My paternal grandfather, James Liyai, was born in 1907, and worked as a cook in the houses of colonial administrators who were based in Western Kenya. By the time I was born, Kenya was an independent nation, most of the administrators had gone, and my grandfather had retired from this job. Even though I never witnessed it, I knew that he could bake cakes and even knew how to make rice pudding. Until his death in 2008, he was especially picky about the food that he was served – the type of food, its quality, and presentation.
I never thought about how this experience shaped our lives. I wasn’t close to my grandfather; I rarely saw him, and even when I did visit him upcountry there was always a distance between us created by a past that I was not familiar with, and my Nairobiness. My grandfather spoke to us in Lwisukha, he read the Kiswahili newspaper Taifa Leo regularly, but there were times, when agitated, he blurted insults in English. This was jarring.
My grandfather named his son, who was born during World War II, Hitler. When this son started school, his teachers insisted on a name change but this name stuck in the family. I imagine that this was my grandfather’s resistance to whatever he had experienced in those colonial houses.
Watching the British period drama Downton Abbey, I recognised that my grandfather’s experiences in the houses he worked in couldn’t even have come close to those of the servants portrayed in that television series. How was life like for an African servant in a colonised country who worked for people who were not anywhere as wealthy? Did his employers view him as human?
So this year, when I went to the Karen Blixen Museum, I wanted to see the kitchen.
An estimated 700 workers lived and worked on this “farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills”. They worked here along with their spouses and children, and they should have been grateful because they were allocated some space to live in within the 4,500-acre farm land. No matter that they were probably there because they had been displaced from that very land. Some of these workers had left their homes to work on farms like this one because of the colonial government had imposed a Hut and Poll Tax in 1901 that was increased in 1915 and 1920. They had to pay. The Kipande, an identity card and passbook, was introduced in 1915, prohibiting Africans from moving freely. They were stuck there.
They were called natives, squatters, houseboys and kitchen totos. They were required to call Karen Blixen, the new owner of their land, memsahib or msabu. These workers were considered fortunate because the memsahib built a school for their children to attend while their parents worked.
Meanwhile, Blixen and other white settlers often left for hunting expeditions and long trips, with servants doing all the heavy lifting, confident that the workers left behind were tending to their properties.
After Blixen left Kenya in 1931, the vast parcel of land was turned into a residential area, with the Karen Country Club as an anchor intended to entice the wealthy (European) Nairobi residents to move there. The house that Blixen lived in is now a museum that gives a glimpse into daily life in colonial Kenya. The museum is a popular tourist destination.
However, less attention is given to the other aspects of this story and time period.
On its website, the National Museums of Kenya states: “NMK is a multi-disciplinary institution whose role is to collect, preserve, study, document and present Kenya’s past and present cultural and natural heritage. This is for the purposes of enhancing knowledge, appreciation, respect…”
If the museum is a place we visit to learn, to enhance knowledge and to appreciate our various histories, what does the set-up and the tour of the Karen Blixen Museum say about what is valued?
The museum was established after Blixen’s book Out of Africa was made into a movie with the same title. In the 1980s, Kamande wa Gature, Blixen’s former employee, was called in to assist in reconstructing the house interior as it had been when Blixen lived there. Some of the items displayed in the house were recreated for the 1985 film set and later donated to the museum. When you visit the museum, you are assigned guides who brief you with the backstory – Blixen’s past prior to coming to Kenya, her life and loves in Kenya, and her entanglements, both social and business-related.
The workers on Blixen’s farm tended to the house, to the coffee farm, to other crop plantations, and to the livestock on the farm. We know that the workers built, they planted, they cooked, they cleaned, they cared for her pets, and even protected her. Here, aside from the posed painted portraits and her photos in a peaceful and rested state, there are few markers of the presence of these people; there are only painted portraits and photographs of a group of house staff – Farah Aden, Abdulahi, Farah’s nephew, Ireri the Elder, Kamande wa Gature, Njeeri from Dagoretti. The gift shop at the museum sells postcards and bookmarks with these people’s faces on them as souvenirs.
