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Kenya’s Prison-Industrial Complex: Check in Any Time You Like, but You Can Never Leave

11 min read.

When I thought about it, it dawned on me, that everyone was guilty of some offence. If you were driving and in motion, a traffic violation. If stationary, a potential parking violation. If not driving, just walking was potentially loitering. If standing, you were possibly trespassing. If resisting arrest, well, drunk and disorderly. If in business, tax violation, tripwires criss-crossed everywhere around you.

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Kenya’s Prison-Industrial Complex: Check in Any Time You Like, but You Can Never Leave
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My abdomen clenched like a fist, my bladder tightened, I wretched and recoiled in disgust. I reflexively ducked out of the prison cell toilets.

I have grown up in boarding school, and had lived in the poor areas of Nairobi city, but nothing can prepare you for the three-foot-tall mound hill of human faeces that was slowly decomposing, two walls away from the office of the police officer in charge of Kilimani Police station. How did he survive here? How could he allow this in his police facility?

I fled back to my cell, barely three metres away. I realised how important it was that the cell had only bars where there had probably meant to be windows, otherwise the odour would have driven detainees to insanity.

I had never been incarcerated before; I had only heard about prison from reading and watching popular television shows and movies. But now my real-life journey through the so-called correctional system had begun.

***

I instinctively hated school all my life. Now in the prison system I knew why. School, like prison, is an instrument designed to break your will, to condition you to surrender. Not just your rights – to food, to dignity, to being treated like a human – but your free will itself, your right to choose.

In school, we were always asked, “Any questions?” But we knew the questions you could ask and the questions you couldn’t ask, even when you were deviously encouraged and prodded with, “Ask any question.” After many years of schooling, we intuitively self-censored. You knew that no teacher could actually entertain any question. When they asked if you had understood, you were supposed to say yes. The school rules, the syllabus, and the textbooks were your truth; they were all that was relevant. The truth was irrelevant.

Prison is kind of like school. I was in jail because I had distributed a leaflet containing thoughts and ideas that were outside “the approved syllabus” to the public. I had asked why young Muslim men were disappearing at the rate of four-a-week in Eastleigh, a predominantly Muslim area, and their tortured bodies turning up the Tsavo National Park. Others lost forever. I had asked why the leaders who purported to speak for Muslims were silent on the spate of state-sponsored killings but loud on pledges of allegiance and calls to voting during elections. I had read speeches endeavouring to wake my fellow citizens, my “school mates” in this school of life, up to the fraud being perpetrated upon us.

I had asked “Why?”

“Why?” to the tyrant is “terrorism”. The tyrant feels terrorised. “Why” isn’t just defiance, “why” is to challenge the basis of his order, the very foundation of his rule.

It is the one question you can never ask, either in school, or outside.

My odyssey was just beginning.

***

I was shuttled between police station’s cells, as my lawyer endeavoured to have me incarcerated in the Anti-Terror Police Unit’s (ATPU) holding facility, explaining to the magistrate that the devilish intention of the arresting officers to hold me while innocent in police cells was to inflict mental torture, as they knew what a few weeks in their stinking decrepit infrastructure would do to a human being. The magistrate granted our appeal, but how could she follow-up and monitor implementation? Once you are out of the magistrate’s court, the police do as they will.

Back to Kilimani Police Station. The cell I was in had a number of steel rings jutting out from the floor, two thirds of the circumference emerging from the floor, while the other third remained embedded in the cement floor. None of us in the cell could tell what purpose they served. They served no aesthetic or functional purpose we could think of.

Two days later, an apparent veteran of the prison system made his regular visit. He explained to us the rings were from the colonial times. Rebellious natives wouldn’t just be locked in, they would be chained to the floors of the cells they were held in. It was horrifying to imagine. But what struck me the most is that the colonial penal infrastructure is still intact. There wasn’t even a cosmetic makeover. The buildings are the exact same ones, the cells, even the cells doors are the very same ones the British imperialists built. At “independence” no one thought to rip up these degrading rings that held our grandfathers down like animals.

I was told Kilimani Police Station was the preferred holding facility where elites asked to be held when arrested. I was afraid to imagine what the rest were like.

I was transferred to Muthaiga Police Station over the weekend, after a week of interrogations about everything, except a possible crime or misdemeanour. Not once was I asked or told what crime I was being held for.

Three questions were repeated in different order and context: ”Do you believe in jihad?”, “Do you support Kenya Defence Force’s war in Somalia?”, and “Have you ever been to Somalia?”

It was odd, I thought, that they knew I had committed no criminal offence but they were content to persecute me. How did they live with this moral dilemma? How did the police go home everyday to their children and manage to find sleep knowing they had their fellow human beings locked up in inhuman conditions?

