The unforeseen threat
Many of Nairobi's apocalypse merchants and prophesy peddlers have disappeared in the past year. Reflections on how COVID-19 has re-shaped the city and residents' lives.
A year after COVID-19 was officially declared a crisis by the Chinese government in Wuhan Province, I traveled to Moi Ndabi on Christmas eve 2019, a fast-growing trading center 40 kilometers from Naivasha town and 140 kilometers northwest of Nairobi. The area is mainly populated by the Maasai people and migrant Kikuyus. I arrived in the sweltering heat of midday, my light blue surgical mask in place. It was the first thing that my hosts and the people at the trading centre noticed. “You people from Nairobi are the ones bringing this corona to us,” one of my hosts, Silvanus Kaamamia said, only half in jest.
“Can you see anybody wearing those things here? Here in Moi Ndabi there’s no corona, this is a foreign disease. It is a white man’s disease and we don’t believe it can infect a black man.” It was as if my mask had suddenly reminded the Moi Ndabi dwellers of the pandemic.
Kaamamia is the archetypal Maasai man. He once lived in the forest with other morans before being conscripted into the Kenya Army where he trained as a tank commander. “I’ve not worn any mask,” said Kaamamia, “nobody wears them here. They are not even sold in the shops.” A cursory stroll around the centre proved him right—no one wore a mask and no shop stocked them. I was the “sick man of Moi Ndabi” walking around with my nose and mouth covered.
The ex-army man told me that the coronavirus is an alien disease of the rich: “I’m yet to meet anyone who knows anybody who has died of the disease. Yes, I have been watching the television which has narrated how the devastating disease has invaded the white people in Europe and America. The white people are weak, their body immune system cannot withstand even the slightest of a feverish attack.”
“What about the black people who have been felled by the disease, including Kenyans?” I asked him. “They had taken to the modern western lifestyle and heavily relied on western medicine,” he replied.
Kaamamia said he could not remember being hospitalized or even swallowing any antibiotics since coming of age: “When you live in the forests, you are taught to identify all the cultural and traditional medicinal plants that one can always rely on if sick. Forget about these pharmaceutical drugs, they are all toxic.” Kaamamia said he had already gathered some herbal plants which he had mixed and boiled for his family and friends. Ole tarmunyo is a bitter, stinging concoction, which can be taken at any time of the day by men, women, and children alike.
Kaamamia’s wife, a university graduate and a teacher who is currently breastfeeding, takes a dose of ole tarmunyo every day. “The concoction is so effective that simple ailments like fever and fatigue are kept at bay, because the medicine bolsters your immunity and clears off toxicants from the body,” said the teacher. “It is the ultimate detox drink.” Taken for the first time, it can easily knock you out.
Kaamamia’s first cousin Jacob Letoya—a feisty, fast talking lanky fellow aged 32-years-old who looks like he has just turned 27—had recently been down with fever. “I couldn’t tell what it was, I felt weak in the joints, like I’d caught malaria, I couldn’t eat meat, it felt tasteless, my body felt tired. What was that? Don’t tell me it was coronavirus. No real Maasai man can get this crazy disease. Anyhow, I called Kaamamia who ferried ole tarmunyo in a gallon to my house where I lay motionless.” Letoya lives a kilometer away from his cousin.
The following day, Letoya said, he was back to his usual self—as fleet of foot and as sprightly as an antelope. “The fever was all gone. You can never go wrong with our time-tested traditional medicine. As you people wait for the vaccine to come from abroad, which will be sold to you like gold by the thieving politicians even though they’ll have been given to distribute freely to the masses, we, we already have our own vaccine. I recommend you take a gallon full of ole tarmunyo back to Nairobi, I promise you, you won’t even be wearing that thing.”
On March 3, the first batch of one million AstraZeneca vaccines arrived in Nairobi under the COVAX program. COVAX is a global collaborative initiative driven by the World Health Organization (WHO) to ensure that even the poorest countries that cannot afford the vaccine have access to it.
In Nairobi, the pandemic has led the urbanites to rediscover the value of garlic, ginger, and lemon and they have been mixing their own concoctions with these ingredients to fend off the disease, with the result that the price of lemons has shot up and remains high. A lemon that used to cost KSh5 pre-pandemic is retailing at KSh20 today. Many Nairobians have been religiously drinking this concoction morning and night so business is brisk for garlic, ginger, and lemon merchants even as dispensing chemists have seen a spike in the number of people trooping in to stock up on antibiotics.
As life in Moi Ndabi went on oblivious to this pandemic that is ravaging humanity, Nairobi County, where I had been in lockdown for close to ten months, was already showing signs of “pandemic fatigue.” Pandemic fatigue has been described by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “demotivation to follow recommended protective behaviors, emerging gradually over time and affected by a number of emotions, experiences and perceptions.”
In a report titled Pandemic Fatigue—Reinvigorating the Public to Prevent COVID-19 published in August 2020, the WHO further states, “At the beginning of a crisis, most people are able to tap into their surge capacity—a collection of mental and physical adaptive systems that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations. However, when dire circumstances drag on, they have to adopt a different style of coping, and fatigue and demotivation may be the result.”