When the guide tells us that Blixen’s family purchased the farm from Imperial British East Africa Company, it is as if the land was just there, available to be purchased and occupied. It is as if the people living there miraculously transformed themselves into squatters and availed themselves to be cooks, porters, gun bearers and houseboys. Whereas detailed background information leading up to Blixen’s travel to Kenya is provided, it appears that even now this place’s living memory is predicated on Blixen’s arrival in 1917. How did the land owners become squatters? What was cleared from this site to make space for coffee trees?
The museum guide mentions that the bathroom had two exits so that a worker could empty the chamber pot, drain the dirty bath water and clean the bathroom without entering through the house. In the kitchen, utensils are arranged as they would have appeared on a regular day. The dining table is laid out with cutlery and crockery as they would have been when Blixen lived there. A menu showing what was served for a famous guest is displayed as evidence. Some floors have animal hides as carpets. What were the work routines? Did the workers get time off? What did they earn?
In 2011, I attended a friend’s baby shower in Nairobi. Among the things discussed was the task of finding a nanny for the child. I lost my temper when a guest suggested that a Luhya woman was best suited for this role. Others echoed this sentiment. All my explaining about the wrongness of this statement didn’t seem to get through. I stopped because I was ruining the party. I was being too sensitive. It was just a suggestion.
In 2014, my father took me and my sister to see a house in Milimani, Kakamega, where our grandfather had once worked. We couldn’t access the property but could see the old house from the road. My father told us that some of his uncles and cousins also started working there as kitchen totos and mshika kamba. A kitchen toto was basically the errand boy of the house, who worked as the cook’s servant, doing tasks that are better done by small hands, as well as easing the burden of the adults. And from my parent’s telling, a mshika kamba (literally, holder of the rope) was a child who helped to hold animals, to lift things or to hold the big sufuria for the person stirring the pot. I thought about the stereotypes that we are still shaking off close to a century later – that we Luhyas make good cooks and good domestic workers.
One imagines how much work goes into maintaining Karen Blixen’s house, which is now a museum that is open every day, including public holidays and weekends. What is the effect on museum workers who clean, polish, and fixing these artefacts daily? What does repeating the story in the particular format of “the natives, the squatters, the houseboys…” for the benefit of the tourist do to the narrator?
When will we remember them as people, as women, men and children?
In the book Out of Africa, Blixen talks about reducing her white staff, likely due to financial constraints. It is not stated that at the time an apartheid system was enforced throughout the Kenya colony. In this system, European labour was most highly valued and received the highest pay while the pay scale for Africans was the lowest. Even among Africans, the pay was further segmented based on ethnic identity. Thus, it was good business to have workers from different ethnic groups assigned to different tasks, thus enforcing ethnic stereotypes.
Blixen provides a detailed account of seven-year-old Kabero, who was employed as a kitchen toto, and who accidentally shot two agemates while playing with a gun. One of the children, Wamae, died. Kabero, before running away because of his crime, returned to pay the one rupee he owed his master for an old pair of shorts. What is the terror that made a seven-year-old child prioritise paying for a pair of old shorts before running away? I wonder about the horror of a place that claims to tell the story of “Kenya’s past and present cultural and natural heritage” while continuously minimising and even erasing the 700 African workers and their families from it.
After Blixen’s departure in 1931, the farm was sold. What happened to all the workers and their families, left without an income and a home, when a farm was sold off in colonial Kenya? Is there a place for them in this museum tour? Do they deserve their own museum? Do we even need a museum to tell us about them?
Nostalgia for that era lives beyond this museum. A short distance away is the Hemingways Hotel, which has a wall inscribed with writings from explorers and writers like David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, Elspeth Huxley, Ernest Hemingway, and one black exception, Jomo Kenyatta. Another wall has posters from the movies like White Mischief, Born Free, I Dreamed of Africa and Out of Africa. All these have in common the central white protagonist experiencing Africa with Africans as a backdrop in their adventures. Why are we still doing this in 2019? Is it possible to remember, preserve and tell the history of Kenya without repeating the violent language of that past? Is it necessary to keep propping up these images for the tourists?
And then – how different is this nostalgia for the colonial invader from the urban Kenyan’s 2019 dream to have something similar to that farm in Africa? A place where they wake up and see crops growing and livestock thriving, where they count off acres and workers. An aura of self-sufficiency, knowing that there is a worker on another side of the country tending to the land – never mind how it was acquired, who was displaced, or the pittance that is the daily farm worker’s wages. Isn’t this what progress looks like?
