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COVID-19 in Africa: To Eat or to Heal?

11 min read.

Kenya is caught between the difficulty of what needs to be done to slow the spread of COVID-19, and what its majority must do to survive on a daily basis.

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COVID-19 in Africa: To Eat or to Heal?
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“I knew that once this thing hits, business is going to slow down. My fruits aren’t covered, and every potential customer handles the fruit.”

Early evening on the 25th of March, 23-year-old Moses Njenga, a fruit and vegetable vendor swats dust and flies off his apples. His stand, made of a small, wooden table and covered with canvas, is right across from a bus stop. It is a great place to have a stall, but foot traffic is much lighter than usual today.

Kenyan Government directives restricting movement owing to the quickening spread of the COVID-19 pandemic are beginning to take root at this time, 13 days after the first case of COVID-19 was announced to the public.

Along with these restrictions, public service announcements on the importance of hand-washing with soap, use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers and coughing or sneezing etiquette are very much on the menu of content that Kenyans have been consuming. So, to keep as many customers as possible interested in buying from him, Moses turned a 10-litre container into a small water tank with a tap and bought some soap, which he points the few customers who stop by his stall to use before they begin the ritual of touching and squeezing his fruits to gauge their ripeness.

COVID-19 in Africa: To Eat or to Heal?

Moses works in Karen, a rich Nairobi suburb, one which until recently, was not well known as a place where you’d find big informal markets as opposed to large malls, large mansions and some of Kenya’s landed elite. He isn’t out of place here today, though.

The stretch of road from which he sells his fruit is lined with many other informal traders: street food vendors, boda boda operators (“boda boda” is Kenyan slang for motorbike taxi) and charcoal vendors. All of them ply their trade in front of a glossy mall on one side of the road, and a petrol station that also houses a popular coffee house, a pharmacy and a convenience store. The co-existence between formal businesses and informal ones is a very African symbiosis. 75% of Kenyans of working age work informally and a majority of these people depend on daily income to feed themselves and their families. This means that businesses like Moses’s are key to the survival of Kenya’s economy. Catching the virus is a concern, but the harm it will do to their ability to earn looms even largest than the virus itself.

On a good day, Moses will make 30 dollars in sales, but a small percentage of this goes to him.

“This stall doesn’t belong to me. I am an employee. I make 10% of everything I sell. So, if the government makes these restrictions worse, what is going to happen to me?”

Moses’s stall is also an important vantage point for one to stand from, and observe the changes taking place within and between different demographics of Kenyan society because of COVID-19.

 

COVID-19 in Africa: To Eat or to Heal?

There are noticeably fewer cars on the road here; Kenyans who are tapped into the formal economy are making plans to work from home, practice social distancing and wait out the virus. On the street, most informal traders are out, as usual, hoping to make some money before the end of the day. Across from Moses, Johnson Ray Mchama, who sells second-hand clothes, beckons me over to share his experience since COVID-19 landed on Kenyan shores.

“I made one sale today. One. Yesterday I didn’t sell anything. I made one sale the day before. This Corona has really disrupted our flow of business,” he laments.

Spreading faster than the virus this evening are rumours that the Kenyan government will be announcing a total lockdown on movement across the country. Johnson weighs in.

 

COVID-19 in Africa: To Eat or to Heal?

“If the government asks us to stay at home what will we do? Die in our homes? The government needs to think of us even as it plans for lockdowns,” he says.

At 5 pm on this same day, millions tune in to listen to the government’s daily briefing on the spread of the virus. Anxiety builds, and WhatsApp messages ping from inbox to inbox with anonymous opinions about the coming lockdown. A lockdown isn’t announced. Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Health does announce more restrictions. A dusk to dawn curfew beginning March the 27th. Kenyans will have to be in their homes by 7 pm every day, and can only leave after 5 am the following day.

If the government asks us to stay at home what will we do? Die in our homes? The government needs to think of us even as it plans for lockdowns

On the first evening of the curfew, I check in with Moses at 5 pm, two hours before the curfew begins. He is putting away his fruits, preparing to close for the day:

“I have no choice but to obey what the government says, I don’t want to have any run-ins with the police.”

