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Reflections

From Where to Face Death: Coronavirus and the Villager

11 min read.

We keep houses in Nairobi, but our true north is back in the place where we grew up. We are to the lives of our families and extended relations back in the village what our diaspora brothers (they of the remittances) are to our economy—crucial.

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From Where to Face Death: Coronavirus and the Villager
Photo: Unsplash/Yonko Kilasi
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Our African cities, despite their millions of inhabitants, actually harbour very few true urbanites. Most of us are villagers, not permanently living in the city but here only to earn a living. We are to Nairobi, Kisumu, and Mombasa what New York, Dubai, and London are to our African diaspora brothers and sisters. And of course, we are to the lives of our families and extended relations back in the village what our diaspora brothers (they of the remittances) are to our economy—crucial. So we keep houses in Nairobi, but our true north is back in the place where we grew up. I believe that this aspect of our identities and the identity of our cities may have an important bearing on the way that Kenya and other African countries deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

There is a question I ask and get asked a lot that may give some insight into this dual identity villagers experience in the city. “What are you doing in Nairobi?” We understand it to mean, “What is your professional occupation?” Underneath the surface question is a recognition of the temporary nature of our city existence. An affirmation of a non-urban identity and a reminder that one comes to Nairobi for professional purposes, but is not supposed to take root here. Back home, those who take root in the city are described as “lost” to the city. After businesses were shut down and the curfew declared, the question began to bother me and the response soon became the worst answer you could possibly give: nothing. To the villager in the village, that means “nothing good”.

Normally, any villager who answers “nothing” to that question is advised to travel home. The coronavirus pandemic demands, however, that you stay away from others, especially those that you love. We have interpreted this to mean “don’t travel home“. Yet it is costly to do nothing in the city, much more costly than doing nothing at home. And even though you may stay away from the ones you love, can you, can anyone, really stay away from everyone in the city?

The housing block in which I live has been crowded since the government began to restrict movement. Nairobi is like an hourglass in that way; empty downtown Nairobi, and Eastlands housing blocks soon fill up. So the block is buzzing like a beehive all day long now, no off-peak lulls between the parents’ comings and goings when house-helps can converse across the balconies. Stop business in the CBD and the house-helps here have no respite from the laundry, the clotheslines above each other, each set of wet clothes dripping onto the one below. Not to mention that, in some parts of Umoja, Kayole, and Dandora, the blocks are six storeys high, all bedsitters, with shared kitchens and ablutions. Yes, there are families in these houses too. I can see COVID-19 smiling quietly to itself, sitting on a conductor’s fifty-shilling note as he hands back a woman’s change, headed deep into Umoja. How we are playing into danger’s hands.

It might be easier to social-distance in the gated estates and large spacious apartments and bungalows of places outside Eastlands. Easier for families that own a car to travel without making contact with hundreds of people every day. It is not so easy in Eastlands. In fact, there are no circumstances there in which it is possible to escape an enemy like coronavirus. Villagers living in this city are completely vulnerable to its broken infrastructure and this vulnerability has taken on a deadly turn because of COVID-19. I’ll tell you a story to explain.

My friend Vic Janam, handsome, happy-go-lucky, villager extraordinaire, invited me to his house in Tena for some rest and relaxation one Friday evening. I arrived at his house to find him deeply disturbed.

“Hebu fungua hiyo tap, observe for a minute, uniambie unaobserve nini”, he said, pointing me to the kitchen ((Please turn on the tap and tell me what you observe) I went. I turned on the tap, water flowed out. I waited. I frowned. I sniffed. I bent towards the tap to smell the water. In the name of Obong’o Nyakalaga, that water smelt like fresh shit. Not slightly, not moderately but pungently.

“Manze”, he said gravely, “yaani na hii ndio maji mi hukunywa”. (You mean this is the water I drink?). The sewage had entered into the water supply of the entire block.

Vic moved out. Someone else lives there now, and I am afraid that even though they may be social-distancing and obeying the curfew, they are still sitting ducks. I can see the coronavirus sharpening its teeth, swimming through the water pipes headed towards Pipeline, or Tena Estate.

My own place is not much better when it comes to water. I spent most of last week strategising my isolation and lockdown and realised that there was a gaping hole in my plans: water. My block, and several others around, gets water once a week over two days if Nyakalaga is smiling, and only for a few hours on Sunday if he is displeased. When I lived by myself, I was able to save water using a large drum. But I have a housemate now, and the drum is no longer enough for any length of lockdown. We have been buying water every week for a while. The water is brought by mkokoteni, and although we are lucky to have a water point nearby, when it runs dry, we genuinely do not know where the mkokoteni men get their water from. As I set my lockdown budget, the cost of water alone destroyed it; I had not even started listing food items. Many who have managed through sheer privilege to fill their houses with food, and who do not endure the constant water scarcity that we in Eastlands do, are online calling for a lockdown. I can tell you that, for a government without proper plans in place to provide relief, enforcing a lockdown on people with no adequate financial savings and who rely on broken public infrastructure is not a tenable plan. It will expose millions to the flaws and weaknesses of our city infrastructure that now, in a time of COVID-19, could prove fatal if, for instance, a large section of the water supply were to be contaminated; the science says the coronavirus does travel in faeces. I can see that damned coronavirus now, waiting in the sewage, smiling behind its face mask. I do not feel safe. I do not even feel isolated.