Coronavirus Outbreak out of Control in US
American social practices, as well as entrenched cultural values like individualism, have greatly contributed to the spread of coronavirus even as doctors struggle to contain the pandemic amid fears that there will not be enough beds or ventilators for the critically ill, nor enough supplies to protect healthcare workers.
A new, deadly disease is exploding virtually unchecked in the United States of America, threatening the global economy and public health worldwide.
The US, as it is known, is the largest economy in the world, a position secured unfairly by its imposition of the US dollar as the global trading currency. The country regularly styles itself as “the leader of the free world”.
That leadership has failed miserably in recent weeks, as a pathogen known as SARS-CoV-2, or “coronavirus” for short, has spread, with very little detection, across the country of more than 300 million people.
“It’s spreading like wildfire from person to person,” said Papi Kabongo, a bus driver in Kinshasa whose uncle, Jean-Jacques Muyembe, discovered Ebola in 1976.
“There are clear, simple, easy things we know can help, but people there don’t listen. They don’t even wash their hands!”
The spread has largely overrun the country’s crumbling healthcare system and outmanoeuvred its byzantine insurance infrastructure. Doctors now fear there will not be enough beds or ventilators for the critically ill, nor enough supplies to protect healthcare workers.
“We’ve been telling them for years, ‘Your system is fragile. You need to be ready for this’”, said Albert Williams, Liberia’s minister of health during that country’s unprecedented Ebola outbreak. “But they’re deeply uninterested in international cooperation or advice”.
A frightened population has begun hoarding chloroquine pills following the recommendation of the American president, Donald Trump, who has acted as a kind of “witch doctor”, or traditional healer, during the outbreak. Trump has said he believes the pills may treat the disease. A supposed preventive dose has already killed one man, in the hot, dusty region of Arizona.
Some US government officials have made efforts to encourage or require people to distance themselves from each other—measures which are known to have helped contain or end outbreaks in China, South Korea and Hong Kong—but the US president, Donald Trump, is prioritising the economy over public health, and Americans themselves have largely refused official advice.
Meanwhile, traditional American social practices, as well as entrenched cultural values like individualism, have greatly contributed to the spread of coronavirus, whose carriers can be highly contagious even without showing any symptoms.
“If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying”, said Brady Sluder, a student on spring break in the infamous party town of Miami, Florida. “I’ve been waiting, we’ve been waiting for Miami spring break for a while”.
Experts say that even young, healthy individuals can contract the disease without their knowledge, putting anyone they come into contact with at risk.
“Before you know you have it, maybe you’ve given it to five people. And who did they give it to? And if they are elderly, you maybe have signed their death warrant”, said Muhammed Abubakar, dean of humanities at National University in Abuja. “This is a sad example of American exceptionalism in its purest form”.
In addition to Americans’ almost magical belief in their immunity to rules of all kinds, the country has faced a serious erosion of trust in official institutions in recent decades.
“These people don’t trust their government,”, said Emmanuel Mawema, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Zimbabwe-Harare. “They still manage to hold what we would technically call elections, but the wider society has been broken for a long time.”
This breakdown in trust has a deep history. Though the country has not experienced violent conflict recently, the United States is wrought with long-standing political divisions between its urban and rural tribes, which have repeatedly renounced efforts to find common ground.
“It’s almost as if they are opposed to the common good on principle”, said Tesfaye Haile, who spent eight years as Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. “This kind of division and the institutional inertia it creates is simply the way of life there”.
Experts say the US is poised to soon look like neighbouring Europe, where cases of the virus have soared in recent weeks, and doctors in some countries are disconnecting life-support services from patients over 65.
“In countries like the US, where life is cheap, it can create painful choices”, said Simon Odhiambo, who directs the Global Human Rights Network, headquartered in Nairobi. “We’ve been saying for years that health is a human right all states must respect, or it can put everyone at risk. This is what we meant”.
Other countries, too, fear the failures of the United States will put their own populations at risk.
“We don’t have any cases right now”, said South Sudanese President Salva Kiir. “We’ve closed the airport and our land borders. This may create real economic hardship for our people, but we won’t allow anyone coming from or through the United States to put our people at risk. It’s a matter of national security”.
