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Reflections

Religion and Emotion in the Time of Coronavirus

8 min read.

When the coronavirus came calling, many Christian communities set themselves apart and declared that they had special divine protection, with some claiming the virus to be a hoax or that it could be defeated not by science but by faith and supernatural means.

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Religion and Emotion in the Time of Coronavirus
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I first started taking sports seriously when I transferred from Kilimani Primary School to Loreto Convent Valley Road. In my old school I had been comfortably mediocre, an indistinguishable lump of existence. I had very little sense of myself and tended to drift with the crowd. And I was definitely not known for any sporting prowess despite the school having an excellent sports programme, typical of the schools which had been the preserve of white settler children under Kenya’s colonial apartheid system. At Kilimani I remember chasing after my friend Esther Musundi, a gifted runner, whom I could never catch. As for team sports, hockey, rounders and netball, I never made any team. The other girls were quicker, bigger and more skilled than I was. I avoided hockey like the plague to avoid being murdered by a powerful girl in my class who could hit the ball harder than any of the senior boys. It was at Valley Road that I discovered that hitting a ball harder than anyone else was not playing hockey.

My class of 24 girls had five non-whites, two of whom were fellow Africans, and these two avoided me as if I carried a contagious disease. On that first day at LCVR, my new school, I arrived early and picked a seat right in the front of the class. I was feeling self-conscious in my brand new too-long, too-baggy uniform, which was a weird indeterminate colour, neither light blue nor light green. And then, the owner of the seat arrived and, speaking in an assertive tone, sent me to the back of the class to sit next to another African girl who appeared to have accepted her place on the margins. In the six years we were at school together, I never saw that girl step out of her place even once. She had drowned and lived submerged in an ocean where she could never be anything but wrong.

And so, within the first hour in my new school, my sense of self had been attacked in those ways that were inevitable for an African child sent to desegregate white spaces. In early 1970s Kenya, these white spaces were dominated by an often vicious settler class engaged in a futile game of defending their shrinking territory in a newly independent African country.

At my new school, I attempted to consolidate what it meant to be rejected and consigned to the periphery. But unlike the many other times when I met such moments with acquiescing silence, something came over me, and instead of acceptance, I started to plot my revenge. I remember thinking “They will know me”. The rejection and discomfort I experienced in my new school literally woke me up and for the first time in my life I became aware of myself as a distinct entity with preferences, feelings and opinions. The upshot of my new-found resolve was that I stopped being mediocre. And, much to my surprise, became really good at sports.

But there was something that bothered me about sports at LCVR; before every match the nuns would pray for victory and to strengthen their prayers, they sprinkled holy water on the team. As I closed my eyes during these prayers I had questions. Why would God choose our team to win and not our opponent? Did God have favourites? And why call on God for help in a hockey match when South Africa was not yet free? I never dared voice these doubts even to my friends in the team. Giving voice to my thoughts would surely damn me. Back then I still believed in an angry Old Testament God, a God who sent plagues and spoke through burning bushes and whom I was trying hard to stop from striking me dead with bolts of lightning for my many blasphemous thoughts.

It is now 2020 and many decades since I left LCVR, and the year which was supposed to be my best year yet, has screeched to a halt. On 13 March 2020, Kenya like most of the world shut down, grounded by the coronavirus pandemic which started in Wuhan province in China and has now spread its killing spree to the whole globe. The response to stem infection and death rates is being informed by what China did to stop it and includes a raft of measures approved by the World Health Organization (WHO); total or partial lockdowns, sanitising common spaces, washing of hands and use of sanitisers, wearing of masks and testing, etc.

Most people have accepted the restrictions imposed on them by governments and recognised that they are necessary to minimise infections and deaths. However, some communities and countries have taken a contrarian approach and chosen not to adopt any of the measures that have proven to be effective. I am interested in the ways in which some members of the global Christian community have responded because, at least on the surface, they remind me so much of how the nuns at Loreto Convent Valley Road prayed to secure God’s favour for our team before a match.

When the coronavirus came calling, many Christian communities set themselves apart and declared that they had special divine protection. They wanted to continue with their normal lives including gathering for church services. Yet the early lesson from a church in South Korea contradicted this assertion of religious immunity to the virus. One month after South Korea had its first infection, congregants and other members of the population in the vicinity of the Shincheonji Church of Christ in Daegu accounted for 5,080 cases of COVID-19 out of a total of 9,137 known cases by 25 March 2020. It was this infection that pushed the government to introduce policies to isolate the virus from the uninfected population. The government tested more than 200,000 members of the Shincheonji Church across the country and found that thousands tested positive. In response the government went on to mandate rigorous inspections at public gathering places deemed to be high-risk and then it closed schools and public spaces, and banned sporting events and large gatherings.