And then there is the elephant in the room, or should I say, the elephant in the country; a government no villager trusts anymore. The incumbency has at the moment coopted the opposition and presented itself as a single head, making it collectively even more untrustworthy than its individual parts. The villager normally knows how much to trust their guy, and how much to mistrust the other. Now, with the opposition coopted and few powerful voices offering honest criticism and pushback against possible corruption and bureaucratic mistakes, the villager must take instructions from an inscrutable monolith that has never in the history of its existence truly had our best interests at heart.

I watched footage of people being beaten along Mombasa Road hoping to see a policeman pause to sanitise the tip of his rungu but no, it was brutality as usual. If the coronavirus is the enemy we are fighting, what is the point of ordering a curfew then putting (how ironic) the security forces to work spreading the disease? And even as penalties are discussed for people who willfully or otherwise cause the deaths of others through COVID-19, will we see another set of our political leaders accused of crimes against humanity at The Hague if specific outbreaks of COVID-19 are traced to the orders they will have given? And will “their people” defend them? Because that is precisely the scale of suffering careless governance and enforcement of ill-thought-out directives could cause at this critical time. The villager is expected to believe that this monolith cares for them and is doing its best to help them survive this pandemic. Except that we know this is bullshit. We know because the instructions the government is giving are already killing us even before the coronavirus does.

As the Kenyan government fights to contain the coronavirus pandemic, it might do well to broaden its gaze beyond the confines of Nairobi and other cities and towards the villages. As I mentioned earlier, that aspect of our identities and the identity of our cities that embodies this urban/rural duality of residence may have an important bearing on the way in which Kenya and other African countries deal with the pandemic. Those who fight will tell you that where you stand when you face your enemy, the ground you choose, is a critical strategic choice; it can mean life or death. So far, the government seems to have chosen to stay and fight in the cities—in these transitory spaces where the villagers are at a great disadvantage and the government is in almost complete control. Yet we know the enemy left the cities long ago, cases are already popping up out in the countryside.

It seems to me that the choice to wage the war from the cities, primarily Nairobi, is not a strategic choice for the government but rather, the only one. After decades of mismanagement and embezzlement, the country’s health system is weak and resources of the kind required to manage the crisis hopelessly inadequate and hopelessly centralised in the cities. The villages are defenceless. How do you choose where to fight from? If we are only as strong as our weakest link, it is time the government casts its eye towards the villages to begin public sensitisation campaigns, training of health personnel, recruitment of volunteers, and equipping the health facilities for containment. So far, its efforts have been feeble at best.

Travelling upcountry from Nairobi is eye-opening, and perhaps a little shocking. Social distancing is a vain hope outside Nairobi city. If the villagers are having trouble with social-distancing in Nairobi, that cosmopolitan space where travellers come from every affected land, upcountry villagers seem completely oblivious to the need for it, moving around and associating mostly without taking any precautions. It seems that outside the city, there is a belief that COVID-19 is still a faraway Nairobi thing, that if it is to come this way, there will be loud warning and ample time to take precautions and change social habits. From the conductors at Kisumu’s bustling terminus, shouting and calling, leaning their faces into the vehicle, to the hawker who came to hiss at my window, touting his wares, “Sweeetsssss, creditsssss, power banksssss”, and who recoiled when I hurriedly drew back, clicking his tongue before walking to the next window, they all seem oblivious to the dangers of coronavirus. I could imagine it, that evil bug, sitting on the tip of the hawker’s tongue, jumping onto my face with every sibilant hiss. I’m not ashamed to say that I pulled out my little clear plastic bottle and sanitised my face.

As I write this, I’m on my third day of the recommended fourteen days of self-isolation. I came home via Kisumu, travelling in the same vehicle with two young women, cousins, both from the coast. I was sitting in front of them, pretending not to listen to their conversation. They too were running home to face the danger from the comfort of a loving place. The younger one, hair cut short, had been let go in a hurry by a boss who had promised to pay her wages before she travelled. Twice, she lied on the phone to him, asking the driver to turn off the radio and pretending that she was at the bus stop waiting for his cash transfer. He kept promising to pay. Between the calls, she narrated how two days before, she and her colleagues were laid off without warning, with the promise of payment within a day. She had nothing then, not a coin, and realised she would have to travel home immediately. She waited, but the pay didn’t come. Broke and desperate, she approached an aunt living at the coast whom she had not visited in a long time to borrow the money for the fare. She narrated how her aunt had told her off for being a bad villager, not visiting until crisis struck. In the end, the aunt bought her a ticket to Nairobi where she received more help from family. She had spent every single coin she could get just covering the distance between her workplace in Mombasa, and the village. I couldn’t help thinking that we were leaving behind millions like her, struggling to survive the untrustworthiness of a corrupt government, unscrupulous bosses, violent partners, the uncertainty of lockdown, and the brutality of curfew, without the financial means to make a different choice.

