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Rhetoric and Injustice: An Easter Reflection on Jesus Criminalised

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Re-reading the passion narrative of Jesus allows us to be suspicious of how criminality is constructed today. The divine sharing of criminality exposes unjust systems that prosecute innocent people everyday, who are forced to plead guilty or are prematurely declared guilty.

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Rhetoric and Injustice: An Easter Reflection on Jesus Criminalised
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“The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned, and tortured.” ~James Cone, ‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree’

How important is the cause of Jesus’ death for our celebration of Easter this weekend? Those familiar with the Easter story may find the question of the utmost importance. They may even explain the cause along the lines that “Jesus died for our sins.” But it is much more complicated than that.

Theologians through the ages have grappled with this central question of the Christian faith. The Apostle Paul argued that Jesus’ death led to reconciliation between divinity and humanity, while Origen of Alexandria, a third-century scholar, believed that Jesus was a ransom payment for Satan. The most common theory we might be familiar with today was articulated by Anselm, a twelfth-century theologian and philosopher. Anselm’s view of Jesus was that of substitutionary atonement, where God is depicted akin to a feudal lord whose honour had been offended by the sins of humanity. Christ then acts as a stand-in for humanity, suffering crucifixion for human sin and satisfying God’s just wrath against humankind’s transgression due to Christ’s blamelessness.

In their interpretations, these theologians are less concerned with the finer details of the historical circumstances that led Jesus to Calvary, as reported by the gospel writers. This is not to say that they are not interested in history, because the death of Jesus is a material fact that grounds its subsequent spiritual and allegorical interpretations.

The gospel writers more directly describe accounts of concrete reasons why Jesus received a death sentence; why and how a Judean peasant is sentenced to lethal punishment by a Roman procurator. They present narratives of arrest, trials, sentencing, and execution in order to articulate the causes of Jesus’ death – and to underscore that he was innocent, unfairly tried, quickly sentenced, and disproportionately punished.

Jesus’ death is not the consequence of well-distributed justice. Instead, it is the lynching of a man who through rhetoric, coercion, and popular opinion was criminalised. Although the gospel accounts differ in many regards, one place in which they are consistent is that portray Jesus as innocent. Jesus is depicted in the gospel accounts as one who has not done anything that deserves death; however, the people determine his guiltiness independently of both his actions and the charges levied against him. The charges actually function rhetorically to portray Jesus as a criminal.

Luke’s gospel is particularly useful for seeing how Jesus is criminalised. Luke is clear in illustrating how Pilate finds no reason to charge Jesus; however, the accusations of the Jerusalem temple leadership inspire the people to seek Jesus’ crucifixion. The people deem Jesus guilty without any evidence.

I see parallels with contemporary discourses that employ similar rhetoric and criminalise certain groups in today’s society. Khalil G. Muhammad, in his seminal work The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Urban America describes how criminal rhetoric and racial logic in America have gone hand in hand, to the point where statistics were manipulated to “prove” that African Americans were more prone to crime than their white counterparts. Muhammad’s work underscores the fact that criminality is not about committing crimes, but it is about systems of power. These systems create and perpetuate discourses that present people marked by status, class, gender, and race, as prone to and even guilty of crime prior to gathering evidence.

The same kind of rhetoric is at work in the gospel accounts of the crucifixion. The text in Luke 23:1-25 suggest that the accusations against Jesus, and his subsequent sentencing to death, mark how Jesus is classed as a criminal and how he is thus punished, although the allegations are unfounded or at least deemed by Pilate to be inconsequential and certainly not worthy of death.

In the accounts, Jesus is accused of three offences.

Charge 1: Stirring up our people

In the gospel of Luke, the Jerusalem temple leadership – comprising the priests and teachers of the law – present Jesus as an outsider “stirring up our people”. He is not outside of Jewishness or Judean identities, but he is from the outside of the axis of power in Jerusalem. In their ‘charge sheet’ the temple leaders emphasise that Jesus began teaching in Galilee, another part of Judea on the other side of Samaria. He began spreading his message amongst peasants, fishermen, and farmers in rural Galilee and had now brought his message all the way to the metropolis of Jerusalem. This implies that they consider Jesus either an outside agitator for Jews in Jerusalem, or an insider disrupting technologies of the temple leadership’s power from within.

The gospels all agree that Jesus was teaching in the temple publically during the busiest festival of the Jewish calendar. There would have been extra Roman police surveillance, which the presence of Pilate in the city epitomises. Therefore, Jesus’s broadcasting of “outsider” ideas would be dangerous, especially if those ideas appeared antagonistic to the power of the temple leadership or to Rome. The temple leaders’ arguments here could sound like a “Make Judea Great Again” campaign that needed scapegoats to legitimise the power of the elite and to quell any challenges to their power.

This charge of stirring up the people that the temple leadership raised against Jesus to Pilate does not explain how he stirred up the people and what he stirred them up for, but the connection of this charge to insurrection could depict Jesus as a threat that needed to be neutralised. Hence, when Jesus asks at his arrest, “Why do you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit (insurrectionist)?” he identifies that he is being criminalised as the type of troublemaker that the ancient imaginaire would anticipate to receive crucifixion for seditious activity.