When the virus was first detected in South Korea, the founder of the Shincheonji Church, Mr. Lee Man-Hee made the claim that the epidemic was caused by “. . . the evil who got jealous of Shincheonji’s rapid growth”. That was until his church became the hardest-hit by the virus; he at least had the decency to get down on his knees and apologise.

In Kenya, the government responded to the coronavirus by closing schools, introducing a curfew and a partial lockdown, restricting movement in some counties, banning large public gatherings and testing. The Christian community in the country protested and on 20 March 2020, three pastors went to court to challenge the directive banning church gatherings. In the suit, the pastors acknowledged the measures put in place by the government to stop the spread but argued that precisely because of the virus, their congregations would be seeking solace in churches. The courts upheld the government’s ban.

But despite this ruling, there were still clergy who were flouting government efforts to control the spread of the virus in Kenya. In Meru, Nathan Kirimi, a pastor at Jesus Winner Ministry Church, defied the main leadership of his church by refusing to suspend worship services in his church and even scoffed at the sanitising and handwashing directive. Even mainstream churches like the Catholic Church in Kenya did not immediately comply. In late March 2020, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops was still insisting that services would continue because the church is a “focal point of prayer where you will find solace and strength from God”. The government in Kenya had to stand firm to prevent many churches from not following the directives against mass gatherings and in some cases, congregations took matters of safety into their own hands and simply stayed away.

Tanzania’s President John Pombe Magufuli’s response to COVID-19 was typical of some of the Christian faithful. Tanzania’s president is a staunch Catholic and he insisted that the virus could not survive in Tanzania because the country was under the protection of the blood of Jesus. To strengthen this protection Magufuli declared three days of national prayers and even in early May 2020, he was still urging people to attend services in churches and mosques, saying that prayer can “vanquish the virus”. President Magufuli has Increasingly engaged in rhetoric and conspiracy theories opposing all measures proposed by the WHO and trotting out anti-Western propaganda. But the virus is not human and will not be manipulated into ineffectiveness. Tanzania’s infection rates have started to spiral out of control, surpassing those of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda.

In the United States Christian communities took a similar stance with some claiming the virus to be a hoax or that it could be defeated not by science but by faith and supernatural means. In late March Rodney Howard Browne, a Pentecostal pastor in Tampa, Florida conducted two full-house services at his River Church. Other American pastors have made equally outlandish claims, Kenneth Copeland a Texas-based preacher claimed that the coronavirus was a weak strain of the flu, and that fearing the pandemic was a sin.

“Fear is a spiritual force. Fear is not OK. It is sin. It is a magnet for sickness and disease . . . You are giving the devil a pathway to your body”. Today the US accounts for the highest number of infections and deaths in the world.

The human tendency is to create ourselves as God’s chosen and to be anything else is unconscionable. I observed this inclination as my relatives took on Christianity. As they related to the Christian faith in prayer and in other forms of devotion, it was easy to mistake them for the Chosen. They retold the stories of the Old Testament as if they had been passed down by ancestors who had accompanied Moses on his quest to secure their freedom from the Pharaoh in Egypt. But COVID-19 is unforgiving. As the South Korea example shows, those Christian communities which have responded to the virus by declaring themselves immune have made their congregations vulnerable to infections by disarming them and rendering them helpless.

Let’s go back to those prayers offered up by the nuns for our hockey team back at LCVR. At face value, those prayers and that holy water may have implied that we could bestow on ourselves the position of being God’s chosen hockey, swimming and tennis teams and that we did not need to work for our victories. But that could not have been farther from the truth. our success was a product of hard work. Loreto Convent Valley Road was a small school with very little land. We had just four tennis courts and a practice wall, we had no hockey pitch of our own and we had to walk twice a week to the Public Service Club to play hockey. But what we had was Sister Carmel, someone so passionate about sports and her girls that it was difficult to escape her passion.

We practiced relentlessly throughout the term and even during the holidays. Sister Carmel, a small Irish nun, was the architect of our success and she literally chased us onto tennis courts when we were not in class. She made sure we came early in the morning to put in practice. We were expected to be on the tennis courts at break time, at lunchtime, after school and during any free lesson, whilst school holidays found us in tennis camps run by coach Anne Greenwell. It was not surprising that LCVR became established as a place of sporting excellence for tennis, hockey, table-tennis and swimming such that in 1978, Kenya’s team to the All Africa Games included six teenage girls from Loreto Convent Valley Road: Susan Githuku née Wakhungu, Betty Wamalwa (Sitawa Namwalie) Helen Pegrume, Kate Cruikshank, Gail Cruikshunk and Ingrid Ronsky.

