Not so many years ago, a friend of mine died of ovarian cancer. I’m not old. Neither was she. She was in her early twenties. Cancer is not just affecting the elderly; it is also taking our youth. From her ovaries, the cancer spread to other organs in her body and she passed on.
This story is becoming commonplace not just here in Kenya but the world over. According to the ministry of public health and sanitation and the ministry of medical services’ national cancer control strategy 2011 – 2016, cancer ranks as the third cause of death in Kenya. It comes in third place after infectious and cardiovascular diseases. The annual incidence of cancer stands at an estimated 28,000 cases with annual mortality at 22,000. My friend Esther and former "N-Soko Property Show" (it airs on Nation TV) presenter Janet Kanini Ikua diagnosed with stage four lung cancer this year reverberate this statistic. Early this November, a concert was held for Mrs. Ikua to raise funds for her treatment. In her case, the cancer has spread from the primary lung site into her lymph nodes. Why is cancer becoming so prevalent?
There are over 100 types of cancer. Cancers are categorized into groups according to the type of cell they start from. The five main cancer groups are carcinomas, lymphomas, leukaemias, brain tumors and sarcomas. Cancer is characterized by abnormal cell growth; abnormal cells divide in an uncontrolled way and may spread into other tissues. Normally, cells grow and divide to form new cells as one’s body requires. If cells grow old or become damaged, they die, and new ones take their place. With cancer this orderly process is destroyed. Old or damaged cells do not die and new cells are formed when they are not needed. These extra cells then divide without stopping and may form growths called tumors. A cancerous tumor is malignant. This means it can spread into or invade nearby tissues. If a tumor is benign, it will not spread into or invade nearby tissues.
The American National Cancer Institute (NCI) tells that cancer is a genetic disease. It arises when there are changes to genes that control the way our cells function and more specifically how they grow and divide. The genetic changes that cause cancer may be inherited. They can, in addition, surface during one’s lifetime as a result of errors that occur as cells divide or because of damage to DNA caused by certain environmental exposures. Cancer causing environmental exposures comprise substances such as the chemicals in tobacco smoke and radiation such as ultraviolet rays from the sun. Other risk factors for cancer include excessive alcohol intake, physical inactivity and obesity, unhealthy diet, environmental pollution, viral and other infectious conditions such as hepatitis and HIV/ AIDs, parasitic infestations such as schistosomiasis and sometimes lack of awareness here in Kenya especially at the grassroots level. These are some of the reasons why cancer has become so common even amongst the younger generation.
The principal reason for the increased risk of getting cancer today as opposed to thirty or forty years ago however ties back to age. With the life expectancy of populations increasing so have cancer rates. The longer one lives, the longer the room for cancer causing errors to build up within cells. The other principal reason for increased prevalence is that more sophisticated equipment has become available to detect cancer. In other words our ability to detect cancer has increased and so cases which were previously undiagnosed are now adding to the statistics.
For public figure Janet Ikua, her diagnosis began as deep vein thrombosis (DVT). In an interview on Nation TV’s The Trend, she also tells that her father was diagnosed with lung cancer stage four almost eight years ago. When first diagnosed she was shocked and thought she might have less than a year to live. Her faith in God keeps her strong through this battle and her husband had to play the dual role of mother and father while she was in India for treatment she told the interviewer. She encourages others on social network site Facebook and believes that you shouldn’t let disease define you rather learn from it and let it strengthen you. As a wife and mother she has drawn inspiration from the fact that her husband and children need her.
Key to warding off cancer is early diagnosis. Cervical cancer which is the number one cause of cancer deaths in Kenyan women would no longer be a death sentence if it is diagnosed early. Diagnosis can be done through a pap smear test. Some women do not go for this test because of lack of awareness about it while others may think the recommendation to have one done regularly once you have been sexually active is irrelevant. Second to this is leading a healthy lifestyle. This involves eating a healthy balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, consuming less alcohol, avoiding smoking (tobacco control) and protecting one’s skin from the sun. In Kenya, non-adherence to a healthy lifestyle may be attributed to a growing middle class; with more money available people are, for example, indulging in more alcohol. Although the correlation between eating certain foods and the prevention of cancer can be arguable, research has shown that indulging in fruits and vegetables, starchy foods, meat, fish, eggs, beans, milk and a small amount of foods and drinks high in fat or sugars whether cake, crisps or biscuit can lower one’s risk of developing cancer.
