the constant demand. What will people think is the first, and the most powerful reprimand. Many times we were told that voicing these concerns is tantamount to publicly humiliating your family. Very often the child/teenager/young adult attempting to talk will be castigated even more than the adult who caused the incident or trauma. Instead of protecting our children from the trauma of past actions, we force them to pretend all is well, never bothering about their emotional and psychological state. All these affect the adult this child grows up to become. Many times the alcoholism, drug and sex addictions are ways of dealing with internal pain, not to mention depression, anxiety and panic attacks and other mental health illnesses.

Growing up without my primary parent for 20 years nearly destroyed me. I went through depression, abandonment, homelessness and a myriad of other situations before I finally was able to find my way out. My larger extended family still does not understand why I am this way because I went to “good schools”. But a boarding school does not make child or create a home for them. Neither is it a place to show you that you are loved and worthy, that’s what a family is for. There are those who definitely did try, but the truth is, parenting is a constant effort and not a peek-a-boo performance where one appears and disappears at will. The unfortunate bit is as a society we have been unable to diagnose, discuss and fix the political and economic issues that create these conditionings. We often don’t see the larger governance issues causing them. Why did so many of our fathers have secret families? Why were we constantly battling financial ruin? Why the silence, why the abuse, why the trauma? What was going on in Kenya to make our lives so painful?

The person I credit most for helping me find my way out and holding my hand and parenting is an aunt who I only got to know well after high school. She truly listened to me and asked me questions, offered advice and even when I didn’t heed it she would still be there for me. Her acceptance was total. That was what made the difference and helped set me off on a long journey of self-searching, healing and forging a new path for myself. It has not been easy but it has led me to a path of peace and a better life than I could have imagined for myself.

I see my peers talking about their trauma, depression and discontent both anonymously and publicly, on Facebook groups and Twitter, finding in each other kindred souls to encourage and advice. I see an increased acceptance of therapy and pychological counseling. The ability to be vulnerable or see someone you admire be vulnerable is what gives us the courage to keep going. The culture of silence is slowly being dealt with in many spaces. Still, there are many who are unable to process things, and drown in various addictions like alcoholism and drugs. They need to understand that what we are facing is not a result of individual failure but as a result of a collective failing to deal with our problems in a holistic way, which will continue to claim our people in different ways. Others who haven’t faced the same trauma and pressure do not easily understand the weight of the burden Millennials carry. The only way we move forward is if we start being honest about what is going on with us.

My peers are incredibly resilient in difficult situations. They are also incredibly creative, hardworking and daring. Not a week goes by when I don’t see someone trying to do something amazing. We are our own people. We dare to dream and we dare to live our dreams and over ‘respectable’ professions such as law, engineering and others. We forge ahead, fuelled by a heady mix of invincibility, fear, daring, anxiety and hope. We own our decisions the good, the bad and the sometimes stupid. We realise you can live an entire life trying to please people and still fail spectacularly.

What has failed us are the systems, society, and the continual bashing because we refuse to fall in line. Our parents’ formula of silence and moving on doesn’t work in our world at all. Just being educated doesn’t guarantee you a job. Having a job doesn’t mean you can afford to be sick. Being an entrepreneur isn’t always the path to a comfortable life. Being on a salary doesn’t always mean you can afford a mortgage. Being wealthy doesn’t mean you are protected.

We will continue asking questions, we will continue pushing the dial, we will continue creating, we will continue until we find our personal and collective freedom.

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Reflections

Unseen and Unremarkable: The Invisibility of Women’s Labour

Erasure confines the work women do into a box which has nothing more than ‘women’s work’. Erasure makes us forget women who explicitly used their nakedness to shame the government into releasing their sons held as political prisoners in 1992. It makes us oblivious of Field Marshall Muthoni, a woman ranking equal to our most famous freedom fighter, Dedan Kimathi.