The coronavirus pandemic is happening at a time when the world is connected by a communications network that allows ordinary citizens to escape their borders and literally eavesdrop on other countries. In this interconnected world it is possible to identify the factors that are leading to success or failure in fighting the virus and as I scan the world, I see that leadership is a determining factor. Just like sister Carmel at Loreto Convent Valley Road, those leaders who prioritise their people are being effective regardless of the resources at their disposal. Examples include Rwanda, Seychelles, Namibia, Lesotho, Finland, Georgia, Uganda, Mauritius, New Zealand and Germany. Conversely, leaders who have focused on the economy or their re-election prospects, or are simply disinterested, are relying increasingly on rhetoric and conspiracy theories in an effort to distract their citizens from the relentlessness of COVID-19 infections and deaths. The presidents of the US, the UK, Tanzania and Brazil have distinguished themselves in using this approach and it is not surprising that the numbers in those countries are growing exponentially and that at this time the mighty United States leads the world in COVID-19 infections and deaths.

What do you see when you peep into Kenya?

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Sitawa Namwalie is an award-winning Kenyan poet, playwright and performer known for her unique dramatized poetry performances which combine poetry and traditional Kenyan music.

Reflections

Hamba Kahle Kenneth David Kaunda, Pillar of African Liberation Struggles

Kenneth David Kaunda was one of a generation of African leaders of a caliber that Africa will not see again.

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Gone Is the Last Of the Mohicans: Tribute to Kenneth Kaunda
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Ten years ago, I was sitting together with other invited guests during the Republic of South Sudan independence celebrations on the day that South Sudan was declared a free nation, when I saw an elderly man with a white handkerchief in his hand, walking slowly towards the podium. The independence celebrations were already underway and the podium was crowded with African heads of states. The stadium was quiet, possibly because everyone was puzzled that this elderly man was walking towards the stage when everyone was already seated. When the master of ceremonies announced that the man was Kenneth David Kaunda the venue buzzed with excitement.

Everyone on the main podium where the heads of states and prime ministers were seated stood up and clapped until Mzee Kaunda was seated. Many of those seating near me were wondering how Kaunda had entered the stadium while all the presidents, including the host president, had already arrived. Foreign affairs officials of the United Republic of Tanzania later explained to me that Mzee was late because his flight had been delayed. The reception he received at the stadium showed the esteem with which the elders who started and led the struggle for freedom were held even in their retirement years. It was a big honour for the Republic of South Sudan that the former president of Zambia and the second Chairman of the Frontline States was present on the day the country became independent.

A few months later, around March 2012, I was lucky to meet Mzee Kaunda. I was in Lusaka on parliamentary business and I requested that the Zambian parliament afford me the opportunity to pay him a visit. Mzee Kaunda received me warmly in his office and we spoke about a number of African issues. The conversation was essentially Kaunda answering my questions about African liberation movements. I remember that as you enter his office, there is a photo of Mzee Kaunda, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere and Mzee Jomo Kenyatta taken at the airport in Nairobi as they wait for their flight to the United Kingdom.

This was before their countries became fully independent; it was the time of self-government, when both Kaunda and Kenyatta were Prime Ministers. Tanganyika had already obtained full independence, although this was prior to the formation of the United Republic of Tanzania. I asked Mzee Kaunda if he could remember when that photo was taken and he said that it was in January 1964. They were young, smart individuals who possessed a lot of self-confidence. Mzee Kaunda explained to me how at the time, Africa had a lot of hope and he spoke of his very close relationship with Mwalimu Nyerere and even with Mzee Kenyatta, although their politics were not very similar. All three are now no longer with us. Mzee Kenneth David Kaunda passed away on Thursday 17th June 2021 in Lusaka, Zambia.

Kenneth Kaunda, popularly known as KK, was the only surviving founding president of an independent African state. But he was not a founding president of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Zambia was not an independent state when the OAU was formed on the 25th of May 1963 and neither Kaunda nor Jomo Kenyatta were amongst the leaders who signed the OAU Charter. Zambia joined the OAU on the 26th of February 1965. It is however easy to assume that KK was a founder of the OAU as he was at the forefront of the independence struggle in Africa and because Zambia gained independence shortly after the OAU was formed. KK believed strongly in the OAU and took part in almost all its meetings. He became the Chairman of the OAU in 1970 at the 7th meeting of Heads of States in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

As Zambia gained its independence, Mozambique and Angola were engaged in the struggle for independence from Portuguese colonial power, while South Africa and Namibia were fighting the white supremacist apartheid regime. And although Zambia was surrounded by countries that had already gained their independence — Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)) and Malawi — it only had close relations with Tanzania and Botswana. Under Kamuzu Banda, Malawi had close relations with Apartheid South Africa while Zaire was used by Western nations against liberation movements. Zambia was going through trying times. Being a landlocked country, the country could either transport goods through the ports of Beira and Nacala in Mozambique, which was under Portuguese rule, or through Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), which was under Ian Smith’s settler rule. This is where Kaunda’s leadership underwent trying times – to protect his country’s interests by cooperating with the apartheid regime or to support the struggle for freedom from colonialism in Africa. Kaunda chose the latter option at a very high cost.

