First Came the Floods, Then Came the Pandemic11 min read.
Yet again, the people of Kano are facing the humiliation of lining up to receive relief food, having abandoned their homes due to the flooding that is exposing them to untold hardship, a recurring scourge that is, in their view, more deadly than COVID-19.
I left Nairobi towards the end of March, headed for my home in the Kano Plains located in the lowlands that form part of the floodplains of River Nyando in Kisumu County. It was a few days before the curfew and cessation of movements into and out of Nairobi declared by President Uhuru Kenyatta to contain the spread of COVID-19.
I had grown increasingly anxious, worried by the mood of uncertainty in Nairobi caused by the news cycle about COVID-19. Staying in the village and having a family support system would provide the desired peace of mind. When I arrived in Kano, I found my home area under water due to floods which, according to the locals, were worse than the COVID-19 pandemic despite the scant media attention they were receiving.
On the 8th of April, a video of a blind man submerged in water and pleading with the government to come to his rescue went viral. After reposting it on my social media channels, I decided to locate the mzee’s home in Ombaka, Ahero Ward, Nyando constituency to establish the facts on the ground and find solutions to alleviate his suffering. When I arrived at Ombaka, the murram road to his home was impassable due to flooding. I left the vehicle on dry ground and changed into gumboots to walk the rest of the way to the home.
I was among the many visitors who trooped to his home to deliver items including foodstuffs ever since the video had gone viral. I met a lady who claimed she had been sent by nominated Member of Parliament David Sankok to deliver donations. Also among the well-wishers was a local patron who was using his social media clout to rally his followers to build a house for the mzee.
“Are we going to fundraise and build homes for the entire community?”, a friend asked as we passed through a series of abandoned semi-permanent houses that were falling apart and submerged in water.
After walking on dykes, swampy areas, deep trenches and past abandoned homes, we arrived at the home of 58-year-old Ong’udi Onam. The house was an island surrounded by water, a two-roomed semi-permanent house smelling of damp, the mud walls falling apart and the floor muddy from the flooding waters. We handed over the shopping we had taken to the family and, after prayers, went outside the house to speak with the mzee.
“Why do you still live in such a dangerous place yet all the villagers have moved?”, I asked him. “Can you imagine the challenges a blind man can face in an IDP [Internally Displaced People] Camp during COVID-19 times?”, he countered. “Tell the government that death is death whether by floods or COVID-19. There’s a bigger coronavirus in Nyando in the form of floods and it’s killing our people”, he lamented.
As I left Onam’s home, I was overcome by emotions that soon morphed into resentment and anger. “How cruel can this life be?”, I wondered. A poor, unemployed, visually impaired man lives in a home that floods every year destroying crops, exposing him to waterborne diseases. At night, hippos from the lake threaten his life as they graze in his compound while inside his house, he battles malaria-causing mosquitoes and the anxiety that the house may collapse on him.
Although the video about Onam’s plight pricked the conscience of the nation and Kenyans in the diaspora, it was the symptom of a bigger problem. Even though the Nyando River Basin has always experienced flooding because of its topography and proximity to Lake Victoria, the 2020 floods are said to be the worst in living memory. Since November 2019, the Nyando River Basin has experienced excessive flooding leading to the displacement of thousands to internally displaced persons’ camps.
By the 8th of April, about 1,500 people had been displaced in a region that had experienced consistent heavy rains from November 2019. In Ombaka, I visited a local church hosting displaced women where I met a 78-year-old lady who had been enduring cold nights, insecurity, mosquitoes and a poor diet from food donations since February when she became displaced. The crops she had planted were washed away and her house had slowly succumbed to the floods.
Following the suffering I witnessed in the IDP camps and the destruction caused by the floods on the first day, I went to other parts of Nyando to document the impact of the flooding and raise awareness. In the process, I visited Ogenya in Kadibo, Kadhiambo in Kawino South, Kabonyo Kanyagwal, Ayweyo and Ombaka Kakola sub-locations.
Everywhere I went was untold suffering; lives disrupted, property and crops destroyed, and general hopelessness. Certain parts of Nduru in Kabonyo Kanyagwal could only be accessed by boat – it has been like that since early February. Homes that locals had spent millions to build were submerged in water and deserted.
I was shocked by the level of apathy towards the suffering in Nyando. I was also struck by the loud silence of Kisumu leaders on the matter, apart from a few rival politicians who were capitalising on the floods to score political points. Nobody talked about the far-reaching impact of the floods, including compromised food security, homelessness, disruption of lives, disease outbreaks and increased cycles of lack and deprivation. And nor were there sustained efforts by the local media to highlight the unfolding humanitarian crisis.
