After nearly five months locked down at home in the small city of Bozeman in southern Montana, my wife and I recently ventured out for a hermetically sealed road trip. Many of our compatriots were still not taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously enough, and we wondered if there was someplace within a day’s drive where we could avoid unmasked human spillover from local taverns, family reunions, birthday parties, football games, rock concerts, rodeos, political rallies, county fairs, farmers’ markets or protest marches.
Although rich in social activities, Montana is better known for its big sky landscapes, isolated nooks and crannies and local populations that can be counted on the toes of your two feet. Here, a GPS is useless for lack of detail, so we consulted a real, 3-D atlas to find a suitably quiet spot for a picnic, and off we went.
Just over an hour out, we turned from a minor highway onto a dirt road and followed old tree blazes, breadcrumbs, chunks of rusted cast iron and other detritus deep into the mountain forests of the southwest corner of the state. Our excursion came to an abrupt end at the forlorn little hamlet of Elkhorn. (Population:10)
In the 1880s and 1890s, Elkhorn was at the centre of the richest silver mining region in the world. The nearby town of Boulder boasted that it had more millionaires, per capita, than any place on earth. Elkhorn’s population once topped 2,500 and consisted of miners, engineers, shopkeepers, teachers and a sufficient number of doctors, dentists, lawyers, surveyors, assayers, carters, blacksmiths, bartenders and prostitutes. Unusual for a Montana mining town, many of the workers, mostly from Europe, brought their families with them.
The mine and most of the remaining structures are now in ruins, with only a couple of buildings reoccupied by service sector hands dangling trinkets or claiming to be hunting guides. What caught our eye immediately was a rustic sign pointing to the Elkhorn cemetery, which was almost a mile out of town, around the backside of a mountain along a rocky, overgrown, forest track. There we found the perfect day-trip destination in a COVID-infested world. All the residents were practising horizontal and vertical social distancing; they sported full-body covering; and, there was one hundred percent sheltering in place.
My wife and I are tombstone tourists. We like to wander through churchyards and cemeteries, reading gravestone obits and epitaphs. Each odd-angled monument and slab reveals something about the place and its people – even if it’s only a couple of dates and a name. Each is a particle of evidence, waiting for Wikipedia to provide context. It’s a painless way to learn history.
The Elkhorn cemetery occupies the side of a steep hill with perhaps a hundred and fifty graves scattered among the pine trees and boulders. We could identify a few oldsters, but most of the dead seemed to be in their twenties and early thirties. That was strange. More startling was a whole section of the hillside where were buried only children – dozens of them from age zero to about ten. And all had died within the two years between 1888 and 1890. Clearly something awful had happened in Elkhorn.
That awful something was diphtheria, a bacterial disease with symptoms and effects eerily similar to COVID-19. Unlike COVID, which is known to prefer vulnerable elders, diphtheria selects the young. Even though Elkhorn lies isolated high in the mountains, in its heyday, inhabitants moved in and out fluidly without restriction. There was even a narrow-gauge railway with daily service twelve miles down to Boulder city. This measure of mobility exposed nearly everyone to diphtheria. The close environment of the mines created conditions for transmission among many young men. One-room schools, packed with kids, helped to spread the deadly disease among the town’s children. In that pre-vaccine era, the deceased were isolated from the living by locating the cemetery at what may have been thought to be a safe distance from town. This primitive form of zoning was Elkhorn’s only apparent response to a virulent disease.
The diphtheria epidemic was not the direct cause of Elkhorn’s demise. In fact, the high death rate did little to deter the town’s frantic pursuit of profit. Mining persisted for several years after the epidemic peaked. Elkhorn’s downfall was actually the result of a crash in the silver market.
In an attempt to loosen the national money supply, which was backed by the country’s gold reserves, the Silver Purchase Act of 1890 required the U.S. government to buy tonnes of silver. This had the effect of driving up the price of silver, which greatly pleased the miners. An alliance between grassroots populists and the silver mine owners lobbied to place the USA on a bimetallic (gold and silver) currency standard, but the movement eventually lost steam. Gold, not the relatively abundant silver, would continue to back the value of paper money well into the 20th century. Soon there wasn’t enough gold in reserve to secure the amount of paper currency in circulation, and the Panic of 1893, a great depression, hit the whole country like a flash fire in tunnel 13.
The crash of the national silver market left Elkhorn’s remaining residents with no economic reason to stay in their once-thriving community. With no market for its silver, Elkhorn finally withered and became a ghost town. External forces, political and economic, had made planning for Elkhorn’s future impossible and unnecessary. The town became collateral damage in the capital wars among the one-percenters of the Gilded Age.
A Kenyan detour
As we unwrapped our cheese and pickle sandwiches in front of the boarded-up Home for the Feeble Minded (that’s what they used to call people with developmental disabilities), my wife asked, “Why do you suppose they put a mental institution like this in such an out-of-the-way corner of the state?”
We had decided to save lunch until we got back down to Boulder to investigate the grand Italianate Revival red brick edifice that had first opened in 1905.
