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Accept and Move On: The Handshake’s Hollow Cure for Decades of Communal Loss and Grief

Prior to Dr. Odhiambo Mbai’s death, the concept of being a Luo in Kenya, though occupying most of my early childhood, was abstract. I knew we had issues with the government and we were paying a steep communal price for it. My young mind could glean from the heated political discussions in our household that Luos were engaged in perpetual struggle with powers that were perceived to be the Government of Kenya.

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Accept and Move On: The Handshake’s Hollow Cure for Decades of Communal Loss and Grief
Photo: Cytonn Photography on Unsplash
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In the year 2003, when I was a second-year student at Kenyatta University, news of Dr. Odhiambo Mbai’s assassination broke. It was a time in Kenya when political tensions around constitutional amendments were rising like dark ominous clouds, engulfing the national psyche.

Dr. Mbai was the opposition’s lead in the negotiations that were taking place around the new constitution. It was a quiet day at Kenyatta University before a loud war cry tore through the morning air. Someone must have heard from the news on the radio or watched breaking news on television in the common room that Dr. Mbai had been murdered.

Upon hearing the news, we ran out of our lecture halls onto Thika Road, blocked it, and exploded our anger on innocent unsuspecting motorists. Thika Road was our coliseum, a place where we found some relief from the bloody plays we had with Kenya’s riot police. We needed to be heard by our government, and we were following a script that the government had taught us. To survive, one needed to be faster, more ruthless and more efficient than a government that took pride in its monopoly of corruption and brutality.

In the next few days, Thika road would be full of all sorts of debris, blood and tear gas smoke. We wanted to know why Dr. Mbai was killed, and who was responsible. We would have not protested, but Kenya being a place where justice is as scarce as life-saving medicines in public hospitals, we needed to register our anger somehow.

Most of us did not care much about the details of the constitution. It sounded like a bulky document, too complex and beyond the comprehension of the common Kenyan. It was, like any political tussle, defining the fault lines along tribal affiliations. My major attraction to it was that Raila Odinga and many other progressives were behind it. And that Dr. Mbai had paid with his life for it. And that two of my comrades, one from the same hostel as me, had been shot during these riots. In the midst of all the tear gas and gunshots, I knew I was living some realities that I had only watched on television.

In the following weeks, we succeeded in forcing the university to provide us transport to Mbai’s funeral. At the funeral, we were met by multitudes of people mourning in confusion, anger and loss. Many had walked on foot from afar, in the hot tropical sun, to join in the mourning. I am not sure if these personal sacrifices were inspired by a strong sense of connectedness to the struggle or some form of communal kinship.

At the funeral, I ran into my younger brother, who had traveled from Moi University. There was something eerily familiar at this funeral. I felt like I was walking on a path I was aware of, one that my grandparents and parents had walked before. It was one darkened with an engulfing sense of loss and helplessness of an entire community.

I went home later that day and I sought out my grandfather. As an ardent supporter of multi-party democracy, and by extension Jaramogi Odinga and then Raila Odinga, I wanted to hear his thoughts. I was also seeking comfort in his eyes that had experienced similar pain. We would take turns swimming in the sea of communal grief. He counted on his fingers and toes the numbers of young, industrious and pioneering men from the Luo community who had been assassinated since the community migrated with Odinga into the opposition. This decision would start a quest for power and democracy, a quest that would turn the community into a hunting ground for a bloodthirsty government.

***

Prior to Mbai’s death, the concept of being a Luo in Kenya, though occupying most of my early childhood, was abstract. I knew we had issues with the government and we were paying a steep communal price for it. My young mind could glean from the heated political discussions in our household that Luos were engaged in perpetual struggle with powers that were perceived to be the Government of Kenya. I was also aware that prominent members of the Luo community were under active persecution.

In this environment, it was a burdensome task reconciling my national identity with my ethnic identity. Tension was always in the air, in the daily news bulletins, in the local dailies. It was dangling precariously in our household too, ready to drop at the dinner table and explode into emotional political diatribe. I could feel the tension in my father’s vociferous lamentations about the systematic exclusion of Luos from the national government. The people in the government were eating and we were poor. Our time would come. Before that, we needed to consolidate all efforts behind Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, and Raila Odinga thereafter. The two were the only anointed vehicles for our economic and political emancipation.

I knew that efforts at consolidating an entire community were met by ambivalence in some sections. The debate about opposition politics being a Luo agenda or the Odinga family’s ambition was a topic that was approached with utmost care, lest one slide and fall into the unwanted pile of traitors. This was a no-go zone unless one wanted to pry open community scars, like Tom Mboya’s assassination. This debate also always ended with someone yelling the word traitor at another person. The same word, traitor, was yelled in our household whenever a Luo accepted a cabinet appointment from President Daniel arap Moi during the infamous one o’clock news bulletin on KBC.

I knew the region we occupied, the vast Luo Nyanza that straddles the shores of Lake Victoria to the sugarcane belt, was deliberately marginalised. The roads were broken, the hospitals bearing the greatest weight of malaria and HIV were subjects of justification by NGOs for grants to save the people. Kisumu residents, seated on the shores of an expansive lake, were thirsty for liberation and for clean water to drink.

One of these traitors was Ojwang’ Kombudo. When Kombudo expressed support for Moi – an action that required public prostration with effusive praises lathering on Moi – he became a traitor. His support for Moi introduced the community to the good life that came with support for Moi, KANU and the government – his constituents in Nyakach enjoyed a short period of piped water and electricity. Like a pimp, Moi had his hand firmly on the Kenyan cookie jar, opening it to dish goodies to his cronies, with the most subservient getting the most, including opportunities to loot public funds.

Kombudo did not last long. In 1992, a wave of opposition gripped Luoland to the last man. Denis Akumu from Ford-Kenya replaced him. President Moi got into a fit of rage, sent government people in uniform to remove water pipes, including the ones that were at my grandfather’s gate. Electricity poles were not spared either. Once again, like a political pimp, Moi and his government were reminding the Luo community of the costs of supporting opposition. The remnants of broken pipes and vandalised water points, including one just near my grandfather’s homestead, serve as a reminder of the costs of voting against the government of the day.