In the days that followed, I made noise about the floods. I published a story in one of the local media outlets and ran a twitter campaign to amplify the voices of flood survivors. The campaign didn’t gain traction and the proposals I wrote to donors with the aim of mounting a major media campaign didn’t yield anything. Three weeks later, with my finances running low and my car tires damaged by the poor state of the roads, I was left frustrated and emotionally and physically exhausted. I had escaped from Nairobi to safeguard my mental health but little did I know that the home I had hoped would be a place of refuge would drive me to the brink of a mental health breakdown.
On the 21st of April, a new devastating wave of floods arrived, displacing thousands. I was relieved because it made news and caught the attention of local leaders. As I walked towards Ahero town along the Nairobi–Kisumu highway, I began documenting scenes of havoc in real-time on Facebook Live. The compound of my former high school, Lela Secondary, which had been spared the devastation of previous flood cycles when River Nyando burst its banks, was now completely covered in water, giving it the appearance of a small lake. A few meters away, a group of men toiled, attempting to dredge up sections of clogged River Miriu – one of the tributaries of River Nyando – as they complained about the missing dredgers owned by the County Government of Kisumu.
A police lorry was parked by the roadside. Standing in the back of it, officers urged the displaced residents to board and be taken to the IDP camp set up at Rabuor Primary School. Two County Government of Kisumu lorries – which I was later informed are routinely used for garbage collection in Kisumu County – were also parked by the roadside, repurposed to ferry the displaced to the IDP camps.
Just past the lorry, I met a former schoolmate evacuating his family. Dressed in a branded Kisumu County shirt, the ward administrator pointed to his home submerged in water in the distance and lamented the local leaders’ failure to prioritise the dredging of rivers. Many people were torn between boarding the police lorry to the IDP camps and staying to salvage what was left on their properties.
“If we go, who will secure our things in the house?”, one resident asked. “We are not leaving unless they guarantee security”. “Are the lorries going to carry our cows too?”, asked another as his stunned cows mooed by the roadside. With no coordinated rescue effort, villagers were left to the mercy of generous well-wishers and opportunistic politicians.
The arrival of the Nyando constituency Member of Parliament Jared Okello in a convoy of three four-wheel-drive vehicles interrupted my ruminations. The MP proceeded to distribute bottles of soda and bread to the hundreds of people who had left their homes for higher ground along the highway. A distressed resident observed, “These people think we are on the road because we are hungry?”.
Along the highway, there were elderly people clutching on to the possessions they had salvaged from their flooded homes including live chicken. Mothers held the hands of their children, restraining them from playing in the water or on the roads. Vehicles slowed down as passengers filmed the floods. Men from the affected areas banded together to dredge the clogged drains and the tributaries of River Nyando.
I trudged through the floodwaters in my gumboots, recording the havoc as I made my way to the nearby town of Ahero where I boarded a matatu home. In the vehicle, the sense of helplessness sweeping across the constituency dominated the conversations. My thoughts were interrupted by a phone call from home. The floods weren’t just a news item but a personal tragedy too. Our compound, which I had left dry and which had never experienced flooding in all my father’s years, had not been spared. I arrived home to find our compound submerged knee-high in raging water. The gate was impassable. The crops we had planted two months earlier had been swept away. Ndiri, the embankment that we had recently built around the house, stopped the floodwaters at our doorstep. Inside the house, my family members were moving electronics and disconnecting the power supply.
My father, who is 73 years old, said he had never seen anything of the sort in his lifetime. In the midst of the panic my father remembered the rice he had planted only a few days earlier on his two-acre piece of leased land at the Kopondo A irrigation scheme using a Sacco (Savings and Credit Cooperatives) loan. He desperately wanted to rush to the field but he was dissuaded; my father’s efforts were under water.
In the midst of all this, we received a call from an uncle seeking our help. When we arrived at my uncle’s place a kilometre or so away, we walked through knee–high water in a home that had never experienced flooding. His posho mill was partly submerged in water and the family joined hands to scoop the water from his house using plastic containers, in an attempt to salvage household items that included the stock of a kiosk that he runs from his compound. Floods continued to wreak havoc for my immediate family. One of my uncles lost his house in the process. My grandmothers had to seek refuge in a local church.
That night, the COVID-19 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew was temporarily broken as villagers continued to move to higher ground as late as midnight. With the electricity supply disconnected, residents used flashlights to navigate the darkness, splashing their way through the floodwaters. I remember as a young boy exploring flooded sections at night with a torch and a machete, hunting for mudfish floating on the surface that could be easily dazzled by the light. This time round, there were no fish in the water, only tiny loud frogs.
The next day, when the floodwaters had subsided, a suffocating stench washed over the land; we are yet to understand what was in the water. Most of the vegetation and the food crops that had been affected by the floods began to wither.