“It could have been a gift from the state legislature at a time when Boulder was losing its economic base,” I said. “All those millionaires must have had some political influence. Or, it could have been to hide people with embarrassing conditions…embarrassing to their families. The atlas says this area produced 4 million pounds of lead, which is often associated with silver. The toxic waste from that much lead coming out of the mines must have dropped everyone’s IQs lower than squid shit.”
She gave that some thought and asked, “What does this place remind you of? No, not this place. The old mining operations.”
Without waiting for my brain to engage, she answered herself. “It’s like Kenya and the colonial capitalism that was going on when we left. Developers from outside – from the UK, Holland, USA, China – put up the capital, upped the value of their investments with tax holidays, underpaid workers and monopolies given out like royal land grants and carted away the profits. Minus twenty-plus percent for the president’s favourite charity.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “they even brought their own cart. But there’s been nothing like a diphtheria epidemic in Kenya, where workers and their families would have been forced to endure with little help. Unless you count malaria. Besides, the jobs created by foreign investment paid pretty well didn’t they?”
“I think I said ‘underpaid,’ didn’t I? Certainly not paid enough for decent housing, school fees and retirement. And capitalism has brought its own versions of the plague to Kenya. Think about the conditions in Nairobi’s massive slums. Political corruption. Destruction of fragile ecosystems. Pollution of Lake Naivasha from chemicals and fertilizer. So, what about the flower business, itself?
“I see your point.” I wasn’t going to argue. I had read that weddings and other big flowery events have been cancelled all over the world after COVID jumped the pond. At the time, Kenya was employing something like 150,000 workers in the flower business and shipping US$1 billion worth of geraniums, roses and carnations per year. Forty-two cargo flights every week, just to the Netherlands. Now, all those flowers are going straight into the compost.
“So, the bottom dropped out of the Kenyan ‘silver market’,” she said, shaking her head. “Where did that leave all those workers? Selling trinkets in a ghost town?”
“Luckily, Naivasha isn’t a one trick pony, it’s a town with options. Not 150,000 worth of options, though, and, if the pandemic doesn’t end soon, Kenya may be dealing with more than a few ghost towns. I suspect people are already moving back upcountry.”
“That’s always been the Kenyans’ main safety net, hasn’t it? That’s where Rose’s family went during hard times.” (Shortly after we left Kenya for the US, our Kamba neighbour and good friend, Rose, decided to look for work upcountry and took a job at a clinic in Embu. Nairobi had always been tough on her kids.)
“Wups! We had better get moving.” I could see in the mirror that the sky was filling with black clouds and streaky lightning. “Those clouds look like they’re getting ready to let loose the artillery. This car is too flimsy to hold up in a barrage of Montana ice bombs.” We both were remembering the hailstorm of 2010 that kept the panel beaters happy for a year.
Business, as usual
After returning to Bozeman later that evening, we saw in the day’s newspaper that Montana’s institutionalised elders were being hit hard by the virus – one memory care facility already had fifteen deaths. Nationwide, old folks living in congregate care facilities make up just one per cent of the population but are now close to fifty per cent of all COVID deaths in the US, where elder care is a lucrative and poorly regulated business.
From a sidebar on page one, we learned that President Trump is insisting that all children in the US are to be sent back to school in the autumn despite the danger from forced proximity. The better to hasten their parents’ return to the labour force and, thereby, reduce the unemployment numbers prior to the general election in November. The paper reported that seventy-five per cent of our local parents agreed with the president’s policy of sending their kids daily into a petri dish of potential disease! The need for a basic income with which to purchase the necessities of life was overriding medical science, good policy, common sense and even parental responsibility. Where was our government?
Turning to page two, we found Congress dithering over the allocation of money to temporarily provide a minimum income to families out of work or otherwise in need because of the virus. Service employees were especially hard hit, as restaurants, bars, beauty shops, nail and hair salons and other close-contact businesses shut down for the duration, which might be forever as far as anyone knew.
Further down the page, the governor of Florida was cooking the COVID death statistics so he could justify reopening the state’s economy. Look! Things aren’t so bad! Back to work! On to Disneyworld! Spend! Florida soon had the highest COVID infection rate in the US, the country with the highest infection rate on the planet. Young adults, anxious to get out and party in a state that specialises in partying, took heed of the governor’s fairytale justification, went out, scooped up the virus and generously spread it around. The governors of many states that had already closed down buckled under pressure from their chambers of commerce and allowed or mandated businesses to reopen prematurely.
Businesses at the gateways to nearby Yellowstone National Park applauded the government’s decision to open the park to visitors from around the world, none of whom would be subject to quarantine. Employees of park concessionaires are already testing positive for COVID.
Even our state university, a local money-spinner with 16,000 students, was saying that it will reopen this fall with in-person classes – but no testing! We wouldn’t want to cull the herd too early, before tuition fees have been paid.
To read about it in the news, the whole country was performing a high-wire act without a safety net. For over a century-and-a-half, a limitless array of business deals and their promised billions had hogged the spotlight in America’s economic circus, leaving public health and other social issues with little more than pennies from heaven. The tale of Elkhorn is not one of a town laid low by rampant diphtheria but one of business as usual in spite of that awful disease. It’s happening again today but at a vastly greater scale and with devastatingly widespread consequences.
Hello! Emergency assistance?