Kenneth Kaunda, popularly known as KK, was the only surviving founding president of an independent African state.

President Kaunda started the Mulungushi Club together with President Nyerere and President Milton Obote of Uganda whose aim was national reconstruction. Unfortunately, President Obote was overthrown by Idi Amin in 1971, leaving only Kaunda and Nyerere. They invited President Seretse Khama of Botswana to one of their meetings, during which, for the first time, the name Frontline States was used. That first meeting was held in Lusaka, Zambia and Mwalimu Julius Nyerere was the first chairman of the Frontline States, contrary to custom which dictates that the president of the host state should be chairman. Mark Chona, special assistant to President Kaunda, has documented in the Hashim Mbita Project – Southern African Liberation Struggles Contemporaneous Documents 1960 – 1994 how Nyerere became chairman:

It was on the issue of releasing from prison the Zimbabwean freedom fighters, the first meeting was in October when I was sent to Cape Town and KK wanted to give a recap to President Nyerere and President Khama. Once seated Mwalimu said “oh! Kenneth, you are the host. I request that you should be the chairman” and KK said “No, Mwalimu please chair the meeting, I am only a host.” At the second meeting, Mwalimu again requested that Kaunda should be the chairman and again Kaunda said “No, no, you spoke very well at the first meeting, please continue to chair the meetings” and that is how Mwalimu Nyerere carried on as the Chairman of Frontline states until 1985 the end of his presidency in Tanzania. That is Mzee Kaunda then became Chairman and he continued with this role until he lost the election in Zambia in 1991.

President Kaunda is essentially remembered for his role in African liberation. In his time, Zambia served liberation movements, resolving disputes within the movements, providing financial assistance and preparing them to run their countries. Zambia came under military attack from Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and Apartheid South Africa and was even threatened with nuclear bombing by the Apartheid regime. In order to stop Zambia from being dependent on the ports in Mozambique and South Africa, President Kaunda and President Nyerere decided to seek assistance from China to build the TAZARA railway. At one point, Zambia also started efforts to develop a nuclear bomb to be used against South Africa.

Members of the Frontline States increased to six when Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe gained independence. The biggest task remaining was to liberate Namibia and South Africa, both of which became independent in 1991 and 1994, respectively. Mzee Kenneth Kaunda was at the forefront in ensuring the success of the liberation struggle, during which many lives were lost.

Kenneth Kaunda’s power handover was a big lesson on democracy for Africa when he conceded defeat in an election and handed over the presidency to Frederick Chiluba in 1991.

Kenneth Kaunda also made decisions that either brought misunderstandings between him and his fellow leaders of the Frontline States, or convinced them to take positions that were contrary to those of the OAU. Three issues will be remembered the most. The first was recognising the secession of Biafra from the Federal State of Nigeria. This decision, which was made by only four countries in Africa – Zambia, Gabon, Ivory Coast and Tanzania – caused a lot of misunderstanding among African heads of states. Tanzania recognised the Republic of Biafra on the 13th of April 1968 and Zambia did the same a month later on the 20th May 1968. I was told by a former ambassador from Tanzania who had attended the 5th OAU general meeting which took place in September 1968 in Algiers, Algeria, where the issue of Biafra was discussed, that President Kaunda was verbally attacked by his fellow presidents to the point that he had to leave the meeting. His friend Mwalimu Nyerere did not attend the meeting but sent his friend Rashidi Kawawa instead. KK continued to believe in Biafra for a long time and  in November 2011 he attended the funeral of Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, who had been the leader of secessionist Biafra.

The second issue was recognising Angola’s independence. Angola obtained independence from Portugal in 1975 following years of armed struggle. The 1975 military coup in Portugal opened the way for independence talks that were led by Zambia. As none of the country’s three liberation movements — the MPLA led by Augustino Neto, União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA) led by Jonas Savimbi and Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (FLNA) led by Holden Roberto — had control over Luanda, the OAU intervened and a vote was organised to decide which of the three parties would take over from Portugal.

The results of the vote did not produce an outright winner and OAU member states were very divided on this. At a meeting of African heads of state in Addis Ababa, President Kaunda gave a speech that showed his support for UNITA which really angered Mwalimu Nyerere and the Tanzanian delegation. Mwalimu Nyerere therefore decided against giving his speech and instead only said a few words in response to the president of Senegal.

Journalist and lawyer Jenerali Ulimwengu, who was in Addis Ababa as the Deputy Chairman of the Pan-African Youth Movement, told me that the situation had been very tense. The MPLA decided to enter Luanda and declare independence after Portugal surrendered the instruments of power. Jenerali, who was present in Luanda on independence day, will not forget that day; as Tanzania was seen as not principled despite sending the Vice PresidentAboud Jumbe to the celebrations. The issue of Mzee Kaunda, Jonas Savimbi and UNITA is an issue that has still not been understood.