In addition to marginalisation, there were deaths too. The first one I learned of was that of Argwings Kodhek. (I had an uncle named after him though I did not know the weight of memory that the name carried.) I came to learn of its significance listening to the songs of Gabriel Omolo, a popular Luo musician. In a deep sonorous voice, with each beat punctuated with pain, Gabriel mourned Kodhek. As if his lyrics could bring Kodhek to life, Gabriel pleaded with Kodhek’s killers to let Kodhek enjoy the fruits of his toil. It did not help that my grandfather played this song every other weekend before gazing deeply into the landscape of Nyakach – a landscape at the mercy of soil erosion, its nutrients washing away helplessly, just like the Luo community that was getting wiped out by the ferocious forces of multiparty politics and repression.

This would all end. There was a religious conviction that all these sorrows would be magically washed away when one of our own got into power. It was, therefore, imperative that the community united to the last man in support of the Odingas.

The communal wound from Argwing Kodhek’s mysterious death had not yet healed when six months later, Thomas Joseph Mboya fell to an assassin’s bullet in Nairobi. Mboya’s star shone far beyond Kenya. His wide and deep influence was evident in his friendship with influential Americans, such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. He was also the first Kenyan to grace the cover of Time magazine in 1960. His assassination, therefore, not only sent shockwaves around the country, but internationally as well.

Within Kenya, Mboya’s assassination sent a chilling reminder to young ambitious people that no one would be spared when Jomo Kenyatta’s presidency was threatened. My grandfather bemoaned how Mboya’s rich connections, as well as his prominence in the government and abroad, could not save him. Mboya’s death continues to be one of the biggest “what if” moments for the Luo community. What if he had lived? What if he had never gone to that pharmacy on Government Road (now known as Moi Avenue)? What if he had joined the opposition with Odinga? The threat was real, whether in government or in opposition. It did not matter where one’s star shone. It only mattered that its shine did not threaten the status quo.

The Luo community persisted after these assassinations. There was a shared belief that Kenya needed change in leadership and assassinations would not break their zeal. The differences between Jaramogi and Jomo Kenyatta continued to fester like a cancerous wound. Four months after the assassination of Tom Mboya, Jomo Kenyatta made a two-day historic official tour of the region, ostensibly to familiarise himself with development projects there. The Luo community, still mourning Mboya, rebelled. Kenyatta’s guards reacted violently, shooting dead 11 protestors.

The extent of communal loss between January 1969, when Argwings died, to Mboya’s assassination in July of the same year and the Kisumu massacre three months later pointed to a systematic attempt at violent subjugation of the Luo community. The occurrences of those days are passed from generation to generation as a slow and painful narration of how the government killed Mboya, then came to our town and killed more when all we needed was to be left alone.

This year marks fifty years since those fateful events. The people who lived through that period, like my grandfather, have very hardened souls and a very strong suspicion of the government. It does not help that during each election cycle, regions occupied by the Luo community become over-policed and over-militarised and young people of the community become fair game when elections results are disputed.

***

I was only six months old when the coup failed. A good number of the soldiers involved were from Nyakach, my maternal grandfather’s home. And their misguided ambition had thrown the community into the dark underbelly of Kenyan politics.

As expected, the failed August 1982 coup entrenched government paranoia of young Luos. President Moi’s government essentially implemented systematic exclusion of young people from Luoland and other communities perceived to be sympathetic to the opposition from recruitment into the police and armed forces. This was a big blow to the quotidian life of the community. In a struggling economy with a rapidly growing population, the armed forces and the police provided sources of income and employment to healthy young people. By blacklisting young men and women from the Luo community, the government imposed a form of official economic depression on this community as an additional tool aimed at forcing them into political subjugation.

There were other deaths of note at the time when Raila was placed in detention after the attempted coup. The most prominent of these in the mid-1980s was that of the Gem MP, Horace Ongili. The immediate former area MP, Otieno Ambala, one of the leading suspects, was arrested and charged with the murder along with six other suspects. However, after a few months in jail, he collapsed and died of a heart attack. There was a feeling within the community and across the country that he too was killed to shield the real killers.

Nonetheless, this tragedy robbed the Luo community of two prominent leaders within a span of six months. This was a scary déjà vu moment, since Kodhek and Mboya had been assassinated approximately six months apart. The community felt that the government was eliminating prominent Luo males or imprisoning them in order to subdue the community’s will to fight. The government seemed to be reading from the same script that the colonialists used against the Kikuyu and other communities fighting for independence in Kenya.

In the early 1990s, as the opposition was gaining a very strong foothold in western Kenya, Dr. Robert Ouko’s star started rising within President Moi’s government. Dr. Ouko’s presence in the government meant that Moi had started looking at Luos in a slightly better light. He began visiting schools and dishing money in big brown envelopes during harambees and to delegations that visited him at State House. The benefits of “having our own” closer to the presidency was becoming evident.

This did not last long. In February 1990, Dr. Ouko was abducted from his home and killed in one of the most gruesome cases Kenya has ever witnessed. The Luo community’s grief was palpable. I was only eight years old and I remember violent riots in the streets of Kisumu. I remember my dad pacing, gesturing and talking with my uncle, who was a university student then, late into the night, angry at something. All universities were closed as rioting students burned their grief and rage in bonfires of lament. When Moi decided that he would forcefully attend Ouko’s funeral accompanied by hundreds of armed riot police officers, university students chanted to Moi, “You killed him, you burnt him, now eat him!” Another prominent Luo, Hezekiah Oyugi, who was the Minister for Internal Security, died in mysterious circumstances two years later, in June 1992. Ouko and Oyugi, like Mboya, were not spared, despite the fact that they were staunch supporters of the government.

In 2007, I directly witnessed loss in the form of post-election violence resulting from disputed elections. My job as a public health researcher in Kisumu exposed me to untold community suffering. In the free medical camps that had been organised by local NGOs, men and women, thousands in numbers, would show up with bodies broken and maimed by bullets. It was like a scene from what I imagined a war-torn country to be. I did not talk about these horrors with my grandfather because they overwhelmed me. They were close, inescapable and frightening.

During the 2017 elections, not much had changed. The violence continued, with over 300 people, even young children, dying from police violence. Several hundreds were shot and maimed too.