Ignorance of biological causation was a contributing factor in earlier epidemics. We can’t say that today. We know that immobilising whole populations, prohibiting all large and most small gatherings, restricting travel to zero, quarantining, face covering, minimising exposure to others, social distancing, testing, contact tracing and frequent sanitising are all necessary to stop the spread of the virus. Modifying social behaviour is the key to successful suppression, even if it requires enforcement of stringent regulatory measures and cutting off sources of income.
With incomes diminished, we also know that greater social security payments, paycheck supplements, universal healthcare, loan forgiveness, rent subsidies, free child care, school fee waivers, home care for the vulnerable and accessible technological surrogates for face-to-face contact are needed before individuals can afford to modify their behaviour. Such an array of social and economic lifelines, normally paid for by progressive taxation and deficit spending, will be required for the country to survive this pandemic. Why, then, are we not organising our resources to do these things?
Hope is on the way
Years ago, I worked with a British ex-air force officer who had had the job of predicting the weather for the Allied invasion of Normandy. In other words, to determine what day would be D-Day. The secret in that era of primitive weather forecasting was what meteorologists called the Persistence Theory. That is, tomorrow’s weather in the English Channel will be much like the weather today. If the weather has been slowly trending toward less rain and wind, the trend should persist for a few more days. Not much hard thinking involved, he said. Just note the trend and work with it.
The same is true of anything riding on capital markets, which is to say almost everything in America. There is a great amount of inertia in waiting for venture capital to turn a profit and for existing assets, like oil wells, to be thoroughly wrung dry. This results in a perverse lack of planning. American cities march to the discombobulated cadence of opportunistic capital investment schemes, both public and private. In a capitalistic environment, order won’t be created by the occasional regulatory device. And, it certainly won’t be commanded by city planners that don’t understand the stakes. Our cities are a farrago of costly investments and will not easily trade their sunk costs for some more organised vision of the future. Disorder, in the service of greater profit, is a dominant trend in our society and we’ll stick with it.
Investors, financiers and other capitalists believe they can tolerate the dead bodies, social disruption and lingering after-effects of a pandemic – or of global warming, for that matter – as long as dividends, interest and other payments arrive on time and in sufficient quantities. And, if profits fall below expectations, the rich are powerful – and corrupt – enough to demand that the government provide a bailout even before it provides personal protective equipment, testing kits and ventilators. And this dystopian state of affairs will persist until the day we realise that health, safety and the general welfare can only be guaranteed within a completely reformed socio-economic system that puts human life ahead of profit – by transforming the greedy frog into a munificent prince.
As we adjust to living with COVID, we may notice trends that signal a growing popular response to social and economic pressure, and we may try to accommodate those trends. We may begin to see that people, seeking healthier environments, are moving from more dense urban to less dense suburban and rural settings, like Kenyans moving upcountry.
Cities and towns may then become aware of a commensurate shift in infrastructure needs. People are already gathering in fewer large public venues much less often and at lower densities. Will these venues – schools, universities, stadiums, arenas, churches, concert halls, theaters – remain viable? If not, will they need some kind of support? Will they convert to virtual venues? Or will they wither away? What about changes in the volume and patterns of our consumption? Our housing? Our mobility? It’s too early to say if we will even be able to adapt to the coming disruptions on our own terms. External factors, like an election, the weather or a pandemic may determine our lives from now on.
On the radio the next morning, we heard that the American economy shrank by over thirty per cent last quarter. This is the greatest downturn ever. Despite all efforts by the business community and its praetorian politicians to reassure Americans that normal is just around the corner, we aren’t buying it. Most of us are too frightened. When we can see the bodies stacked in front of makeshift morgues, we know there is a problem so serious that the usual propaganda and marketing abracadabra won’t work. We’re just not going to do the things that have kept money in circulation. The COVID pandemic is already gnawing at the foundation of our consumptive (pun intended) economy.
But, this is still capitalist America. Before our plutocrats and oligarchs divert their wealth to build a people-friendly, post-pandemic state – a new “city on a hill” – they will first reap the profits that lie along the present path, as rocky as it may be for the rest of us.
Meanwhile, they offer us hope that the old normal will return with the discovery of a vaccine. A very profitable vaccine.
Support The Elephant.
The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.
Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.
We Just Eat
There is a stereotype that conflates the image of an absurdly full platter with most people’s thoughts about the Luyia community.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine randomly suggested something to me just after we’d passed a roadside grill on our way to Kawangware Market.
Tukule ulimi. Let’s eat tongue.
I obliged, both of us turning back to the spot where chunks of meat of different shapes and sizes were sizzling on an oily black grill, the tongue among them, sending smoke upwards, dripping juice. . . let me stop there. We ate the tongue and proceeded to the market. There we sat on a bench next to a chipo guy frying potato chips and crisps, his pan tilted at an angle to fit on the jiko. This we wanted a taste of. As we waited to be served, I suddenly became self-conscious.
“Do I eat too much?”