Charge 2: Forbidding people to pay taxes

The Jerusalem temple leadership accused Jesus of forbidding people to pay taxes to Caesar. This at best is an overstatement, because the people did not actually pay taxes directly to Caesar. In Roman-controlled Judea, peasants were not only employed to work on land that they could never own, they were also taxed. This taxation went to the ruling aristocracy (for whom they worked) who in turn paid taxes to Rome and were thus considered a part of the extended Roman imperial family. The taxation, tax collectors, and tax recipients were hated by the underclass.

The relationship between the peasant class and the ruling priestly class explains why the temple leadership, and particularly the priests, would see this charge against Jesus as particularly insidious. The priests, appointed by the Roman procurator, were given a measure of autonomy to run Jerusalem on behalf of the Romans. They were in effect the brokers of the fiduciary relationship between Rome and Judea – like homeguards or paramount chiefs in the African colonial context – and this arrangement during this time was particularly successful for the ruling elite. Pilate had an uncharacteristically stable relationship with the Jerusalem priests and did not have to exchange the high priests as frequently as his predecessor or successor. This relative stability was desirable in Judea in particular, an area that was prone to turbulence and tense relationships with the Romans. Forbidding people to pay taxes would jeopardise this proximate tranquility, which impacted the priests’ economic and political position as well as the people’s safety from Roman aggression.

Charge 3: Claiming to be a Messiah king

The last charge that the Jerusalem temple leadership raise against Jesus is that he says that he is a Messiah king. This charge is important, because it is the only one that Pilate asks Jesus about. This charge most clearly demonstrates the appeal to portray Jesus as an insurrectionist. Both messiah and king are politically loaded terms in the Roman imperial context, and for one to claim either was often linked with being an insurrectionist. The majority of the times this term is used it is in reference to a criminal involved in seditious activity.

Messianism was rampant in first century Judea. The historian Josephus acknowledges a number of figures that considered themselves to be messiahs, who felt they were anointed to bring back the Kingdom of David, or to reestablish Judean independence as had been the Hasmonean period. The activism of many of these messiahs earned them the death penalty on the cross. Even the book of Acts notes how some figures “claimed to be somebody” and had led many people in ineffective movements.

Pilate does not ask about the messiah part of the charge, instead he focuses, as he should, on the charge about Jesus claiming kingship. This charge is both laughable and serious. It is laughable that a Galilean peasant’s claim to regal authority would be taken seriously and given due process by a Roman procurator. It is a serious charge though, because this charge would claim that Jesus is pitting the “basileia tou Iēsou/Theou”- kingdom of Jesus/God against the “basileia tēs Roma” – the Roman Empire. If that was the case, then regardless of status the individual would be guilty of treason and that was a crime punishable by death, even for citizens. With this charge, the Jerusalem temple leadership is seeking the highest penalty that they can for Jesus by portraying him as the most abominable of criminals.

The Sentencing

The gospel of Luke never presents any Roman or Jewish official as deeming Jesus worthy of death until the moment that Jerusalem temple leadership and people exclaim, “Crucify him!” This even shocks Pilate, because he had not found him guilty of any of the charges. But the rhetoric of the elders, priests, and scholars had prevailed, because when Jesus returns from being interrogated by Herod, the gospel writer Luke adds that Pilate addresses not only the Jerusalem temple leadership but the people as well. They unanimously ask for Barabbas’ freedom and Jesus’ crucifixion.

In the account, Barabbas is an insurrectionist who has committed murder and the people prefer him over Jesus. This suggests that the crowd views Jesus as more of threat or more hated than a murderer. This disdain for Jesus from Luke’s narrative is unwarranted and unfounded. However, Jesus is categorically placed beside an insurrectionist and is determined guilty by the people. It is not clear what he is guilty of but it is safe to assume that the people presume that he is more deserving of punishment than one who committed murder and insurrection.

The same rhetorical technique is used when we contrast Jesus with the two criminals who are also crucified that day. One of the criminals suggests that these two have done something worthy of such a heinous death. Although such a speech is unlikely, it rhetorically serves the purpose of illustrating the type of criminal that Jesus is portrayed as. This exposes the vicious nature of criminality, because it legitimates and justifies lethal state power.

Jesus is classed with people who are considered to deserve such a despicable form of punishment. He shares their criminality, because the judiciary process landed them all with the same sentence. Another way to read this portion of the narrative is that if the criminals’ guiltiness is brought about by the same means by which Jesus is criminalised, Jesus’ crucifixion with them could potentially allude to the criminals also being innocent, despite their execution.

This is not justice.

Pilate would have certainly been concerned about suppressing any attempt to supplant Roman power. However, his non-guilty verdict, and its multiple attestations of this across the gospels, is noteworthy. Pilate says that he did not find Jesus guilty of anything worthy of a death sentence, which is not the same as saying that he did not find him guilty of anything. And Pilate’s suggestion to have Jesus flogged exposes how Jesus’ body is marked and understood.