The following morning, I decided to hire a motorcycle to visit the various IDP camps to gauge the scale of the devastation. With the floodwaters subsiding, I witnessed the destruction left in their wake. Several semi-permanent houses had been destroyed. People were hanging soaked beddings out to dry on live fences and frantically scooping mud from the insides of their houses.
Kisumu Governor Professor Anyang’ Nyong’o arrived two days later, perhaps in response to the outrage expressed online over the county’s uninspiring emergency response. In a display of pomp, he flagged off the distribution of relief packages comprised of a blanket, porridge flour, green grams and cooking oil that had mostly been donated by well-wishers. The relief food was only distributed to a few IDP camps, mainly in Ombaka and Ogenya, while the majority of flood survivors camping in Rabuor, Ongeche, Nyangande, Kobura, Ayweyo, and Ombeyi among others, were left in the hands of fate.
In what has become our normal, floods in the River Nyando basin follow a recurring pattern. The media corps arrive to capture the human suffering for their headlines. The politicians then trail them with lorryloads of relief food for public relations optics and a few days later, the news cycle moves on, leaving behind the structural issues that have made the Nyando floods a perennial problem.
Solving the problem of flooding in Nyando has featured prominently in the manifesto of every elected leader in the region for the last 50 years. The current MP, Jared Okello, promised to relegate the floods to the history books. The current Senator, Fred Outa, who served Nyando as the only two-term MP (2002–2013), made a similar commitment during his term. His passionate campaign had resonated with many people since he hails from the Kabonyo-Kanyagwal ward, an area adjacent to Lake Victoria where floods wreak havoc annually. The Kisumu Governor, an intellectual with notable credentials, had assured the people living in the Kano Plains that his administration would solve the flooding problem once and for all.
Instead, what we witnessed in April in Ombeyi in Muhoroni sub-county, where hundreds of displaced residents had sought refuge, was a repeat of the political rhetoric, a war of words pitting the Kisumu Governor against his Senator and the Kisumu Woman Representative, Roza Buyu.
As the national government announced the daily tally of new COVID-19 cases, fatalities and recoveries, in Nyando, those displaced by floods slept on hungry stomachs on cold concrete floors in the camps where they had sought refuge. In Rabuor Primary School, I visited one of the classes that housed these people. The windows were broken, there were no mosquito nets and nor did the displaced have proper beddings. They were left in the hands of well-wishers including Kibos Sugar factory, the very one that had been taken to court by residents for polluting their land.
Eight years after devolution, the people of Kano are still being subjected to the humiliation of lining up every year to receive relief food, abandoning their homes and exposing their families to waterborne diseases and the instability caused by preventable floods. It is heartbreaking to see people who lived in their homes and were self-sufficient reduced to destitution.
The flooding in the Kano Plains affects crop fields, housing, and infrastructure and human life. A 2004 strategy for flood management for the Lake Victoria Basin noted that in the Kano Plains, more than 5,000 people are affected annually when River Nyando breaks its banks. The average annual damage runs to the hundreds of millions of Kenya shillings with annual relief and rehabilitation measures costing over KSh64 million (US$600,000).
By the end of April, I was suffering from migraines, nightmares, low energy and irritability, among other symptoms which my doctor said were symptoms of a mental health problem that he needed to examine further in Nairobi. I went to Ahero Police station and obtained a letter authorising me to travel back to Nairobi on medical grounds.
Even though I grew up in the River Nyando Basin (RVB) – a collection of swamps – never had I seen devastation of that magnitude met with that level of lethargy. While driving back to Nairobi, I reflected upon my duty, as a younger son of Kano, to help make my region better for the thousands who – unlike the elites – don’t have the luxury of buying land in Riat, Rabuor, Awasi, Muhoroni and other areas that are not prone to flooding.
My generation must take a stand against this recurring environmental disaster that we experience in Kano. We have to start by organising the members of the community – who have been disempowered by broken promises – to find agency and evolve their own solutions. We must challenge the charity-based response to disaster where scavenging politicians and philanthropists cash in on the misery of the people for optics and public relations purposes and instead establish systems that will respond to disasters effectively.
In 1953, the Netherlands went through its most devastating floods when 1,836 people died as a direct consequence of the flooding and 72,000 people left their homes. Over 43,000 houses and 3,300 farms were damaged, and 200,000 hectares of land were flooded. 200,000 cows, horses, pigs, and other domestic animals drowned even as the once fertile land was rendered unusable after becoming contaminated with the salty sea water.