It’s well over a decade since my primary school peers and I walked to a neighbouring village to listen to the District Officer’s address on the occasion of a national holiday. The hot equatorial afternoon would present a challenge to the day’s main task – the D.O’s speech, and his token to students in the division. As we waited for the D.O. An elderly Luyia man stood up to address the crowd, proceeding to say something spiteful about my village. I remember the emotion in his words. It was strange. It felt like he had a problem with that part of the location I was from, or the fact that people from there were present. He said, “I do not like the name Nyang’ori, I do not like the name Nyang’ori because back when we were children the Luos used to refer to people from that side of our location as Jokuo Nyang’ori.”
At that time, I was still a pupil in primary school, in my final year. I had strong loyalties but could not do much to assert my position. So I kept my cool. Then recently, a song sneaked its way into my head and took me back to that time.
There’s a song that Luhya children sang to their mothers while skipping around the homestead in play. While their mothers prepared the fields in anticipation of the coming rains, they would sing:
Mama mbe zimbindi nzie kuminza
Nzie nzie nzie,
The first part of the song is sang to the mother asking for cowpeas to scatter in the field. The second part of the song goes:
Kiravura kitiezo, ngani inzara yakwita
Na nunyori kanyama, ushiezanga nogonga
Here, it seems to be the mother responding to the child saying, if it were not for kitiezo – a salient shrub that grows wild in the field – we would have died of hunger. The second line is a general observation that if one happened to find meat, they would grind on the millstone with joy.
In his book Western Kenya Historical Texts, Gideon S. Were explains that the name Nyang’ori, by which the Terik are known, dates to the severe famine of 1907 that led Teriks from the Nyang’ori area to steal cowpeas from the fields of the Joluo. As a result, the Joluo nicknamed them “stealers of cowpeas”, Nyang’ori.
Were notes that the traditions of the Terik confirm the fact that the name Nyang’ori was a nickname given to them by the Joluo due to the community’s habit of stealing their cowpeas. While still in primary school, my friends would always remind me that our village once went by a Terik name, Matrin. Nyang’ori seems to be a recent addition in the history of my village.
Now history confirms as factual the basis of that old man’s speech from my childhood. It gives space for whatever emotion he must have felt while expressing his feelings about my village – a century-old grudge. And a century might be a long time to still hold resentment over stolen food, but not long enough to completely erase the influence that the customs that defined relations in the time of our ancestors have on our present lives.
There is a stereotype that conflates the image of an absurdly full platter with most people’s thoughts about the Luyia community. For the longest time advertising, and more recently social media platforms, have reinforced this stereotype with performances of Luyias devouring huge amounts of food in one sitting. Without understanding that absurdity is one of the mechanisms that promote visibility on social media, one might easily be led to believe that a Luyia chewing a whole chapati in one mouthful on TikTok actually does that in real life. Or that a teenager decimating a kilogram of ugali on his own in front of a camera is a normal event in their homestead. Any Luyia with experience will tell you how that makes no economic sense in the village.
This is that part where you, the reader, struggle to detach this image from stories you’ve heard your Luyia friends tell about some of their interesting experiences back at home, upcountry.
A good number of Luyias really are guilty of contriving to always have the better share of certain meals. Luyia men in particular, have historically benefited from traditions that denied women the opportunity to fully enjoy chicken, as some parts were only served to the older male members of the household, the most infamous prohibition being that of emondo, the gizzard.
There is no concrete reason why the ban existed except that the emondo was meant for vasakuru, the elders only, as my aunt tells me. My efforts to reach an elder for an explanation about why the emondo was reserved solely for them were met with reticence. An online group that discusses a wide range of issues on the subject of Luyia culture and life—known on YouTube as the Luyia Fun Group—offers an interesting reason why women are prohibited from eating emondo in one of their videos. They claim that the emondo was found (by the elders) to bear a striking resemblance to a certain part of a woman’s body, and therefore rendered women unfit to eat it because of the homosexual imagery suggested. If there is any truth to this claim, and knowing our ancestors for who they were, the ban must have been a metaphor for their stand on a conversation many of them were obviously not ready to have.
Today, this metaphor has clearly been stripped of its latency. The stand it sought to soften remains in the community though, an oxymoron of the idea that queer manifestations of sexuality are imports of the western world to Africa. There’s still great denial of the existence of homosexuality in African communities, and where denial has failed cloak and dagger have been employed. Dissenting arguments usually range from homosexuality being against traditional African values, to it being unchristian, and most recently, a product of our continent’s interaction with Western culture on social media.
In my village, institutions dating back to the time before any contact was made with the Western world expose the contradiction in this dissent. During the time of my initiation into manhood under the Tiriki institution of idumi, manhood, one of the initiates in my rikura, age set, had long been known to have homosexual inclinations but faced no violence based on his nature during the whole period of seclusion. One would expect that such an institution rooted in African tradition would be extremely hostile in its attempts to correct the unmanly aspects of an initiate, in imparting its conception of manhood to a male member of the community.
In the mid-1920s, when the Quakers were establishing their mission station at Kaimosi, Luyia women in the larger Vihiga area were not allowed to eat eggs. This culture prevailed until the intervention of men who had just gained literacy from the mission set up by the Friends Quakers at Kaimosi. Yohana Amugune, who was among the first men to convert to Christianity at the Friends Kaimosi mission, went back to his village in Chavakali to spread the gospel. One of the reforms he sought to which he sought to apply his new knowledge and belief was the eggs issue. In his essay Yohana Amugune and the Maragoli published in the Biographical Essays on Imperialism and Collaboration in Colonial Kenya compiled by B.E Kipkorir, J.M. Mwenesi writes that upon returning from the mission in Kaimosi, Yohana Amugune broke the taboo and made no secret about letting his wife eat eggs, previously the preserve of men.