The third issue is one that concerns Zambia. President Kaunda was severely punished by the settler government of Rhodesia and the apartheid regime of South Africa, to the point that Zambia’s economy completely collapsed. Kaunda had closed the border with Smith’s Rhodesia but TAZARA was unable to transport goods into Zambia. The people of Zambia blamed him for his politics of assisting liberation movements instead of focusing on Zambia’s interests. Contrary to his agreement with his fellow leaders, and contrary to his promise that he “would not open the border until Zimbabwe gained independence”, KK decided to open the border with Zimbabwe. In the meeting of the Frontline States a big dispute arose between Presidents Machel, Neto, Kaunda and Nyerere. Mzee Joseph Butiku, who was then Nyerere’s Chief of Staff, has said that it was one of the most difficult meetings he attended during his time with Mwalimu Nyerere. Butiku states that “in the middle of the meeting leaders began to cry. Our role as assistants is to make a record of the conversations, I simply wrote that ‘the presidents are weeping!’”. Zambia was eventually allowed to carry on with its plans. A similar thing happened to President Machel in 1984 following the Nkomati Accord with the Apartheid regime of South Africa and this led to Nyerere “chasing him away” when he went to give him a recap.

Zambia came under military attack from Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and Apartheid South Africa and was even threatened with nuclear bombing by the Apartheid regime.

Kenneth Kaunda’s power handover was a big lesson on democracy for Africa when he conceded defeat in an election and handed over the presidency to Frederick Chiluba in 1991. Kaunda was a president who was very modest to the point that by the time he relinquished the presidency, he did not own a house. When Chiluba took over, he gave Kaunda a hard time, going to the extent of imprisoning him for treason. Mzee Kaunda went on a hunger strike while in jail which he only ended when Mwalimu Nyerere visited him. Dr Levy Patrick Mwanawasa, the third president of Zambia, returned KK to the status of Father of the Nation, giving him all his dues as a retired president, which he continued to receive until his death.

In Development as Rebellion: Julius Nyerere A Biography, Prof Issa Shivji, Prof Saida Yahya-Othman and Dr Ng’wanza Kamata explain how shocked President Kaunda was by the terrible condition of the road to Butiama (Nyerere’s home village). He came to the conclusion that the driver had gone the wrong way as it was not possible that the road to the president’s house could be in such a terrible condition. But it is more shocking that President Kaunda did not have his own home when his presidency ended as he had served his country and never thought of himself. Without a doubt, the first generation of African leaders was unique and I do not think that Africa will get leaders of Kenneth Kaunda’s calibre again. May God rest his soul in peace.

Hamba Kahle KK. You are the last to depart. Greetings to Nyerere, Bibi Titi, Samora, Josina, Winnie, Mandela, OR Tambo, Lumumba, Neto, Mondlane, Hani, Chipeto, Marcelino and all the others who gave their blood and sweat to liberate us.

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Reflections

Benjamin Ayimba: The Making of a Rugby Great

Not even the privilege of the national honour of the Order of the Golden Warrior of Kenya (OGW) and his personal acquaintance with the country’s top leadership could save Benja from this fate. A man who handled his public and personal failures gracefully, would become a victim of state failure.

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Benjamin Ayimba: The Making of a Rugby Great
Photo: Facebook/Benjamin Ayimba
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On April 17th 2016, the Kenyan rugby fraternity was ecstatic. It felt good to be Kenyan. We had finally arrived. The impossible had been achieved. Kenya 7s had won the main Cup at HSBC finals at the Singapore Sevens, against the formidable Fiji, the most successful rugby sevens playing nation in the world.

In the iconic picture, now a part of the annals of great Kenyan sporting moments, is the entire team in dominant red colour of the national flag, their fists raised and joy painted on their faces. In the centre, stands team captain Andrew Amonde holding the trophy high above his head flanked by former captain Humphrey Kayange.

On the extreme right of the picture, standing at the back, partly hidden by the jubilant frame of team physio Lameck Bogonko, is the man responsible for that victory, coach Benjamin Otieno Ayimba better known as Benja. Head coach of Kenya Sevens and the first and only Kenya Sevens coach to lift the World Sevens Series. The position was typical of Ayimba’s graciousness. Every member of his team would have a spot on the podium, no matter how fringe their contribution may have been. The road to Singapore was 20 years in the making. Singapore was Benja’s first international assignment in 1996. It was a dismal outing for Kenya. His coach then, Mike Tank Otieno described him as focused, intense, disciplined and a quick study. Those traits would come to epitomise his career both as player and coach.

Benja was a master of iterations and applied the principle of continuous improvement.

Andrew ‘Ndiri’ Ondiek, one of Kenya’s most outstanding No.8s and the man whose position Benja inherited in the national team recalls an incident during a Kenya Cup game. Impala had suffered a bruising loss to a well oiled Mean Machine. Benja who played for Impala sought out the Machine backrow player and asked why it was so difficult to tackle him during the game whilst taking mental notes. By the following season, Impala marshalled by Benja, was handing out regular upsets, on the road to becoming genuine title contenders.