I am in my simba now. The only sounds I can hear are the chickens clucking outside, the wind whistling through the trees, the tap-tapping on the iron sheet roof, the cooing of a pair of turtledoves up a tall tree. No neighbours, no gunshots, no sirens, no breaking news on someone else’s television making me anxious and tense. I left my house in the city after the curfew was announced and people were clobbered by police on the first night. I headed for the village as soon as I could. So I am home. I feel safe. I feel isolated. I am ready to face the coronavirus now, or just death. It is safer to wait, to fight from here, than in the city.

We must admit as villagers that we occupy the bottom rung in a classist society that is a colonial legacy and that our political elite rely on to continue enriching themselves at our expense. What are we going to do about it? And, more urgently, what are we going to do about the coronavirus? Because here at the bottom of the ladder, we are truly alone; everyone else, even the city’s broken infrastructure, perhaps even the water we drink, is our enemy; the government that we call our own certainly is.

As citizens, villagers or not, we must admit that the great wall of state violence and unaccountability behind which our leaders have hidden for so long to misappropriate national resources and enrich themselves and their elite friends must fall. Even up in their ivory towers, the coronavirus now stalks. I can see it, sitting on a deputy governor’s shoulder, on a statehouse security man’s dirty hand as he opens the limousine door, I can see it waiting to meet the president, as it did the British prime minister.

Until the government proves otherwise with its actions, most of us city villagers are deeply vulnerable, not just to COVID-19, but also to a predictable oncoming wave of crime, hunger, and police brutality. Tragically, these are things we are used to, but the circumstances of this pandemic beg the question: is there ever a scenario, however unique and coincidental, in which our government can enforce its directives without using brute force and callousness against us? Because we are facing an existential threat whose very presence in our midst was caused by political inaction and the ignorance of our leaders, because we are aware just how much the coronavirus pandemic is not our fault as African villagers, because we are being murdered on our doorsteps by our government just for trying to survive, we need to reevaluate our values and our political culture. If it doesn’t kill us all, let us make sure that that wall of unaccountability crumbles in the dust forever and is never built again. These men and women occupy their positions because of us; we must demand that our lives come first. Not the economy, not whatever city, but our lives.

And so I came home despite the warnings, as I know many wise villagers did. But I didn’t come to die here. I came to face death. I simply chose for myself where, like we may all have to if this situation worsens. After watching the last few weeks unfold and seeing the government’s response, I could not trust it to choose for me, for it is clear, as it has always been, that my life is not the government’s priority at all. For me the city was simply no place from which to face such a threat, not in the current state of its infrastructure, of its leadership. If death is unavoidable, the city is definitely not the place in which to die. Now my heart goes out to every villager still stuck in the city, so vulnerable and so far away from home, as death draws ever closer.

My decision is not without danger or personal sacrifice. It has been strange, almost surreal, the little things that must be done differently in order to keep us all safe now that I am still in self-isolation. Like not being able to hold my mother, not even her hand, after not seeing her for so long. Strange having to stay indoors as my nieces play outside, like some registered sex offender, when we have shared so much joy and laughter before. The gifts I brought them lie unpacked, on the edge of my bed. There is an old utensils rack that we have had since I was a child, now rusty and tilting to one side. It stands just outside my door all day, just inside all night. I put my clean plates there, on the top rack, and close the door. My sister heaps bread, nduma, ugali, rice and ndengu, whatever is in the hotpot tucked under her arm. We talk through the glass, or through the partly opened door. I am careful to face inwards. I take the food after she leaves. I am supposed to eat it all. I try. And behind the closed door, I think and I write. And we all wait.

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Alexander Ikawah is a writer and filmmaker living and working in Nairobi, Kenya. He was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story prize in 2013.

Reflections

We Just Eat

There is a stereotype that conflates the image of an absurdly full platter with most people’s thoughts about the Luyia community.

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We Just Eat
Photo: Flickr/Mark Skipper
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A few weeks ago, a friend of mine randomly suggested something to me just after we’d passed a roadside grill on our way to Kawangware Market.

Tukule ulimi. Let’s eat tongue.

I obliged, both of us turning back to the spot where chunks of meat of different shapes and sizes were sizzling on an oily black grill, the tongue among them, sending smoke upwards, dripping juice. . . let me stop there. We ate the tongue and proceeded to the market. There we sat on a bench next to a chipo guy frying potato chips and crisps, his pan tilted at an angle to fit on the jiko. This we wanted a taste of. As we waited to be served, I suddenly became self-conscious.

“Do I eat too much?”

It’s well over a decade since my primary school peers and I walked to a neighbouring village to listen to the District Officer’s address on the occasion of a national holiday. The hot equatorial afternoon would present a challenge to the day’s main task – the D.O’s speech, and his token to students in the division. As we waited for the D.O. An elderly Luyia man stood up to address the crowd, proceeding to say something spiteful about my village. I remember the emotion in his words. It was strange. It felt like he had a problem with that part of the location I was from, or the fact that people from there were present. He said, “I do not like the name Nyang’ori, I do not like the name Nyang’ori because back when we were children the Luos used to refer to people from that side of our location as Jokuo Nyang’ori.”