A couple of weeks before the August 2017 elections, Chris Msando, an ICT Director at Kenya’s election commission, was abducted, tortured and killed before his body was dumped in a forest. Again, there was another chilling reminder that there was a price to pay by anyone who was perceived to be an impediment to the status quo. This was almost fifty years after Kodhek and Mboya’s assassinations, and targeted killings have not stopped.

***

One of my early childhood memories is when Raila Odinga was released from detention in 1988. As a child, I was fascinated by my grandfather’s surprise that Raila did not die in prison. Most people, having known how ruthless Moi’s regime was, had expected Raila not to survive jail. I could sense massive euphoric relief when Raila walked out of detention alive. My grandfather regaled me with tales of how Raila’s magical powers saved him. How he could turn into a fly on a wall in State House and listen to plans to assassinate him. They said he would then fly back to prison and surprise his killers with his knowledge of their plans beforehand, throwing them into total confusion.

Then there was the swearing-in ceremony of 2018, and the lack of charges against Raila when others like Miguna Miguna continue to be forcefully exiled. Was this also due to Raila’s magical powers? Or was it a result of a savvy politician levering fanatical support from the community as insurance and a bargaining chip for personal political ambitions? This is where the lines get blurred. When we cannot clearly delineate the boundaries of communal ambitions and individual ambitions, it is hard to tell what we are giving our lives for.

And at the end of the road, when we weigh all the losses – both physical and emotional – and place them on a scale, and then measure them against the recent handshake and the public display of brotherly love between Raila and Uhuru, do we see a perfect balance? No, there is no balance. And there will be no restitution. Not even an apology or acceptance of blame for all these deaths.

The weight of communal loss is always borne privately, silently and sometimes in shame by the poor. There are no monuments that can adequately capture all the losses the Luo community have experienced in the last fifty years.

And what if the community would have known that the path to this political and economic utopia could be forged by a handshake? Would the community have protected their youth better? Would they have stopped them from the suicidal choices of fighting with memory, anger and stones on sisal slings? Standing bare-chested before barrels of Kalashnikovs held by government-sponsored killers?

But then again, what options did we as a community have? At the end of the day, we are all Kenyans, burdened by our peculiarities, such as the ability to accept anything and move on to the next tragedy.

That is what happened after the handshake – everyone put a bandage on old and fresh wounds. The magical mantra “accept and move on” is being repeated again and again until everything looks like a distant memory.

But I can’t stop knowing what I know.

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Norbert Odero is a Kenyan author, writer and scientist based in the USA.

Reflections

Kondele and Kimwa Grand: A Tango of Destruction and Death

Kondele neighbourhood in Kisumu is famous and infamous. It is a place torn between its cultural richness and vibrancy, as well the lurking darkness of violence. You can almost feel it.

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Kondele and Kimwa Grand: A Tango of Destruction and Death
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Kondele neighbourhood in Kisumu is famous and infamous. It is a place torn between its cultural richness and vibrancy, as well the lurking darkness of violence. You can almost feel it. “Kondele inachomeka” (Kondele is burning) are two words that have been communicated in texts and calls amongst the residents of Kisumu more than any other during election cycles. These words have ominous foreshadowing of blood loss, violence, death and destruction. And news of riots in Kondele with accompanying images of tyres burning and riot police chasing demonstrating youths, always delivered in a matter of fact way, has been one of Kisumu’s greatest infamies.

I have received quite a number of “Kondele inachomeka” messages on my phone. I have become accustomed to the weight of meaning in these messages. When I receive these messages, I know to prepare. I know it will take me longer to travel between Kisumu central business district and my house on the other side of town. I also know that people travelling between Kisumu and Kakamega will not make it home on time. I also know that “Kondele inachomeka” triggers panic in the hearts of my non-Luo colleagues. Their relatives will call worried about their safety. Especially those who come from communities with political leaders who are in opposition to Raila Odinga or involved in some political tussle with him. And sadly, a few moments after “Kondele inachomeka” text messages, “Urgent request for blood donation” texts with images of victims of violence, fresh like a scene of a massacre, would follow. This will be a confirmation of the expected – that demonstrations have descended into chaos, and Kenya Police have excelled at the sport they are best at, that is quelling demonstrations with brutal and deadly force. As expected, Kondele and its youth will bear the brunt of this political contest.

Kondele is also a place of ironies. One of the biggest ironies is that the regional blood bank is located within two hundred meters from the heart of Kondele. It is almost a perfect design. That one area of Kenya that has experienced most bloodshed during political contests between opposition and government sits within a few hundred of meters from a regional blood transfusion center. Makes a lot sense. People will lose a lot of blood; why not lose it within the vicinity of a transfusion center? On tragic days, such as during the post-election violence of 2007, the regional transfusion center would completely run out of blood. Most of it had been soaked up by the red dust of Kondele where young men lay in pain, bleeding in the hot afternoon sun from bullet wounds from Kenya Police. Some lucky ones made it to the hospital where they lay down, in pools of their own blood on floors of then Nyanza Provincial Referral Hospital. Kondele had quickly transformed into a war zone akin to Baghdad or Mogadishu with disturbing statistics. Some reports showed that during the 2007 post-election violence, as many as 40 people were getting shot dead in a day.

But before post-election violence, there was Kimwa Grand Club. As the name suggests, it was indeed grand. It was a one-stop shop for entertainment, food and accommodation at the heart of Kondele. Kimwa was loved when politics was good. And loathed when politics was bad. And politics being the thread that holds the fabrics of the Kenyan society together, would also sneak into Kimwa, into people’s drinking tables, into their drinks and soon into their conversations. Kimwa was a happy place most of the time. One only needed to visit it on a good night to appreciate the spirit of Kondele, of Kisumu.

Kimwa defined this spirit, absorbed it and embodied it. Apart from Kimwa Grand Club, there were really no landmarks commensurate to the behemoth name of Kondele. Club Dona across the road from Kimwa tried but couldn’t keep up. Hotel Cassanova down the road had long lost its glory. There was nothing really comparable, beyond the roads that split the Kondele into two. Sometimes it looked like the chaos present where the Kibos road met the Kisumu-Kakamega road defined life in Kisumu during elections. Everyone in a car, matatu, boda boda or on foot wanted to move forward, but there was nowhere to go as people got in each other’s way on the small, congested and neglected tarmac roads. Vehicles traveling towards Mamboleo, or Kibos or Kisumu CBD would negotiate for space through high-pitched horns and curses from their drivers. If you were sitting at the top of Kimwa’s balcony, one would watch the full display of this negotiation in daily life. When the night would fall, some of these men and women would end up at Kimwa, to close their day in dance and merriment of sorts. It is like Kimwa would lure them in the evening with their pockets full, and expel them the next morning with their pockets empty, to go look for more.