In 2008, assailed by sceptics who believed he would face eminent failure as coach, a sports journalist asked what he would do differently. His response was accountability. He would take responsibility for any loss the team suffered and Kenya suffered some humiliating losses before the grand moment in Singapore. All through the dark episodes, Benja shielded his boys from criticism from the fans and the rugby union administration.

Benjamin Ayimba’s contribution to the advancement of Kenyan rugby and sport is enormous. He gave his life to rugby when fell in love with the game 30 years ago as a student in Maseno high school. At every juncture, he pushed his team forward. Maseno high school had no rugby pedigree before Benja appeared. He left them as national champs who lost a final narrowly to Nakuru High in 1993. Impala Rugby Club, was playing in second division Eric Shirley Shield when Benja arrived and as a 20 year old captain, he brought Impala to the Kenya Cup where they went on to sweep every trophy on offer.

Sevens glory is usually the domain of the backs but Benja was part of the new generation of forwards, with ball handling skills of backline players, extremely agile and mobile, modelling himself after New Zealand and All Black legend, Zinzan Brooke.

Benjamin Ayimba was part of the winning squad at the Safari Sevens in 1997. He was a member of every Kenya Sevens team between 1996 and 2011 and represented Kenya at four consecutive Commonwealth games in 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010. He was a member of the inaugural team to the Rugby World Cup in 2001 in Argentina where he scored Kenya’s first try against South Korea. He represented Kenya at two more World Cups and was head coach at our high points when Kenya made its first IRB Sevens Series Main Cup Final in Adelaide, Australia in 2009 and earned the third place finish at Rugby World Cup in 2009 in Dubai and eventually a main Cup trophy in 2016 in Singapore. He played 38 times for Kenya leading them 21 times.

Benja surpassed any other player and coach in terms of honours, straddling three generations. He was part of the second wave of sevens rugby that put Kenya on the international map taking over from the pioneering Watembezi generation who morphed into Kenya Sevens during 1986 Hong Kong Sevens.

He was a permanent fixture during Kenya’s return to the international sevens rugby scene. He was a Kenya Shujaa veteran when the new generation comprising the likes of Collin Injera, Humphrey Kayange, Lavin Asego and Andrew Amonde emerged. After his coaching stints, his proteges from Impala and Kenya, Mitch Ocholla and Innocent ‘Namcos’ Simiyu would also make their mark as Kenyan Sevens national coaches. During my brief spell as an editor of Kenya lifestyle magazine, Adam, Benjamin became one of the only two sports personalities to unanimously make the cover profile. Paul Tergat was the other. The theme of the June issue of 2008 was fatherhood. At the time, we positioned Ayimba as a young father who had made a career out of rugby and transitioned from player to coach in an exemplary manner.

Now in hindsight, I ponder on his role as a big brother and leader to the generation that he played alongside and a father figure to the hundreds who thrived under his tutelage as coach.

Benja should not have died. Not this way, not this young. It is difficult to put in words how devastating this loss is, not just to his immediate family, the rugby and sports fraternity but to the country. We are a nation badly in need of father figures with a measure of integrity. In a country at war with its best, intentionally extinguishing its brightest lights, there are not enough heroes in the public domain to inspire the masses to see beyond the state of despondency and cynical disillusion that has come to define the lives of the young in modern Kenya.

Benjamin Ayimba’s death is a consequence of systemic failure culminating in a dysfunctional health system brought about by our adopted neo-liberal culture of greed. The public performance of the political class, jostling to send their messages of condolences after his death announcement as his hospital bill remained unpaid illustrated the tragedy of national heroism.
Sports professionals for all their glory are subject to the same highly unsafe and exploitative work conditions affecting all workers under the conditions of capitalism.

Why would a beloved Kenyan, who attracts the personal attention of the head of state become saddled with a medical debt running into the millions? It is sobering that the gallant rugby dynamo would succumb to disease that was as commonplace as malaria.

Not even the privilege of the national honour of the Order of the Golden Warrior of Kenya(OGW) and his personal acquaintance with the country’s top leadership could save Benja from this fate. A man who handled his public and personal failures gracefully, would become a victim of state failure.

It is the recurring epilogue of our sports men and women, devoting the best years of their lives, making sacrifices for national honours, for something larger than themselves and from a place of love.

What does one do, when a country does not love you back?

In the wake of his death, at the young age of 44, I have been left reminiscing on his legacy. As streams of tributes are read in the wake of his tragic passing, the focus has been on his successes. It is a stellar career by any measure and one that I would dare say, deserves to be the impetus for the establishment of Kenya’s Rugby Hall of Fame, that is long overdue.