At that time, I was still a pupil in primary school, in my final year. I had strong loyalties but could not do much to assert my position. So I kept my cool. Then recently, a song sneaked its way into my head and took me back to that time.

There’s a song that Luhya children sang to their mothers while skipping around the homestead in play. While their mothers prepared the fields in anticipation of the coming rains, they would sing:

Mama mbe zimbindi nzie kuminza

Nzie nzie nzie, 

Nzie kuminza…

The first part of the song is sang to the mother asking for cowpeas to scatter in the field. The second part of the song goes:

Kiravura kitiezo, ngani inzara yakwita

Na nunyori kanyama, ushiezanga nogonga

Here, it seems to be the mother responding to the child saying, if it were not for kitiezo – a salient shrub that grows wild in the field – we would have died of hunger. The second line is a general observation that if one happened to find meat, they would grind on the millstone with joy.

In his book Western Kenya Historical Texts, Gideon S. Were explains that the name Nyang’ori, by which the Terik are known, dates to the severe famine of 1907 that led Teriks from the Nyang’ori area to steal cowpeas from the fields of the Joluo. As a result, the Joluo nicknamed them “stealers of cowpeas”, Nyang’ori.

Were notes that the traditions of the Terik confirm the fact that the name Nyang’ori was a nickname given to them by the Joluo due to the community’s habit of stealing their cowpeas. While still in primary school, my friends would always remind me that our village once went by a Terik name, Matrin. Nyang’ori seems to be a recent addition in the history of my village.

Now history confirms as factual the basis of that old man’s speech from my childhood. It gives space for whatever emotion he must have felt while expressing his feelings about my village – a century-old grudge. And a century might be a long time to still hold resentment over stolen food, but not long enough to completely erase the influence that the customs that defined relations in the time of our ancestors have on our present lives.

There is a stereotype that conflates the image of an absurdly full platter with most people’s thoughts about the Luyia community. For the longest time advertising, and more recently social media platforms, have reinforced this stereotype with performances of Luyias devouring huge amounts of food in one sitting. Without understanding that absurdity is one of the mechanisms that promote visibility on social media, one might easily be led to believe that a Luyia chewing a whole chapati in one mouthful on TikTok actually does that in real life. Or that a teenager decimating a kilogram of ugali on his own in front of a camera is a normal event in their homestead. Any Luyia with experience will tell you how that makes no economic sense in the village.

This is that part where you, the reader, struggle to detach this image from stories you’ve heard your Luyia friends tell about some of their interesting experiences back at home, upcountry.

A good number of Luyias really are guilty of contriving to always have the better share of certain meals. Luyia men in particular, have historically benefited from traditions that denied women the opportunity to fully enjoy chicken, as some parts were only served to the older male members of the household, the most infamous prohibition being that of emondo, the gizzard.

There is no concrete reason why the ban existed except that the emondo was meant for vasakuru, the elders only, as my aunt tells me. My efforts to reach an elder for an explanation about why the emondo was reserved solely for them were met with reticence. An online group that discusses a wide range of issues on the subject of Luyia culture and life—known on YouTube as the Luyia Fun Group—offers an interesting reason why women are prohibited from eating emondo in one of their videos. They claim that the emondo was found (by the elders) to bear a striking resemblance to a certain part of a woman’s body, and therefore rendered women unfit to eat it because of the homosexual imagery suggested. If there is any truth to this claim, and knowing our ancestors for who they were, the ban must have been a metaphor for their stand on a conversation many of them were obviously not ready to have.

Today, this metaphor has clearly been stripped of its latency. The stand it sought to soften remains in the community though, an oxymoron of the idea that queer manifestations of sexuality are imports of the western world to Africa. There’s still great denial of the existence of homosexuality in African communities, and where denial has failed cloak and dagger have been employed. Dissenting arguments usually range from homosexuality being against traditional African values, to it being unchristian, and most recently, a product of our continent’s interaction with Western culture on social media.

In my village, institutions dating back to the time before any contact was made with the Western world expose the contradiction in this dissent. During the time of my initiation into manhood under the Tiriki institution of idumi, manhood, one of the initiates in my rikura, age set, had long been known to have homosexual inclinations but faced no violence based on his nature during the whole period of seclusion. One would expect that such an institution rooted in African tradition would be extremely hostile in its attempts to correct the unmanly aspects of an initiate, in imparting its conception of manhood to a male member of the community.

In the mid-1920s, when the Quakers were establishing their mission station at Kaimosi, Luyia women in the larger Vihiga area were not allowed to eat eggs. This culture prevailed until the intervention of men who had just gained literacy from the mission set up by the Friends Quakers at Kaimosi. Yohana Amugune, who was among the first men to convert to Christianity at the Friends Kaimosi mission, went back to his village in Chavakali to spread the gospel. One of the reforms he sought to which he sought to apply his new knowledge and belief was the eggs issue. In his essay Yohana Amugune and the Maragoli published in the Biographical Essays on Imperialism and Collaboration in Colonial Kenya compiled by B.E Kipkorir, J.M. Mwenesi writes that upon returning from the mission in Kaimosi, Yohana Amugune broke the taboo and made no secret about letting his wife eat eggs, previously the preserve of men.