Kondele is notoriously cosmopolitan. The most famous shops in this place have historically been owned by people not native to the region. There is always a “Kwa Karanja” with the best nyama choma, or a “Kwa Njoroge” selling all types of goods. These places could be destroyed and razed to the ground in one week of political madness. The following week, when normalcy would return, they would be up, rebuilt with the same hands that destroyed them.“Kwa Karanja” is like the local phoenix that rises from the ashes to remind people that life must move on, in the peculiar Kenyan way.

Then there was Kimwa. To think that a random Kenyan, Miriti Mbui from Meru, could come to Kisumu and set up Kimwa Grand, a successful club worthy of hosting international superstars, is indeed a testament of the Kenyan dream. This was proof that one could make it anywhere. To also think that this same man would lose everything in 24 hours of madness; that the same people that danced to the stars at Kimwa, would set upon her and dismantle her block by block, before setting her on fire, is also a testament that the Kenyan dream rests on political quicksand. It could sink at any moment.

My fascination with Kondele began in the mid 1990s. I was traveling with my mother in a matatu towards Kisumu when a man as old as my mother, without any warning, vomited all over the floor of the matatu. My natural conclusion was that the man was sick and needed help. The matatu tout and driver held a contrary opinion. When this man was done vomiting, the conductor informed him in an ominous voice that he would drive to Kondele where the man would be taught a lesson. When he stopped in Kondele, the tout left and came back with a gang of young men who took great pride is slapping this man around. I remember him pleading for mercy, saying he had malaria. No one cared. Out of nowhere, a bucket full of water arrived. The bewildered man got on his knees and washed that spot of the matatu, picking pieces of vomit from the floor. He also paid 100 shillings for “wasting people’s time”. I did not understand why the tout and his driver felt that Kondele would the best place for this man to get a taste of street justice. But then again, there are places like Kondele all over Kenya. Places where the violent services of men can be outsourced cheaply, for a drink, and the men dispensing these crude forms of justice neither have remorse nor subject themselves to any law.

While I was at Kenyatta University, this place was Githurai 45. When university students would refuse to bow to the forces of extortion through arbitrary doubling of fares from Nairobi CBD to Kenyatta University, the matatus would take a detour into Githurai 45, and drive to some shady, nondescript place. The vehicle would stop, the driver would switch off the car and the tout would approach a band of young men. After a few exchanges, the tout would walk back with the young men in tow. One could tell that these men were adept in the act of exerting fear into the hearts of men and women. And just like bloodhounds, their sense of smell for fear was so sharp that when they walked to the matatu, they knew that the job was already completed. Everyone would rush to pay the exorbitant fares.

After this extortion ritual had been finalised, the touts would taunt us, “Mbona hamukulipa mapema”, (Why didn’t you pay before) as if blaming us for not allowing ourselves to be extorted promptly. How could we not know that there was a parallel world out there that had grown and thrived in the rich medium of corruption? Thriving as a result of the government’s penchant for disappearing without official leave of absence? This is the world that had created the angry youth gangs of Kondele, the Mungiki, Chinkororo, among others. They knew that with the absence of government involvement in social welfare, political players would use these gangs to leverage their anger and disenfranchisement for political gain, as a cheap source violence against their opposition. Or destroy them when it felt threatened.

I first visited Kimwa in the year 2000, while waiting to join campus as I worked at the law firm of my late cousin, Grace Awino. The corridors of justice were littered with stories of past night parties at Kimwa. I was very curious and wanted to visit this club and feel its spirit, which as I had been told, was reflective of the spirit of Kisumu. It was rich, dark, powerful and very expressive, just like Kondele, I was told. During my visit, we mostly spent time at the basement, which was a full-blown discotheque. The first floor was an open-air club where older people enjoyed live benga and rhumba from famous bands. The entrance was manned by muscled men acting as bouncers. These were young men who spent long days in backyard gyms building muscles for lack of anything else to do. Employment in Kisumu was hard to come by. Most of industries had withered slowly before shutting down. The remnants of Kenya Breweries depot and Kisumu Cotton Mills (Kicomi) stood in shame as reminders of what a mixture of mismanagement, corruption and being on the cold side of Kenyan politics could accomplish. Men and women who had lost their jobs in these places would wake up when the sun was over Lake Victoria, wear their threadbare shirts and shoes with paper thin soles, and head to jua kali, a stone throw from these once vibrant industries. They would engage in political and philosophical talk before splitting whatever little they had made through menial work or small deals. At sunset, they would take a final look at Kicomi and the Breweries, before walking slowly towards their residences in the shanties on the fringes of Kisumu’s CBD. Kimwa kept some of these young men out of trouble. It provided a place where young men and women from slums surrounding Kondele could earn a living as cleaners, waitresses or bouncers.

Kimwa was also a cultural hub where Luo benga music was curated. Musicians such as Okach Biggy, Musa Juma and D.O. Misiani were common names on the roster of musicians playing at Kimwa. They were not only assured of a good crowd but of good earnings. During the day, one could see these musicians basking in the sun at Kondele like brightly colored iguanas, seeking the strength of sun before turning into entertainment powerhouses at night. At the height of Kimwa’s glory, Awilo Longomba, the 1997 Kora Awards winner in the “Best New Artist” category for his chart-buster, Dibala bala, visited Kisumu. No international artist of this repute since Franco in 1988 had visited Kisumu since. This was partly because despite Kisumu being a town where the local people were lovers of a good life, no investor had put up facilities that were capable of playing host to an artist of Awilo’s stature. So when Miriti Mbui, an ambitious entrepreneur would come and build an audacious club and hotel at the heart of Kondele, Kimwa and Kondele became a match made in heaven.