Christianity seems to have revolutionized food culture in Vihiga by pushing for the full inclusion of women at the dining table. On the other hand, it required them to forget crucial items on their menu, such as ugali (a stiff porridge) made from traditional grains.
Azangu, a historian I met at the National Archives while researching this story, had interesting thoughts about this matter. Azangu grew up around the Kaimosi mission in the ‘80s. The insights he shared with me suggest that the introduction of religion might have had a lot to do with the disappearance of certain foods and the adoption of others. Azangu told me how the Friends Quakers missionaries in Kaimosi grew maize to cater for their food needs, fostering the gradual shift from the traditional staples of sorghum and millet to maize among the new converts. One of the contributing factors to this shift was that maize was a bigger grain that was not as labour-intensive to cultivate and harvest as sorghum and millet. However, the biggest attraction came from the social benefits guaranteed by the shift rather than the economic incentives.
“During that time, the white ugali made from maize flour was associated with Christianity and modernity, this directly translated to higher status. . . The preparation of the brown ugali was pretty difficult, it required a higher level of skill to prepare compared to the white ugali.”
Azangu’s thoughts on Luyia food culture confirmed to me the idea that, perhaps what is viewed, and has been viewed for long time as an obsession with food, is rather a social structure that has embedded food security within its order – the order being efficient enough to sustain its people and itself, but also enough to be viewed as exploitative by outsiders who might not fully understand the culture.
In response to a question I had posed about whether Luyias really eat as much as the stereotypes suggest, Azangu said, “We do not eat that much, we just cook enough. And if you find yourself finishing all the food you’ve cooked, you are still not content.”
I find his remarks very comical but still legitimate. Food security has always been embedded in the social structure of the Luyia community. We have always had a culture of sharing food that bestows a feast-like quality on every meal prepared – we are not afraid of having guests join us at meals, we do not want to have to be awkward with those who find us mid-meal, and so we prepare even for those who are not present.
So, rather than being a love for food, for Luyias, it is a love of life; how could one separate the concept of life from food? That’s why Luyia funerals might be mistaken for feasts because they are actually a celebration of life. When the Keima drum is beaten, preceding the funeral procession, prompting the villagers to find their way to the home of the bereaved, it also asks them to fill their baskets with produce and carry them to the feast they are heading to. Most strangers cringe at the sight of villagers packed inside the homestead of the bereaved whenever a villager dies, being served mountains of ugali in plates on the verge of breaking from the weight of their contents. But a wise Luyia with an idea of what a functional Luyia society looks like or once looked like, appreciates the role of the dead to the living. They might validly argue that the departed is playing their last role on earth, giving life to not just one person, but to the whole community.
The departed deserve an opportunity to leave with a bang!
The song in my head is a song many Luyia children know. It is a song contemplating scarcity while it drips of joy. A song whose significance might be considered by many as just an historical record of emotion during a time of scarcity – a grave omission of an important message that the song seeks to relay to all children and adults with access to it: Prepare for better days, for worse times have existed, and always remember to be joyful.
Apart from the disappearance of the grinding stone and the loss of prestige of the white ugali, a lot has changed over the past century in Luyia food culture. From the emondo coming to resemble only itself – part of a chicken – to be eaten by women, to eggs becoming a normal thing for women to eat. The only constant has been rikuvi, the vegetable that grows when cowpea seeds are scattered in the fields. The cowpea seeds that the Nyang’ori people went down to Nyanza to steal more than a century ago, seeds that earned them their name.
Perhaps, the strange emotion that made the old man declare his dislike of the name Nyang’ori was due to his inability to reckon with the fact that time had erased its negative connotations but had left the name and its history intact.
This really is strange.
On our way back from Kawangware market, my friend and I happened to pass by the same spot where we had shared the tongue and overheard a woman asking those in her company, Tukule roho? Shall we eat heart?
We exchanged glances, smiled, our tacit agreement not after all exclusive to us, nor our secret cravings.
Everyone loves to eat, and to share food.
Luyias are no exception. We just eat.
The Hidden Lives of the Trees of Amsterdam
Contemplating nature and falling back on the wisdom of trees to guide me through the unknown.
There was genuine cause for angst in the early days of the COVID lockdowns as the pandemic spread unabated throughout Europe. I was a new arrival in the Netherlands, marooned at home, working as a remote curator-at-large for the online publication The Elephant. While I appeared stoic to my team based in Nairobi, I could not shake off the feelings of uncertainty. I had a child who had just learned how to walk and my wife had started a new and demanding job.
Amsterdam was ghostly. Trepidation beset the city and it seemed as though people had gone into hibernation. On most days, in between Zoom calls to Nairobi, I would stare out of my home office window at a large weeping willow tree that stood on the edge of a canal, feeling a loss of control.