Nairobians have been breaking critical pandemic rules: they are not maintaining social distancing in the crowded fruit and vegetable markets, at the matatu stops, in the pubs or in other social gatherings. The temperature gun has become a gadget to be casually pointed at customers entering office buildings, restaurants, schools, and supermarkets. In many government buildings security does not even bother to pretend to take your temperature. Water dispensers at government buildings are more often than not either broken or simply not available. A friend recently told me bluntly: “Coronavirus is over, what’s your problem?”
Even masks have been discarded and many just hang them around their necks to avoid harassment from the police. At Marigiti Market, which I frequent often, I asked my friend Morgan Njeri, a fruit vendor, why she had taken off her mask. Her reply was curt and precise: “I’m tired of this thing, I’ll not continue covering my face forever. Masks are for oldies like you, and the rich. Look around here, do you see anybody wearing any mask? What for? We don’t board planes and we don’t live in the leafy suburbs.”
But panic swept through Githurai Market after the deadly disease claimed the lives of more than ten men between March 13 and October 2020. “The men were all veterans of the market, and they succumbed one after the other,” said a market woman. Their deaths were hushed up among the market traders, said the vendor. “People have dismissed COVID-19 as a scare disease, one that would hardly find its way to Githurai. I mean how? Then we heard so-and-so was down with a terrible fever and the next thing he was was gone, just like that. Then another and another and people were now really scared.” The fruit vendor said that the men were hastily buried in their rural homes, eerily clothed in polythene suits.
“I wear this thing because of the police,” said Njoroge, a friend of mine who works as a tout on the Nairobi-Kikuyu route. Once we reached Kangemi, he yanked off his mask and threw it away. “We’ve become slaves to these things, it hinders my work, I feel hot around the face, it’s just tiring. I hate it.”
The police have found a new lucrative line of extortion. If they catch you not wearing your mask properly, they pounce on you and demand KSh500. Five hundred bob is the bribe you must surrender to a predatory policeman or policewoman.
Although many of the 33-seater matatus have had their seats re-arranged to accommodate the social distancing rule, the reality is that no one really cares about social distancing. While during the day many matatus may indeed enforce physical distancing of just about a meter between passengers, in the evenings and at night all caution is thrown out of the window.
Travelling in a matatu to Kiambaa one evening in the thick of the pandemic lockdown, I asked the conductor why he was not afraid of being arrested for carrying a matatu that was full to capacity:
You boarded at the terminus, did you hear any passenger complain? They all want to go home, pay a fairer price and beat the curfew. If you want to observe social distancing, you’re free to hail an Uber. Wear your mask if you must, who really knows whether this COVID-19 exists or not. Personally, I’m very sceptical that it exists. But what do I know and what do I care? The police? For all they care, COVID-19 is a boon for them to make hay while the sun shines. At the roadblock, they’ll stop us, and you watch, I’ll come out, a one hundred shilling note folded in my hand, we’ll exchange pleasantries and they’ll wave us on, another day, another ritual and life goes on.
The Kabete Police Station roadblock, which used to be erected just outside the station, was considered one of the most notorious in the country. It has since been removed. Oblivious of the public, the police would openly solicit and collect bribes day and night from matatus, private vehicles, and lorries. “The advent of the pandemic had emboldened the Kabete cops to harass the motorists, more so the matatus because of their vulnerability and familiarity with the police officers.”
“All they needed to do is accuse a matatu of not observing social distancing, accuse a motorist of carrying ‘excess’ passengers and everything else fell into place; they collected more and more bribes until they started boasting about it,” said a matatu Sacco boss. The powerful matatu bosses of the Nairobi-Kikuyu-Kiambaa route came together and complained to authorities higher up: if something was not done about the roadblock, they were going to ground their vehicles.
The coronavirus crisis has created a new revenue stream for the famously money-hungry Kenyan police and many have minted a fortune out of the pandemic. Last December some police officers from the Kikuyu Police Station came up with an invidious scheme—they stalked shoppers at a Zambezi Centre supermarket and arrested all those who were not wearing masks or were hanging them around their necks. Some waited for shoppers outside the supermarket. Threatened with the public embarrassment of being hauled off to the police station, many women shoppers quickly parted with KSh500 or more.
“That’s why these people never end well,” one woman who had fallen victim said to me. “Imagine there are some women who parted with half of their money. Every calamity has its own beneficiaries. At the top government echelons, coronavirus has been a blessing in disguise—some state bureaucrats have minted millions of shillings and their greatest prayer is: if only this thing could continue. The police have taken the cue and they are not to be left behind in the latest scheme to defraud the public.”