His choice of words is spot on, as just as our brief interview concludes, Kenya’s police force is out across the country, enforcing the curfew with whips, batons and teargas. In Mombasa, a Kenyan city on the coast of the Indian Ocean, crowds of hundreds of people trample upon one another trying to get away from the police. Videos shot by members of the public show a crowd that was lining up to use the ferry being violently dispersed. The following day, a 13-year old boy, Yassin Hussein Moyo, was hit by a stray bullet and killed while standing at the balcony of his home, watching the police enforce the curfew in Kiamaiko, one of Nairobi’s poorer neighbourhoods. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta would later issue an apology for the violence meted out against members of the public as the quarantine was enforced, but just a week later, as the terms of restrictions were amended, yet another foible would expose the contradictions between policy directives and the reality of the common man’s daily life.

On April the 5th, Kenyatta announced a 21-day restriction of movement in and out of the Nairobi metropolitan area. Like many cities across the continent, millions of people who work in the city don’t live there, their daily travel rituals crossing in and out of the cities that they work in.  So it wasn’t surprising that the day after this directive was made, numerous Kenyans were seen trying to evade roadblocks on the main highways in and out of the city in order to get to their jobs. Kenya, it would appear, is caught between the difficulty of what needs to be done to slow the spread of COVID-19, and what its majority must do to survive on a daily basis.

Catching the virus is a concern, but the harm it will do to their ability to earn looms even largest than the virus itself.

Like Moses, many of the people who live in Kiamaiko are paid daily wages or earn money directly from an informal trade. Yet for all of the violence and uncertainty that has stalked Kenyans with the spread of the Corona Virus, little has come by the way of relief for those who are part of the informal market.

Tax cuts proposed by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta have been criticised for leaving out members of the informal economy, who at best will be indirect beneficiaries of these measures. In a bid to control the spread of the virus in public spaces, restrictions on the number of people who can use public transport have in turn led to spikes in fares. Directives that Kenyans should wear masks while in public are also difficult to comply with. A surgical mask costs anywhere between USD 1.15 and USD 1.50. For someone like Moses, who earns USD 3 a day, adding masks to his daily budget poses a difficult dilemma.

Measures that have succeeded in countries like South Korea have been dependant on strong public healthcare systems and compliance by the public to government directives. In Kenya and other African countries, compliance with stay-at-home directives has been difficult to enforce. On the one hand, the government has chalked this up to people not taking the virus seriously enough. Ask Moses or Johnson, and they will tell you that it is because people literally can’t afford to stay at home. The numbers of those who have the virus are climbing nonetheless (check our tracker for up to date numbers).

The Ministry of Health is racing to keep the numbers as low as possible, and has scaled up testing of members of the public as the country still is in the containment phase of the pandemic. A majority of those who have been tested by the government are being housed in government-sanctioned quarantine facilities where complaints of ill-treatment and exposure to possible infection with COVID-19 abound.

Ashley Yaro, a 21-year old law student studying in Britain chose to return to Kenya as the numbers of those infected by the virus in Britain rose exponentially. She had planned to self-quarantine, and only learnt about the Kenyan government’s mandatory quarantine notice when she landed in Nairobi.

“When the airports authority officials beckoned us to come closer and tell us about the directive, we were all packed so closely together that I remember commenting to someone that if we didn’t have it before we probably have it by now.”

Her transfer into the quarantine facility she was staying at was fraught with incidents like these, but once safely in her room, there was little to worry about beyond those early moments of her arrival. Ten days into her quarantine, she posted a tweet with a single word:

“Negative”!

A lucky escape, because government announcements that would follow confirmed fears that laxity in abiding to quarantine protocols both by the quarantined and government officials overseeing the facilities came out in the numbers of infected.

“51 to 52% of the new cases we have are of people who are in quarantine facilities,” Dr. Patrick Amoth, Kenya’s Director in the Ministry of Health remarked during the government’s daily briefing on April 2nd.

Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mutahi Kagwe, later pointed a finger of blame at those within these facilities.

“Positive cases of people already in our quarantine facilities rank the highest; this poses a risk of more transmission, especially to those who have not taken seriously the distancing requirements”.

Nonetheless, as the quarantines wore on, more and more videos, messages and documents from those in quarantine demonstrated that they were at odds with the government. An April 5th announcement that people in specific facilities where the government had discovered flouting of protocols were to remain in quarantine for a further 14 days caused outrage. People in one facility drafted an official complaint to the Ministry of health. Some posted videos detailing the kind of anguish they underwent during this time.

“Some people think it is punitive but these are public health measures,” Dr Omu Anzala, a virologist and immunologist who is serving on the government taskforce on the COVID-19 pandemic sought to explain the government’s directives. On the horizon is an exponential rise in the number of COVID-19 cases, which threaten to overwhelm Kenya’s public healthcare system.