Christianity seems to have revolutionized food culture in Vihiga by pushing for the full inclusion of women at the dining table. On the other hand, it required them to forget crucial items on their menu, such as ugali (a stiff porridge) made from traditional grains.

Azangu, a historian I met at the National Archives while researching this story, had interesting thoughts about this matter. Azangu grew up around the Kaimosi mission in the ‘80s. The insights he shared with me suggest that the introduction of religion might have had a lot to do with the disappearance of certain foods and the adoption of others. Azangu told me how the Friends Quakers missionaries in Kaimosi grew maize to cater for their food needs, fostering the gradual shift from the traditional staples of sorghum and millet to maize among the new converts. One of the contributing factors to this shift was that maize was a bigger grain that was not as labour-intensive to cultivate and harvest as sorghum and millet. However, the biggest attraction came from the social benefits guaranteed by the shift rather than the economic incentives.

“During that time, the white ugali made from maize flour was associated with Christianity and modernity, this directly translated to higher status. . . The preparation of the brown ugali was pretty difficult, it required a higher level of skill to prepare compared to the white ugali.”

Azangu’s thoughts on Luyia food culture confirmed to me the idea that, perhaps what is viewed, and has been viewed for long time as an obsession with food, is rather a social structure that has embedded food security within its order – the order being efficient enough to sustain its people and itself, but also enough to be viewed as exploitative by outsiders who might not fully understand the culture.

In response to a question I had posed about whether Luyias really eat as much as the stereotypes suggest, Azangu said, “We do not eat that much, we just cook enough. And if you find yourself finishing all the food you’ve cooked, you are still not content.”

I find his remarks very comical but still legitimate. Food security has always been embedded in the social structure of the Luyia community. We have always had a culture of sharing food that bestows a feast-like quality on every meal prepared – we are not afraid of having guests join us at meals, we do not want to have to be awkward with those who find us mid-meal, and so we prepare even for those who are not present.

So, rather than being a love for food, for Luyias, it is a love of life; how could one separate the concept of life from food? That’s why Luyia funerals might be mistaken for feasts because they are actually a celebration of life. When the Keima drum is beaten, preceding the funeral procession, prompting the villagers to find their way to the home of the bereaved, it also asks them to fill their baskets with produce and carry them to the feast they are heading to. Most strangers cringe at the sight of villagers packed inside the homestead of the bereaved whenever a villager dies, being served mountains of ugali in plates on the verge of breaking from the weight of their contents. But a wise Luyia with an idea of what a functional Luyia society looks like or once looked like, appreciates the role of the dead to the living. They might validly argue that the departed is playing their last role on earth, giving life to not just one person, but to the whole community.

The departed deserve an opportunity to leave with a bang!

The song in my head is a song many Luyia children know. It is a song contemplating scarcity while it drips of joy. A song whose significance might be considered by many as just an historical record of emotion during a time of scarcity – a grave omission of an important message that the song seeks to relay to all children and adults with access to it: Prepare for better days, for worse times have existed, and always remember to be joyful.

Apart from the disappearance of the grinding stone and the loss of prestige of the white ugali, a lot has changed over the past century in Luyia food culture. From the emondo coming to resemble only itself – part of a chicken – to be eaten by women, to eggs becoming a normal thing for women to eat. The only constant has been rikuvi, the vegetable that grows when cowpea seeds are scattered in the fields. The cowpea seeds that the Nyang’ori people went down to Nyanza to steal more than a century ago, seeds that earned them their name.

Perhaps, the strange emotion that made the old man declare his dislike of the name Nyang’ori was due to his inability to reckon with the fact that time had erased its negative connotations but had left the name and its history intact.

This really is strange.

On our way back from Kawangware market, my friend and I happened to pass by the same spot where we had shared the tongue and overheard a woman asking those in her company, Tukule roho? Shall we eat heart?

We exchanged glances, smiled, our tacit agreement not after all exclusive to us, nor our secret cravings.

Everyone loves to eat, and to share food.

Luyias are no exception. We just eat.

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Reflections

The Hidden Lives of the Trees of Amsterdam

Contemplating nature and falling back on the wisdom of trees to guide me through the unknown.

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The Hidden Lives of the Trees of Amsterdam
Photo: Hung Tran on Unsplash
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There was genuine cause for angst in the early days of the COVID lockdowns as the pandemic spread unabated throughout Europe. I was a new arrival in the Netherlands, marooned at home, working as a remote curator-at-large for the online publication The Elephant. While I appeared stoic to my team based in Nairobi, I could not shake off the feelings of uncertainty. I had a child who had just learned how to walk and my wife had started a new and demanding job.

Amsterdam was ghostly. Trepidation beset the city and it seemed as though people had gone into hibernation. On most days, in between Zoom calls to Nairobi, I would stare out of my home office window at a large weeping willow tree that stood on the edge of a canal, feeling a loss of control.