Flogging was reserved for the lowest status of person. It means that Pilate’s suggestion is still humiliation, and recognition that Jesus’ status suggests that he is guilty of some crime even if there is no evidence, and even if the charges brought forth are unfounded. After engaging with the judicial system at this level, Jesus could not go free without being taught a lesson. That is why the word for flog here is so interesting, because it can also mean “to teach.” Pilate’s mercy punishment is framed as diminutive and educative. It serves to remind Jesus and others who were like him of their status in regards to Rome. Nonetheless, Pilate does not get to follow that course of action and is instead prompted by the crowd to sentence Jesus to die on a cross.

Although Pilate issues the sentence, it is the people who make the judgment. The mass of people described in the text is not an unreasoning horde of people, but is part lynch mob and part democratic assembly. They judge what prisoner is let free, even though Pilate does not offer to let one go. They judge that Jesus should be crucified, even though Pilate suggests a milder punishment. By the time the people speak in the narrative, it is clear that the facts of the case are irrelevant and that the people have made a decision. The Jerusalem temple leadership’s role, then, was not to convince Pilate that Jesus deserved death, but it was to convince the people at the praetorium in the presence of Pilate. This is not without historical precedence that public opinion influenced Roman officials’ distribution of justice, especially if the stability of city depended on the people’s response to a verdict. In effect, Jesus is sentenced to death by a state-sanctioned lynch mob.

In the end, I am not convinced that Jesus deserved to die. I see him as caught up in a system that veils its logic of criminality by justifying imprisonment, torture, and execution as legal necessities for the good of society. But this does not critically reflect on how people who may receive the punishments of criminals may not necessarily be lawbreakers or crime committers. If one is classed as a criminal, then one’s body is perpetually in danger of arrest and punishment.

Criminality, therefore, is not about crime. Some scholars suggest that the Roman government would not have been concerned with a Judean peasant unless he had posed some type of serious threat, but that logic assumes that imperial governments are always guided by logic, compassion, and justice.

We can look at our own contemporary (in)justice systems and recognise that that is not always, and for some people it is never, the case. Most justification for criminal rhetoric tends to side with those in power, with the voices that benefit from criminalising lower classes. Then, their criminal status is used as the basis for their continued legal and social oppression.

So, re-reading narratives like the passion accounts of Jesus in light of that observation allows us to be suspicious of how criminals, even today, are constructed by the powerful to maintain oppressors’ authority and distinct identity.

But the passion accounts don’t end there. They end with the resurrection, where the God of Jesus does not allow people falsely imprisoned and criminalised to remain there. This God follows his people through prisons built by criminalised logic and even beyond the grave, guiding them to liberation and resurrection. The divine sharing of criminality exposes unjust systems that prosecute innocent people everyday, who are forced to plead guilty or are prematurely declared guilty.

And if I could just preach for a moment, I would quote Cone again when he says, “The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst.” This recognition illustrates how the strange fruit of the prison industrial system is linked to the strange fruit hung on southern U.S. trees, which must be linked to the strange fruit Romans hung on the cross at Golgotha. May we strive to not find ourselves like the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross who declares too late, “Surely this was an innocent person.”

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Jeremy L. Williams is a writer, speaker, scholar and ordained C.M.E. minister. He holds a B.A. from Vanderbilt University, M.Div. from Yale Divinity School, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University.

Reflections

To the Brothers and for the Women in Our Lives

We were made husbands before we became men, and it might benefit us a great deal to restore the trust we once had in the guidance given to us by the women in our lives.

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To the Brothers and for the Women in Our Lives
Photo: Flickr/Ninara
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Since childhood, my great aunts, my grandmothers and the older women of my clan have referred to me fondly as their husband. “Nga uyu mundu wange,” here is my man, here is my husband, they would always remark in Maragoli whenever we met, never failing to claim this very unusual relationship to me with the biggest village smile on their faces. This, if you can imagine, was one of the few things that didn’t exactly excite my curiosity as a teenage boy. They were women in whom I had unquestioning trust, but what kind of humour! I could not understand where the grace of a woman that old had gone for her to say such a thing. Why? How? It was something too big for my brain to bother with at that time. Now that that boy is a few years older, the message is decoded from the different words of another group of Maragoli women in a closer space and time.

Highrise Estate Kibera is a special place to me. Apart from being my refuge during times when “the situation” seems unbearable in the adult world, where I retreat to the cradling love and care of my aunt and my cousins, it also happens to be a space where I get to experience the village from my interactions with Maragoli laundry ladies. There are a lot of Maragolis here, and most of them live on the other side of the wall in Soweto Kibera — where the real ghetto is. The lives of the people of Kibera, how they make a living, you will find very interesting.

In the early hours of the day, Mbagathi Way’s pedestrian paths might easily be mistaken for the venue of a serious racewalking event as Kibera residents — Nairobi’s labouring class —  race past each other as they trek to Industrial Area. At around mid-morning, the journey becomes shorter for some, those opting to make stops midway as others turn back all the way. While it might seem like a foolish thing for them to do, it is a well-informed decision.