CORRECTION: Europe is not a neighbour of the United States. We regret the error.
If we covered coronavirus like we covered Ebola
In 2014, I spent more than six months covering Ebola in West Africa, two of them in the “hot zone” of Liberia. Global press coverage spurred clichéd response back home in the USA, from negative stereotypes about culture and hygiene to irrational panic. This is a piece of satire that imagines covering America’s global health emergency in the same way the US looked at one “over there”—revealing both the absurdity of imperial exceptionalism and the unwelcome fact that the weaknesses of the American “superpower” are not so different from those in so-called “s**hole countries.” But of course they are. Yet most of us are schooled to see the familiar as better than the foreign, and it’s easy to forget that we share the same weaknesses—and the same risks—as those we are taught, implicitly and explicitly, to see as less capable, less valuable, less worthy.
All the names here are fictitious, unless otherwise indicated (with a link to verifiable, accurate information).
This is the Season We are In
This is a season. Its length and breadth we do not know. And if we all look at our respective lives, we’ve all been here before.
January to March is my favourite time of year, despite the heat and the dryness, or the humidity, depending on which part of the country you are in. I’m a sun worshipper and this season accords me numerous opportunities to wrap around a kikoy or wear shorts and a vest almost daily. I like the blue skies even though I have to plan my movements to avoid the noonday sun.
When the rains do kick in—and they seem to have checked in almost on time this year—I’m ready for the grey leaden skies that pelt the earth with rain. A new season has come. It has to. Funny thing is, I get impatient when the rains delay because I know prolonged seasons come with their consequences. There has to be a time for everything. Acceptance is a tough word, I’ve discovered. A friend and I were talking about acceptance, and he reckons acceptance is giving up but I disagree with him. Acceptance for me is recognising the situation that you are in. Acceptance is recognising the now. This present moment.
There will be tomorrows but who knows what they will be like? Finish dealing with today first.
I’ve been social-distancing and moved into self-quarantine just over a week ago. For someone who works from home and is an ambivert, this situation is almost kawaida. I don’t like how it has been imposed and its indefinite nature, but I’m in a familiar space. This was an easy situation to accept. I can’t hit the shops the way I want to and nor can I go down to my local pub in the evening for a serving of human contact. I’m grateful that we aren’t on total lockdown and I have the luxury of going for a bike ride and staring out to sea. But again, I live in Kilifi town, where we as a community are on tenterhooks following the irresponsible actions of our Deputy Governor.
I was angry for two days. Very angry, because so many lives had been put at risk. But I’ve come to accept this situation for what it is and put in place measures that will not expose me to possible infection.
I won’t lie; it’s tough. Tough learning to accept and deal with a situation that is not of your own making. It was only this week that I was reminded that I have been in this place before and I hope that remembering that experience will see me through this period.
As a cancer survivor, I’m in the category of vulnerable groups. My immunity isn’t what it used to be and I need to protect myself. I’ve read about safeguards against COVID-19 in relation to myeloma and cancer, and I’m keeping tabs on other survivors like myself. My friend Muthoni has a way of articulating things in a very gentle “you-go-deal” kind of way and her words resonated very well in our WhatsApp group.
“We are back to the initial days of stressing and anxiety about not knowing what to expect. I joked and said the world is now having a taste of a typical cancer patient’s world. The anxiety, the seclusion, the insane fear of picking up an infection and reading all information coming your way with all manner of advice and tips (even the outrageous ones) and basically getting to the point of understanding that we are totally not in control of our daily lives. The best we can do is appreciate every minute/hour/day and this helps one slow down and appreciate the simple things in life. Dropping all the shenanigan things we bandika [put] on ourselves and prioritize the crucial aspect of being alive—building meaningful relationships and leaving a legacy and not a CV.”
Acceptance. It is important to live in the now. We don’t know how long we as a country or the global community will be in this period. Yes, it is unsettling and at times fearful. But this is the season we are in. Let’s be honest; as human beings we’ve had an uninterrupted good run on this planet for a while. The last time we had a worldwide pandemic was in the 80s.