One morning, I noticed a flock of green ring-necked parakeets perched on the willow tree. I had not seen those birds since the days of my childhood in the Kenyan countryside and their appearance in a foreign country was serendipitous. In times of crisis one is attuned to signs from nature and in those familiar birds and in the willow tree, I found a sense of hope and belonging.

A friend from Kenya who arrived in Amsterdam around the same period also talked about the silent assurance he had discovered in trees. He worked the night shift. For months during those cold days, while his wife and children were away, sitting alone in the house staving off depression, he drew strange comfort from contemplating the sturdy nature of the single tree that grew in his backyard.

When you come from Kenya, winters are survived, chalked down and added to the résumé.

Having grown up under the tutelage of a father who was an avid forester, it was natural that I should fall back on the wisdom of trees to guide me through the unknown. But this awareness would unfold gradually as the trees of Amsterdam revealed their hidden lives.

There is a popular museum in the centre of Amsterdam, on Prinsengracht Street, dedicated to Anne Frank’s life, her famous diary and the secret annex. Anne Frank was born in Frankfurt, Germany, and her Jewish family had fled persecution for the relative safety of Amsterdam.  When the Germans invaded and occupied the Netherlands in 1940 and began deporting Jews to death camps, Anne Frank went into hiding. During her two years in hiding, Anne Frank turned to writing to pass time, journaling not just the daily events but also her thoughts and feelings.

Anne Frank’s father Otto survived the war, found his daughter’s diary and it was eventually published in 1947 under the title The Secret Annex.

There is a passage in the diary where Anne writes about a tree, a white horse chestnut that she used to stare at from her window in the attic. That huge tree standing in the courtyard garden, 170 years old, was a beacon of freedom, longing and hope.

Tragically, Anne and her sister Margot were arrested and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp where they were separated from their parents. The sisters were taken to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where, under the unhygienic conditions, they both succumbed to typhus and died in February of 1945.

When I went off in search of the famous tree that Anne Frank wrote about, I found that it had fallen 10 years earlier in 2010 and all that remained was a stump. I found a connection with the story of the horse chestnut tree in Anne’s diary because trees were one of the first signposts that I used to navigate the newness of this city.

There is another tree that is located in Bijlmermeer in the south-east of Amsterdam that is not as famous as Anne Frank’s tree. Its story is much more recent. In 1992, an El Al cargo aircraft en route to Israel lost its engines while trying to circle back to Schiphol airport for an emergency landing. It crashed into Groeneveen and Klein-Kruitberg, two multi-storied apartment buildings, killing 43 people, most caught unawares in their homes innocently winding down the day.

There were speculations that the death toll may have been higher as many undocumented and unregistered people were not accounted for following the accident. On the site, facing a new apartment block, sits the tree that saw everything, a living witness to the Bijlmerramp air disaster.

Amsterdam is a green city and trees are everywhere. The canals are lined with old elms and practically all city roads and neighbourhoods are fronted by straight lines of trees, usually of one species. The tenement buildings may appear to have the same aesthetic similarity of the predominantly red or grey brick walls. But in the courtyards, hidden from street view, are lush green gardens and trees.

I was soon able to guess the age of a neighbourhood by looking at the size of the trees growing in it. I also started to notice that most of the trees in Amsterdam grow straight. Crooked trees are a rare sight.

Many mightn’t be bothered by this little detail but I began to inquire about the stories behind the trees of Amsterdam. A tree is crooked because it adapts to nature and the forces it encounters, but the breadth of uniformity I encountered in the Dutch landscape was an indication that nature had been colonised.

The Amsterdamse Bos (The Amsterdam Forest) that is located in the southwest of Amsterdam, sitting on the border between Amsterdam and the Amstelveen municipality, is a prime example of this. It is an imposing city park, of a scale and order that I find intriguing. Measuring 1000 acres, it is about the size of Nairobi’s Karura Forest, with one unique distinction; all the trees were planted by hand and its all features, including its artificial lakes and solitary hill, are products of grand design. There is also within it a naturist area where nude sunbathing is allowed.

Amsterdamse Bos began as a government work relief effort to deal with the economic crisis of the 1930s. Today it is a functional park, a natural landscape designed for recreation and relaxation that draws in 4 million visitors every year.

I remarked to a Dutch friend over a cup of coffee that the Amsterdamse Bos felt like a big green arcade. To which he shrugged and said, ‘’Poof! You think this orderly, you should go to Switzerland. They are worse than us.’’

Then, as if in admission that he was accustomed to unnaturally neat nature, he recalled a road trip he had taken in Canada a few years earlier.  As they drove through the spectacular Boreal forests, both he and his wife agreed that the forests were magnificent. . . if only the Canadians would clean up the forest floor and keep it tidy.

Another Dutch friend took me on a tour of the Vondelpark in Amsterdam, to a spot over a white wooden bridge from where I had a direct view of a tall fountain in the middle of a serene pond with a leafy tree line as its backdrop, spraying water high into the air.

“You see that picture. . . it was designed to be a paradise ideal and nature has been conquered for human splendour with man as the sole animal in it.”