However, Benja’s other enviable quality, was how he handled failure. Both privately and in his public life, Benja was the comeback king and this perhaps is why his death left the fraternity reeling in disbelief. Most people assumed that Benja would pull through, as he always does.

Of the many accounts I have come across, this particular one struck me as an apt depiction of the selflessness that Benjamin Ayimba embodied.

The account was told by former Impala hooker, Willy Ombisi.

During pre-season training, a talented rookie player joined Impala with zeal, displaying dazzling skills and embarrassing some of the senior players. The players were divided into opposing teams of potentials in competition for the first team jersey where a plot was hatched by the Impala veterans playing on the opposing side to introduce the young buck to the truth of club rugby.

In the run of play, Sammy Migz, playing at fly half, received the ball off the back of a scrum. As the opposing fly half rushed at him and he easily evaded the tackle with a sidestep off his right foot into the space, where veteran winger Oscar Osir was approaching for a cover tackle and the young flyhalf repeated the same sidestep off his right foot dodging the winger and landing into what in rugby speak is known as the pseudo-gap putting him the inevitable path of collision with a loose forward. It was precisely where they wanted him.

Lurking on the wings, waiting to demolish this flamboyant run of play was a bone crushing flanker, the late Samson ‘Chum Reru’ Opondo.

Benja, who was playing on the rookie’s side running off his shoulder in support, caught a glimpse of Chum Reru moving at top speed closing the false gap headed straight for an oblivious flyhalf. It was a split second decision. He stretched out his hand, grabbed the edge of the fly half’s jersey, pulling him into his body and cradling him at the precise moment that Chum Reru made contact.

Benja’s body absorbed the impact of the devastating tackle. Both players were left stunned on the ground for a few moments after the collision but the young fly half had just survived a tackle that would have probably put him out for a season and dented his confidence. Benja had put his body on the line for the rookie and this was an act he repeated over and over again in more ways than one.

In arena of sports, games fade away but how those fleeting moments made us feel, stay with us long after our champions are gone.

It is why we mourn Benja deeply but with profound gratitude for the generosity of his spirit, his repeated acts of selflessness and the enrichment he brought to our lives.

Journey well Wuod Alego.

Rest in Power, Sir Benja.

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Reflections

George Floyd and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Seeking escape in the art of Chadwick Boseman and the writings of Obama and Ta-Nehisi Coates in a time of trauma.

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George Floyd and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
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I watched Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for the second time while waiting for the verdict in Derek Chauvin’s trial for George Floyd’s murder. The film focuses on Ma Rainey, an influential blues singer, and dramatises a turbulent recording session in 1920s Chicago. I was looking for escape.

The trial of Derek Chauvin was emotionally draining. It was also scary because of the very real possibility that Chauvin might walk free. And George Floyd would become just another statistic. Just another black man losing his life to a mix of police brutality and racism. We waited for the twelve jurors to do the right thing. To look beyond the skin colour of the executioner and the executed and give us a reason to believe again in the promise of justice for all. The jurors chose the right side of history.

I was looking for a good film with a strong black cast, and for literature by leading contemporary black intellectuals to provide me with perspective, a sense of reality, and hope during the trial.  So I settled on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, on Barrack Obama’s Dreams From My Father and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was an opportunity to witness black excellence on the screen, characters navigating America by their wit, pain, industry and love. I did not know much about Ma Rainey the artist before watching the film although I had heard about her pioneering work as a blues artist. And so I was looking forward to rediscovering her, and to once again paying homage to Chadwick Boseman, thanking him again, bidding him farewell a second time. My stomach was a knot of emotions, churning with excitement. But there was also a tightening in my chest. To look for closure for George Floyd in the beauty, the finesse, the artistry of Chadwick Boseman was quite an emotional trip.

The film turned into something else for me. It turned into an institution of higher learning. A thesis presentation by Levee, Chadwick Boseman in the character of a virtuoso trumpet player, who shows us how the anger and helplessness, the rage of young black men and women, robbed of their industry and creativity by white men, consumes them, sending them into self-destruction and to the destruction of those around them. Through Levee’s reflections on his life and the conflicts with the other members of Ma Rainey’s band, the film brings to life in a very dramatic and tragic fashion the destruction wrought by generational trauma. It calls us to be acutely aware of the trauma brought on by the murders of black men and women, the murders of men such as George Floyd. The film warns us to protect ourselves, to guard from descending into a murderous rage like Levee, where we end up killing our fellow blacks while those who profit by the actions of white supremacists continue to enjoy the fruits of our industry. We need to creatively self-preserve even as we relive the trauma of George Floyd’s murder during the trial of his murderer.

