THE FACE OF CORONA: Les Misérables, Non-Believers and Daily Last Supper

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Makongeni-Thika, Sunday, March 22, 2020

A young man asks the Neo Kenya bus conductor if he has water for washing hands for passengers. He replies that where he comes from, they only wash hands to eat and he does not have food in the bus. They laugh it off. A woman with a kid appears, the conductor rushes, helps the woman by carrying the kid, holding him with bare hands. There is no bother, there is no mention of hygiene, and passengers do not feel there is anything wrong.

A discussion in the Matatu ensues and everyone is asking what the government expects people to eat.  It makes sense because most people come from the ghettos near Landless, a place named after lack, where people converge in the evening and brave destitution after working for peanuts in the Mhindi companies around the area. It does not matter whether they were making soap for Bidco or refining Pearl rice, popular with the Middle Class.

Corona is just an additional file to their suffrage, and they cannot let it stand on their way to their first meal of the day, that comes at 8:00 p.m. before their bodies give way to weariness. Sunday comes and they wear clean clothes, wash their kids and if they are lucky to have a husband—and luckier, if a sober one—they walk in a small crowd to a noisy, mostly a mabati church to confront God.

And I know this because I have attended these churches, and I have asked for help, and for hope from them. I have seen women pray angrily in tongues and my small lingual experience told me they were not begging God, they were asking hard questions, difficult questions on why he had let their situation stink so bad.

For the first time, the face of the woman confronting God, is the face of earth, is the “Face of Corona”.

Presidents with piles of ego and history of using force have stood helpless. Some have asked their citizens to wash hands and stay home, not because they knew whether that was the right thing to do, but because they do not have anything to say, their aides are scared and angry and helpless, just like a woman with three kids and a terminally inebriated husband asking her God why he allowed things to get this bad. One president in Africa told people to stay home and he will provide internet, just like the pastor at Wonders Tabernacle who tells worshippers to give, and they will be blessed.

I have seen women pray angrily in tongues and my small lingual experience told me they were not begging God, they were asking hard questions, difficult questions on why he had let their situation stink so bad.

Kitengela, Main Bus Stage, Saturday, April 25,  2020

A tout hangs perilously on a poorly driven Manyanga bus as it makes an entrance in the main bus stop. He is definitely high on something, like any tout in Kenya, like the one who said he does not have food to serve his passengers and he has no reason to wash their hands. He is clad in tight blue jeans with patches of soil and a grey t-shirt that has seen better days. As he hangs off the door the wind blows him such that his t-shirt forms a balloon and the best bet is that he is 23 and the last time he took a proper 8-hour sleep was in 2015 after sitting for his form four exams. He does not look like he has been rained on lately, or even taken a shower.

He is shouting; “The Shit is Real”. He does that four times. Then shouts, “Ronah is Real”. It is a few minutes to the Presidential Address on economic adjustments to deal with Covid-19 and the on-duty government hero, the CS for Health, had announced the previous day that the cases were piling up. The way the tout announces that “The Shit is Real” you would think that the other makangas gathered on the bus stop depend on him for news. There is a way that he says is that makes me like him, because I am a big fan of repetition for news.

And that is because Kenyans cannot keep a social distance, not because they don’t understand why they should, but because a majority of them stay in places where, in the first place, they are forced to live too close to each other more than they like.

The way he said “The Shit is Real” so many times reminded me of my friend, let’s call him Joe because this is a true story. We were living in some ramshackle of a ghetto crib during one of those pockets of breaks during college where, at 20, you felt too big to go back to the village but then, yet, and nyet, the city had not given you a welcome hug. Joe came home and told me that our mutual friend, we will call him Mureithi because it is a true story, had married.