Some of those who woke up earlier are on their way back, they need not say anything about where they’re coming from. Neighbourhoods such as South C, Nairobi West, Madaraka Estate and finally Highrise Estate become their checkpoints; you never know, someone might need a parking lot swept, a house cleaned, some laundry done, some dishes fixed. No functioning human being wants to gamble with energy they lack the resources to replenish. So they change direction, reversing from an industrial vision to a domestic one.

Women are the majority among those changing direction, coming back home, not because their muscle mass will not allow them to finish the race early enough, but because it has made them unsuited for the roles industrial work provides for the labouring class.

So, what is the significance of the relationship between Highrise Estate Kibera, Soweto Kibera and this labouring class? Or, what is left of it in this story? It is more or less the same significance my great aunts, my grandmothers and the older women of my clan share with the laundry ladies of Highrise Estate K. in my life.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit us in early 2020, a lot of women in the employment class just above the labouring class started working from home; a good number of them were sent on compulsory leave without pay. With less cash at their disposal and more time to spend around the house, many of them had to let go their domestic workers. Were they to go back to the ghetto? In Highrise, at my aunt’s and the neighbouring blocks, these women sit outside their sources of employment.

A keen eye will easily lead you to the Maragoli laundry ladies’ base in the area. You will see them seated next to water jerrycans and buckets, stoically bearing the Nairobi heat as they wait for the few opportunities available to them. When the pandemic was at its peak in mid-last year, some of them would go for days without finding a single client, but still, they would not ask for anything from the people they knew. Rather, they hollered out at them like friends and would only insist on us promoting their side-hustles. One such woman is Maggie.

Maggie, a middle-aged woman with a son she recently disclosed to me was in medical school, would shout out to me, “Maragoli!”, caring nothing about whether I was a block away or just on the other side of the road. She would easily convince me and my cousins to buy a few of the avocados she was selling, it mattering not to her whether we had ready cash; we would pay when we had it.

From being her customers, our relationship with Maggie grew over the months to that of neighbours who have no problem commenting about how the other is looking today — not flattery, just raw, honest village banter brought to the city. Recently, Maggie made a personal comment about me; she said, “Sahizi mwili wako unaonekana vizuri, last year ulikuwa unaonekana na wasiwasi sana”, now your body appears alright, you had lots of worries last year. This was weeks after another powerful remark made on the first day of February 2021. Remarks that decoded the message in the words of the women who claim me as their husband back in the village.

“Genye’kana munyo’re zi’gasi mtange’ kuhinzira.” You are supposed to find jobs and start working, functioning, Maggie said to me and my older male cousin late that February afternoon. I had no idea what observations led her to utter such remarks, but they were delivered in a tone so light that we almost laughed. So detached was her position as she made them that it would have been really easy to miss the concern and interest she had for us. And it bugged me, more than the thought of being my grandmothers’ husband bugged me as a young boy. It did not help that both of us had quit our jobs a few months before the pandemic exploded to “focus on our art”. What humour! Why would she say that to me? Now this appealed to my sense of curiosity just as it confounded me. Was she simply asking us to find jobs so that we could in turn provide employment opportunities for her? Was she encouraging us to keep on looking for opportunities and not give up? Or was it a witty rebuke to Maragoli youth walking around the estate in the peak of the afternoon, pretending to be in the same position as her, lacking opportunity?

I remain unable to place these remarks. Nevertheless, if Maggie Maragoli sees me essentially as a Maragoli man then, truly, I am her husband. The women of my clan must have been teasing me with the responsibility that comes with being a man in the community. That as a Maragoli man you are answerable to more than one woman in your life; your functioning does not just benefit the woman you raise a family with, it is essential for the whole community’s prosperity. It might also be that we fit the image of the man Maggie would like the daughters of the community, her daughters, to have, and that she is playing her role in moulding these functional partners. Whatever the meaning of the remarks, they remain a response given in an attempt to show direction.

Only one message is clear.

A deep concern seems to be building up among a group of women from the ghetto. Not about themselves, not about their children, not about anyone really close to them. Just their husbands. A concern that manifests itself as a wound, an old wound, a very visible wound which regenerates into the painful thing it was many years ago when it was first inflicted by our fathers. We, their husbands, are that wound.

In the ghetto, Kibera at least, based on the selective principle industries apply in recruiting workers of the labouring class and the number of women in domestic work, there are more men in meaningful employment than there are women. Is it, then, beyond us to say that when the vision for women is reversed from industrial roles to domestic roles in the labouring classes of capitalist systems — worse in a corrupt country — the people become poorer?

Oftentimes, I find myself promising to give something back to these women in the future. I want to make them happy, these distant but very present wives of mine, these very close but physically distant wives of mine, for the priceless education they have given and continue to give me. But time is limited, and it would break so much to go beyond oneself, I am just one among many men of the community. And what makes me think that I carry the key to their happiness!

The surest thing I could give is my ear.

I get it, I think, I feel as though I have gained understanding. I have to function.