The coronavirus pandemic came as a shock to Kenyans: none had ever experienced an epidemic of global proportions so they assumed it was a whirlwind that would soon dissipate. The management of a private hospital in Nairobi decided to test all its staff for coronavirus. “Staffers were turning positive by the numbers,” confided a dispensing chemist stationed at the hospital. “In the finance department, human resources, nurses, consultant physicians and even pharmacists, all were tested. The management had neither anticipated the outcome nor prepared for the shock. The hospital immediately stopped the testing and forbade staff from talking about the exercise. The management reasoned that if a critical number of the staffers were quarantined, the hospital would grind to a halt because there would be no one to run it.”
A year later, the coronavirus has wreaked havoc everywhere: “I’m not talking to my husband,” one friend said to me in July. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him.” What was “wrong with him” was that he had lost his job and with his source of money gone, he could no longer support his young family and it now fell on his wife to take on most of the financial responsibilities. Unaccustomed to being the sole provider for the family, the added financial responsibilities were weighing her down. “He doesn’t even leave the house. Why can’t he take a stroll like other men?”
Another told me she had separated from her husband. “I couldn’t take it anymore,” she said. What she “couldn’t take anymore”, was the fact that he could not now bring any bacon home “but he still wanted to be treated like the boss of the house”. “If you want to be king, let your actions prove it—don’t depend on your wife to prop up your bossy life.” She accused her husband of “bumming” around the house, “ordering everybody and waiting to be served.”
I asked my friend Eric why he was drinking on a weekday and at midday. I had met him in a mutual friend’s office. “I’m cooling off, can’t you feel the heat?” I did not immediately get the irony. Eric had lost his job and his wife, he told me, had become intolerable: “Every other day we are just picking quarrels. I don’t know where all these quarrels are coming from suddenly. I no longer want to stay in that house. I don’t even eat in that house nowadays. When I enter, I go straight to the bedroom and doze off.” The “heat” in the house, ostensibly caused by his wife, had driven him out.
Yet another friend shared with me how working from home has caused a lot of friction and grief between him and his wife: “I’m now having my Zoom meetings in restaurants; I’ve left the house to her. This COVID-19 crisis seems to have given her an excuse to transplant her office in the house. She will not do anything because she’s at the “office” working.”
Even people who have been married a long time have not been spared. “My husband has relocated to shags [rural area]. It seems Nairobi had become too much for him,” said a friend I have known for 35 years. She did not want to divulge much about the husband whom I have known for just as long. “He now wants to spend more and more time with his mother, more than anything else…” I could sense something was I amiss but I could not put my finger on it.
The arrival of the pandemic in Kenya has also exposed how some expatriates relate to Kenyans. My friend Otis, who works with a Chinese construction company, China Wu Yi, told me how in the middle of the raging coronavirus crisis, the Chinese staff at the company’s Kikuyu Town offices treated them like lepers. “They cautioned we Kenyans not to get anywhere near them. They barricaded themselves in the offices. They barked orders from afar and if they needed to pass on something to us the local team, they threw whatever it was at us. The Chinese staff claimed that we could pass coronavirus to them,” said Otis, who operates heavy machinery.
In the period between March 13, 2020—when the government declared a quasi-lockdown in the country—and the arrival of the vaccines on March 3, 2021, COVID-19 had claimed its fair share of victims, among them people I had interacted with.
One such coronavirus victim was politician Joe Nyagah, a man I had come to know in his later years. Three weeks before his sudden death on December 11, 2020, I had been with Joe at his house in Nairobi where we spent the entire afternoon talking nothing else but raw politics, of course. Joe took every caution that a man of his age would take; whenever he was in Nairobi he walked regularly around his huge courtyard, he ate light and his hygiene regimen was impeccable. Joe was a spirited soul; he laughed often and regaled one with stories from his life in the corporate world, as a diplomat and of course as a canny politician. You could be a careful Joe, but coronavirus is no respecter of age, agility, or ambition.
The pandemic picks its victims from all ethnicities and all races, and does not discriminate along gender lines. My friend Hanif Adam, a Kenyan of Asian descent, told me how the coronavirus has caused havoc in the Asian community, with infections initially occurring at weddings. “Since then weddings have become no-go zones for [rich] Asians. Important as they are to our community, I’ve also stopped attending weddings: it doesn’t matter whether it is the wedding of my closest relative, social distancing notwithstanding.”
In the one year that the coronavirus has wrought havoc here and abroad, threats of Armageddon and rapture have suddenly disappeared from the incantations of the self-anointed and self-appointed apostles, bishops, evangelists, exorcists, ministers, pastors, prophets, spiritualists, and soothsayers. What happened? COVID-19 has exposed the hollowness of these miracle merchants and prophesy peddlers. By a twist of fate, God had not forewarned or revealed to them the great calamity that was coming and that was going to create such apocalyptic anxieties.
Even when it came, they still could not decipher the meaning of the strange disease, the anxieties it was creating among their flock and what it portended for the future of humanity. The self-styled evangelical preachers who are used to “performing miracles” at crusades and holy sanctuaries could neither perform nor preach, whether privately or publicly. Fearing they would be victims of a modern pandemic themselves, the preachers went underground and secretly sought medical care from established private healthcare facilities as they abandoned their flock. They are yet to resurface. To use a cliché, it was everybody for themselves and God for us all.