John Laurits writes in this insightful article that police training and institutions are designed to completely destroy a human being’s moral agency. Moral agency is the ability to choose between right and wrong. The militaristic chain of command takes away individual officers’ sense of moral responsibility and abstracts it all into the realm of bureaucracy. “The result is that nobody can be held responsible and the officer becomes an inanimate tool in the spooky hand of an unseen and unaccountable bureaucracy — the police officer becomes no more than a vessel for policies, totally devoid of agency and free of its consequences.” To know this from reading, and to experience it first hand, were completely different phenomena. Was this the dissonance Nabii Yusuf suffered as his brothers lowered him into a hole in the wilderness?

***

I was brought to Muthaiga Police Station on Friday evening. It was dark, dire and strangely very sparsely populated. I sighed with relief, but my comfort was to be short lived. “Ngoja uone,” (wait and see), my cellmate warned ominously.

At approximately ten o’clock that night there was a loud bang, commotion outside, and shouts of, “Ndani!! ndani!!” (Move in!! move in!!). Over a hundred people flooded in and were crammed into the three cells, each about nine square metres. A few were stoned but the rest seemed like anyone you’d pass by on the street on any day of the week. And as it turns out, they were.

It was dark but we could make each other out in the light reflected from the yard outside. When one of them established eye contact I asked, “What is going on? Where are you all from? What are you all doing here?”He explained to me he was netted in an “operation”, while on his way home from work. “How?” I asked incredulously. This world was new to me; his polite tone made me confident enough to ask him.

He explained that every Friday, the police would randomly cordon off different areas of public roads in Mathare, a nearby slum area, and sweep everyone caught in between into waiting police trucks. If it was your unlucky day, c’est la vie.

“What!? No!” This sounded preposterous; in my mind I thought there must be some legitimate reasons for these so-called “operations”. They could not just be mass shakedowns, it was unfathomably malevolent, it was simply unbelievable. But quietly, he told me this happened every Friday.

We fell into silence, with the occasional scuffles and fights as the drunks were disciplined by their sober comrades, who in this space had little patience for shenanigans. It was so cramped that we had to lock into each other’s thighs in squatting positions to settle in for the night and try and get some sleep. But the cramps and the freezing cold wouldn’t let any of us sleep. Why on earth would they do this? Who on earth would do this to his fellow human beings? I knew the police to be inhumane but again, to know and to experience is a world apart.

At Muthaiga Police Station, the outhouse — where one could relieve oneself — was literally outside the cellblock. We had to beg, bribe, grovel, hurl insults and vitriol at the on-duty office to let the desperate visit it. The corridor often ended being the temporary crapper.

At about 2 a.m. there was a loud shouting and banging on the doors. We could hardly see, the lights in the yard had been switched off. The police stormed the cells with torches and ordered everyone who heard their name to cross the floor where they stood armed with rifles and batons. Apparently it was roll call. I felt thankful for the rude interruption, the movement would allow us to walk and relieve the cramps.

Little did I know the open door was a gateway into another trial. As names were called out the police would randomly beat up detainees as they crossed the open space between them, roll call was running a gauntlet, literally.

Nights are long when out in the cold, but in Kenya’s jail cells nights last forever. You become certain that death from cold will find you long before the dawn does. But our will to live is stronger than we often think, and dawn does come, even in hell for a believer. When morning arrives, you are served two slices of bread and hot tea and a chance to visit the lavatory. Then you are locked up again, to begin the wait.

“Wait for what?” you might naturally ask. Not for your sins to be read, not for redemption, not even for damnation — this is the Kenya Police Force, sorry, Police Service, not God. You wait for extortion; you wait for your ransom to be read.

The caricature of an OCS (Officer in Charge of Station) waddled into the yard outside our cellblock at 9 p.m. We were swept out of the cells double time. Everyone could tell by the obsequiousness of the constables that he was the King here; his word was law.

He held out a two-foot-long book like a scroll. He read out the names of about seven of us and we were escorted back to the cells, where we watched the proceedings through the elevated barred windows of our cellblock.

The list of approximately one hundred plus detainees was read out without pause. At the end, in the guttural voice of a terribly unhealthy 100kg+ bully, he announced that every single individual whose name he had called out was charged with being drunk and disorderly and would have to pay Ksh2,000 for their freedom. He cued the police constables to herd them all back into the cellblock.

“Why on earth would they do this?” I had wondered the previous night. Then it hit me; this was why the cells had been empty when I’d arrived, they’d been cleared for the herd that was to be brought in for the night!

***

The one thing you have plenty of in jail is time. We all got to know each other. I sat next to the polite young man I had talked to the night before and we got talking. Sometimes I intentionally asked probing questions, looking for contradictions that would reveal deceit, but I found none.