We were made husbands before we became men, and it might benefit us a great deal to restore the trust we once had in the guidance given to us by the women in our lives. Our mathes, our sisters, our senjes, our gukhus. These women whose presence, physically, emotionally and in memory, has never failed to check us at every stage of our growth as human beings. We should trust the women in our lives to give us direction, not answers, on what proper manhood looks like.

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Reflections

Life on the COVID-19 Frontline: The Use and Abuse of Kenyan Nurses

Nancy’s cohort was not trained in the care of COVID-19 patients. They were dropped in at the deep end – the deep waters in which they outnumbered their colleagues of long standing who have permanent and pensionable contracts.

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Life on the COVID-19 Frontline: The Use and Abuse of Kenyan Nurses
Photo: Marcelo Leal on Unsplash
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As the novel coronavirus traversed central China and made its way across the seas to wreak havoc in Europe and the Americas, there were those in Kenya who wished the calamity would also befall us. My cousin Lyn, who works for a medical charity, was appalled to hear an official of the Ministry of Health express the hope that SARS-CoV-2 would arrive on Kenyan shores “tupewe pesa” — so that we can be given money. That was in February 2020; less than a month later, that maleficent official’s prayers had been answered and the funds soon followed in COVID-19’s wake, to be swiftly embezzled by Ministry of Health officials in cahoots with the directors of hastily incorporated tenderpreneurial companies. It can be safely assumed that the avaricious official was well positioned to be a prime beneficiary of the windfall.

It seems a long time ago now, when a wave of indignation swept through the nation as the news broke that funds and equipment meant to help Kenyans weather the COVID-19 storm had been stolen. Here in the Nyandarua County countryside, hawkers of hastily tailored cloth masks selling at a hundred shillings apiece soon exchanged them for the now ubiquitous sky-blue face masks once they became more readily available on the market, selling the prophylactics at ten shillings each.

The initial anxiety brought on by news of the sudden death of a middle-aged woman in May from COVID-19 two dozen kilometres further down the road from us gradually abated as it became evident that her death did not augur a hecatomb. Little by little, as the year wore on, life returned to a semblance of normal; the masks slipped off, the soap and water dispensers in front of the shops stood unused, market days returned and the police retreated to their usual occupation of extorting matatus and boda bodas. Pandemic fatigue had set in.

Over in Laikipia West, in Marmanet, my friends Patrick and Dorothy had been fanatical about sanitising ever since the news broke that the pandemic had reached Kenya. You were met with soap, water and sanitiser at the gate, a good hundred yards from their house, and the exchange of news about the weather and the state of the crops took place on the veranda under the shade of the creeping jasmine and honeysuckle.

Then early this January Dorothy called to tell me that Patrick had been hospitalised with acute pneumonia and I feared the worst. Patrick wouldn’t go to hospital when he first felt unwell and by the time it became obvious that he needed urgent medical attention, he couldn’t walk. He’s a very big man, overweight, and so Dorothy put a mattress down in the back of their pick-up truck, laid Patrick on it with the help of neighbours and drove through the night to a private hospital 30 kilometres away. Updates from the hospital were not reassuring; Patrick had contracted COVID-19 and his lungs were in pretty bad shape so he was put on oxygen. Tests also found his heart deficient and his liver malfunctioning. Miraculously, ten days later, Patrick was discharged from hospital with strict instructions to drop weight.

I was relieved to hear the good news and selfishly thankful that Patrick and Dorothy are an hour away from me; to my knowledge, no neighbour of mine had yet contracted the deadly disease. Then in mid-March my friend Isaac fell ill. Aches and pains all over the body, shortness of breath, dry cough, raging headache, no appetite. All COVID-19 symptoms. Isaac is an ordained pastor and missionary, bringing help and succor to the least among us, his days filled with meeting people and finding solutions. A week of treatment did not improve his condition and Isaac was hospitalised at a private clinic in Nyahururu. I feared for him and I feared for all of us who have been cozily ensconced in our personal cocoons that have given us a false sense of security that we shall be spared the COVID-19 scourge.

The small private hospital where Isaac was admitted is not testing for COVID-19. Patients also have to go to a private facility in Nyahururu town for chest x-rays. But the level of care is beyond reproach and the medical staff attentive. The young woman doctor treating Isaac seemed experienced beyond her years, explaining Isaac’s prognostic profile with clarity and taking critical decisions with authority, all the while imparting a sense of hope that Isaac would make a full recovery.

Hearing that Isaac had been taken ill and hospitalised, a young woman who had been a beneficiary of Isaac’s sustained efforts to uplift the lives of the poor of Ngobit and give their children a fighting chance by supporting their education, came running to his bedside. Nancy* had successfully completed her nursing course and was now stationed at the Nyahururu County Referral Hospital, a stone’s throw away from where Isaac was laying on a hospital bed fighting for every breath. She arranged for Isaac to be tested for COVID-19 at the government facility and insisted on paying for the cost herself.

