The death of former president Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi has drawn mixed reactions from various quarters. On social media, there are those who are feting his strengths, from his health and discipline in keeping physically fit, to the Maziwa ya Nyayo school feeding programme, to keeping Kenya “an island of peace”. Then there are those who remember him as the man who ruled Kenya with an iron fist, under whose regime there were several hugely controversial and still unresolved murders, most glaringly that of former foreign affairs minister Robert Ouko. Then there are those others who, in cynical Kenyan fashion, are demanding a public holiday because, well, am not sure why, but that’s just the Kenyan condition, in its fearful and wonderful glory. To say the reaction to Moi’s death is a mixed bag is an understatement. That different people have different ideas of his legacy should not be something to be resisted but something to be accepted and celebrated.
I remember as a child in the early 90s sitting with my late dad, an avid historian—and my sisters, watching Moi on television addressing a huge crowd. One of my sisters wondered why people would choose to come out and cheer such an awful politician with such a terrible political record. (For context, I was born and raised in a region that made no bones about its disdain for Moi. Combine that with a household that approached politics with a critical fascination and that conversation wasn’t out of place.) It is my dad’s response that I so clearly remember: “Regardless of what we know or think about him, look at that turn-out, history will judge him as a popular man”.
In a country with a short memory, a terrible grasp of history and a hugely youthful population where more than two-thirds is under 25 years, it may be difficult to recall a time when the level of expression and openness we are currently experiencing was unheard of. That we can say what we think about the late president should be celebrated as a sign of freedom of expression, one that wasn’t available under his regime. Moi is like that elephant in the old poem that several blind men touched and interpreted to be different things. Just like the elephant was a wall, a fan, a tree, etc., Moi was a dictator, a tribalist, a corrupt individual, a political strategist of Machiavellian genius, the man who ruined a country, the tree planter, the gabion builder and, of course, just Baba. Baba who walked with his ivory rungu (with all its phallic symbolism), the emblem of his power and exclusivity. Moi was all these things to different people.
However one felt about Moi, we can collectively agree that Moi made his presence felt everywhere. It was in the way his activities dominated the news bulletins, in the way graduation ceremonies were at the mercy of his diary because he was chancellor of all public universities. It was in the way we were reminded of his benevolence through the milk that was periodically delivered to primary schools. It was in the way development projects were withheld from areas of the country he perceived as opposed to him. It was in the way schools and other public institutions were named after him. It was in the way he hired and fired senior government officials on a whim and kept them glued to the one o’clock news. How he mastered and liberally weaponised divide-and-rule politics, creating and destroying political careers like the all-powerful sovereign he had fashioned himself to be. It was in the various random acts of kindness he extended to certain citizens, for which the recipients were eternally loyal whilst others viewed them as nothing but exercises in pious performativity. It was in the way he named a public holiday after himself and on the very first Moi Day got the popular Congolese musician Mbilia Bel, then in the prime of her career, to re-write one of her hits and perform the song live, in praise of his regime. And it goes without saying that the song was played all the time on national radio. Many other songs were composed in his praise, ad hoc compositions for the numerous Harambees he attended. Moi also captured the national imagination with his almost invisible private life. The wife we only heard about but never saw, not to mention the rumours of the incident that led to her banishment. Moi captured the state, made the ruling party KANU his domain, and remained a fixture in the visuals and imagination of Kenyan citizens. He was The Sun King of his time, l’état, c’est moi could have been his alternative slogan, it certainly was the zeitgeist of the time for those who remember his rule.
It is Moi’s luck that he ruled at a time when the flow of information could be controlled by the government. With limited independent news and TV stations outside of the compromised state broadcaster, it was difficult to get news narratives outside of what the government wanted reported. Distances, in terms of geography, and lack of freedom of speech meant that we got to hear what the government wanted us to hear and any alternative stories were quickly killed, and if they couldn’t be contained, they would be easily delegitimised. Of course, it really helped that his regime existed in a technologically different time, before the era of citizen journalism. He did not have to deal with the narrowcasting headache of citizens practising everyday resistance by filming, shaming and naming his political misdeeds, socially organising beyond geographical limits and demanding political accountability.