Twenty-twenty was going to be my year. Seriously! It was not said as we crossed into the new year in merriment, with a drink in hand. Thought that night was something else. For me, Olympic years seem to hold wonder. This year, I’ve gone as far as creating a vision board for myself. This is the year. Now twenty-twenty is more like twende, twende, (let’s go, let’s go), the phrase you hear matatu touts use often. We’ve been shown dust and it is only the first quarter. They are many that want to cancel this year and have already written it off. Economically, the books aren’t looking pretty, I’ll admit. But we still have nine months to go and I’m still hoping that this year will still bring some wonder. I’m learning to be an optimist. Seeing the glass as half-full doesn’t come easy to me. So, this global pandemic is teaching me things and taking me to uncomfortable spaces internally. That’s where I am now. This season has taken me to back to October 2015 when, in a Nairobi hospital, I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a type of blood cancer. I didn’t know what lay in front of me, but I decided to accept my situation. It was tough. It was kinda rough, for I was thrown into a whole new season.
It takes a lot of strength to pick up those lemons and start making lemonade or whatever you choose to make with them. Those lemons represent the now. This moment. Our present.
Acceptance. June 2016, Mumbai, India. A room at the BLK Speciality Hospital. Kenyan patient, age 43, has been prescribed confinement to a room for at least fourteen days. The room temperature is strictly regulated. My only exercise was in the corridor outside my room. And whenever I left the room, I had to wear a face mask. I had a total of thirty minutes of exercise a day. I spoke to my visitors through a glass door. That now sounds familiar for a good many folks. The internet became a lifeline, I watched at least an hour of news and even started watching Cake Boss! And my phone and meds knew nothing about social distancing. I prolonged all meals (when I had the appetite), and in between those meals I was mentally writing and rewriting my five-year plan. By day five, I didn’t care about tomorrow. I just wanted to get through the day and deal with whichever side-effect came with the treatment that was given on that day. If I wasn’t watching the news, it was MTV India, Master Chef Australia or even more Cake Boss. Being quarantined isn’t easy. The toll it takes on your mental health cannot be overstated.
You may have the luxury of being in self-isolation or quarantine within your home, with your loved ones around you. If you are alone, you start naming the geckoes on the wall. I have a golden orb spider called Freda and two frogs that show up religiously each evening at six o’clock like askaris. I’ve tried kicking them out but I’ve been unsuccessful. It was only yesterday that I accepted that they are here for the duration of the curfew. I hope. Isolation can do that you. You may have resorted to spending a little longer in the loo or shower so that you can get a little more me-time away from either the partner or the kids. Count yourself lucky that your isolation isn’t within a hospital. During my sixteen days in confinement the “fun” activities were measuring my pee and recording its colour and describing my poo on a chart. You have no idea how excited I was when I started having solid bowel motions. It meant I was getting better. I appreciated each victory during this period when every day was just that, every day. Fortunately, I had my step-mom with me as my carer and roommate.
It was during this period that I willed my body to get better. Every day was another chance to fight on. There were battles with nausea, constipation and then diarrhoea. However, the main battle was willing my stem cells to be re-accepted by the body that they had been harvested from. Every day was hoping that my blood markers were better than the previous day. It was tough and all I could do was bide my time, wait and believe. Acceptance.
I’m back in that space of accepting the new normal. The difference here is that I’m not alone. There are billions of us in this place. But there are shed-loads of battles and fears that are being fought within the confines of our minds too. In these days of the University of YouTube, swiping left or right, Tik Toking, globetrotting and just-add-water happiness, the uncertainty of tomorrow is unsettling. There are fears about incomes and deals put on hold, separation from loved ones, not being able to touch or even sneeze or cough without getting stared at. We all just don’t know. I mean, even our election years now look tame! Many have cancelled the current season and would rather wake up in 2021. Sadly, life isn’t like that. We’d gotten used to the season of plenty to do, people to see and places to go. My vision board can testify to that. And I think along the way we overlooked the people, the planet and the peace that makes us human. I’m a fairly laid back guy, so when cancer came knocking on my door, I was told to pace it. Now, we are all being told to pace it.