That Nancy offered to pay for the cost of the test is testament to the regard with which she holds Isaac. Nancy has not been paid since early December 2020 when she received five months’ salary arrears. She is one of a cohort of nurses that was hired by the Ministry of Health in June 2020 in the face of the pressures brought on the medical sector by the COVID-19 pandemic. A Zoom interview was quickly followed by a job offer and Nancy arrived at the Nyahururu County Referral Hospital in early July to find that the Kenya Medical Training School lecture rooms had been converted into COVID-19 wards. But they were soon closed down and COVID-19 cases returned to the general wards once the KMTC students resumed classes in January.

Nancy tells me that there is no isolation ward at Nyahururu County Referral Hospital; surgical and medical cases are housed under one roof in the male ward and the same goes for the female ward, where female patients with gynaecological issues are also admitted. Patients with COVID-19 are “put in beds in a corner of the ward”, as Nancy heartbreakingly put it. There they wait until a doctor with Personal Protective Equipment can attend to them, administering the care that the nurses daren’t, for fear of contracting the virus. There is not enough PPE for the nursing staff; the county surveillance officer doles them out as parsimoniously as he does the COVID-19 test which is reserved for patients displaying symptoms and those with whom they have been in close contact. Nancy says that their only protection is “prayers, masks and sanitising”. Nancy says that “we are not doing things the right way but it is the management that is failing us.”

There is no critical care unit at Nyahururu County Referral Hospital. In fact, there is no critical care unit in the whole of Laikipia County. Not in the public hospitals. Not if CCU is understood to mean the availability of life support equipment and medication, and highly trained physicians, nurses and respiratory therapists specialised in caring for critically ill patients.

At the Nanyuki Teaching and Referral Hospital — the only other major public hospital in Laikipia County — there is a building whose façade bears the name Critical Care Unit but that is all the building is, a façade. Speaking at the facility on the 23rd of June 2020, Laikipia Governor Ndiritu Mureithi announced to the press that “we are preparing a 6-bed ICU and a 12-bed HDU”, adding that “the most important issue is ventilators, five of which were already at the Nanyuki hospital while another five were foreseen for the Nyahururu facility. Well, Nancy says that between June and December 2020, the only ventilators in use in the temporary isolation wards set up at the Nyahururu County Referral Hospital had been borrowed — together with the beds — from other public medical facilities in Laikipia County. The beds and ventilators were to be returned whence they came when the isolation wards were shut down in January.

The January to March 2021 issue of the Nanyuki Teaching and Referral Hospital Quarterly  publication reports that “we now have also completed at 17-bed critical care unit with 6 beds reserved for intensive care unit (ICU) and now have just obtained an anaesthesiologist to get the service set up and running. A nurse has been sponsored by the hospital to specialise in critical care, and more will continue to be developed in this manner.” It is unclear which “ultramodern intensive care unit” was “unveiled” by Governor Muriithi in June 2020.

Nancy tells me that, because the Nanyuki hospital does not have the facilities, critical COVID-19 cases at the Nyahururu hospital are referred to Nakuru Level 6 Hospital in Nakuru County. If there is no room there, patients are pointed in the direction of the Kenyatta University Teaching, Referral and Research Hospital. But relatives must first deposit KSh200,000 with KUTRRH before the patient can be admitted there. The elderly mother of a colleague of Nancy’s who contracted COVID-19 last November could find no help beyond being put on oxygen at the Nanyuki hospital and so the family raised money and had her treated at a private facility in Thika. She survived.

Nancy’s cohort was not trained in the care of COVID-19 patients. They were dropped in at the deep end – the deep waters in which they outnumbered their colleagues of long standing who have permanent and pensionable contracts. Nancy and her colleagues were offered 3-year contracts with a basic salary and no benefits take it or leave it. They took it.

Last December Nancy’s cohort was split in two and she found herself in the Universal Healthcare group (UHC), falling directly under the Ministry of Health. She has not been paid since, while her colleagues who fall under the responsibility of the Laikipia County Government have been receiving their salaries every 27th day of the month like clockwork. Nancy says she doesn’t know the criteria that was used to split the group. She says that she and her UHC colleagues often call on the understanding of their colleagues who are on the county government payroll for financial help. Which is why her offering to pay for Isaac’s COVID-19 test is so significant.

Now it seems that the Ministry of Health has lost their paperwork. Their files have “disappeared” and so they cannot be paid. Nancy and her UHC group have been asked to resubmit all their diplomas, certificates and all other supporting documents. Each document must be certified by a magistrate as conforming to the original. The magistrate at Nanyuki charged 50 shillings the copy, a small enough sum until you take into account the number of documents that must be submitted and the number of nurses submitting them. And the fact that none of them have been paid since the 4th of December 2020. The county government took possession of the resubmitted documentation for onward transmission to Afya House but could not tell Nancy and her colleagues when they might expect their salary arrears to be paid.

Thankfully, Isaac tested negative for COVID-19. He had suffered a particularly nasty bout of pneumonia. He is out of the woods and back home where he haltingly (talking still makes him breathless) admitted to his wife that in the dark hours of a particularly difficult and frightening night he had yielded to his God, leaving his family in the care of the Almighty.