And so there are stories that we will never know unless we actively endeavour to record them as part of our history. We will never know the accounts of the victims of tribal clashes in Kenya, particularly the 1992 clashes. The Parliamentary Select Committee chaired by Kennedy Kiliku compiled a report, popularly known as the Kiliku Report, but it was shot down by Members of Parliament and its findings aren’t available to the public. One of the few things we do know is that six cabinet ministers were adversely mentioned in the report and they wasted no time in pre-emptively lawyering up. This is but one example of the histories that we have failed to record under the Moi regime.
Reminders of Moi’s violence are present with us, physically and metaphorically. They are in the Nyayo House Torture Chambers where unspeakable acts of violence were committed against people whose only crime was to have a contrary imagination of societal happiness. They are in the shame of our complicit national silence, that we refuse to honour these individuals who risked so much to give us the political freedoms we enjoy today. The freedom that allows me to write this article, which at the time of my birth would have been labelled seditious material, eliciting dire consequences. It is in the failure to open the torture chambers to the public as a memorial to our dark history. We are reminded of him by the Nyayo Monument at Uhuru Park which looms over the city like an avenger ready to whip errant citizens back into line.
Perhaps Moi’s greatest political legacy is being felt today as his political acolytes of the early years of his rule now run the country. In a country that is struggling economically and experiencing a social breakdown of order of sorts, many have been quick to draw the symmetry between the current times and the economic dire straits of the Moi regime, especially from the 90s to the early 2000s. The Jubilee government has been kind to Moi, sanitised him some will say, and helped erase his little black book of political misdemeanours, leaving in its place the image of a benign granddaddy/Baba whose leadership Kenyans fondly miss and yearn for. More glaringly for those pursuing the symmetry angle, is the transition politics Kenya is currently undergoing. Deputy President William Ruto is facing hostility and frustration from sections of a government that he is part of, and this has been linked to efforts to prevent him from ascending to power in 2022 when President Uhuru’s term comes to an end. Ruto—who entered into a political pact with Uhuru Kenyatta in 2013 as a way of countering the charges brought against both of them at the International Criminal Court in The Hague—has been likened to Moi, who faced humiliation and opposition from a section of President Jomo Kenyatta’s regime.
As Kenyans get to express their various opinions about their second president, he will also be remembered abroad. For the people of South Sudan, there will be those that will remember the support Moi gave to the Sudan Mediation Process in one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts, a process that, under the stewardship of Rtd General Lazarus Sumbeiywo, led to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 and ultimately to the birth of South Sudan as a nation state in 2011. During the Sudan civil war, the Kenya government gave the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) leadership tacit support, allowing them and their families to live in Kenya and taking in refugees from South Sudan. Kenya’s role during the cold war cannot go without mention either. As a littoral state, geographically positioned in the horn of Africa, Kenya was of great interest to the Cold War powers. The country allied itself with the western capitalist bloc and proved to be a significant American ally, signing military agreements giving the US naval access at the coast. At a time when most countries in the Horn were deemed to be socialist-leaning, Kenya became a key entry point for the capitalist bloc in the proxy Cold War excursions in the Horn of Africa.
A lot can be written about Moi; these contested narratives about him should be taken as a boon, an opportunity to write the complete and contrary histories of this man who ran a country for 24 years as head of state but whose political career preceded the birth of Kenya as a nation state. This was a man who joined the Legislative Council in 1955, was part of the Lancaster House delegation of Kenyan leaders that negotiated our country’s independence. Moi was in the first opposition government of newly independent Kenya as a member of Kenya African Democratic Union, KADU. He served as a cabinet minister and eventually as vice-president under Jomo Kenyatta. All this took place more than two decades before he ascended to the presidency. All Kenyans, and specifically the critical thinkers of our time, ought to explore the structural consequences of Moi’s regime on the Kenyan condition. While Moi might have been credited with keeping Kenya peaceful during his tenure, as events in 2007/2008 would show, this was but a Potemkin village whose internal contradictions eventually unravelled. The vagaries of Moi’s regime, the physical, economic, political and psychological violence all took a toll on the nation state; something had to give. He perpetuated a political legacy that he had inherited, where the country was at the mercy of powerful political and economic interests keen on extracting and enriching themselves. Beyond the political repression were the economic consequences of his regime: rampant looting and corruption. It is our responsibility to critique these political and economic actions and their effect on the social breakdown of our society.