Indeed, it was getting harder to distinguish between what was natural and what was artificial. The Netherlands is a waterproofed country and it is easy to forget that most of the country lies below sea level. It is a country that conquered the waters after a long struggle against nature and 17 per cent of the country’s landmass is reclaimed from the sea.

This is why “God created the earth but the Dutch made the Netherlands’’ is a well turned phrase.

****

In an effort to know my neighbourhood and meet the locals, I joined the Knotgroep of Uithoorn, green volunteer effort that operates in a municipality on the outskirts of Amsterdam. The group of volunteers are all Dutch pensioners with an average age of 60, and there are as many men as there are women. As I park my bicycle, I receive a series of hoi, Dutch for hi, pronounced with much emphasis.

After a briefing by the group leader, the pitchforks and rakes are distributed and we walk to a privately-owned polder that is used as a paddock on the border of a small lake called Zijdelmeer. Mown grass is strewn all over the paddock. The ground underneath the soaked grass is wet and I can smell manure. Our task is to pile the cut grass into haystacks. The work takes effort and jackets are soon thrown off. Why do they subject these senior citizens to such strenuous work?

I ask why this work is not done by machine given that the Dutch have a machine solution for every task to be done in nature. I am informed that the stacks of grass we are preparing are nesting places where small harmless snakes can hatch and thrive. It also leaves room on the ground for wild cranberries to grow. Such delicate work, necessary to balance the ecosystem, can only be done by hand.

The group continues to work silently and meticulously, and then suddenly, excited voices come from one end. We gather around to find out the cause of all the excitement.

Someone has found a frog.

“A frog!” 

I am puzzled so I turn to my group leader, a tall Dutch man called Bill.

“Why are we getting excited about finding an amphibian in nature?” 

‘’We don’t have frogs here anymore,’’ and he recounts the story of his youth and of a time when nights were filled with a cacophony of croaking. But since the arrival of the red swamp crayfish, an invasive species that feeds on aquatic plant and animal life, the nights have gone silent.

It then occurs to me that for all the canals that surround the neighbourhoods, I never hear any frogs croaking at night.

‘’We are just trying to bring back nature.”

I want to tell Bill about the irony of Nairobi, the former Green City in the Sun that has declared war on trees in an effort to modernise its infrastructure while Amsterdam seeks to return to its natural past and where trees are valued as sites of memory. But I don’t voice my thoughts.

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Reflections

Breast Cancer: The Weight of Waiting

My battle with breast cancer has taught me two things. How to be afraid and how to wait.

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Breast Cancer: The Weight of Waiting
Photo: Angiola Harry on Unsplash
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My birthday is flamboyantly controversial. My parents are sure they brought me into the world on the 7th of June thirty years ago but the government of Kenya decided that I was born six days earlier, on June the 1st, and my official documents say so. That is why my fellow nurses at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh threw a surprise birthday party for me on the 1st. Just after the breast cancer diagnosis. But they do not know about the diagnosis. They need to wait.

It is 11h03 British Summertime (13h03 EAT). I am not thinking how wonderful it is that I was born. I am worried that I might die. I am in the waiting bay at the Edinburgh Breast Unit of the Western General Hospital. Last week I was told I had breast cancer, but nobody could confirm the stage and grade yet. I was asked to wait for the results of the fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy.

An FNA happens when doctors want to get slivers of tissue from an organ or a mass to find out what type of cells the organ has. Or, simply put, to study that organ in finer detail. When I came here last week, they sedated my left breast then asked me to wait as the anaesthetic knocked my boob out. Then the specialized therapist took out bits and pieces of the swelling inside my breast. A clinical support worker applied pressure on my breast to stop the bleeding. Then I was told to wait.

I seem to be doing a lot of that lately, waiting. I am waiting in this bay for my 11h15 appointment with Mr J., my breast cancer surgeon. I arrived fifteen minutes ago. I forgot my appointment card at home. The medical receptionists do not seem to mind. This is a cancer unit. There are more worrying things than forgotten appointment cards.

There are a few of us here. I can count ten women and two men. Both men brought their spouses. One is in a purple and white checked shirt, and he seems uninterested in his wife’s conversation. The checked shirt has caught my attention. It is a pattern favoured by men from central Kenya. All he needs is the signature baseball cap that Kikuyu men wear and he could be a Kamau or Njoroge. He is playing some game on his iPad as he nods absent-mindedly to whatever his wife is saying.

Most of us are on our gadgets. There is an unspoken sense of apprehension. We choose to speak to our phones and not each other. We want to cling to a sense of normalcy. For the current generation, normal comes in a small box with a keypad, a camera and attention deficit. We have no idea how to speak to real human beings.

People keep streaming in, more women than men. Breast cancer is more common in women than in men. I see it here. More women come in. The seats are now all occupied, and I give mine up for an elderly woman who has just come in, huffing and puffing on her walking frame. Dear God, I think to myself, just how common is breast cancer here in Edinburgh?

There are women from all walks of life here. I see a Chinese woman, or Korean, I can never tell the difference. Another is Filipino; I know because she has just answered her phone in Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines. Several of the women are Caucasian. I am the only black girl in the waiting area.