“If you think about worry, it’s an energy that’s used up thinking about all the ways things could go wrong, or not happen or not go according to plan. But it’s just that, In your head. If it doesn’t translate into action or spur us into movement then it’s wasted energy . . . Which in our [cancer patients/survivors] situations is a precious commodity”, says my friend Muthoni. “Adversity will not change. Life will always throw us curveballs. Having been able to beat this monster has given most of us clearer perspectives of what’s important and what isn’t”.
Acceptance. This is a season. Its length and breadth we do not know. And if we all look at our respective lives, we’ve all been here before. It could be a cancer diagnosis or another malady, or a loss in the form of a death, a marriage, work, finances or even heartbreak. You’ve managed to get through it. There may be scars, there may be lessons learnt or not, but, man alive! that was one hell of a season then. You are still here now.
Life Upcountry in a Time of Coronavirus
It has been barely two weeks since the first case of coronavirus was detected in Kenya yet the ramifications of the pandemic are already being painfully felt within my community.
It’s ridiculous I know, but I have been reduced to hoping that the lady I met at an agrovet in Nyahururu town last week is right after all, that above all other peoples of the world, God loves Kenyans the most. She made this extraordinary statement when I hesitated to shake hands with her, citing coronavirus fears and pointing to the critical situation prevailing in Italy, which had gone into lockdown in an attempt to contain the pandemic. “We shall be ok, God will make sure of that because he loves us very much”. More than the Italians? Much more!
A few days later, a retired veterinary officer of my acquaintance came to have a look at Dolly-the-calf; the girl had weeping eyes and I was a bit worried. Upon arrival, the vet found me on the phone and I was able to avoid shaking his proffered hand by vaguely waving at him instead. He was clearly miffed and took off in the direction of the cow pen before I had got off the phone. When the vet was done with Dolly, I explained to him that I had not meant to be rude but that avoiding shaking hands and keeping at a distance from each other was the recommended thing to do but he pooh-poohed me and said that those were problems of Nairobi people. Here in mashinani we were perfectly safe from the virus, he said.
The following morning, as I was driving off to run an errand in the next township, I was waved down by a woman who looked vaguely familiar to me and, thinking she wanted I lift, I stopped. The woman came straight at me, grabbed my hand, shook it vigorously and proclaimed, “Praise the Lord! We will not die! The Lord is with us!” What could I say?
I live on the edge of a small township, about 30 kilometres from Nyahururu town, which nevertheless boasts a Level 3 health centre complete with a maternity ward and a functioning ambulance. The township is also host to many churches of various denominations; I have counted ten, including three of the main established churches, within less than a square mile. Sunday mornings used to be a competing cacophony of hallelujahs and hello-hellos as the pastors in their tin-shack churches tested their microphones before blaring out their summons and silencing birdsong. But a quiet word with the sub-chief seems to have worked and the noise has largely abated, with the loudspeakers back inside the churches and the volume significantly reduced. This is a largely church-going community and the arrival of the coronavirus in Kenya had not changed that in any significant way. When I enquired with the pastor of my church about the measures he was taking in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, he informed me that handwashing facilities would be placed outside the three entrances to the church and that the service would be shortened. Otherwise, life was continuing as usual.
Well, news of Nairobians beating a hasty retreat to their homes in the Kenyan countryside – or at least to the homes of their parents and relatives – have got me worried that the virus is already lurking among us, shortly to manifest itself to devastating effect. And so, being a mild hypochondriac, and convinced that the slight tightening in my chest does not augur well, I have decided to commune with my God from the relative safety of my house and compound.
Born and bred in the city, I came to live here a few years ago armed with a copy of John Seymour’s The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, a highly romanticised view of country life, no practical skills and absolutely no knowledge of farming. But I have endured and could remain behind my gate for a couple of months, living off my vegetable patch, my maize reserve, Daisy’s milk and the eggs from my chickens. The rains have been unseasonably generous and the locusts flew high up above our heads a couple of weeks, ago, headed south, sparing us that particular scourge. How the market traders will fare is what I’m wondering though. Last Saturday morning county officials did the rounds of the township and asked the market traders, who flow in from the surrounding countryside and neighbouring townships twice weekly, to pack up their wares and leave.