The control of environmental exposure to carcinogens which are chemicals that account for 1-4 percent of all cancers is yet another method of prevention. Exposure to these chemicals within the environment may occur through drinking water or pollution of indoor ambient air as noted by the Kenya National Cancer Control Strategy. Exposure occurs when food and water are contaminated by chemicals such as aflatoxins, dioxins and asbestos. Simple practices take for instance ensuring that food and water are covered or out of the way of exposure from these chemicals are encouraged. Work related exposure to substances like asbestos can be prevented through the use of protective equipment such as face masks. Other preventive devices for occupational carcinogens include hand gloves, laboratory coats, boots, goggles, ear plugs and respirators. Indoor air pollution from coal (charcoal) fires doubles the risk of lung cancer. The use of coal is very common in third world countries like Kenya especially in rural areas. Alternatives such as the use of solar power and ethanol biofuels should be sought. Prevention of viral and bacterial infections that can cause cancer is another way of warding off this disease. This can be done through vaccination, early detection and treatment of such infections.
The government here in Kenya also needs to come in and give hospitals a boost as far as equipment. Kenyatta National Hospital stands alone where adequate cancer screening equipment is found particularly for its’ children’s cancer ward. Poorly equipped hospitals translate to many cancer patients remaining undiagnosed. Janet Ikua had to go for treatment in India for example because there is no Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan equipment in Kenya because of the expense involved in purchasing this equipment. A PET scan is a diagnostic tool which uses radiation to analyze the entire body at one go. In Kenya there are only ultrasounds, Magnetic Resonance Imaging scans (MRIs) and Computed Tomography scans (CTs) which keep on checking different body parts or areas at a time.
The government can perhaps further move toward subsidizing the cost of drugs for cancer treatment so that more patients can afford such drugs. Mrs. Ikua in her TV interview also advocated for making healthcare more accessible and affordable not just as the onus of the government but others too. “We are capable of so much without kuomba serikali (begging the government),” she advised. More training for doctors in this field is also necessary given low doctor-patient ratio.
Increasing levels of awareness from the grassroots upward can then go a long way in the battle against cancer. Janet mentioned on The Trend that she has realized that many people don’t know about DVT and while in India about cancer and so it is important to share one’s experience. The World Breast Cancer Awareness month held in October is one such excellent initiative. The establishment of the National Cancer Prevention and Control Act in 2012 by the government is another excellent initiative. This act makes Kenya one of the few countries in Africa with legislation for cancer but has not yet been fully implemented. The Act stipulates the establishment of a National Cancer Institute to support the fight against cancer in Kenya.
One day on my way to Nairobi town I witnessed a mob beat and burn a man alive. I suspected he was a thief. I also want to beat and burn a thief alive. That thief is cancer. It is robbing this world of lives mercilessly. It is my hope that this article, in trying to raise awareness, is one member of the mob, stoning ugly cancer to death. Let’s all join together and raise that placard that declares: burn cancer alive!
Seated at my usual spot on the bus, I look up from my book to find the bus conductor staring at me with a semi agitated look. I notice that he’s probably five 5 feet 10, with a stark build and wearing a 5 O’clockshadow. Given that he towers over me, I gather my wits and return the stare with a lift of my brow .It then dawns on me that he had approached me earlier on while I was engaged in Steve R. Covey’s book acquiring tips on seven ways to being successful.
It is clear to him on the source of my divided attention and after handing me my balance; he acknowledges my book and wants to find out whether I am a lecture or something. I lift the book to show him the cover of the book and reply that I am more of a reading enthusiast then he scurries to the next passenger to ask for bus fare.
No sooner had I picked up from where I left off than the bus comes to a standstill. For let’s face it, my read gave me insights into grabbing success and I was not going to give that a pass with frequent checks through the window to ensure I had arrived to my destination. The evident shuffle of feet by the rest of the passengers to alight is a clear sign that I have arrived home. Home. This is neither east nor west but somewhere I feel content, my nest of rest if you like. This had not been the case at first.
The year is 1999 and the duo team comprising of Mr. Googz and Vinnie Banton release a hit about a town situated along Thika Road. I had heard of the place before, an area marred by robbers that came close to rivaling Wacucu and Wanugu, Kenya’s most dreaded criminals of all time. Listening to a bunch of upcoming musicians showering praises to a town which in my view was tainted, I was not convinced.
A few years later, my parents arrived home one day with the good news that they had acquired a piece of land and as perceived in Kenya, owning this type of property guarantees one financial security. The day set to view the place had arrived, as this would be where the family would later set roots.