Obama’s elusive hope

Reading Obama’s Dreams From My Father, which permeates with hope for an equal America, reduced the anxiety that came with this trial. Revisiting the path of Obama’s early life and his ascent to the White House was refreshing, a reminder of the convergence of goodwill from the entire fabric of this great nation that propelled the young Obama, raised without a father, to the highest office in the land, provided a break from the intensity of the trial. I was very hopeful of a conviction. But I was also alive to the reality of Michael Brown in 2014. And the strangulation of Eric Garner. And Alton Sterling. And the execution of Breonna Taylor in her bed. The black bodies riddled with bullets kept piling up. The police kept walking free, unaccountable for their actions. A litany of deaths until the graphic murder of George Floyd shocked the world back into the reality of the systematic elimination of black men in America.

Donald Trump’s presidency, and the blossoming of white supremacy, might cause the hope expressed in Obama’s book to seem distant but it was a welcome break from the intensity of the Chauvin trial. We needed hope to cling to. Hope that justice might yet prevail, a life jacket in the tumultuous waters that are America for its black people. All our hope was in the twelve jurors. Did they share our hope for a better America. Could we trust them to do the right thing? Who were the jurors? What were their politics? Did they believe that black lives really do matter?

Ta-Nehisi’s electric shocker

Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates after Obama felt like being sucker-punched into reality. I had to compose myself. How could these two black scholars have such distinct and diverse experiences of America? How could Ta-Nehisi Coates walk under such a heavy yoke of historical trauma and Obama with so much optimism? Where was the magic switch to turn the darkness into the bright dawn of promise? Where did Obama find this switch? And what realities and historical traumas accompanied Ta-Nehisi in his daily living as a black man in America, reminding him that this optimism only existed as a hopeful comfort in our imagination?

Obama’s book, I would later conclude, was one that was hopeful for a perfect union. Just as his body was a beautiful union of an elegant African man and an elegant white woman. Both blessed with a great education and a superior understanding of the world. But could America let Obama be the embodiment of this perfection? It would not. He could only be black. The prescription of race was waiting for him at birth. This prescription was meant to place him in a world that America treated differently. A world where he could not enjoy the privileges that his mother was born into, even though he was hers, the product of her womb.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the other hand embraces the reality that things are broken. The way Ta-Nehisi Coates relives the trauma of what happened to his friend and compatriot, Prince Carmen Jones, is as painful as when Darnella Frazier, the teenage girl who witnessed the murder of George Floyd, relived the trauma and her helplessness at the scene. All Darnella could be was a witness. With a cellphone. Incapable of providing any help because the force that was on George Floyd’s neck was the force of hate. Of white supremacy. A force that had taken so many black bodies. And was emboldened by the justice system to take many more.

Ta-Nehisi  Coates writes that Prince Jones was stalked by a policeman across multiple jurisdictions and state lines before he was shot. Prince Carmen was educated, God-fearing and successful. When the man the killer police had allegedly mistaken Prince Carmen for was arrested, he did not look anything like Prince Carmen. The only plausible explanation for Prince Carmen’s killing was that the black policeman who killed him was only aware that he carried the authority of the land that did not value the life of the innocent black man that he had tracked like wild game. He was aware that being a policeman was the licence that would get him his job back without having to account for his actions.

On the other side, within the black community, the policeman’s actions left a colossal loss. The loss of years of investment in Prince Carmen. The loss of a brilliant future. The loss of the only son. A lifetime of trauma for his parents’ generation. His friends’ generation. Trauma in the many generations of blacks to come. And a chilling reminder that black lives are dispensable. Ta-Nehisi Coates was reliving this historical trauma for his son. Reminding him of the space he occupies as a black man in America. This was the reality of black America. For many generations to come, fathers and mothers would relive for their children the trauma of watching George Floyd begging for his life under Derek Chauvin’s knee. As long as these killings continued, the trauma associated with them would never leave the black communities. I realised that I couldn’t escape it either. It was deeply embedded in art. In literature. In film. A reminder that hope was just but temporary relief, a mirage before the next execution of a black man.

Does trauma heal by itself?

Obama’s book promises hope as a pathway to healing, reminds us to give hope a chance and continue believing in the collective goodwill of humanity. But Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us that no one, regardless of their social standing, is safe from police brutality or the miscarriage of justice that follows in the wake of the brutality. And that the trauma of witnessing these repeated acts of brutality against black people stays with us forever, no matter how well educated or successful we are.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a warning about the destructive impact of the generational trauma suffered by black people in America from past encounters with white supremacy and the miscarriage of justice that soon follows. It is also a warning about what seeing George Floyd laying there, pleading for his life, could do to our collective psyche as black people. And a reminder of how the loss of black industry and art at the hands of white people in positions of power has a lasting negative impact on everyone.

Derek Chauvin is appealing his conviction and we are waiting to see if there will be another trial. But his conviction has brought some hope that the wheels of justice may have received a tiny drop of oil and will continue turning, moving inexorably towards justice and towards a more perfect America at last freed of the generational trauma of witnessing police brutality against black people.

Black Lives Matter.

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