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Unseen and Unremarkable: The Invisibility of Women’s Labour
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Lwanda Magere is a famed folk tale that many Kenyan children know. He was the man of stone, a great warrior of the Luo, whose skin could not be pierced, and who could not be defeated even by the fiercest enemy. The Nandi people, who neighboured the Luo and fought with them over territory, pasture, livestock and water, were tired of being defeated by the Luo. So they sent the most beautiful girl in their village over to the Luo to extract information. Her only task was to find out how to pierce the skin of the man of stone. Against the advice of his first wife and the community elders, Lwanda married this beautiful Nandi girl as a second wife. One day, when his first wife was away, he fell ill and the Nandi girl had to take care of him. After much soothing and coaxing, she found out that his shadow was the vulnerable spot, and sent word back to her people. In the next great battle between the Nandi and the Luo, Lwanda was sure to win the battle for his people, but one man remembered the story of the shadow. He threw a spear into the shadow and blood started to spurt out of the ground. Lwanda was killed, and the Luo were overcome.

In Lwanda Magere’s story, we don’t know the name of the Nandi girl.

***

Women are erased. Constantly.

It doesn’t matter how great you are.

You could be Fatima al-Fihri, an Arab Muslim woman, founder of the oldest existing university in the world. Or Emmy Noether (officially Amalie Emmy), the mathematician behind Noether’s Theorem, and whose work was so consequential that Einstein himself wrote an obituary for her. You could be a distinguished scientist or a renowned artist, you can map the ocean, uncover the secrets of the stars or the secret behind life itself, but, if you are a woman, you have to fight to be remembered.

It happens even in daily interactions. It happens every time a man repeats exactly what a woman said in a meeting, to great applause. Every time a man echoes sentiments and language women have been articulating for years, he is celebrated for being “so progressive”, “so woke”.

When we – my fellow writers Laura Ekumbo and Aleya Kassam and I – wrote our theatrical production ‘Too Early For Birds – The Brazen Edition’, we wanted to name the women. Our task from the beginning of the writing processes was to ‘uninvisible invisible women’. Kenyan playwright and author Micere Mugo once asked, ‘Where are those songs/ my mother and yours / always sang / fitting rhythms to the whole vast span of life?’ Virginia Woolf said, “Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” The anonymous is often a woman and, now, we refuse to be anonymised. Women have been calling out to each other, remembering that in the silence there is a forgotten woman’s song, that in ‘Anon’ there is a forgotten woman’s name, that in the invisible there is a woman made invisible. Remembering women, is in many ways remembering yourself.

In the famed fable of Lwanda Magere, what struck us was the existence of a girl, in one of our country’s most famous folktales, who was reduced to nothing but a plot point. This girl went into enemy territory as a spy, leaving her life and home behind. This girl won the war for the Nandi. This girl betrayed the Luo. This girl was as dangerous and powerful as Delilah. This girl was a badass.

No one knows her name. In our research, we did not find her name recorded by either community. At least we could not find any proof of her name, not in the way Lwanda is Lwanda, or Mumbi is Mumbi. The name we could find, “Nyalang’o” literally means ‘Nandi girl’ in Dholuo. As far as we could tell, she was just the most beautiful girl in the village.

This girl remains unnamed.

***

The truth of a story is always determined by the teller. We knew we wanted to speak to her, with her, bring her perspective to light. Of course, you can tell the story from the perspective of the men (Lwanda, the elders from both communities, the warrior who threw the spear) but we were writing about women.

We could have told the story of his first wife. In her, we saw an intelligent, loyal woman who saw a spy come into her home, and did everything she could to protect not just her husband, but her community. She made sure that this strange woman was never alone with her husband, especially when he was ill. By some twist of fate, she had to travel and while she was away, her husband fell sick and let his secret out. The first wife returns home to find the truth is out and dreads someone would destroy him one day.

So why Nandi?

The truth and fact is I didn’t know much about the women we wrote about before we did. Yes I had heard of a few – Chelagat Mutai, Mekatilili wa Menza, Wangu wa Makeri – but vaguely, imprecisely. I didn’t know about Field Marshall Muthoni wa Kirima or Zarina Patel at all, and they are both alive and well. The latter two are not just in the annals of history: they are here, and I didn’t know about them.

The Nandi Girl captured exactly why we didn’t know about them. It doesn’t matter how pivotal you are, if the stories are about men and their battles, as a woman, you will be relegated to a footnote. Her name was lost and instead she became an archetype: A Delilah figure. A seductive woman who takes down a man using her feminine wiles. And not even that, she just got the information and disappeared, seemingly never to be heard from again.