“We must have an exponential (growth) phase somewhere. My prediction based on everything that we are seeing everywhere else is that it is probably going to happen in four to five weeks from the first case,” says Dr Ahmed Kalebi, who founded and runs Lancet Laboratories, one of the few privately owned laboratories that has been testing the public for COVID-19.

He holds that Kenya is yet to see the worst of the spread. He isn’t wrong. Government projections put the number of COVID-19 cases at 10,000 people by the end of April.

“If you look at the number of people affected by COVID-19, the majority are aged between 30 and 59,” Dr Mercy Mwangangi, Kenya’s Cabinet Administrative Secretary for health said on April 8th as she briefed the country about the spread of the virus. The Ministry of Health has struck an increasingly serious tone as Kenya enters this critical phase in the spread of the virus. Officials have asked Kenyans to brace themselves for tough times ahead.

Fears of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya are shared across numerous borders on the continent owing to decades of under-investment in public healthcare facilities. Millions are also wary of the virus having shared memories of the devastation that past pandemics have wrought on the health of their families.

“So far, people can only be tested in two regions out of eight with not up to five treatment centres for more than 25 people.”

Mimi Mefo, a Cameroonian journalist covering the pandemic notes that the toll that other diseases have taken on the West African country’s public healthcare system have left Cameroon weakened in the face of the novel COVID-19 virus.

“Cameroon has barely been able to keep its healthcare system afloat before the virus struck. Patients with kidney problems do not have health centres and the right medical equipment to treat them. HIV patients were recently complaining about the lack of anti-retroviral drugs, and malaria remains a health challenge to the country,” she adds.

Inasmuch as Africa’s population is young and should be better able to cope with the virus, co-morbidities like those described by Mefo loom large with their ability to further complicate the management of the disease.

With over 750 total cases as at April 10th, Cameroon has the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases in Sub-Saharan Africa. Complicating the fight even further is the raging war between government troops and pro-secessionist troops. Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya, has reportedly not been seen in public to address the impact of this conflict on the fight to contain the Coronavirus, nor has he addressed the public regarding the virus itself since the first case was announced in early March. The country’s struggle with a leadership crisis only compounds the problems it is facing and set to face.

“Pro-independence leaders have called for a ceasefire, and the world including Cameroon are engaged in the coronavirus fight. Unfortunately, my platform continues to have daily reports of gun battles and killings indicating that the violence has continued unabated,” says Mefo.

The Economic Commission for Africa had in March forecasted that Africa could lose half its GDP.

Oil exporting nations stand to lose up to 65 billion dollars in lost revenues as trade slows down and global oil prices tumble. East African countries will have to be especially vigilant with the measures that they are taking to cushion themselves at this time, given that they were already reeling from the impact of a massive locust infestation that swept through farmlands from Ethiopia to Uganda. When crises such as the one posed by the spread of COVID-19 hit, the citizens of many African states vacate cities for their family homes in the rural countryside, opting to depend on the social welfare of community after their ability to earn a living is disrupted. Restrictions on movement in and out of capitals across Africa will disrupt this, and test African populations even further.

Striking a more hopeful tone for the continent are measures taken by some African countries on fighting the spread of COVID-19 that if held on to could see them recover faster than expected. Uganda’s decision in the opening exchanges in this fight to suspend international flights and restrict movement internally seems to be working, as the number of new cases of the pandemic trail Kenya and Rwanda’s. Having faced the spread of infectious diseases like Ebola and the Marburg virus, protocols and people ready to implement them were in place more readily than in other countries. President Yoweri Museveni announced a food distribution program targeting 1.5 million people from vulnerable communities.

Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo announced that up to 400,000 Ghanaians in regions most affected by the virus had begun receiving food support, as Ghana entered its second week since restrictions on movement within the greater Accra region, Kumasi, Tema and Kasowa were announced. Addo also announced that the government would absorb water bills for all Ghanaians for the next three months and that there would be no disconnections of utilities. Micro, small and medium businesses were also the focus of Addo’s address, with a 100 million dollar soft loan scheme set up to tide these businesses over. Botswana also set up a 168 million dollar scheme to assist businesses pay their workers’ salaries.

Guinea’s government has declared that its citizens would not pay rent until December, and that public transport and access to some pharmaceuticals and basic necessities would also be free.

Kenya is caught between the difficulty of what needs to be done to slow the spread of COVID-19, and what its majority must do to survive on a daily basis.