To decisively respond to current and future threats of flooding and climate change, the Dutch established the Delta Programme which brought together key players including the central government, water authorities, civil society organisations, the business community, provincial and municipal authorities including organisations with specialised water expertise. Because 60 per cent of the country is vulnerable to flooding and more than half the country is at or below sea level, they built an elaborate system of dykes, dams, sluice gates, storm surge barriers and other protective measures.
Just like the Dutch, perhaps the National government and the county government of Kisumu need to adopt a multisectoral approach and create a body, similar to the Delta Programme, that will bring together diverse skill sets to solve the flood menace once and for all.
We also need to champion methods of adapting that have been tried and tested in other flood prone communities like in Southeast Asia where floods caused by heavy monsoon showers, typhoons and storms have been their reality for ages. Thailand’s tropical climate, characterised by a monsoon season running from July to November, causes annual flooding along the floodplain areas. Thai people have adapted the Chao Phraya River Valley floodplain for cultivation of rice which is exported to many countries including Kenya, and using the waterways and rivers for transport.
Even though rice is cultivated in the Nyando River basin, we need to rethink a model which has left our farmers exposed to huge regular losses and exploitative middlemen among other challenges that have compromised the potential of the vast rice irrigation scheme. And while exploiting local knowledge and flood preparedness practices, just like the Thai, the people of Kano also need to consider building houses raised on stilts in order to cope with changing water levels.
We should also work with journalists covering the Kano floods to help them contextualise the phenomenon beyond the click-bait headlines and the images screaming the apocalypse every flooding season. While such headlines and images are effective in communicating the humanitarian crisis and triggering some form of immediate response – which is often barely adequate – they often deliver a one-dimensional, simplistic, and de-politicised understanding of the causes and the impacts of the Kano floods. The legacy media needs to go beyond reportage to highlight the systemic failures that exacerbate floods in Kano. The people of Kano must learn how to turn water into a resource and stop this recurring cycle of disaster.
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In the Absence of a Trophy, the Photo Is Proof
With increased human subject research in Africa, there needs to be benchmarking that is focused on justice and human rights instead of the neo-colonial mentality that perceives the African as a ready pool of human subjects to be had at a bargain.
When I first visited a leading global health organization in the US in 2014, I was overwhelmed by its behemothic stature. I was also taken aback by how the African, mostly the African woman and child, were a constant fixture on the walls of the institution. There were very few pictures of men. My experience is that men are skittish and have learned to distrust foreigners with cameras. Also, for various reasons that I won’t go into right now, it is also quite challenging to get men to consent to participating in research in rural Africa. I walked through the hallways looking at the large posters of African women and children, stuck in time, looking back at me. Their images, some women pregnant, others bearing young children on their arms, in long lines in front of rural health facilities that were too familiar, followed me with their eyes. Large white eyes like beads set on a beautiful black canvas of faces. I felt as if they recognized me. And I too, them. As if we shared the secret of the poverty and broken healthcare systems that had occasioned us to be in this space. They on display as subjects, or potential subjects of research, I as a researcher, occupying a higher social space thanks to my education and other opportunities that have trickled down to me. These images of Africans trapped in the uncertainty of the healthcare system, lost in thought, yet so hopeful, are too common on the walls and websites of every major NGO working in the African continent.
How much should we pay the African woman?
While implementing research in rural Kenya between 2007 and 2014, we were paying mothers of subjects 150 shillings per study visit. That is less than two US dollars per visit. The reasoning around this, and mostly around research done in sub-Saharan Africa and other developing countries, is that the subject stipend for participating in research should not exceed what people typically make in a day. Essentially, subjects are paid the perceived lowest amount for unskilled workers in these rural areas, or they are paid the lowest amount that one can live on in a day in the rural areas. A dollar or two per day is considered adequate. It is thought that any amount exceeding that would be economic coercion of sorts, and the strongly desired act of voluntarism by the subject would be lost.
Since most of the research volunteers in sub–Saharan Africa are women, the discussion centres around what a typical woman selling vegetables in a local market, for example, would make. The discussion never strays into the question of what people in formal employment—for example, the local primary school teacher—make in a day. Any additional burden such as travel, which is mostly on foot or on motorcycles, is assumed to be the normal way of life. Others such as the pain from injections and the drawing of blood, and other adverse effects, are assumed to be mitigated by the free healthcare received. The summation of this reasoning ends with the subjects in rural Africa making very little money from research, even though participating in research causes major disruptions to their social lives. It also creates a neo-colonial mentality in research where the typical rural African woman or child is perceived as a ready pool of human subjects available at a bargain, rendered desperate by the failure of the local healthcare systems and by government neglect.