Those who sell second-hand clothes can always store them until the Wednesday and Saturday market days are reinstated – whenever that will be – but what will the vegetable sellers do with their stock? And how will the traders get by if they cannot trade? I buy avocados from Mama Wangari who recently introduced me to her last-born daughter, a charming girl who, against the odds, had done extremely well in secondary school and was hoping to enter university to study pure mathematics. Her mother is the family’s sole breadwinner and sending Wangari off to college was always going to be a challenge. Given the uncertainties linked to the coronavirus pandemic, the odds of Wangari sitting in a lecture hall any time soon have just diminished.
The shops remain open for the time being but business is bound to suffer without the custom of those people who come into the township to trade and buy goods on the weekly market days. Bars have already taken a direct hit and those who like their tipple will have to take it in the comfort of their homes. The police did the rounds of the local watering holes last Sunday night, supervising the ordering of last rounds and, on the stroke of midnight, all bars in the township were closed until further notice.
Soap and water dispensers have been placed outside most shops and the grocery store that my city nephew refers to as The Mall – on account of its having two tight aisles and a large assortment of juices – is well stocked in toilet paper, although I doubt its sudden disappearance would cause as much distress here as it would in the city; maigoya (plectranthus barbatus leaves) are in plenty along the hedges. Prices of goods have already gone up, however; a kilo of sugar that I bought at SH95 last week is now trading at Sh105, a two-kilogramme packet of a popular brand of maize meal that was going for Sh110 is now selling at Sh140 and my butcher tells me that the number of customers crossing his threshold has diminished considerably in the last week.
“Andũ aingĩ gũkũ matihotaga kwĩigira mũthithũ, marĩaga iria mathũkũma mũthenya ũcio”, he says (Many people have no savings, they consume what they earn daily). Five hours of casual work will earn you Sh250, Sh300 if you’re lucky. And if you’re lucky to find the work.
Esther Wa Tu-Twins called me early this week, enquired after my health and assured me that she and her children were equally fine. We talked about the rain the night before, and how the patch of maize that she had recently planted was doing. Then she came to the point of her call and informed me that her store of maize meal was finished and she couldn’t find any work. Esther and her family of five – four children and a younger brother in her care – are among the 4,000 families that were resettled by the government at the Makutano Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Laikipia West following the 2007-2008 post-election violence, a region where the rains are uncertain and the hunger season long most years. Esther’s crop of maize and beans is still some months to harvest and the coronavirus pandemic has only come to compound an already serious problem for her family.
The police are also back on the roads, white masks over their mouths, ensuring that matatus are respecting the directive to carry not more than eight passengers and booking recalcitrant crews. It had been a relief for many, not least the boda boda riders, when the police were ordered off the roads in an attempt to put a halt to the rampant bribe-taking. (A pair had recently been discovered hiding in the bushes along a dirt road from which they would suddenly emerge at the approach of a boda boda, hoping to cow the rider into surrendering a bribe. Their business was short-lived, however; our boda boda community is no longer prepared to put up with that nonsense). Matatu fares have gone up though; a trip into Nyahururu town, a distance of just under 30km, will now set you back Sh200, a 100 per cent increase. And it is expected that shortages of diesel and petrol are soon to be experienced in my neck of the woods; a friend called me with advice that I should tank up and limit my movements to the absolutely necessary. I have no plans to leave my compound any time soon, however, so that quarter-tank remaining is sufficient for any emergency that might cause me to venture beyond my gate.
It has been barely two weeks since the first case of coronavirus was detected in Kenya yet the ramifications of the pandemic are already being painfully felt within my community. May the prayers of the woman I met in Nyahururu be heard.
Reflections1 week ago
Open Letter to President Uhuru Kenyatta
Politics2 weeks ago
Religion in the Age of Coronavirus
Politics2 weeks ago
Why Colonial-Era Edicts Will Not Defeat the Coronavirus in Kenya
Op-Eds1 week ago
Thoughts on a Pandemic, Geoeconomics and Africa’s Urban Sociology
Politics2 weeks ago
Unfair Trade: How Dutch Rose Growers Avoid Paying Taxes in Kenya
Op-Eds1 week ago
The Coronavirus: The Political Economy of a Pathogen
Politics4 days ago
A Short History of Constitutions and What Politicians Do to Them
Videos3 days ago
The Political Economy of Coronavirus: Dr David Ndii Speaks