Awilo Longomba performed to a delirious crowd. He was wild. They were wilder. They asked for more and he gave them more. My late cousin, Grace, was in that crowd. She would later tell me of how ecstatic Kisumu was. How Kimwa had put the city on the map and that there were plans for bigger artists. Seven years later, Kimwa would be caught up in a violent political struggle between Raila and Mwai Kibaki. The youth in Kondele, and across Kisumu, felt that Kibaki’s government had carried out unforgivable injustices with the disputed presidential elections of 2007. They decided to rebel violently and attack everything that had any semblance to imagined or real enemies. Kimwa would be one of the casualties.

It was evident that the fate of Kondele and Kimwa were tied together like that of a mother to her child. Kondele gave birth to Kimwa, nurtured and made her whole, big and powerful. Kimwa opened Kondele to the world, made it more cosmopolitan and a true representation of Kenya. The day Kondele started burning, we were locked in the house, following the violence through news bulletins and text messages. The air outside was thick with burning tyres and screams punctuated with burst of gunfire from Kalashnikovs. We heard a knock at the door and saw a man standing there with his eyes wide with news. “Niko na TV kubwa, 60 inches yenye nauza aluf tano” (I have a big TV, 60 inches, I’m selling it for five thousand shillings). He said this hurriedly while glancing from side to side. We were talking to him through the window as the city was under curfew. When he sensed our hesitation, he took off and disappeared in the mixture of the afternoon sun and death. The smoke from Kimwa quickly engulfed the whole of Kondele. All its memories wafted slowly away to the sky, as looters carried whatever they could.

Thinking about it now, the anger against Kimwa must have been personal. In those preceding few weeks, thousands of youths had been killed in Kondele, yet Kimwa Grand stood there in its majesty, as if daring the angry youth to challenge it. Kibaki’s government was a dominating violent presence, yet Kimwa stood there, looking at these people who gave it life, offering no help. This indifference was too much to take. Kimwa must have also been symbolic of economic dominance and marginalisation of the Luo community stemming from the political fallout between Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga in the late 1960s. How can they be killing us, yet they want our money? They must have asked this as the body count in Kondele kept climbing. The violence and determination with which Kimwa was destroyed reflected how deep and painful political losses are. That people were willing to risk their lives to destroy such a magnificent property shows how Kenyan politics precipitates dark, deep-seated political grievances. When the spirit of Kimwa had been broken down by fire and stone, hundreds of youth could be seen with chisels and hammers, breaking through mortars, pulling out twisted metal like vultures scavenging on the meat from a dead buffalo. At the end of the post-election violence season, only memories were left where Kimwa once stood.

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Reflections

Am I Going Mad: A Reflection on Mental Health in Kenya

While the public debate on mental health is welcome, as a person recovering from a mental disorder, there is need to push a wholesome discussion on the reality of the state of mental health in Kenya beyond depression.

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Am I Going Mad: A Reflection on Mental Health in Kenya
Photo: Olu Famule on Unsplash
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Monday, 17th December 2018 was a normal day that stubbornly refused to conform to my expectations. An impulsive decision made at 3:30 PM in a 46 Matatu heading to the Nairobi city centre dramatically altered the direction of my life.

I was on my way from Inuka Kenya offices, when a gut feeling nudged me towards the Doctor’s plaza at Nairobi Hospital. I wanted to see a psychiatrist who could recommend some sleeping pills.

When I arrived at the Nairobi Hospital, the two psychiatric consultants had both closed their offices for the Christmas holidays. Feeling unsettled, I decide to seek help at the adjacent Upper Hill Medical Centre where I quickly scanned the directory board on the first floor desperately trying to locate a psychiatrist before closing time.

Too impatient to wait for the lift, I bolted up the staircase, arrived at the reception on the third floor, and to my relief, I found other patients waiting in turn.

I walked up to the receptionist who would not accept my Jubilee Medical Insurance card: “Your insurer hasn’t installed glade which should be used to raise a claim for your card. Sorry we can’t serve you,” she said bluntly while handing it over.

I was adamant and decided to press on. “Is there any other way? Can you call the insurance company so that I can be treated and you deal with the claims later?” My persistence paid off. A few minutes later, as if fate was moving mountains, I was on the phone with my insurer who found a way to resolve the challenge.

I had seen celebrated psychiatrist Dr Frank Njenga on TV. His analysis fascinated me. Only this day, I was not arriving in my capacity as a journalist to get expert opinion on a story. I was a patient.

My sleep patterns had gradually deteriorated to their worst state as far as I could recall. It had been weeks of violent nightmares. Bad people with crude weapons wanting to kill me and rogue Ikolomani Bulls chasing me through the night.

I could not outrun death and when I tried to scream for help, I found my voice frozen. I felt helpless and trapped in the nightmares. I would wake up in panic, breathless and sweaty. I wanted to see a psychiatrist who could recommend some sleeping pills just like one had done in 2014 when I had a similar experience.

Frank Njenga was wearing a clean white shirt with a blue-stripped tie. His smile and calm demeanor disarmed me on the spot. “Tell me more about yourself,” he asked after exchanging a few pleasantries.

I went on and on about my family’s history, and myself while his head was glued on my file taking notes. Sometimes he would lift his head when I said something that sounded like a trigger. “Tell me more about incident, what happened?” he would ask when I explained some of the darkest seasons I had gone through recently.

He gave me a piece of paper, which had about 30 questions and told me to tick statements that closely represented how I had lived my life. While he had hoped that I would only tick about 10 when he looked at the paper, I had ticked 25 out of 30 and that’s how he partly discovered what had been eating me. To ascertain his preliminary findings, he sent me for a cognitive test to corroborate what he was suspecting.

What I thought was just a simple sleep issue turned out to a symptom of something deeper.

“I’m glad you came here, we are going to help you,” he reassured me as we chatted for about an hour, the longest I have been in a doctor’s office.

“Odongo, we may need to take you to a place so that we can monitor your sleep and find out if there are other underlying issues,” he advised as there was sufficient evidence that I needed to be monitored.

I knew the weight of inadequate sleep and was desperate for a solution. I accepted his suggestion.

“Mental health is like an onion, we peel it from the outer layer as we dig in. That’s the only way we can find out the core of the problem,” he added.

When we arrived at the gate of Chiromo Lane Medical Centre in Lavington, I saw a disturbing sign: Visiting hours is between 9-11 am and 3-6 PM. My panic buttons went off. I was not suicidal and I did not have the urge to harm other people. I just had migraines, nightmares and an anxious mind. Why was I being admitted into a restrictive hospital?