It is the story of the people though that continues to inspire hope where government catches up to the challenges posed during this time. Kenyan political analyst and author Nanjala Nyabola says that the initiatives being taken by members of the public to fight the virus give her hope that, despite its challenges, Africa can beat COVID-19.

“What gives me hope is communities rallying around each other. In Kenya, we reacted to the fact that the disease would hit the poor harder than the rich. We have had food drives, with people doing as much as they can to help within the community. We don’t have the facilities, but we (the people) have a long history of responding to crises, mobilizing around public health. The public is trying to believe and act communally.”

She cites the work of the coalition of human rights defenders who are working in some of Nairobi’s informal settlements. They have fund-raised for water and soap bars which they are delivering door to door in these communities, and hope to scale up to the delivery of masks in these areas.

“It is creating a template for action but just needs to be scaled up. That’s the thing, people are freaked out by the threat and saying that they are screwed. They are looking at it and saying let it find us doing something.”

Back on the street that Moses and Johnson operate from, informal traders are quickly adjusting to the changes thrust upon them by COVID-19.

 

COVID-19 in Africa: To Eat or to Heal?

“I will come and sell again, but I won’t increase my stock”, Moses says, keenly aware about how much more perishable a day of work, and his fruit has become. A 7 pm start to the curfew means that he has to shut down two hours early in order to get home in time. Moses and the millions of people who work informally have to, by necessity, act fast, travel light and adapt to survive.

Days are fading fast too for governments to rein in the pandemic. Nyabola warns that this isn’t just a health crisis, but a phenomenon that will impact governance for a long time to come.

“It is a moment of reckoning and a moment of better decision making. That’s the fork in the road for African governments.”

This article was originally published by Africa Uncensored.

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John-Allan Namu is an investigative journalist and the founder of Africa Uncensored, an investigative and in-depth journalism production house in Nairobi, Kenya.

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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Reflections

The Night Watchmen: Hustling in a Time of Coronavirus

In this legendary city of chestnut trees, gabled rooftops, fairy tale bridges and winding canals, the nights belong to the young and the restless.

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The Night Watchmen: Hustling in a Time of Coronavirus
Photo: Wikipedia/A. Bakker
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“Big man, they killed our little brother.”

“Who?”

“Amanuel.”

“Who is, Amanuel?”

“Your friend. They killed him.”

“Who, are you talking about?”

“Amanuel-Maantje!”

“You mean Little Man? The little light-skinned guy?” I asked now, linking the messenger to a fresh-faced kid I had met at the beginning of the first coronavirus lockdown some nine months ago in March 2020.

“Yes My brother! They killed our little brother. I knew I had to come by here and let you know. You know I always saw he liked to talk to you.”

All of a sudden I felt my heart drop, I didn’t want to accept that he was gone. I didn’t even know his name.  All I knew was that he was a really nice guy.

So reading the news report literally broke my heart.

“Between late night Tuesday the 18th and the morning of Wednesday 19th November 2020, a 30-year-old man was severely wounded in a shooting incident on the Krugerplein in Amsterdam’s eastside. The victim was rushed to hospital. His outlook is said to be ‘critical’.  ‘He had to be resuscitated before they took him,’ said a witness at the scene.”

I called him “Little Man”.

It had been weeks since I had seen him. Our first meeting was purely by chance. I was doing a job providing security in the heart of Amsterdam’s red light district when our paths crossed.

My task was to position myself in front of the establishment at around 1.40 a.m. and provide a physical deterrent for loiterers, vandals and robbers.

“It’s a breeze, all you got to do is stand here. Make sure no one messes up the place. You don’t have to fight with anyone.  All you have to do is let them see you.”

Motivated by an immediate financial need, I agreed to give the job a shot.

To be honest, I just didn’t have the luxury of saying no; the offer was a godsend given we were entering a lockdown.  Upon accepting the job, the most wonderful things began to unfold.

He was a “hustler”, a “kid from the streets”, but I didn’t know that at the time, or really what a hustler or kid from the streets really meant. All I knew was that he was a nice guy who confessed to me that his “gangster” persona was just an act.

I had spied him coming down the street. It was already well after 2 a.m. but the streets were still busy with the throngs from the pubs, bars, cafes that were now closing. I heard him shouting as he walked, parting the crowds.

It was during that random encounter that I realised the importance of not condemning the young.

“I’m famous in these streets, nobody messes with me around here, not even the cops. They all know me around here, Opa.”

I wanted to know what he was doing out in the streets knowing we were suffering a pandemic.