One morning, I noticed a flock of green ring-necked parakeets perched on the willow tree. I had not seen those birds since the days of my childhood in the Kenyan countryside and their appearance in a foreign country was serendipitous. In times of crisis one is attuned to signs from nature and in those familiar birds and in the willow tree, I found a sense of hope and belonging.
A friend from Kenya who arrived in Amsterdam around the same period also talked about the silent assurance he had discovered in trees. He worked the night shift. For months during those cold days, while his wife and children were away, sitting alone in the house staving off depression, he drew strange comfort from contemplating the sturdy nature of the single tree that grew in his backyard.
When you come from Kenya, winters are survived, chalked down and added to the résumé.
Having grown up under the tutelage of a father who was an avid forester, it was natural that I should fall back on the wisdom of trees to guide me through the unknown. But this awareness would unfold gradually as the trees of Amsterdam revealed their hidden lives.
There is a popular museum in the centre of Amsterdam, on Prinsengracht Street, dedicated to Anne Frank’s life, her famous diary and the secret annex. Anne Frank was born in Frankfurt, Germany, and her Jewish family had fled persecution for the relative safety of Amsterdam. When the Germans invaded and occupied the Netherlands in 1940 and began deporting Jews to death camps, Anne Frank went into hiding. During her two years in hiding, Anne Frank turned to writing to pass time, journaling not just the daily events but also her thoughts and feelings.
Anne Frank’s father Otto survived the war, found his daughter’s diary and it was eventually published in 1947 under the title The Secret Annex.
There is a passage in the diary where Anne writes about a tree, a white horse chestnut that she used to stare at from her window in the attic. That huge tree standing in the courtyard garden, 170 years old, was a beacon of freedom, longing and hope.
Tragically, Anne and her sister Margot were arrested and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp where they were separated from their parents. The sisters were taken to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where, under the unhygienic conditions, they both succumbed to typhus and died in February of 1945.
When I went off in search of the famous tree that Anne Frank wrote about, I found that it had fallen 10 years earlier in 2010 and all that remained was a stump. I found a connection with the story of the horse chestnut tree in Anne’s diary because trees were one of the first signposts that I used to navigate the newness of this city.
There is another tree that is located in Bijlmermeer in the south-east of Amsterdam that is not as famous as Anne Frank’s tree. Its story is much more recent. In 1992, an El Al cargo aircraft en route to Israel lost its engines while trying to circle back to Schiphol airport for an emergency landing. It crashed into Groeneveen and Klein-Kruitberg, two multi-storied apartment buildings, killing 43 people, most caught unawares in their homes innocently winding down the day.
There were speculations that the death toll may have been higher as many undocumented and unregistered people were not accounted for following the accident. On the site, facing a new apartment block, sits the tree that saw everything, a living witness to the Bijlmerramp air disaster.
Amsterdam is a green city and trees are everywhere. The canals are lined with old elms and practically all city roads and neighbourhoods are fronted by straight lines of trees, usually of one species. The tenement buildings may appear to have the same aesthetic similarity of the predominantly red or grey brick walls. But in the courtyards, hidden from street view, are lush green gardens and trees.
I was soon able to guess the age of a neighbourhood by looking at the size of the trees growing in it. I also started to notice that most of the trees in Amsterdam grow straight. Crooked trees are a rare sight.
Many mightn’t be bothered by this little detail but I began to inquire about the stories behind the trees of Amsterdam. A tree is crooked because it adapts to nature and the forces it encounters, but the breadth of uniformity I encountered in the Dutch landscape was an indication that nature had been colonised.
The Amsterdamse Bos (The Amsterdam Forest) that is located in the southwest of Amsterdam, sitting on the border between Amsterdam and the Amstelveen municipality, is a prime example of this. It is an imposing city park, of a scale and order that I find intriguing. Measuring 1000 acres, it is about the size of Nairobi’s Karura Forest, with one unique distinction; all the trees were planted by hand and its all features, including its artificial lakes and solitary hill, are products of grand design. There is also within it a naturist area where nude sunbathing is allowed.
Amsterdamse Bos began as a government work relief effort to deal with the economic crisis of the 1930s. Today it is a functional park, a natural landscape designed for recreation and relaxation that draws in 4 million visitors every year.
I remarked to a Dutch friend over a cup of coffee that the Amsterdamse Bos felt like a big green arcade. To which he shrugged and said, ‘’Poof! You think this orderly, you should go to Switzerland. They are worse than us.’’
Then, as if in admission that he was accustomed to unnaturally neat nature, he recalled a road trip he had taken in Canada a few years earlier. As they drove through the spectacular Boreal forests, both he and his wife agreed that the forests were magnificent. . . if only the Canadians would clean up the forest floor and keep it tidy.
Another Dutch friend took me on a tour of the Vondelpark in Amsterdam, to a spot over a white wooden bridge from where I had a direct view of a tall fountain in the middle of a serene pond with a leafy tree line as its backdrop, spraying water high into the air.
“You see that picture. . . it was designed to be a paradise ideal and nature has been conquered for human splendour with man as the sole animal in it.”
Indeed, it was getting harder to distinguish between what was natural and what was artificial. The Netherlands is a waterproofed country and it is easy to forget that most of the country lies below sea level. It is a country that conquered the waters after a long struggle against nature and 17 per cent of the country’s landmass is reclaimed from the sea.