That we must deconstruct and interrogate Moi’s political career is not just about freedom of expression. It is our civic duty. It is our responsibility to future generations whose only glimpse into who this man was will be in the written and oral histories we will leave behind. We should as a nation engage with this man’s political career especially since he was present during so many critical political moments in Kenya’s history. Part of understanding our history involves understanding pivotal political personalities around this history. So we must critique him, we must hold him accountable for his wrongs, we must allow the stories he suppressed to be told. This is necessary as it is also cathartic. This exercise can be the beginning of an exorcism that this country’s troubled soul so desperately needs. From Moi’s death we can find life, we can choose to reconstruct what our country will look like into the future as we discard the ills his regime and those before him foisted on us. From these contested narratives we can set a new trend where we honour dead public figures by thoroughly examining what their life as public leaders was. This is how we create a culture of transparency and accountability, holding our public leaders accountable in life and even in death, particularly those whom we couldn’t fully hold to account during their lifetime. Ours is a nation with a troubled soul and this could be the beginning of our healing.
Moi’s death will certainly expose Kenyans to an experience similar to what Zimbabweans went through following the death of their founding father, Robert Mugabe, in 2019. There are those that will love him and will let that love come shining through. There are those that will hold him accountable for the grievous political, economic and social injury he inflicted on the country and its citizens. For those whom he wronged, the victims that never received recognition, compensation and/or closure, they will experience a myriad of emotions; from anger at justice miscarried, to sadness. It is a time they are likely to relive their trauma at the hands of the former president. The Kenya government position is clear: instructions for flags to be flown at half-mast, national mourning up until the burial, and a state funeral. A hero’s send-off. Given that the President and Deputy President have a shared history with the late former president, this doesn’t come as a surprise. For the rest of Kenyans, we are passionately split into two constituencies: those that remember him as vile and reprehensible and those that remember him as Baba. Then there is that other constituency that couldn’t care less, the one that just wants a public holiday.
Coronavirus Outbreak out of Control in US
American social practices, as well as entrenched cultural values like individualism, have greatly contributed to the spread of coronavirus even as doctors struggle to contain the pandemic amid fears that there will not be enough beds or ventilators for the critically ill, nor enough supplies to protect healthcare workers.
A new, deadly disease is exploding virtually unchecked in the United States of America, threatening the global economy and public health worldwide.
The US, as it is known, is the largest economy in the world, a position secured unfairly by its imposition of the US dollar as the global trading currency. The country regularly styles itself as “the leader of the free world”.
That leadership has failed miserably in recent weeks, as a pathogen known as SARS-CoV-2, or “coronavirus” for short, has spread, with very little detection, across the country of more than 300 million people.
“It’s spreading like wildfire from person to person,” said Papi Kabongo, a bus driver in Kinshasa whose uncle, Jean-Jacques Muyembe, discovered Ebola in 1976.
“There are clear, simple, easy things we know can help, but people there don’t listen. They don’t even wash their hands!”
The spread has largely overrun the country’s crumbling healthcare system and outmanoeuvred its byzantine insurance infrastructure. Doctors now fear there will not be enough beds or ventilators for the critically ill, nor enough supplies to protect healthcare workers.
“We’ve been telling them for years, ‘Your system is fragile. You need to be ready for this’”, said Albert Williams, Liberia’s minister of health during that country’s unprecedented Ebola outbreak. “But they’re deeply uninterested in international cooperation or advice”.
A frightened population has begun hoarding chloroquine pills following the recommendation of the American president, Donald Trump, who has acted as a kind of “witch doctor”, or traditional healer, during the outbreak. Trump has said he believes the pills may treat the disease. A supposed preventive dose has already killed one man, in the hot, dusty region of Arizona.
Some US government officials have made efforts to encourage or require people to distance themselves from each other—measures which are known to have helped contain or end outbreaks in China, South Korea and Hong Kong—but the US president, Donald Trump, is prioritising the economy over public health, and Americans themselves have largely refused official advice.
Meanwhile, traditional American social practices, as well as entrenched cultural values like individualism, have greatly contributed to the spread of coronavirus, whose carriers can be highly contagious even without showing any symptoms.
“If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying”, said Brady Sluder, a student on spring break in the infamous party town of Miami, Florida. “I’ve been waiting, we’ve been waiting for Miami spring break for a while”.
Experts say that even young, healthy individuals can contract the disease without their knowledge, putting anyone they come into contact with at risk.
“Before you know you have it, maybe you’ve given it to five people. And who did they give it to? And if they are elderly, you maybe have signed their death warrant”, said Muhammed Abubakar, dean of humanities at National University in Abuja. “This is a sad example of American exceptionalism in its purest form”.