“You either play football or you hustle Opa. You know how it is!” he said with a big cheeky grin on his face. I could only manage a forced smile, understanding the struggle to survive.

Thirty-year-old Amanuel Nelson Cornelio was a cheerful young man who grew up in one of Amsterdam’s poorer neighbourhoods.

“Americans say soccer, right Opa?  But we here in Dutch, say football. You know, I played in a league for ten years”, he said before adding earnestly, “I call you Opa from respect. You are my elder, I could be your son,” he said, and this unsolicited admission made me feel good.

“I used to be real good, I was fast,” he continued. “Look at my legs, they’re strong,” he said and I had to smile.  This exchange between strangers under the lamps on the Plein in the wee hours of the night felt like it was the middle of the day.

“But I messed up Opa.  See, I come from these streets, I was born here. These streets raised me”, he said, then he paused, causing me to wonder if his last statement was an excuse or an indictment on society. I suspect it was the latter.

When he first called me Opa I had to laugh not to feel insulted. I am only fifty-five years old. It seemed like only yesterday that I was out there running the streets carefree like he was, filled with fire and wonder for everything new.

I was 28 years old. Back then life was so different. For a while I thought the parties would never end. It was heaven on earth and I was as free as the breeze. Every day was an adventure. Everyone was an artist or a visionary and we all had big, big dreams for the future.

There was no European Union. The Dutch had their own currency. People were happy and connected in what was truly the most tolerant city in the world. It was truly unreal. A mother’s love reigned over the land, a stark contrast to the patriarchal system I had escaped from in America.

I remember when we danced all night in the streets. When peeing in the canals was a rite of passage. You hadn’t really lived until you sent one downstream.  Today, it will cost you a 90-euro fine if you’re caught.

When the Dutch became a part of the union, switched to the single currency and opened their borders, life changed. A global economic crisis that left five of the 17 member-nations in need of financial aid and a mass influx of migrants to European shores in 2015 kept jobs and progress at a slow pace.

Coincidentally, that same year I hit two milestones in my personal life. I turned 50 and I was made redundant and seemingly unemployable, forcing me to face the fact that my time had come and gone.

Which is why I was standing out in the night air at 2 a.m., working as a night watchman surrounded by sex workers and the traffic that visits the infamous red light zone.

In this new, unique position as a casual observer I learned that no matter their position, everyone is only trying to be their full complete self. Straight across from the Royal Amsterdam Palace adjacent to the Bijenkhof building on the Damstraat is a quote placed on a street tile that marks the beginning of the red light district.  The quote is from John Locke, and it states, “Inside every person, is a part of himself that is only his property and belongs only to him”.

“It’s an easy gig, all you got to do is stand there and watch the place.  You don’t have to engage anyone. You are not there for that. if something happens call me. You have the police station right across the Plein but they usually ride by every 15 minutes to check.”

I had to admit I was a little nervous, performing a job that until then I thought was beneath my previous social status.

After leaving a military career spanning over a decade and relocating to Amsterdam in 1993 with a small severance package, I was able to carve out a pretty successful life for myself here in the Netherlands.

Things began to fall into place almost immediately upon my arrival. I had an advantage in the workforce; I was a native English speaker in a new Europe, a more united Europe that was beginning to raise its head. I was able to jump from one opportunity to the next until the economic crisis that swept across the globe in 2008 hit, changing everything as jobs became harder to find.

In the Netherlands, one is employed on a contractual basis that ensures that the rights of the worker are at all times respected. If an employer takes you on, they cannot break the agreement without respecting the law. Now, the downside to this system is that employers are less likely to take on new senior staff whose contracts are more expensive and harder to break than those of younger, inexperienced workers.

This dynamic has left many senior professionals marooned on the island of ageism, forcing them to find new avenues to earn a living.

“No sleeping, eating, drinking or gathering in front of the shop. Don’t engage with them. If they come under the awning just direct them to keep it moving. Don’t argue with them, if something happens, call me but you have the police station right in front of you. You can go just across the Plein.”

Those were the instructions.

“Ok, I’ll try it,” I said with only one thought in my mind: I needed the money.

My shift started at 2 a.m. Travelling across town was surreal. It was as if this legendary city of chestnut trees, gabled rooftops, fairy tale bridges and winding canals belonged to only me. Until I learned who really owns the nights. The nights belong to the young and the restless.

It was just supposed to be me and my thoughts out in the open air when suddenly, from around every corner, every bend,  as if an alarm had gone off forcing them from out of their holding places, young people emerged from everywhere I looked, at a time when we had been instructed to maintain social distance. I thought no one else would be out.  It was the first weekend of the public restrictions to curb the pandemic.