This is why “God created the earth but the Dutch made the Netherlands’’ is a well turned phrase.
In an effort to know my neighbourhood and meet the locals, I joined the Knotgroep of Uithoorn, green volunteer effort that operates in a municipality on the outskirts of Amsterdam. The group of volunteers are all Dutch pensioners with an average age of 60, and there are as many men as there are women. As I park my bicycle, I receive a series of hoi, Dutch for hi, pronounced with much emphasis.
After a briefing by the group leader, the pitchforks and rakes are distributed and we walk to a privately-owned polder that is used as a paddock on the border of a small lake called Zijdelmeer. Mown grass is strewn all over the paddock. The ground underneath the soaked grass is wet and I can smell manure. Our task is to pile the cut grass into haystacks. The work takes effort and jackets are soon thrown off. Why do they subject these senior citizens to such strenuous work?
I ask why this work is not done by machine given that the Dutch have a machine solution for every task to be done in nature. I am informed that the stacks of grass we are preparing are nesting places where small harmless snakes can hatch and thrive. It also leaves room on the ground for wild cranberries to grow. Such delicate work, necessary to balance the ecosystem, can only be done by hand.
The group continues to work silently and meticulously, and then suddenly, excited voices come from one end. We gather around to find out the cause of all the excitement.
Someone has found a frog.
I am puzzled so I turn to my group leader, a tall Dutch man called Bill.
“Why are we getting excited about finding an amphibian in nature?”
‘’We don’t have frogs here anymore,’’ and he recounts the story of his youth and of a time when nights were filled with a cacophony of croaking. But since the arrival of the red swamp crayfish, an invasive species that feeds on aquatic plant and animal life, the nights have gone silent.
It then occurs to me that for all the canals that surround the neighbourhoods, I never hear any frogs croaking at night.
‘’We are just trying to bring back nature.”
I want to tell Bill about the irony of Nairobi, the former Green City in the Sun that has declared war on trees in an effort to modernise its infrastructure while Amsterdam seeks to return to its natural past and where trees are valued as sites of memory. But I don’t voice my thoughts.
Breast Cancer: The Weight of Waiting
My battle with breast cancer has taught me two things. How to be afraid and how to wait.
My birthday is flamboyantly controversial. My parents are sure they brought me into the world on the 7th of June thirty years ago but the government of Kenya decided that I was born six days earlier, on June the 1st, and my official documents say so. That is why my fellow nurses at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh threw a surprise birthday party for me on the 1st. Just after the breast cancer diagnosis. But they do not know about the diagnosis. They need to wait.
It is 11h03 British Summertime (13h03 EAT). I am not thinking how wonderful it is that I was born. I am worried that I might die. I am in the waiting bay at the Edinburgh Breast Unit of the Western General Hospital. Last week I was told I had breast cancer, but nobody could confirm the stage and grade yet. I was asked to wait for the results of the fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy.
An FNA happens when doctors want to get slivers of tissue from an organ or a mass to find out what type of cells the organ has. Or, simply put, to study that organ in finer detail. When I came here last week, they sedated my left breast then asked me to wait as the anaesthetic knocked my boob out. Then the specialized therapist took out bits and pieces of the swelling inside my breast. A clinical support worker applied pressure on my breast to stop the bleeding. Then I was told to wait.
I seem to be doing a lot of that lately, waiting. I am waiting in this bay for my 11h15 appointment with Mr J., my breast cancer surgeon. I arrived fifteen minutes ago. I forgot my appointment card at home. The medical receptionists do not seem to mind. This is a cancer unit. There are more worrying things than forgotten appointment cards.
There are a few of us here. I can count ten women and two men. Both men brought their spouses. One is in a purple and white checked shirt, and he seems uninterested in his wife’s conversation. The checked shirt has caught my attention. It is a pattern favoured by men from central Kenya. All he needs is the signature baseball cap that Kikuyu men wear and he could be a Kamau or Njoroge. He is playing some game on his iPad as he nods absent-mindedly to whatever his wife is saying.
Most of us are on our gadgets. There is an unspoken sense of apprehension. We choose to speak to our phones and not each other. We want to cling to a sense of normalcy. For the current generation, normal comes in a small box with a keypad, a camera and attention deficit. We have no idea how to speak to real human beings.
People keep streaming in, more women than men. Breast cancer is more common in women than in men. I see it here. More women come in. The seats are now all occupied, and I give mine up for an elderly woman who has just come in, huffing and puffing on her walking frame. Dear God, I think to myself, just how common is breast cancer here in Edinburgh?
There are women from all walks of life here. I see a Chinese woman, or Korean, I can never tell the difference. Another is Filipino; I know because she has just answered her phone in Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines. Several of the women are Caucasian. I am the only black girl in the waiting area.
Where are the black people in this waiting bay? Did they come in yesterday? Perhaps they will come tomorrow? Why am I the only African in this waiting area? Probably Mr J. will tell me that he has made a very big mistake and that there is no cancer in my left breast. It could be that I should not be here. In fact, since I began this cancer journey not once have I met an African.