John worked as a temporary worker at the Coca Cola bottling plant in Nairobi Industrial area and was on his way home from work, the same route he used everyday. He told me he didn’t take alcohol, and I believed him. He had a homely, mommy’s boy kinda feel to him, he struck me as the kind of guy who left work to go straight home to his wife every day, a decent human being in every sense of the word. He told me it was not the first time he had gotten caught in these “operations”. His wife knew what to do; they had a process. He would call her from the Muthaiga Police Post jail cell — the police availed a cell phone for detainees to use to call their loved ones to come and bail them out. She would go to the drawer where he kept his ATM card, she’d withdraw some money and come and bail him out. Yes, they had kidnap insurance.

But as luck would have it, his wife’s phone had been stolen a few days before and he had lost his ATM card. Therefore even if he could reach her, she had no way to access the emergency fund quickly enough to bail him out in time to go and save his temporary job at the Coca Cola plant. He was going to lose his money for no reason other than extortion, he was also going to lose his job as he was not going to report to work the next day — Saturday — and possibly also on Monday. This absence would be without reason, as far as his employer would know.

During the rest of the Saturday and Sunday, all manner of people were brought in for one, sorry reason, or another. From traffic violations, domestic quarrels, exam cheats, business disputes… the list of problems that brought people in was endless, but the answer that led out was only one: cash. The correctional system was a revolving door with free entry but paid exit.

When I thought about it, it dawned on me, that it everyone was guilty of some offence. If you were driving and in motion, a traffic violation. If stationary, a potential parking violation. If not driving, just walking was potentially loitering. If standing, you were possibly trespassing. If resisting arrest, well, drunk and disorderly. If in business, tax violation, tripwires criss-crossed everywhere around you. Every single action a human being could possibly perform in public was laced with a potential felony or misdemeanour, in a system of menacing laws and by-laws, one that ensured we were always guilty of one crime or another.

All the police needed to do was walk out into the street and arrest anyone or everyone they could. It helps them that everyone has been “educated” to cooperate with the legalised oppressors, it costs less. Therefore ten policemen will easily herd a hundred innocent people like sheep into jail. Once at the station, they can and do charge you with anything.

The police, the judiciary, the prisons…are all one business, a large extraction industry.

The industry’s mine is the country, its minerals are the people. The entire territory is a large prison, with ever increasing tripwires and contracting walls configured as laws, by-laws and boundaries. The population works to earn money to pay taxes that will keep the walls from contracting on them or their family members, and to prevent the tripwires from triggering the leg-lock traps.

Kenya, the entire Westphalian nation-state-capitalist system with all its glitter and promise is just one large mine of slaves, run by over-glorified guards and taskmasters. The slaves work in different parts and different levels of the mine, in order to serve time in specific cells and cell blocks with different levels of comfort and space. It is a panopticon equipped with an intricate system of locks and permission levels, to control movement either horizontally or vertically within the cells and cell blocks.

For instance, the other six “terror suspects” I had been brought in with were Maasai herders from Tanzania. They had been picked up in Narok, a town in the southern part of Kenya, for failing to show ID. They didn’t have passports. How Maasai herding goats in the Rift Valley, something they have done for centuries, had become a “terror offence” was beyond me and beyond them, given they didn’t even know what “terror” or “terror suspect” meant, but here they were.

***

Fortunately, there is nowhere angels sent cannot reach you, even in the darkest dungeons of Firaun. Mine was sent in the form of my Investigating Officer. The Muthaiga chapter of my odyssey ended early the following Monday morning.

That morning, my name alone was called. It immediately struck me as strange. I stepped out into the yard to find my Investigating Officer waiting for me. He had come to rescue me from my ordeal, I felt an overwhelming surge of fraternal affection for him. Now I understand Stockholm syndrome.

I walked out in slow uncertain steps. I was burdened with mixed feelings. Even as my heart soared in what it saw as my escape, it was weighed down by guilt. My fellow “terror suspect” detainees, the Maasai herdsmen who had suffered with me throughout the weekend, had looked at me with desperately hopeful eyes when my name was called out of the first light. “Wametukujia?” (have they come for us?), they asked desperately, hoping we would all be returned to the Terror Unit holding facility, with its working toilets and urine-free floors. I could hear them calling me, but I couldn’t look back. I still can’t. In hell, no man will care about his fellow man’s plight. You can barely bear heat of your own fires, how can you bear someone else’s?

I do not know if John lost his job at Coca-Cola, let alone if or when he was released.

I was at the Anti-Terror Police Unit holding facility for only a few more days before being promoted to full remand in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison’s Solitary Confinement Block. To await either conviction and release into the general prison population of Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, or acquittal and release into the general prison population of Kenya.

This is Hotel California*, “… you can check in any time you like, but you can never leave!”

*”Hotel California” is the title track from the Eagles’ album of the same name and was released as a single in February 1977.

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Arkanuddin Yasin is an Ideological Activist and a member of the pan-global Islamic Political Party Hizb ut-Tahrir.

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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