In addition to Americans’ almost magical belief in their immunity to rules of all kinds, the country has faced a serious erosion of trust in official institutions in recent decades.
“These people don’t trust their government,”, said Emmanuel Mawema, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Zimbabwe-Harare. “They still manage to hold what we would technically call elections, but the wider society has been broken for a long time.”
This breakdown in trust has a deep history. Though the country has not experienced violent conflict recently, the United States is wrought with long-standing political divisions between its urban and rural tribes, which have repeatedly renounced efforts to find common ground.
“It’s almost as if they are opposed to the common good on principle”, said Tesfaye Haile, who spent eight years as Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. “This kind of division and the institutional inertia it creates is simply the way of life there”.
Experts say the US is poised to soon look like neighbouring Europe, where cases of the virus have soared in recent weeks, and doctors in some countries are disconnecting life-support services from patients over 65.
“In countries like the US, where life is cheap, it can create painful choices”, said Simon Odhiambo, who directs the Global Human Rights Network, headquartered in Nairobi. “We’ve been saying for years that health is a human right all states must respect, or it can put everyone at risk. This is what we meant”.
Other countries, too, fear the failures of the United States will put their own populations at risk.
“We don’t have any cases right now”, said South Sudanese President Salva Kiir. “We’ve closed the airport and our land borders. This may create real economic hardship for our people, but we won’t allow anyone coming from or through the United States to put our people at risk. It’s a matter of national security”.
CORRECTION: Europe is not a neighbour of the United States. We regret the error.
If we covered coronavirus like we covered Ebola
In 2014, I spent more than six months covering Ebola in West Africa, two of them in the “hot zone” of Liberia. Global press coverage spurred clichéd response back home in the USA, from negative stereotypes about culture and hygiene to irrational panic. This is a piece of satire that imagines covering America’s global health emergency in the same way the US looked at one “over there”—revealing both the absurdity of imperial exceptionalism and the unwelcome fact that the weaknesses of the American “superpower” are not so different from those in so-called “s**hole countries.” But of course they are. Yet most of us are schooled to see the familiar as better than the foreign, and it’s easy to forget that we share the same weaknesses—and the same risks—as those we are taught, implicitly and explicitly, to see as less capable, less valuable, less worthy.
All the names here are fictitious, unless otherwise indicated (with a link to verifiable, accurate information).
This is the Season We are In
This is a season. Its length and breadth we do not know. And if we all look at our respective lives, we’ve all been here before.
January to March is my favourite time of year, despite the heat and the dryness, or the humidity, depending on which part of the country you are in. I’m a sun worshipper and this season accords me numerous opportunities to wrap around a kikoy or wear shorts and a vest almost daily. I like the blue skies even though I have to plan my movements to avoid the noonday sun.
When the rains do kick in—and they seem to have checked in almost on time this year—I’m ready for the grey leaden skies that pelt the earth with rain. A new season has come. It has to. Funny thing is, I get impatient when the rains delay because I know prolonged seasons come with their consequences. There has to be a time for everything. Acceptance is a tough word, I’ve discovered. A friend and I were talking about acceptance, and he reckons acceptance is giving up but I disagree with him. Acceptance for me is recognising the situation that you are in. Acceptance is recognising the now. This present moment.
There will be tomorrows but who knows what they will be like? Finish dealing with today first.
I’ve been social-distancing and moved into self-quarantine just over a week ago. For someone who works from home and is an ambivert, this situation is almost kawaida. I don’t like how it has been imposed and its indefinite nature, but I’m in a familiar space. This was an easy situation to accept. I can’t hit the shops the way I want to and nor can I go down to my local pub in the evening for a serving of human contact. I’m grateful that we aren’t on total lockdown and I have the luxury of going for a bike ride and staring out to sea. But again, I live in Kilifi town, where we as a community are on tenterhooks following the irresponsible actions of our Deputy Governor.
I was angry for two days. Very angry, because so many lives had been put at risk. But I’ve come to accept this situation for what it is and put in place measures that will not expose me to possible infection.
I won’t lie; it’s tough. Tough learning to accept and deal with a situation that is not of your own making. It was only this week that I was reminded that I have been in this place before and I hope that remembering that experience will see me through this period.