Life was hard and we were vulnerable and poor. We slept hungry a few times but Joe and Mureithi never slept sober because the ghetto has a few things. One is friends, you will always have friends in the ghetto, a minimum of five friends who make a happy face when they see you, whatever happiness means in the ghetto. Two, drugs, because drugs are the engine oil for young men in the ghetto. Getting high is the first verse in the book of survival. Three, loneliness. The ghetto is a lonely place in a crowd. It is a place where you are four men stay in a small cubicle and yet you feel like you are alive and dead. You are depressed and you can’t say, because, who isn’t?

The “funny” in the news that Mureithi had married is that he didn’t have a place to stay and, also, we had never seen him with a woman. The ghetto is not a place where men are seen with women, because women can be over-aspirational, sometimes stupidly so, and they like taking showers and putting beautiful profile pictures on the internet to catch rich men driving Range Rovers and Prados. If they cannot get those, they settle for the likes of Kelvin and Bryan who can only send one-way fare. And because experience is a good teacher, of course not always the best, they use the fare for food.

The idea of a homeless man getting married, without a decent job or even the ability to feed himself three times a week is what made Joe a news, and the repetition, catch my attention. The tout reminded me about Joe and Mureithi in the way he broke the news that corona is real. And by doing that, he also captured the picture of the health CS, Mutahi Kagwe.

Every time the CS talks about masks, quarantine, sanitation, and social distancing, I think about him like a man who gets married even when he cannot feed himself thrice a week. Yes, you can understand his decisions at an ethical, human, and even primal level. But you can’t just put one plus two together with three. Every time you wake up you will want to know the progress of the marriage. Are they still together? Has he slept sober, for once?

And that is because Kenyans cannot keep a social distance, not because they don’t understand why they should, but because a majority of them stay in places where, in the first place, they are forced to live too close to each other more than they like. Not because they are in love, (if anything intimacy is a foreign word) or uphold Christian values, but because the urban-dwelling places were planned by an ex-prison guard who knew how to cram people like potatoes.

The “Face of Fighting Corona” in Kenya is that of a destitute Kenyan trying to become a man in a country that does not care. Trying to get married in a place that does not belong to him. Trying to fight coronavirus in a country that does not have formal housing or even-numbered housing for easy identification of dwellers. It is fighting a disease using the tactics of a buffalo that never has the patience to go around the bush, instead, choosing to plough through it.

It is trying to fight a disease using systems that have been robbed dry by people who, like the woman we talked about earlier, find themselves helpless, all of a sudden, as there is a disease that they can’t do anything about with their money war-chests.

It is trying to tell people to stay at home in a city where 80% of residents don’t have enough savings for their next two meals. I made up that statistic but I swear it is not far off the truth, because I have been around and I have seen people live on the wire.

Athi River, Wednesday,  May 20, 2020

The list of people asking for help in my inbox is starting to become overwhelming and I cannot keep up. Some get a priority, like the regular “Mama Fua”. Work hasn’t been much during the corona period, first, because I was afraid of having an external contact coming to the house from time to time, and second, just like everyone, having more people in the house on a full-time basis meant the duties can be handled without external help.

On May 20, though, I asked her to come and give a hand because she needed the money. For the first time, I engaged her in chit-chat, like, “How are you doing?”, “How is everything?”. She told me her husband had traveled to Mombasa for some short job and he got locked down, down there. He doesn’t earn much because there is no work, too, and also because he has to stay alive.

Lockdown and social distancing are good because they are meant to protect people from the pandemic. But in the case of Kenya the lockdowns have been working against the poor and impoverished. Rich people and their middle-class workers can pay the 500 bob that the policemen have been asking at the entry-points, but being poor is being unable to buy your freedom, even when you just want the freedom to meet your family, to hug your children, or to look for Unga for them.

The positive part of the first half of May 2020 is that many businesses started opening their doors to clients and that was a small injection into an economy that was feeling the pain. Still, people are sleeping hungry, eating their last meal every day, and hoping that some good Samaritan will send them the 200 bob needed to subscribe to life for another day.

(The Essay is Part of Coronavirus Series for Nairobi Cool. The next article will focus on government policy and Corona. Subscribe or Follow us on Facebook for more eye-popping analysis)

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