Begrudgingly, I agreed to check in for a night. The bungalow house that sat on a lush green serene environment complimented by the friendly staff all disarmed me.

In hindsight, this was one of the best decisions, I made in my life. For the next six days, I would go through an overwhelming journey of self discovery that I was hardly prepared for.

At the end of the first day, I was diagnosed with clinical depression, mild Attention Deficiency Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and trauma. Though I was predisposed to some of the disorders, a toxic work environment for five years, an emotionally abusive relationship and front row coverage of the 2017 traumatic elections as a reporter played a key role in triggering the sleeping demons that landed me in a hospital.

After I was done with a two-hour therapy session, I slowly dragged my exhausted body back to my admission room. As I sat on my bed while listening to music, a wave of emotions descended and I broke down and wept. I slowly moved from the bed and sat on the floor with my back against the wall and legs straightened. For the next three hours, I wept until I felt weak.

Kenya Mental Health Policy (2015-2030) indicates that mental disorder cases have risen exponentially in Kenya. Estimates point that 20-25 percent of outpatients seeking primary healthcare present symptoms of mental illness at any one time. There are no sufficient qualified medical personnel and facilities to take care of this lot of patients.

A 2015 performance audit report from the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) on the state of mental health paints a grim picture. As at 2015, there were only 92 psychiatrists in the country instead of the 1,533 required. 327 psychiatrist nurses instead of 7,666. The report stated that “While it’s expected that a psychiatrist should serve 30,000 citizens, currently a psychiatrist is serving about half a million citizens”.

I still count myself privileged to have gotten medical attention. The ability to afford private insurance cover, know where to go when symptoms arise and get treated by Dr. Njenga is privilege.

Millions of Kenyans who struggle to meet basic needs are exposed to mental disorder triggers stemming from their environment and cannot afford this privilege. For the poor masses in Kenya, quality primary health care is a mirage. Add the lack of specialized mental healthcare and you condemn a whole section of the population to destitution.

Mathari Hospital, which is an affordable public facility and the only hospital in the country offering specialized psychiatric services and training is in a sorry state according to the OAG. For the three financial years, 2013/14, 2014/15 and 2015/16 Mathari hospital was provided only about 30% of the funds allocated under the recurrent expenditure and nothing under the development expenditure.

As government policy, all mentally ill law offenders who require in-patient services can only be admitted in Mathari Hospital under the Maximum Security Unit regardless of severity of their condition. They make up 35 percent of the inpatients in the hospital yet there is no cost sharing to take care of them thereby straining the already limited resources.

Low funding means that apart from inadequate equipments, the wards are also insufficient with the hospital being reported to have an average bed occupancy rate of 115 percent. The low stock of critical drugs, inadequate skilled and qualified personnel to handle the patients are some of the issues plaguing Mathari as raised by the OAG report.

On the receiving end are the patients who are dependent on the hospital receive poor services including delayed diagnosis that can make the condition worse. While National referral hospitals should provide specialized healthcare services and should operate with a defined level of autonomy including a Board and a Chief Executive Officer, Mathari hospital is the only psychiatric hospital of its caliber in Kenya that operates under a department in the Ministry of Health.

The national statistics do not offer any reprieve either. County managed hospitals where the bulk of the nation relies on for mental health care is stuff of horror.

In the 47 counties, only 25 have psychiatric units. Even in the 25 counties where the services are available, they are pledged with the challenge of outdated equipment, inadequate stocks for essential drugs and insufficient personnel to treat mentally ill patients.

According to the OAG, besides Mathari national referral hospital, mental healthcare services are only available at 29 of the 284 hospitals in Level 4 and above of the referral chain. “This represents just 10% of the total facilities in Level 4 and above and 0.7% of the 3,956 government-owned health facilities,” notes the report.

A month before I walked into the hospital, I hardly thought that my relationship challenges could compound my psychological well-being. The revelations from a text message that came from my ex took me to the brink. That night, the thought of going to bed haunted me. I stayed on my couch writing until 4 am. I tried to pray but I could not. My heart was heavy.

My head was never the same after that night. It started to sound like the world’s busiest construction site. Constant hammering, grinders cutting through metal, welding machines and all sorts of construction chaos formed an unholy symphony in my head.

During the day, migraines became the norm and at night, insomnia took over. When I closed my eyes, I was battling anxiety unable to focus my attention on anything. I experienced anger, bitterness and a heavy dark cloud hovered above. I had never felt like this before.

While the public debate on mental health is welcome, as a person recovering from a mental disorder, there is need to push a wholesome discussion on the reality of the state of mental health in Kenya beyond depression.

We need to broaden the discussion to talk about different conditions and their symptoms, different medication and management of disorders. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are over 10 mental health disorders affecting human beings including borderline personality disorder, anxiety and panic attacks, bipolar disorder attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) among others. Depression is just one of them.

We also need to talk about inadequate mental health facilities and the few stretched mental health professionals. By solely pushing the message of depression, we downplay the reality of mental health challenges in Kenya and the manifest consequences.

Stigma and lack of accurate information continues to cost the global economy about $1 trillion every year in productivity due to depression and anxiety. WHO data, reveals that mental illness accounts for 30 percent of non-fatal disease burden worldwide and 10 percent of overall disease burden, including death and disability.

In 2016, the grim reality necessitated the World Bank Group (WBG), the World Health Organization (WHO) and other partners to kick start a call to action to governments, international partners, health professionals among others to find solutions to what is fast becoming a global mental health problem.

Leaving the hospital on 24th December, I was informed that Jubilee Insurance Company had rejected my claim for two reasons: The condition I was diagnosed with is not covered in my policy I was holding (Never mind that ADHD predisposes one to other mental illnesses like depression which they claim to cover).

For trauma and depression, which is covered under the policy, they said I needed a one-year waiting period (I took the cover in September 2018 after leaving formal employment) despite the fact that I was a previous policyholder with the same company for three years and my claim history was generally low and it didn’t have any mental illness.

I was furious because while signing the form, nobody informed me that I was entitled to a waiver. While I took time (2 weeks) to read the policy document, I didn’t notice that ADHD (I knew this condition when I was diagnosed in December) was not covered. The agent who signed me on was either too concerned with the commission or the corporate culture of the organization encourages ambiguity for profit gain.