A bespectacled doctor has called in a Mrs Frame. Mrs. Frame is the woman I gave my seat to. She is using a tripod frame to walk. I see a pun here and I think it is funny. But this is a cancer department. We don’t laugh here. But I feel a smile take form on my lips. Thankfully, the face mask I am wearing hides my amusement.
There is a six-foot-tall woman near the exit of the waiting bay. The waiting bay has an entry and an exit. We come in through the entry where the medical receptionist is perched on her chair like a patient mother hen and we leave the bay through the exit when we are called in to see the doctor.
There is a water dispenser near the exit. The tall woman looks young. Thirty-something young-ish. Her presence gives me hope. That I am not the only young woman here. She moves restlessly on her lanky, sun-kissed legs. She is wearing a pair of booty shorts because the summer sun is here with us. She keeps tossing her mass of bronze of hair as she scrolls through her phone like someone looking for social media notifications.
It is like we are all keeping her from more important things in her extremely busy life. She looks like she will make a run for it. I cannot blame her. I too would run. If I could run fast enough to escape a breast cancer diagnosis, I would. She is pacing. A sure sign of anxiety. I am tempted to either join her or stop her. I too would rather be anywhere else but here. I need to be with my dialysis patients. I want to continue being a nurse, not this patient waiting in this lounge.
Two clinical support workers enter the bay, sweeping it with their roving eyes as if looking for someone or something. Then they leave. I do not like this. I wish they would speak. Which reminds me of my own practice as a nurse. How often I go to the waiting lounge at the dialysis centre where I work, use my eyes to scan the area then leave quietly. I make a mental note to change that. I will be engaging the patients and the waiting relatives. I will even be telling them that I am just looking for someone, or something. The silent eye-scan is unsettling.
As if on a surgically precise cue, one of them pops back in and asks if the room is too hot. A middle-aged woman in an unremarkable pair of jeans says the room is hot. The clinical support worker promises to turn the thermostat a degree or two lower. I do not care about the temperature. I care that she has spoken to us. That we are not just waiting slots but real human beings with varying repertoires of cancerous anxieties.
For a moment I feel sleepy. I have been writing on my smartphone to keep myself occupied. I am exhausted. I have not slept well since they gave me the diagnosis a week ago. My nights have been screaming terror and yet, in the noise, God has been roaring. He gave me pen and paper. I have been using them to bleed out my fears. But now I need my bed. It is way past my appointment time, which is not surprising given how thorough these specialists are.
“Miss Meina,” a familiar voice pierces through the silence. I quickly put my phone in my purse and stand up. It is Mr. J, my breast surgeon. He cannot pronounce my surname properly, and he calls me “Meina” like many white people do. I do not mind. As long as they spell it correctly.
After profuse apologies for keeping me waiting, Mr J. starts breaking things down.
“We are lucky that the Stage is confirmed to be 1 and the tumour is in grade. . .” he starts. Nurse A, the breast cancer nurse assigned to me, joins us in the consulting room.
“We will need to run more tests to determine the best form of surgery to remove the tumour. Have you ever heard of gene mutation?”
Everyone has BReast Cancer (BRCA) genes. There are two types, BRCA 1 and BRCA2. These genes are protective in that they stop the cells of the breast from growing out of control. Sometimes we inherit faulty ones. Or something in our environment causes them to change and mutate. This places us at risk of developing breast cancer. Even then, only 5 per cent of all diagnosed breast cancer cases are due to a faulty gene.
“If we find faulty genes Catherine, we might have to start thinking about double mastectomy with breast reconstruction.” Mr J. says matter-of-factly. Sweet King David and the choir of heaven! Did he just say total removal of both breasts at thirty? What exactly are you telling me? What about the children I hope to bear someday? What about my dreams of motherhood? Could this disease have come at a worse time? An unwanted boob job? I am not ready for this conversation.
I stand up and head for the sink in the room. I am torn between vomiting and screaming. I settle for crying. The tears, hot, bitter, angry tears roll down my face. I don’t bother to wipe them away.
Mr J. rubs my back as Nurse A hands me tissues to blow my nose. More blood samples are taken for these complicated tests. I cry some more. Now I have to wait for the results of these tests. The waiting never ends. The fear of the unknown creeps up to me like a menacing nightclub bouncer.
My battle with breast cancer has taught me two things. How to be afraid and how to wait. I do not lock out my fears. I invite them in, make them a cuppa tea and then use my fork to poke them in the eyes. I no longer wait while doing nothing. Doing nothing is the chief ingredient in the meal of overthinking. I wait while writing and praying. I wait while reading and researching. I wait, ultimately, while clinging onto the hope that the God of the mountain is still God in the valley. Afraid and tired, I wait.
Politics2 weeks ago
Vitu Kwa Ground ni Different! Anticipations, not Policy, Driving LAPSSET
Op-Eds2 weeks ago
Fighting the Good Fight: Announcing the Progressive International Observatory
Culture1 week ago
The Politics of Street Names
Reflections1 week ago
The Hidden Lives of the Trees of Amsterdam
Op-Eds1 week ago
I Am Samuel
Culture1 week ago
The Case for Reparations and Revisiting Colonial Atrocities
Reflections1 week ago
Breast Cancer: The Weight of Waiting
Politics1 week ago
Born Cattle Bandits? Not Us