But make no mistake: this erasure is deliberate.

Erasure confines the work women do into a box which has nothing more than ‘women’s work’. Women freedom fighters become unthinkable in a country where parliamentary debates to meet the constitutionally required two-thirds gender rule are presented as a periodic annoyance, rather than a necessity.

Erasure makes us forget the Kenyan women who explicitly used their nakedness to shame the government into releasing their sons held as political prisoners in 1992. It makes us oblivious of Field Marshall Muthoni, a woman ranking equal to our most famous freedom fighter, Dedan Kimathi, a woman revered by him not just as a fighter but as a strategist and thinker. It erases that Field Marshall Muthoni fought her whole life, starting by supplying food and information to fighters in the forest as a young girl, and when she went to the forest herself, she rose up the ranks and was known as “The Weaver Bird” for her ability to navigate the forest. It erases that she continues to be in resistance, refusing to cut her hair until we find true freedom as a nation. It erases the fact that we have not found true freedom.

Erasure reduces women to ‘political flower girls’ – the media actually uses this phrase – and we cannot fathom women as a fundamental part of revolutions. Mekatilili wa Menza is often depicted as young girl because we erase the fact that she was in her 70’s when she led the Giriama uprising. Erasure knows that a feisty young girl fighting a common enemy is tolerable – one can always blame the folly of youth – an enraged, mature woman pushing back against an unjust system is not.

We forget Chelagat Mutai was part of a core group of parliamentarians that stood up to the government during one-party rule, when most of the other men in the House were very silent. We forget that Zarina Patel continues to fight for our freedoms, our right to public spaces and did so against not just the government, but her own family. We don’t even know, or want to know, that sex workers were among the first African property owners in colonial Nairobi. We erase how women, these women, were revolutionary in spirit because they stepped outside of the bounds restraining them. It does not do to have women who use their rage, name their abusers, name the problem, name themselves.

It does not do to have examples of women of power, because then maybe every woman will feel like she has power too.

If they must be named, if there is no way to erase them entirely, Erasure sanitises them. It makes them fit the mould of the patriarchy, and reconfigures them into a good and comfortable woman who fought just hard enough, but not too hard. Wangari Mathaai is today remembered as the woman of peace and trees, not the divorcee who was described as a ‘mad woman’ with ‘insects in her head’; who was under constant threat, whose kindness was iron-hearted. From Winnie Madikizela-Mandela to Rosa Parks, women’s work is reduced to a form that can be footnoted in men’s; the great man’s wife, the woman who just sat down.

This, by the way, only happens if you are ‘important’ enough to be reduced. Erasure is built into our every day reality.

One of the most insidious ways women are kept out of the history books is because so much of the work women do, or relegated to do, is considered ‘insignificant’ or ‘inevitable’. Of course the most beautiful girl in the village became the seductress. What’s special about that?

This bracketing of ‘women’s’ roles minimises the labour women do. The labour you do turns out to be your responsibility as a mother, sister, wife. Women’s labour does not make it into the record. The emotional labour you put in caring for others, the domestic labour that keeps men running the world, the innovations of womanhood like weaving, cooking, sewing, are all unremarkable because they were supposed to happen.

In 2013, during the terror attack on Westgate mall, I remember the then-unnamed woman who made tea, and served the police, soldiers and volunteers who were working to end the siege. I saw her do what every Kenyan mother is expected to do as if born doing it; make pots of tea. She was praised, rightfully, for going out of her way to support the men and women working to end the terrorist attack.

Yet, when I saw that image in the newspapers and on television I was filled with rage and sadness. I couldn’t stop seeing how early she must have gotten up in the morning, how long it had taken to brew that much tea, how much money it had cost, how much help she would need. I was filled with rage at a country where we know that tea, sustenance for people fighting in that situation, wasn’t guaranteed. I was angry that in such a moment, we couldn’t be sure that everyone was being well fed and taken care of. I was sad that only a woman, Grace Wambui Odongo, who must do such labour everyday, would even think to do this basic act of care. I was sad at how many women labour, make lots and lots of tea, because they do not have time for mourning.

Women need to be remembered, not just for big, but for the small. For the cups of tea.

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