My review of the mental health policy and the relevant laws including the Mental Health Act of 1978 and the Mental Health (Amendment) Act 2018, showed that the same clause they used to decline my claim is potentially discriminatory. The policy states in part “Ensuring that the health insurance system does not discriminate against persons with Mental, Neurological and Substance use (MNS) disorders in accessing insurance policies,”

Though not yet enacted, clause 3D(3) of the Mental health amendment bill of 2018 amplifies the 1978 Act more expressly: “A person with mental illness shall have the right of access to medical Insurance for the treatment from public or private health insurance providers. An insurance company or person providing health insurance services shall not discriminate against a person with mental illness or subject a person with mental illness to unfair treatment in obtaining the necessary insurance cover.”

As a good citizen, I appealed their decision using internal mechanism but I still hit a dead wall. I am now preparing to take the dispute before the Insurance Regulatory Authority (IRA) with a view to not only settle my bills but also to amend the discriminatory clause for personal policy holders.

Kenya grapples with a low insurance penetration rate at 2.68 percent. The 2017’s Insurance Industry Annual Report 2017 by IRA flags mistrust among the reasons listed for the cause of low rate of insurance penetration in Kenya.

As I began to investigate the nature of insurance claims for mental health cases, I have encountered numerous patients who have suffered mental health challenges and the stories are similar: A clever refusal to pay claims using technicality.

In developing countries like Kenya, the mental health landscape is often plagued with insufficient data to show the economic impact of mental illnesses. However, the effects are wide-ranging and long-lasting including the impact on the families’ and care-givers’ resources; the expenses related to crimes caused by the mental disorders; the productivity losses due to debility, morbidity and premature death; and the psychological pain borne by the patients and their family members.

There is also a correlation between the state of mental health and rise of the Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV). Evidence shows that mental health has a crucial role in the primary prevention of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) even though most standard practice has focused on the role of mental health post-violence, and primary prevention relying on public health models that do not explicitly include mental health.

For example, research shows that empathy, self-esteem, compassion, emotional regulation and resilience, stress management, relationship building, and challenging problematic social norms are crucial for primary prevention of SGBV.

A 2016 report by the National Gender and Equality Commission estimated that the cost of GBV stood at KES 46 billion, which translated to about 1.1 percent of Kenya’s GDP due to medical related expenses, litigation costs, productivity losses among others.

More needs to be done to create awareness about mental health and its economic cost. Also, there is need for an immediate taskforce to collect data about mental health in Kenya to advise policy decisions.

In the words of Owen Arthur, former Prime Minister of Barbados: “For he who has health has hope; and he who has hope, has everything.”

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Reflections

Brazen II: Coming Home a Feminist

Women’s oppression is the original human sin and has been normalised by most societies. But even for women, change had to come. Now more and more women are refusing to stay in the place assigned to them, the shamba, the margins of society, the kitchen or whatever place their societies deemed fit them.

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Brazen II: Coming Home a Feminist
Photo: Rigged Photography on Unsplash
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I first encountered feminism as a graduate student in the US, and I didn’t take to it. The women who were feminists around me seemed irrational, angry and easily triggered. I still remember my first feminist moment. A male student walked up to me and a fellow female student and with a smile on his face complimented us on how good we looked. I did look good and I was in the middle of thanking him for the compliment when I became aware of my friends’ angry retort that went something like this, “…Focus on our minds and not on our bodies.” I don’t know who was more mortified, me or the young man. As he slinked off in confusion I was left with many questions. How was he supposed to see the state of our minds? Why had we put in so much effort to look good if we apparently did not want to be complimented?

My initial aversion to feminism was reinforced by some of my professors, especially the older men, who counseled me to keep away from feminists to avoid becoming angry and bitter, which according to them was the inevitable lot of a feminist. My fellow African students especially, not only the men, asserted that feminism was simply un-African. For a while there I agreed with all of them. But approximately six months into my graduate studies, I discovered politics and not just any politics, but one that had me leaning more and more to the left. By the end of my graduate studies, I was fully-fledged and radicalised, identifying as a Marxist – Feminist.

What happened to cause my radicalisation? We love nice neat stories in which there is “the moment” that changes everything. But this is never the case and my radicalisation has its roots in what I will call milestone moments that left me questioning life and its meaning, long before I came to America. One of the earliest milestone moments happened in Kenya as I watched Prof. Wangari Maathai fight to prevent her divorce.

Wangari and her husband, Mwangi Mathai, separated in 1977. After a two year separation, Mwangi filed for divorce in 1979. Mwangi was said to have believed Wangari was “too strong-minded for a woman” and that he was “unable to control her”. In addition to naming her as “cruel” in court filings, he publicly accused her of adultery with another Member of Parliament, which in turn was thought to cause his high blood pressure and the judge ruled in Mwangi’s favor. Shortly after the trial, in an interview with Viva magazine, Wangari referred to the judge as either incompetent or corrupt. The interview later led the judge to charge Wangari with contempt of court. She was found guilty and sentenced to six months in jail. After three days in Lang’ata Women’s Prison in Nairobi, her lawyer was able to get her released. Shortly after the divorce, her former husband sent a letter via his lawyer demanding that Wangari drop his surname. She chose to add an extra “a” instead of changing her name, and that’s why we know her as Wangari Maathai.

I watched as her reputation was torn apart by her husband, and all around me grown men and women gossiped, castigated and scandalised Wangari with a vicious glee, which shocked me. I had attended an all girls’ school (Loreto Convent Valley Road) and grown up in a home that rewarded achievement. But it turned out that this background had insulated me and given me an entirely false picture of my country. In the Wangari Maathai moment, I discovered my country’s hard core patriarchy and misogynistic nature and it gave me pause. I realised I was a woman and saw what I was up against, me with my many ambitions.

The next milestone moment took place at the University of Nairobi and reinforced the lessons learnt in the Wangari Maathai moment. It was my first week at university and through a series of accidents I ended up taking Botany and Zoology instead of the sociology that I had signed up for. One day as I walked to class I was joined by a male student who looked innocent enough until I told him what I was studying.

“Oh it must be very hard for you to study science, being a female.” He looked at me with a woiye look of concern on his face. I was shocked and ripped into him for his nonsensical ideas. What was he studying? The very Sociology I should have been studying if I didn’t have “A” levels in both the arts and sciences.