When thinking of money, we should think of the environment too
I was recently part of a team undertaking very interesting and important COVID vaccine research. Part of my job involved reviewing study documentation as well as taking part in discussions about subject compensation. I worked with research centres to provide justification for subjects to be paid specific amounts of money, always acting as an advocate, while also being a good steward of the research budget. I advocated for increased payment in some circumstances and argued against overpayment. During the discussions around compensation, two words took prominence. One is voluntarism. A study subject is assumed to be volunteering their time, blood and other samples and personal data while withstanding pain in their desire to advance research and the increase of alternative therapies for themselves and humanity. Based on this assumption, participation in research becomes a higher calling, an act of altruism by the subject. The alternative to this explanation would be that, in participating in research, the subjects respond to incentives, be they economic, social, or psychological. This is more in line with the reality of capitalism and the world we live in. The question, therefore, is not whether the typical rural African woman is joining research to advance science; her decision is part of the survival calculus in an environment where healthcare is stretched and the reality of poverty is ever present.
Coercion is also a very prominent word in research. Coercion here implies that the subject is responding to some form of active or passive persuasion from the researchers to join research. The promise of money as compensation for research is passive coercion to say the least. The promise of efficient and superior healthcare to that which is available within the local ministry of health system is coercive.
The promise of money as compensation for research is passive coercion to say the least.
The politics and ethics around the two words, voluntarism and coercion, is loaded. It gets even more confusing when it is apparent that the pharmaceutical company implementing the study is focused on profiting from their new therapy or device; in most cases, saving humanity is as important as profits for these companies. And these companies will hold on to their patents for as long as they can, no matter the human suffering, until they realize the desired return on their investments. Why then would the pressure be on the subject to volunteer when the whole setup is for profit? In the developed world, subjects are always very aware of the cost of drugs and how the healthcare system works. Study subjects are very vocal in negotiating for themselves and subject advocates ensure that their subjects’ interests are protected. In Kenya and many African countries, the subjects take what they are given. This is because of the pressure brought to bear on the subject by the local researchers to have them believe in the alternative truth that research is charity, and not business.
How do they do it in the West?
While working in the West, I have waited to hear of benchmarking decisions formulated around subject compensation based on the amount of money that waiters and waitresses make. Or based on the hourly payment of anyone making anything below the minimum wage. So far, I haven’t. The benchmarking in clinical research in the West always considers what skilled workers would be making per hour, how difficult it is to recruit from the population, past precedent, and the economic incentives that would result in quick recruitment and in keeping the subjects in the study. It is not based on any preconceived ideas of the researcher, it is not based on their perception of poverty and on how little people can get by. It tends to be based on the reality of the market forces, equity and study needs.
In addition to this, any transport and accommodation requirements are met through provision of lodging and reimbursement for transport costs, among others. The word coercion is therefore not prominent in the West as it is in developing countries. The assumption in the Western world is that the subjects there deserve a better quality of life when participating in research. Their time is also more valuable. They are also capable of making complex decisions to join research. They are not just a pool of humans readily available for data mining. On the other hand, the decision to pay a very small stipend in developing countries is tied to the image of the local African woman, or man, in rural areas. This is the same image that is captured in photos during the field trips to Africa by Westerners. And in this image, the African is seen as one who is hardened in his environment and quite capable of surviving on very little, one who should be thankful for the little that they receive since the options available to them is either broken, or not working. This assumption is also supported by local researchers and institutions who consider any additional benefits towards the welfare of subjects to be secondary to the outcome of the research. The continued existence of these colonial attitudes in research is strengthened by an image of the African in research that is based on a single story, on single moments captured on a photograph. These are the images I saw on the walls of the prestigious research institution I visited.
Images are powerful tools
In the absence of a trophy, images are the proof of that rich encounter between those in power and the powerless in those far-flung places. Images are also proof of the need for funding. They are also proof of work done. They are proof of privilege and relevance. They are also proof of love. Of comradeship.
The images in the halls of international public health organisations have served to encourage donations for research, providing the much-needed momentum and acceleration of interventions to improve life. On the other hand, these images have also reduced the worth and the story of the African woman, man, or child into a single moment captured at the click of a camera. In that sense, such images on the websites and walls of research centres have focused on a single story, sometimes perpetuating a stereotype of the African, often the stereotype of people without choice, but who can provide the much-needed data at the lowest cost to the pharmaceutical world, their aspirations and hopes not mattering in the calculus of profit and power in international research. Do these people go to weddings? Do they have smart phones? Are they on Instagram? Do they enjoy Christmas? Or are they stuck in that moment, in that small health facility waiting to be saved by international researchers. Does their voice matter? Or is theirs already drowned by the strong collaboration between the ministries of health, the local administration and international researchers and pharmaceutical companies?
The assumption in the Western world is that the subjects there deserve a better quality of life when participating in research.