I was supposed to be the only one on the streets, but when I arrived the scene was a circus. Bars and cafes with outside table service were jam-packed, my work station was right in the middle.

Everyone seemed to have ignored the warning to stay indoors; the young and the old, Black, White, Asians and Browns. Day-trippers, transients and party guests, hustlers and dealers all moving among streetwalkers and foolish hearts looking for a good time. It was a completely different eco-system.

Maantje means Little Moon, but the pronunciation is similar to Mannetje which literally means “Little man”. I gave him that name when we first spoke but what I learned after his death was that he was a street hero. I just hadn’t known it.  All I knew was he was a really nice guy.

“Where are you from, I mean, your people?”

“I was born here but my family comes from Curaçao. But they are all here now.  I stay not too far from here with my grandma. These are my streets, I’m telling you. You know what? My Uncle used to run these same streets back in the day. He was one of Amsterdam’s original gangsters. He died right there,” the young, talkative kid said, extending his arm out to show the spot where his uncle took his last breath, across the empty square close to Nam King, the iconic Chinese restaurant famous for its oysters.

“That’s sad,” I said.  As I stood there searching for what to say next, a darker, older man came cycling around the corner, an apparent acquaintance of Little Man.

Little Man waved him over.

“Tell him who my uncle was. Tell him he was killed right over there,” Little Man said to his friend who I had determined had Afro-Surinamese roots. The darker guy looked closer to my age than to Little Man’s.  He greeted me unceremoniously.

“Yes, my brother, he was a serious gangster,” he said, his voice thick.

“Really?” I said, which gave me away.

“Where are you from Big Man?” the darker man asked, but Little Man answered before I could.

“He’s American. Man, I would like to go there, not to live there but to see it, Opa.  I listen to a lot of music from America, rappers out of Baltimore. You know Baltimore?”

It just so happened that I did. “I used to live not too far from Baltimore, before moving here,” I said before adding, “Maybe one day, after this coronavirus is over and travelling begins again, you’ll get the chance to go?”

To which he replied, “Nah, Opa, they are never going to let me in. I have a record. I just got out [of prison]. I tell you I’m known in these streets, but I’ve been trying to turn that around. Now this lockdown.”

Listening to him and his story I knew how it felt being stuck, being trapped, your ambitions fading from you and you being unable to do anything about it. But I was pressed to know his age.

“Little Man, how old are you?”  I asked. To look at him you would have expected to find him kicking football around the Plein, or sitting under old trees with a pack of other kids, talking loudly at one another, just having fun.

I couldn’t see how a kid like him could have committed a crime that would warrant a prison sentence. Not here in the Netherlands. The Dutch have one of the most civilised judicial systems in the world.  When I first got here, you could kill someone and the most you would get behind bars was four years, but even that had changed over the years.

“I want you to know, because I saw you looking at me, what you saw, what I do out here is  just an act.”

The entire time we spoke, he wanted me to know he respected me ticking the box in the code of a thinking man, and if “Opa” was another form of that code of brotherly love, I wanted to encourage that because in all aspects he could have been my son. I was his elder and could imagine that all he really wanted, like everyone else, was better.

“I’m thirty.” He said smiling while handling his phone which must have showed an incoming call.

“I got to go now Opa,” Little Man said, jumping on his bike and waving as he rode away into the night, to which I could only offer, “Be careful out there.”

I watched him riding away and I imagined he was off to be with friends. Little did I know.

“To say that he will be missed is an understatement,” began the follow-up headlines. “The 30-year-old victim of the shooting on the Krugerplein in Amsterdam’s eastside has been identified as local street hero ‘Maantje’.”

The article went on to describe how much loved he was. “Maantje was known for his enthusiasm and his spirit. He was also loved on the sporting field having played ten years for an indoor club.” The article went on to say that Maantje had lived a street life which was first immortalised in 2011 when photographer Paul Blanca put him in front of the camera for a series of photos of Amsterdam’s street gangs. Blanca remembers Amanuel quite vividly and recalls one particular photo of a younger 20-year-old Maantje staring deeply into the lens of the camera with the most menacing look on his face. The series of photos was titled, “Mi Mattie,” a phrase borrowed from the Surinamese language which means “My Friends”.

To say he will be missed is a serious understatement. It’s a bloody shame. When I asked what actually happened, I was told that it was due to the many months of lockdown. The two assailants arrested for his killing were young people aged 21 and 24.

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