Where are the black people in this waiting bay? Did they come in yesterday? Perhaps they will come tomorrow? Why am I the only African in this waiting area? Probably Mr J. will tell me that he has made a very big mistake and that there is no cancer in my left breast. It could be that I should not be here. In fact, since I began this cancer journey not once have I met an African.

A bespectacled doctor has called in a Mrs Frame. Mrs. Frame is the woman I gave my seat to. She is using a tripod frame to walk. I see a pun here and I think it is funny. But this is a cancer department. We don’t laugh here. But I feel a smile take form on my lips. Thankfully, the face mask I am wearing hides my amusement.

There is a six-foot-tall woman near the exit of the waiting bay. The waiting bay has an entry and an exit. We come in through the entry where the medical receptionist is perched on her chair like a patient mother hen and we leave the bay through the exit when we are called in to see the doctor.

There is a water dispenser near the exit. The tall woman looks young. Thirty-something young-ish. Her presence gives me hope. That I am not the only young woman here. She moves restlessly on her lanky, sun-kissed legs. She is wearing a pair of booty shorts because the summer sun is here with us. She keeps tossing her mass of bronze of hair as she scrolls through her phone like someone looking for social media notifications.

It is like we are all keeping her from more important things in her extremely busy life. She looks like she will make a run for it. I cannot blame her. I too would run. If I could run fast enough to escape a breast cancer diagnosis, I would. She is pacing. A sure sign of anxiety. I am tempted to either join her or stop her. I too would rather be anywhere else but here. I need to be with my dialysis patients. I want to continue being a nurse, not this patient waiting in this lounge.

Two clinical support workers enter the bay, sweeping it with their roving eyes as if looking for someone or something. Then they leave. I do not like this. I wish they would speak. Which reminds me of my own practice as a nurse. How often I go to the waiting lounge at the dialysis centre where I work, use my eyes to scan the area then leave quietly. I make a mental note to change that. I will be engaging the patients and the waiting relatives. I will even be telling them that I am just looking for someone, or something. The silent eye-scan is unsettling.

As if on a surgically precise cue, one of them pops back in and asks if the room is too hot. A middle-aged woman in an unremarkable pair of jeans says the room is hot. The clinical support worker promises to turn the thermostat a degree or two lower. I do not care about the temperature. I care that she has spoken to us. That we are not just waiting slots but real human beings with varying repertoires of cancerous anxieties.

For a moment I feel sleepy. I have been writing on my smartphone to keep myself occupied. I am exhausted. I have not slept well since they gave me the diagnosis a week ago. My nights have been screaming terror and yet, in the noise, God has been roaring. He gave me pen and paper. I have been using them to bleed out my fears. But now I need my bed. It is way past my appointment time, which is not surprising given how thorough these specialists are.

“Miss Meina,” a familiar voice pierces through the silence. I quickly put my phone in my purse and stand up. It is Mr. J, my breast surgeon. He cannot pronounce my surname properly, and he calls me “Meina” like many white people do. I do not mind. As long as they spell it correctly.

After profuse apologies for keeping me waiting, Mr J. starts breaking things down.

“We are lucky that the Stage is confirmed to be 1 and the tumour is in grade. . .” he starts. Nurse A, the breast cancer nurse assigned to me, joins us in the consulting room.

“We will need to run more tests to determine the best form of surgery to remove the tumour. Have you ever heard of gene mutation?”

Everyone has BReast Cancer (BRCA) genes. There are two types, BRCA 1 and BRCA2. These genes are protective in that they stop the cells of the breast from growing out of control. Sometimes we inherit faulty ones. Or something in our environment causes them to change and mutate. This places us at risk of developing breast cancer. Even then, only 5 per cent of all diagnosed breast cancer cases are due to a faulty gene.

“If we find faulty genes Catherine, we might have to start thinking about double mastectomy with breast reconstruction.” Mr J. says matter-of-factly. Sweet King David and the choir of heaven! Did he just say total removal of both breasts at thirty? What exactly are you telling me? What about the children I hope to bear someday? What about my dreams of motherhood? Could this disease have come at a worse time? An unwanted boob job? I am not ready for this conversation.

I stand up and head for the sink in the room. I am torn between vomiting and screaming. I settle for crying. The tears, hot, bitter, angry tears roll down my face. I don’t bother to wipe them away.

Mr J. rubs my back as Nurse A hands me tissues to blow my nose. More blood samples are taken for these complicated tests. I cry some more. Now I have to wait for the results of these tests. The waiting never ends. The fear of the unknown creeps up to me like a menacing nightclub bouncer.

My battle with breast cancer has taught me two things. How to be afraid and how to wait. I do not lock out my fears. I invite them in, make them a cuppa tea and then use my fork to poke them in the eyes. I no longer wait while doing nothing. Doing nothing is the chief ingredient in the meal of overthinking. I wait while writing and praying. I wait while reading and researching. I wait, ultimately, while clinging onto the hope that the God of the mountain is still God in the valley. Afraid and tired, I wait.

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