With increased human subject research in Africa, there needs to be benchmarking that is focused on justice and human rights. How much compensation for research is reasonable to cover transport and time and allow the African woman living in rural poverty to save some money for food for her family after a whole day spent traveling for research? How much does local skilled labour cost per day in the rural setting? Researchers should focus on financial justice rather than perpetuating financial oppression while hiding behind the principle of coercion and voluntarism. And beyond that, if the rural African woman and child are going to be forever immortalized as the face of international research, then there should be a balance between their desperation and their resilience in these challenging environments. That balance is self-worth. It is power. And this power and self-worth are tied to the representation of the conqueror as well as the conquered, the researcher and the researched, through images and films.
Women at Sea: Testimonies of Survivors Fleeing Across the Central Mediterranean
Anyone crossing the sea to escape a dangerous situation or to find a better life is in a vulnerable position, but women face the additional burdens of gender discrimination and, all too often, gender-based violence, along their routes. Women represent only a small proportion – around five per cent – of those who make the dangerous journey from Libya to Italy.
On board the Geo Barents, female survivors regularly disclose practices such as forced marriage or genital mutilation (affecting either themselves or their daughters) as being among the reasons they were forced to leave their homes. Women also face specific risks during their journeys – MSF medical teams report that women are proportionally more likely to suffer fuel burns during the Mediterranean crossing, as they tend to be placed in the middle of the boat where it is thought to be safest. . Many women rescued also report having experienced various forms of violence, including psychological and sexual violence and forced prostitution.
“The minute I was alone, they would have raped me.” Adanya, 34 years old, from Cameroon.
Among these women is Decrichelle, who fled a forced marriage to a violent husband with her baby. They left their home country of Nigeria and went via Niger to Algeria. When they arrived in the desert, Decrichelle’s daughter fell ill and she could not do anything to treat her because she had no access to care or medicine. The young girl died, and Decrichelle had to leave her behind before continuing the journey to Algeria: “an immense and inconsolable sadness” for her.
Decrichelle attempted to cross the sea once but was arrested and sent to prison, where she was released immediately, only to be taken by taxi to a brothel. Some Cameroonian friends helped her escape. For six months, she lived in the campos (the abandoned buildings or large outdoor spaces near the sea where traffickers gather migrants) before scraping together the money to pay her way for another crossing. “I want to be in a place where I can live like a normal person of my age. I want to be able to sleep at night,” she says. “I wanted to be here with my child. It hurts me to think that I am safe, and I left her in the desert.”
Beyond the difficulties women face on migration routes and in Libya, MSF teams on board the Geo Barents often witness the strong bonds that develop between survivors on the women’s deck. The women come together to support one another with daily tasks and childcare.
“In Libya, I was sleeping under trucks and buses as I did not have any money.” Afia, 24 years old, from Ghana.
“I want to tell women: it is not your fault. You are exactly the same person as you were before. You are even stronger,” says Lucia, deputy project coordinator aboard the Geo Barents, who has herself experienced rape. “I think it has been really moving to see these women, who actually escaped what I experienced for an hour of my life, and in their struggle, their strength and their hope, [they do not stop] this fight,” she adds.
Meanwhile, when male survivors are asked about the people they left behind or the reasons for their journey, a woman is always mentioned in their stories. Ahmed, 28 years old, was born in Sudan to Eritrean parents who moved to Sudan to escape the war. Having lived all his life as a refugee, Ahmed never felt that he belonged in Sudan. He wished to leave, but as an undocumented person, unable to return to Eritrea for fear of military conscription and an oppressive dictatorial regime, he decided to travel to Libya and cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.
Ahmed’s mother was the only one who stood by him when he decided to convert from Christianity to Islam, despite harassment from his other family members. “[Converting to Islam] affected me, affected my friendships… for sure [I faced issues because of that]. At first, from the family… in the beginning, I was secretive… until my family knew; then the harassment started. But my mother accepted me. She told me, ‘Whatever makes you comfortable, do it.’” Ahmed says his mother is one of the reason she was able to make the journey from Sudan through Egypt and into Libya. “She has a really big role in my life. She was continuously supportive and motivating me, wishing me the best. She is my inspiration… I hope to meet her again.”
“I know if I tell my mother I am in Libya, she will be crying every day.” Ibrahim, 28 years old, from Nigeria.
Nejma, cultural mediator on board the Geo Barents, explains her bond with survivors like Decrichelle and Ahmed: “I am African and I am Middle Eastern. I am a mother. I am a woman. There are so many things that link us together. Maybe also the fact that I had to flee. That is a big part of it. I think it helps me understand where people are at the moment we find them; it is an understanding that books could never teach me.”