Soon after becoming a feminist, I started to look for fellow African feminists and African feminist writing. I was looking for myself and my world. Although women all over the world have much in common, the detail in our disparate worlds makes each community of women unique. And there is nothing more nurturing than finding yourself described, analysed and understood by your own.

My experienced playing hockey in Kenya and in the US will illustrate. When I went to graduate school in America I gleefully joined the women’s hockey team. But I found the American idea of women’s hockey did not match mine. In Kenya there is no distinction between women and men’s hockey, we play full out with equal skill, strength and speed. Hockey is a dangerous game and that is one of the reasons I loved it so much. And to improve my game, I had often played on men’s teams. In the US women played hockey as if they were delicate greenhouse flowers, they pushed the ball, ran gently and played slowly. The coach reprimanded me on several occasions when I brought my thundering Kenyan style to the pitch. It clearly terrified the American girls. I soon quit because I could not confine myself to the narrow version of the game played by American women.

My search for African versions of feminism finally bore fruit when to my delight I discovered Dr. Achola Pala Okeyo one of the leading Kenyan women who obtained a PHD from Harvard University in the 1970s. Her research on Kenyan women filled me with joy and helped me navigate the terrain of feminism on my own terms.

Research on African women revealed that one of the most important contributions that African women have made to feminism has much in common with the way in which hockey is played in Kenya. African women were acknowledged to have physical strength which was seen as a positive attribute. It was in Africa that women were farmers, a situation which had flummoxed the colonials coming from western European countries, Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, where it was men who were the farmers. On the hockey pitch in Kenya I played full out knowing that I had the strength to play. However, I found the idea of a delicate American woman permeating most aspects of their culture, with the consequence of preventing American women from exploring and expanding the limits of their physical abilities. Ironically it was Africa’s idea of a woman which helped the feminist movement understand that gender was a social construct and was not a biological determinant.

You always remember your first feminist conference; mine was entitled, “Common Differences: Third World Women and Feminist Perspective”. It was held in April 1983 at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. In addition to being my first feminist conference, this conference was also one of the first occasions for women of colour and white women in the USA and women from third world countries to come together around their common differences. The conference had 150 presenters and an audience of 2,000 people and was organised around three themes namely; Colonization and Resistance, Images and Reality and International Women’s Movements. I remember a few things about the conference. First I remember listening in awe to Nawal El Sadaawi, Egyptian feminist writer, activist, physician, and psychiatrist. In the session I attended she was telling the western feminists that they too had been circumcised psychologically and not to look at African women as the only ones whose sexuality had been compromised through Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

My most enduring memory was being on the receiving end of the feminist hierarchy which apparently made me invisible and my opinions inconsequential in a conference about third world women – precisely because I was the real deal, a third world woman. This is how it happened. I was in a session. I contributed. I was ignored. I shrunk into confused despondency. Fortunately for me there was another woman of colour, she was Chinese American and knew her people well. After three white women spoke ignoring my rather scintillating contribution, she staged a disruption. She stood up, banged a table and brought the proceedings to a halt. But first she asked me to stand up. Then she turned the room’s attention on me. Her exact words are lost to memory. But they were something like this. “Look at her, all of you stop and take a look at her, did any of you hear what she said? This young woman who is a real Third Worlder has just made an excellent contribution and all of you ignored her as if she was invisible. Now to see if any of you bothered to listen to her I want you to repeat what she said.” The Chinese American woman proceeded to point at people randomly making them repeat what I had said. I was surprised, most of them were able to repeat my words even if they had ignored me. That disruption realigned not just that session but the whole conference, with western feminists realising that they had to listen and engage with feminist women of colour and third world feminist women. And that we were experts in our own worlds and not the Africanist feminists. What I learned from that encounter is that I was not safe even in feminist spaces.

Resistance and rebellion often comes with severe consequences. Even celebrated women like Prof. Wangari Maathai did not escape the consequences of her achievements. And sometimes women pay with their lives. The late Ivy Wangechi, a young doctor on the cusp of her new life, paid with her life in April 2019. She was murdered by Naftali Njahi Kinuthia who traveled from Thika to Eldoret where she was in the final weeks of studying for her medical degree and hacked Ivy to death, with an axe and knife he had bought for the job. Ivy’s father and mother had to endure the ridiculous and unfounded reasons given by Kinuthia for murdering Ivy, which were given credence and prominence in media reports. I am a feminist because of the way in which society treated the murdered young woman by shaming her in death and giving credibility to the nonsense stories told by a clearly deranged killer. It is clear that even a mad man has higher and more credible status than a woman who had almost completed 6 years of training which would lead her to become a doctor, a saver of lives.

But let me end with a quote from a man I so admire, Thomas Sankara.

“Posing the question of women in Burkinabè society today means posing the abolition of the system of slavery to which they have been subjected for millennia. The first step is to try to understand how this system works, to grasp its real nature in all its subtlety, in order then to work out a line of action that can lead to women’s total emancipation. In other words, in order to win this battle that men and women have in common, we must be familiar with all aspects of the woman question on a world scale and here in Burkina. We must understand how the struggle of the Burkinabè woman is part of a worldwide struggle of all women and, beyond that, part of the struggle for the full rehabilitation of our continent. Thus, women’s emancipation is at the heart of the question of humanity itself, here and everywhere. The question is thus universal in character.”

And in case that Sankara quote is not enough, here is one that brings us all closer home.

“Women’s fate is bound up with that of an exploited male. However, this solidarity must not blind us in looking at the specific situation faced by womenfolk in our society. It is true that the woman worker and simple man are exploited economically, but the worker wife is also condemned further to silence by her worker husband. This is the same method used by men to dominate other men! The idea was crafted that certain men, by virtue of their family origin and birth, or by ‘divine rights’, were superior to others.”

Many years later I am still a feminist and I understand the animosity and insults leveled at feminists. Women’s oppression is the original human sin and has been normalised by most societies. For many centuries, in true Stockholm syndrome fashion, women have complied, playing their crucial role in keeping themselves and other women in “their place”. But even for women, change had to come. Now more and more women are refusing to stay in the place assigned to them, the shamba, the margins of society, the kitchen or whatever place their societies deemed fit them.

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