* Name has been changed.

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Reflections

The Paradox of Choice: Just Another Family Tale

I am thinking about the miracle of being born, a one in 400 trillion chance. Even without this statistic it is hard for me to consider that my birth might have no meaning beyond the self-constructed value I give to my experiences of life through you; the fact that your death was not the end of your life, that you continue to live through me.

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The Paradox of Choice: Just Another Family Tale
Photo: Unsplash/Aditya Romansa
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Say something to me
What does one who grants you the kindness of a living body
want from you in return but an understanding of what it means to feel alive?

~ Forough Farrokhzad

I was told that I was born a healthy baby at Consolata Hospital in Nyeri. My father, who is of the Kuria people of southwestern Kenya, was working on a project in central Kenya as an agricultural engineer. I was named Boke after his mother. In Kuria tradition girls were not as celebrated as boys, but my father looked at me as keenly, with that same sense of indebtedness, as he would at his own mother. 

We thank our parents for the gift of life. Our parents expect us to thank them. Each and every day you should demonstrate gratitude for this special gift; no matter your experiences, you owe it to the givers of life – for better and for worse.

We lived in Nyeri for two years. And then I was taken to my maternal grandmother in Russia, where I spent two, three years with her in Krasnodarsky krai in that southern part of Russia that borders Crimea to the west and Georgia to the south. Krasnodarsky krai is in the Caucasus, a popular getaway because of the warmer climate, the ski resorts and the seaside. But I didn’t get to visit any of these places then; only later in my life did I spend time on the Black Sea while living there as a teenager.

While everything before this time remains with the custodians of the stories, my first memory is that of abandonment, my mother taking me away from Nyeri at only two and leaving me with my grandmother. Her soft long fingers slip away from mine and I realise that I am not going with her. I break into a cry but it is too late; the tram is moving away and we are separated.

There is something about knowing that you have no choice that leaves more room for acceptance. How that acceptance, or rebellion, manifests itself is a different story. Days went by and I settled into a routine in my grandmother’s home. In the winter we would light firewood to keep warm and in the summer we would eat strawberries and crimson cherries, and pickle cucumbers for the coming winter. I had no real sense of time other than day, night and seasons, and I do not remember thinking as much about being left behind as I did about what would be happening in my day to day life – fighting with my twin boy cousins, their mother bringing us hot dog treats overflowing with tomato sauce and mustard, taking a bath in a bucket, picking walnuts (fallen from a tree I still miss as my connection to the roots it held), running to the river, walking to fetch water from a nearby well, my tattooed uncle getting me out of the cupboard where I hid when I was upset, his golden teeth shimmering back at me. “Katyusha”, dearest Katya, he’d say.

Every so long, babushka would announce the arrival of a letter and she’d read out words that came from the heart of my “real” family in Kenya: my father, mother, older sister and newborn brother. But of my family, I remembered only my mother, so potent was that first memory living a life of its own somewhere at the bottom of my soul’s well: an unprocessed flashback of her hand slipping away from mine.

Whatever else, I cannot say it was a dull childhood.

This taught me that I did not find places but places found me.

My life was stable. Days, seasons, letters. Until one day, the strangest looking man walked into my grandmother’s house. He was black. I could not hide the shock on my face. Living in a neighbourhood where I only saw white people, I fell prey to the thought that all people were white. Ironically, I did not acknowledge my own difference from those around me – the honey-coloured skin, brown almond-shaped eyes and unruly hair. “Your papa has come for you,” babushka said. The four-year-old me could not fathom how this alien looking person could be my father and want to take me away. Deeper than that, though unable to name it, I felt a sense of betrayal from my grandmother, who seemed so ready to give me away. I hid behind her and refused to approach this stranger, who interestingly enough, spoke “our” language so fluently. In an effort to persuade me to approach him, she tried to bribe me with my favourite treats, “You can have as many pickled cucumbers as you like and more sugar in your porridge.” When that did not work, babushka said that if I left with this man, I would meet my mother who was waiting for me on the other end, where it was always summer. That triggered something in me and I felt the need to touch my mother’s hand again and mend the separation. I planted that seed in my mind and it held me together for what would turn out to be a longer trip than I had imagined.

This taught me that my life was choosing me rather than me choosing my life.

The journey back to the land of my birth started with a long train ride. The longest trip I remember ever taking was from my grandmother’s home to the Christmas show children attended at a theatre in the city centre and this took no more than 30 minutes. The one day on which we dressed up. After the show, the Russian version of Santa, who wore blue (not red) and whom we called Ded Moroz, Father Frost, would give us a bag. In it was an orange (a special fruit in that part of the world at that time) and chocolates. I reflected on this memory on the train, my only source of comparison as I embarked on another long journey that filled me with anticipation. The ride from Krasnodar to Moscow, which today takes 18 hours on the fastest route, was a very long ride indeed.

When we reached Moscow, we spent the night at an old couple’s home. Merry making over dinner revealed an awkwardly jovial side to my father. He was laughing and speaking loudly. I noticed white teeth as a distinct feature for the first time in my life; they sparkle in contrast to his dark complexion. And even though he spoke Russian, my language, all I could do was stare as I tried to fathom that this was my father and that suddenly, my life had completely changed.