As a refugee herself, Nejma shares what helped her to move forward in the places she fled to. “[Survivors need to] keep the strength… once they disembark in Europe, it is not the end of the journey,” she says. “It is a different challenge: to not let go of who they are, to never forget who they are, where they are from. To be very proud of their origins. Because you will not know where to go if you do not know where you came from. And I want my brothers and sisters from Africa and the Middle East, or anywhere, to remember who they are. It will make it easier to move forward.”
These stories of the women on board the Geo Barents were collected during rotations of the ship at sea. The portraits and testimonies were captured by two female photographers, with a view to amplify women’s voices, while respecting cultural sensitivities:
Mahka Eslami is an Iranian photographer, who was born in Paris and lived there until the age of seven before her parents returned to Tehran. While studying engineering in Iran, she worked as a journalist for the Chelcheragh. She returned to France where she finished her engineering studies before branching out into documentary photography and transmedia writing to become an independent photographer. Her work has been published by Le Monde, Libération, Society, Néon and Les Inrockuptibles.
Nyancho NwaNri is a lens-based artist and documentarian from Lagos, Nigeria, whose work revolves around African history, culture and spiritual traditions, as well as social and environmental issues. Her documentary works have appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, Aljazeera, Reuters, Quartz andGeographical Magazine.
MSF has been running search and rescue activities in the central Mediterranean since 2015, working on eight different search and rescue vessels, alone or in partnership with other NGOs. Since 2015, MSF teams have provided lifesaving assistance to more than 85,000 people in distress at sea. MSF relaunched search and rescue activities in the central Mediterranean in May 2021, chartering its own ship, the Geo Barents, to rescue people in distress, to provide emergency medical care to rescued people, and to amplify the voices of survivors of the world’s deadliest sea crossing. Since May 2021, the MSF team on board the Geo Barents has rescued 6,194 people, recovered the bodies of 11 people and assisted in the delivery of one baby.
This story was first published by Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders (MSF).
Nairobi, Nairobae, Nairoberry
Cacophonous, labyrinthine, gluttonous, angry, envious, charming, paradoxical, mysterious, confusing, alluring.
Nairobi. A cacophony of matatu hoots and booming bongs from church bells. All in inexplicable harmony. Like a Beethoven piece. A muezzin’s melody moves the ummah from a minaret here, a bus conductor — shouting from the most pimped out mathree — moves umati there. A hawker here. An ambulance there. But there’s also a silent monotone. The sound of hope dying. Of someone stealing two billion every day, of the clock going tick-tock from your 9 to 5. There’s that saying: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? But what if it’s in the middle of Waiyaki Way? Just because someone thinks giving us an expressway will absolve him of war crimes. While in reality, all it does is leave all the marabou storks homeless.
Nairobi. A labyrinth of lipstick-stained shot glasses and semi-filled ashtrays. Where a party starts regardless of where the limbs of the clock point. And only ends when everyone is browned out and on the brink of calling the one that got away. Nairobi is looking for coins during traffic because you want to help the beggar, who is patient enough to receive the donation before snatching your phone. It is being stagnant in that same traffic for long enough to buy crisps made with transformer oil and served in compact disk wrapping. And like clockwork, you put the window back up because Nairobbery isn’t just a play on words. But the ones that hurt the most are the conmen, because nigga I trusted you!
Nairobi. Where gluttony is second nature. A kaleidoscope of too much gold tequila and too many smokie pasuas. Of good pasta and wine in overpriced restaurants. Of ramen noodles and pre-cooked meat. Where nothing is ever enough. We drink and eat to our fill because life sucks. Why wouldn’t it? Our last president’s advisor was the bottom of a Jameson bottle and our current one’s advisor is Jesus. The spirit guides the nation either way, I guess. But still, Nairobi tastes like chances and do-overs. It tastes like anxieties and aspirations and I know it doesn’t feel like it but today you omoka na 3-piecer then one day you omoka, for real.
Nairobi. Reeks of piss and thrifted clothes. Fresh bakeries and Subway. Old currency and that one cologne every man in their early 20s wears. Smells like fighting your titans and sending a million job applications. Nairobi. Where you can go weeks without a lover’s touch but only days without a cop grabbing you by the wedgie into a mariamu because you shouldn’t be idle as you wait for your Uber outside Alchemist. Because of course in that time you should take up a sport, play an instrument, solve world peace, et cetera.
There are few occasions when pride will linger. Like when Kipchoge finishes a marathon in under two hours. When Lupita wins an Oscar. The hubris you feel when your copy makes it to the billboard on UN Avenue. Or when your lame joke gets five retweets because Kenyans on Twitter will massacre you if you think you’re the next Churchill. Orrrr that one time we were all watching Money Heist and so gassed that Nairobi was one of the characters.