As a cancer survivor, I’m in the category of vulnerable groups. My immunity isn’t what it used to be and I need to protect myself. I’ve read about safeguards against COVID-19 in relation to myeloma and cancer, and I’m keeping tabs on other survivors like myself. My friend Muthoni has a way of articulating things in a very gentle “you-go-deal” kind of way and her words resonated very well in our WhatsApp group.
“We are back to the initial days of stressing and anxiety about not knowing what to expect. I joked and said the world is now having a taste of a typical cancer patient’s world. The anxiety, the seclusion, the insane fear of picking up an infection and reading all information coming your way with all manner of advice and tips (even the outrageous ones) and basically getting to the point of understanding that we are totally not in control of our daily lives. The best we can do is appreciate every minute/hour/day and this helps one slow down and appreciate the simple things in life. Dropping all the shenanigan things we bandika [put] on ourselves and prioritize the crucial aspect of being alive—building meaningful relationships and leaving a legacy and not a CV.”
Acceptance. It is important to live in the now. We don’t know how long we as a country or the global community will be in this period. Yes, it is unsettling and at times fearful. But this is the season we are in. Let’s be honest; as human beings we’ve had an uninterrupted good run on this planet for a while. The last time we had a worldwide pandemic was in the 80s.
Twenty-twenty was going to be my year. Seriously! It was not said as we crossed into the new year in merriment, with a drink in hand. Thought that night was something else. For me, Olympic years seem to hold wonder. This year, I’ve gone as far as creating a vision board for myself. This is the year. Now twenty-twenty is more like twende, twende, (let’s go, let’s go), the phrase you hear matatu touts use often. We’ve been shown dust and it is only the first quarter. They are many that want to cancel this year and have already written it off. Economically, the books aren’t looking pretty, I’ll admit. But we still have nine months to go and I’m still hoping that this year will still bring some wonder. I’m learning to be an optimist. Seeing the glass as half-full doesn’t come easy to me. So, this global pandemic is teaching me things and taking me to uncomfortable spaces internally. That’s where I am now. This season has taken me to back to October 2015 when, in a Nairobi hospital, I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a type of blood cancer. I didn’t know what lay in front of me, but I decided to accept my situation. It was tough. It was kinda rough, for I was thrown into a whole new season.
It takes a lot of strength to pick up those lemons and start making lemonade or whatever you choose to make with them. Those lemons represent the now. This moment. Our present.
Acceptance. June 2016, Mumbai, India. A room at the BLK Speciality Hospital. Kenyan patient, age 43, has been prescribed confinement to a room for at least fourteen days. The room temperature is strictly regulated. My only exercise was in the corridor outside my room. And whenever I left the room, I had to wear a face mask. I had a total of thirty minutes of exercise a day. I spoke to my visitors through a glass door. That now sounds familiar for a good many folks. The internet became a lifeline, I watched at least an hour of news and even started watching Cake Boss! And my phone and meds knew nothing about social distancing. I prolonged all meals (when I had the appetite), and in between those meals I was mentally writing and rewriting my five-year plan. By day five, I didn’t care about tomorrow. I just wanted to get through the day and deal with whichever side-effect came with the treatment that was given on that day. If I wasn’t watching the news, it was MTV India, Master Chef Australia or even more Cake Boss. Being quarantined isn’t easy. The toll it takes on your mental health cannot be overstated.
You may have the luxury of being in self-isolation or quarantine within your home, with your loved ones around you. If you are alone, you start naming the geckoes on the wall. I have a golden orb spider called Freda and two frogs that show up religiously each evening at six o’clock like askaris. I’ve tried kicking them out but I’ve been unsuccessful. It was only yesterday that I accepted that they are here for the duration of the curfew. I hope. Isolation can do that you. You may have resorted to spending a little longer in the loo or shower so that you can get a little more me-time away from either the partner or the kids. Count yourself lucky that your isolation isn’t within a hospital. During my sixteen days in confinement the “fun” activities were measuring my pee and recording its colour and describing my poo on a chart. You have no idea how excited I was when I started having solid bowel motions. It meant I was getting better. I appreciated each victory during this period when every day was just that, every day. Fortunately, I had my step-mom with me as my carer and roommate.
It was during this period that I willed my body to get better. Every day was another chance to fight on. There were battles with nausea, constipation and then diarrhoea. However, the main battle was willing my stem cells to be re-accepted by the body that they had been harvested from. Every day was hoping that my blood markers were better than the previous day. It was tough and all I could do was bide my time, wait and believe. Acceptance.