I am in a strange place, with strange people, and when I wake up the next morning, the first sound will not be that of my grandmother at the stove yelling that we should all get up and be useful, bellowing a-ya-yai ya-yai! if we didn’t move.

A sofa bed is pulled out for my father and I. We sleep side by side in this open space. He quickly falls asleep as I cuddle myself on the other side thinking about what’s to come. Will I really meet my mother? Will I be safe? When will we arrive? Is this a dream I am about to wake up from?… My thoughts are abruptly interrupted as my father, having made too much merry for our own good, vomits all over me. It’s putrid, lukewarm and slimy but he continues to sleep, unperturbed. I get up and walk down the corridor not knowing what to do. The old lady hears the movement and finds me in the corridor. She cleans me up and takes me to sleep somewhere else. I do not recall if she woke my dad up or what happened next but it took me 25 years to get rid of that pungent smell that it seemed would follow me around for the rest of my life, until someone told me that I had a choice, and I listened.

This taught me that sometimes the world expects too much of humanity.

There was nothing memorable about this trip, and certainly not the nausea I experienced from flying. Perhaps this should have served as a premonition. I most vividly recall my first impression: arriving at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi made this long uncomfortable journey seem like it had been the road to heaven. First it was the black and white striped animals by the roadside as we left the airport; magical creatures. I thought only dogs and cats existed in this world. Then the sun hits you, it is all green and lush, and further out into the busier roads are trees shaped like umbrellas and huge birds with prominent beaks comfortably perched on the slender branches, making sounds that could almost pass for frogs croaking. But mainly it was the sun, it felt so close that I could hold a portion of it in my hand, and I instantly fell in love with this country, forgetting for a moment that my main goal was to mend my separation. We ride in the car with the windows open, the warm breeze kissing my face.

And there she is. Mother. The glorious delicate being I wanted to attach myself back to. I notice that the sense of familiarity embedded in my mind has faded and I have to find her again. While I mend this separation, a new one is born, as I try to get further away from the scent spreading distance between my father and I.

Years went by and in them father remained a source of … interruption … between my mother’s wholeness and I, even if the gift he gave us – Kenya – was something none of us could afford to take for granted.

This taught me that one separation leads to another; like a chain necklace.

Mother

I write this on a warm morning in March. I wake up to the beautiful Kenyan landscape luring me out of bed. I stare out of the window; the crescent moon presents itself just slightly behind a tall old tree on the left, and on the bottom right the sun is slowly awakening and beginning to brim its rays subtly into my day. I watch them both and I am thinking of you. I am thinking how much you would have savoured this morning. I am thinking that it has been two decades since you left. I am thinking I was thirteen. I am looking at my thirteen-year-old daughter and I am seeing a child who needs her mother next to her, and I am feeling empathy for my younger self. I am thinking how father left nine months before you did and I am realising that we were both delusional in our thinking – that the interruption was gone and life would give us a second chance to truly mend that separation. I am thinking, you did not deserve that cancer, yet it was your lot. The lot that your genes gave you. I am thinking I had to grow up to understand that inheritance was not a choice. I am thinking of the time the doctor told me that if I test positive for the gene, it is not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when”. Boom!!! I am looking at your grandchild, this our daughter, who has her mother and I wonder – how will I make her understand that I can save her from a rainy day with shelter, I can save her from hunger by the work of my hands, but I cannot save her from our inheritance. I cannot promise to stay, I cannot, like a sculptor, reshape her genes.

This taught me that this life had to be enough.

Father

What I really have been wanting to say is, I am sorry. Sorry I never learnt to love you like a daughter should love her father. Then I passed that on to my daughter by raising her alone. I am sorry you could not give me a safe space to grow in love. Or maybe you could? You know, there were always the remnants of that scent and your small dark eyes like darts, staring at me accusingly. I reflect on what I did not understand about you then. You were happy but you did not have happiness. That is why your eyes seemed hollow. Why it was hard to find a photograph of you smiling or laughing. Why merry making was your way of leaving yourself but the failure to do so was your source of anger.

The end was not only physical pain but the intangible pain of knowing you messed us all up, that your PhD ultimately did not get to live up to the glory it aspired to. Still, I thank you for this country. What more can you really give someone than a whole country! So that when you both left, I still found a nurturer in its landscapes. The warm breeze kissing my face, the sun holding me at its centre, the croaking birds reminding me that I am never alone.

This taught me there is more than one way to be left; many forms of abandonment.

Epilogue

I am thinking about the miracle of being born, a one in 400 trillion chance. Even without this statistic it is hard for me to consider that my birth might have no meaning beyond the self-constructed value I give to my experiences of life through you; the fact that your death was not the end of your life, that you continue to live through me. That I perpetuate your education, that I display mama’s sensibilities. That which I inherit and that which I pass on. The miracle itself.

Everybody wants somebody to be their own piece of clay
~ Marvin Gaye

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