Sadly, Nairobi pride also comes in with its individualism. Everyone is out here on their own trying to get some bread whether they’re in the upper class getting baguettes and rye bread or in the lower class getting Supaloaf. I get it though, the city doesn’t let anyone rest from the grind and the hustle and the drudgery. And the wealth gap is bigger than Vera Sidika’s bunda. But ironically, the city is a paradox. An optical illusion. Sometimes the people are so ready to convene in community that it kinda revives the fickle hope you have in humanity. From safe spaces to fundraisers to a simple hearty conversation with your Uber driver.
And there’s obviously that murky feeling of greed that comes from 90 per cent of our politicians. When you’re at the bottom of the food chain it’s called hunger, but the higher you climb the more you want and it becomes indulgence. Greed makes them say and do all kinds of things. Like apologising to Arab countries that are exploiting Kenyans because they don’t want to be cut off. Y’all know any juakali guys we can commission for guillotines? – Heads gotta roll. Because how will I steal cooking oil and flour and end up in a cold cell but they’ll steal billions and end up with a second five-year term?
I think wrath is the most Nairobi-esque of the cardinal sins. We’re angry at the police. At the government, at global warming, at nduthis, at KPLC, at Zuku, at Safaricom, at KCB, at each other. Agonizingly though, our anger fizzles out as fast as it blazes up. I don’t think we’re ever angry enough.
And then there’s the envy. You know you’ll get there eventually but that gets lost in translation when you see someone with better because that sparks something in you even though we are all on different paths at different paces. Whether it’s a BMW or an airfryer, the question stays: Why not me? And also I’m personally jealous of the people who’ve managed to move out of Nairobi to Naivasha, Watamu or wherever. It feels like they’ve figured their way out the maze while I’m still at a dead end wondering whether I can just hop out the sides. Doesn’t matter what it is, our eyes are as green as the parks and spaces we so desperately need in this godforsaken city.
Nairobi. The city of miniskirts and cheers baba jackets. Lust dripping down the sides of our mouths because we can’t seem to contain it under our tongues. I don’t even know why people bother to go to Vasha for WRC when they live in the city of sexual debauchery where the only thing that’s on heat more than the sun is whatever’s between people’s legs. Where even Christian Grey would pause and do a double-take. Where ropes aren’t just for skipping and leashes aren’t just for dogs. If you find ordered love in the city, you must have saved refugees and orphans in your past life. This is the city where the flesh is truly willing.
You know that intense sloth-like feeling when you wanna wake up for Sunday brunch at Brew Bistro or K1 and then later watch Hamilton race at around 4 when all the mimosas have hit your head and you’re surprised that your wig is still intact? Or the next day when you’re trying to get out of your covers and you’re thinking about that beastly Nairobi traffic you’re about to face and all you can do is tweet “Nimewacha pombe mimi”. Truthfully though, other than that and a few other instances, the pace is too fast for me. I just wanna be in a dera next to the beach drinking a passion caipiroska and eating viazi karai cause why are y’all always running?
And y’all are way too fast when coming up with new words too. There’s like a million words for currency, ass, sex, sherehe, et cetera. Truly, there is a certain linguistic je ne sais quoi when it comes to the Nairobian’s language. It stops being a transaction of random syllables and begins to become an understanding of feelings, emotions and behaviour. I, especially, like how we knead it into our art. We sneak it into our music and get phenomena like gengetone.
We compress it into our films and get Nairobi Half Life. We squeeze it into our visual pieces and get Michael Soi. One thing about Nairobians is we do not cower in silence, we have words to say and we shall say them. Even if that means running a president out of Twitter. That’s why our writers are as staggeringly sensational as they are. Ngartia. Sookie. Grey. Muthaka. Laria. Abu. And those are just my friends, dawg.
But it’s not just the writing. The fashion. Rosemary Wangari. Nicole Wendo. Samantha Nyakoe. The music. Mau from Nowhere, Vallerie Muthoni, Karun, Maya Amolo, XPRSO. Just a Band. The films. The painting. Muthoni Matu. Zolesa. The architecture. The cinema. The theatre. Too Early for Birds is back! et cetera. Man, I gotta tell ya, when God was cooking up the cauldron of this city, he went hard on the talent. Quote me on this: a lot of exceptional creatives from this city are gonna hit the world with a head-splitting bang in a couple of years.
Nairobi. Despite the crowds, the queues and the poor drainage, it still has a charm. Mysterious. Confusing. Alluring. Despite the fact that you can only truly enjoy the Nairobi experience if you’re a bird or an expat, me I love it still.
Nairobians, keep sinning, keep winning!
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