I’m back in that space of accepting the new normal. The difference here is that I’m not alone. There are billions of us in this place. But there are shed-loads of battles and fears that are being fought within the confines of our minds too. In these days of the University of YouTube, swiping left or right, Tik Toking, globetrotting and just-add-water happiness, the uncertainty of tomorrow is unsettling. There are fears about incomes and deals put on hold, separation from loved ones, not being able to touch or even sneeze or cough without getting stared at. We all just don’t know. I mean, even our election years now look tame! Many have cancelled the current season and would rather wake up in 2021. Sadly, life isn’t like that. We’d gotten used to the season of plenty to do, people to see and places to go. My vision board can testify to that. And I think along the way we overlooked the people, the planet and the peace that makes us human. I’m a fairly laid back guy, so when cancer came knocking on my door, I was told to pace it. Now, we are all being told to pace it.
“If you think about worry, it’s an energy that’s used up thinking about all the ways things could go wrong, or not happen or not go according to plan. But it’s just that, In your head. If it doesn’t translate into action or spur us into movement then it’s wasted energy . . . Which in our [cancer patients/survivors] situations is a precious commodity”, says my friend Muthoni. “Adversity will not change. Life will always throw us curveballs. Having been able to beat this monster has given most of us clearer perspectives of what’s important and what isn’t”.
Acceptance. This is a season. Its length and breadth we do not know. And if we all look at our respective lives, we’ve all been here before. It could be a cancer diagnosis or another malady, or a loss in the form of a death, a marriage, work, finances or even heartbreak. You’ve managed to get through it. There may be scars, there may be lessons learnt or not, but, man alive! that was one hell of a season then. You are still here now.
Life Upcountry in a Time of Coronavirus
It has been barely two weeks since the first case of coronavirus was detected in Kenya yet the ramifications of the pandemic are already being painfully felt within my community.
It’s ridiculous I know, but I have been reduced to hoping that the lady I met at an agrovet in Nyahururu town last week is right after all, that above all other peoples of the world, God loves Kenyans the most. She made this extraordinary statement when I hesitated to shake hands with her, citing coronavirus fears and pointing to the critical situation prevailing in Italy, which had gone into lockdown in an attempt to contain the pandemic. “We shall be ok, God will make sure of that because he loves us very much”. More than the Italians? Much more!
A few days later, a retired veterinary officer of my acquaintance came to have a look at Dolly-the-calf; the girl had weeping eyes and I was a bit worried. Upon arrival, the vet found me on the phone and I was able to avoid shaking his proffered hand by vaguely waving at him instead. He was clearly miffed and took off in the direction of the cow pen before I had got off the phone. When the vet was done with Dolly, I explained to him that I had not meant to be rude but that avoiding shaking hands and keeping at a distance from each other was the recommended thing to do but he pooh-poohed me and said that those were problems of Nairobi people. Here in mashinani we were perfectly safe from the virus, he said.
The following morning, as I was driving off to run an errand in the next township, I was waved down by a woman who looked vaguely familiar to me and, thinking she wanted I lift, I stopped. The woman came straight at me, grabbed my hand, shook it vigorously and proclaimed, “Praise the Lord! We will not die! The Lord is with us!” What could I say?
I live on the edge of a small township, about 30 kilometres from Nyahururu town, which nevertheless boasts a Level 3 health centre complete with a maternity ward and a functioning ambulance. The township is also host to many churches of various denominations; I have counted ten, including three of the main established churches, within less than a square mile. Sunday mornings used to be a competing cacophony of hallelujahs and hello-hellos as the pastors in their tin-shack churches tested their microphones before blaring out their summons and silencing birdsong. But a quiet word with the sub-chief seems to have worked and the noise has largely abated, with the loudspeakers back inside the churches and the volume significantly reduced. This is a largely church-going community and the arrival of the coronavirus in Kenya had not changed that in any significant way. When I enquired with the pastor of my church about the measures he was taking in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, he informed me that handwashing facilities would be placed outside the three entrances to the church and that the service would be shortened. Otherwise, life was continuing as usual.
Well, news of Nairobians beating a hasty retreat to their homes in the Kenyan countryside – or at least to the homes of their parents and relatives – have got me worried that the virus is already lurking among us, shortly to manifest itself to devastating effect. And so, being a mild hypochondriac, and convinced that the slight tightening in my chest does not augur well, I have decided to commune with my God from the relative safety of my house and compound.
Born and bred in the city, I came to live here a few years ago armed with a copy of John Seymour’s The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, a highly romanticised view of country life, no practical skills and absolutely no knowledge of farming. But I have endured and could remain behind my gate for a couple of months, living off my vegetable patch, my maize reserve, Daisy’s milk and the eggs from my chickens. The rains have been unseasonably generous and the locusts flew high up above our heads a couple of weeks, ago, headed south, sparing us that particular scourge. How the market traders will fare is what I’m wondering though. Last Saturday morning county officials did the rounds of the township and asked the market traders, who flow in from the surrounding countryside and neighbouring townships twice weekly, to pack up their wares and leave.
Those who sell second-hand clothes can always store them until the Wednesday and Saturday market days are reinstated – whenever that will be – but what will the vegetable sellers do with their stock? And how will the traders get by if they cannot trade? I buy avocados from Mama Wangari who recently introduced me to her last-born daughter, a charming girl who, against the odds, had done extremely well in secondary school and was hoping to enter university to study pure mathematics. Her mother is the family’s sole breadwinner and sending Wangari off to college was always going to be a challenge. Given the uncertainties linked to the coronavirus pandemic, the odds of Wangari sitting in a lecture hall any time soon have just diminished.
The shops remain open for the time being but business is bound to suffer without the custom of those people who come into the township to trade and buy goods on the weekly market days. Bars have already taken a direct hit and those who like their tipple will have to take it in the comfort of their homes. The police did the rounds of the local watering holes last Sunday night, supervising the ordering of last rounds and, on the stroke of midnight, all bars in the township were closed until further notice.
Soap and water dispensers have been placed outside most shops and the grocery store that my city nephew refers to as The Mall – on account of its having two tight aisles and a large assortment of juices – is well stocked in toilet paper, although I doubt its sudden disappearance would cause as much distress here as it would in the city; maigoya (plectranthus barbatus leaves) are in plenty along the hedges. Prices of goods have already gone up, however; a kilo of sugar that I bought at SH95 last week is now trading at Sh105, a two-kilogramme packet of a popular brand of maize meal that was going for Sh110 is now selling at Sh140 and my butcher tells me that the number of customers crossing his threshold has diminished considerably in the last week.
“Andũ aingĩ gũkũ matihotaga kwĩigira mũthithũ, marĩaga iria mathũkũma mũthenya ũcio”, he says (Many people have no savings, they consume what they earn daily). Five hours of casual work will earn you Sh250, Sh300 if you’re lucky. And if you’re lucky to find the work.
Esther Wa Tu-Twins called me early this week, enquired after my health and assured me that she and her children were equally fine. We talked about the rain the night before, and how the patch of maize that she had recently planted was doing. Then she came to the point of her call and informed me that her store of maize meal was finished and she couldn’t find any work. Esther and her family of five – four children and a younger brother in her care – are among the 4,000 families that were resettled by the government at the Makutano Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Laikipia West following the 2007-2008 post-election violence, a region where the rains are uncertain and the hunger season long most years. Esther’s crop of maize and beans is still some months to harvest and the coronavirus pandemic has only come to compound an already serious problem for her family.
The police are also back on the roads, white masks over their mouths, ensuring that matatus are respecting the directive to carry not more than eight passengers and booking recalcitrant crews. It had been a relief for many, not least the boda boda riders, when the police were ordered off the roads in an attempt to put a halt to the rampant bribe-taking. (A pair had recently been discovered hiding in the bushes along a dirt road from which they would suddenly emerge at the approach of a boda boda, hoping to cow the rider into surrendering a bribe. Their business was short-lived, however; our boda boda community is no longer prepared to put up with that nonsense). Matatu fares have gone up though; a trip into Nyahururu town, a distance of just under 30km, will now set you back Sh200, a 100 per cent increase. And it is expected that shortages of diesel and petrol are soon to be experienced in my neck of the woods; a friend called me with advice that I should tank up and limit my movements to the absolutely necessary. I have no plans to leave my compound any time soon, however, so that quarter-tank remaining is sufficient for any emergency that might cause me to venture beyond my gate.
It has been barely two weeks since the first case of coronavirus was detected in Kenya yet the ramifications of the pandemic are already being painfully felt within my community. May the prayers of the woman I met in Nyahururu be heard.
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