On arrival, we were greeted by a packed town, people scurrying about with determination etched in their faces. I later came to the realization that that this was a way of life, that despite the difficulties of life they kept hope alive. On the far right corner from where were we stood the market were uncoordinated sounds of people marketing their goods could be heard. In addition, a stench emanated from a nearby heap of garbage, a clear indication of how filthy the town was. It was clear that my first impression of the town had been signed, sealed and delivered that I would never consider this home.
From the market, I take quick steps towards the G-Mart supermarket, the pioneering market in selling ready meals for locals and visitors alike. I look forward to getting my usual kilo of minced meat among other products. Taking a look at the butcher’s section I see Maish, a young man of mid-twenties, with a scruffy look and adorning his trademark hat is seen negotiating with a customer over the price and quantity of meat ordered by a customer. never fails to crack a rib or two as he gets my order.
As I approach him he grins at me and asks, ‘’Niaje Superstar?”(How are you?) .”
Poa sana mzito”(I am great) I reply.
He never fails to crack a rib or two as he gets my order. This has been our opening banter for the past two years since I became his loyal customer. He asks me about my day and I go on and explain a funny story that had happened along Kenyatta Avenue as I walked to work. We chat for a while before three other customers come after which we say our goodbyes.
After grabbing other stuff, I make my payments at the cashier’s and head out for the door. I meet my Church youth coordinator on my way out, exchange a few pleasantries then part. Being a Friday, I head towards Mama Stacey’s to book an appointment with her for the following day. Upon arrival, a wooden seat is set out for me to sit. She goes on attending her present customer as I explain to her the nature of my visit.
There is a trendy hairstyle that I would like for her to achieve with my hair. Upon outlining the intricacies she nods her head with understanding dawning on her face. I admire the progress she’s made on her customer. Since being referred to her by my neighbor, Mama Stacey has worked on my hair, a meticulous hairdresser whose result is a work of art.
Having fulfilled the task at hand, I cannot hide my delight. I picture the comfort that awaits me as I will get to unwind after a day’s work. I walk towards the footpath, making quick steps towards the tarmac road leading home. On the way a ruckus is playing out, with people surrounding a guy at the centre, whom one would confuse for a circus man. He lifts a set of clothing from the medium pile set before him, and he goes ahead and announces the price of each item, the announcements coming out as a sequence of musical notes meant to entice passersby to come closer.
From afar the clothes looked trendy that the fashions icons of our times would approve. After debating with my inner self I decide to bend and sample the goods. I get my hands on a yellow t-shirt from Githurai’s finest fashion trends that have caught my eye. A girl of medium height standing close to me agrees with me that the t-shirt fits me perfectly. I pay the seller for it and walk away making a mental arrangement of how I would match the t-shirt with my floral print skirt bought from another seller settled two meters away from where the first seller was.
Making a mental note to not make another pit stop, I hurriedly rush home to take my much needed rest. A walk of 30 minutes is all that takes to get me to my destination. I come across a group of children: 3 girls and 1 boy jumping rope, sheer joy expressed in their moves as they sing along. Kui, a girl of around four feet with braces on her teeth notices me and alerts the rest.
They all burst into a graceful run eager to approach me and narrate to me the highlights of their day in school. Nancy, the youngest of them all reminds me of her upcoming seventh birthday and I am reminded that I should attend her birthday and come dressed in fairytale dressing akin to Cinderella’s. In unison they run back to their area and resume their game of jumping rope and I proceed to open the main gate.
It dawns on me that I am finally home, that despite the first impression the second one showed me a brighter side (excuse the cliché).It is evident that home is where your heart is content: neither the infrastructure nor other people’s view rather individual conclusion after a holistic approach. Githurai is not east nor west but home.
The shamba boy (a farm hand) had arrived. Or so my mother announced. Shamba boy! Not really. Those skinny jeans and that tightly fitting top; I could name him Gisele Bündchen, after the Brazilian supermodel.
It’s not just him. It’s every other young boy nowadays. Walk through your neighborhood, walk through a shopping complex or mall, walk through the streets of Nairobi and tell me what you see. For some, it extends even to mannerisms. I would have you know that today, a man can carry a purse or a handbag known as a man’s purse or murse, men wear scarves and skirts or kilts yet they are not Scots, they tie their hair in buns or spot dreadlocks plaited in lines and indulge in a vast array of beauty treatments. Boys have become girls!
Bespectacled and busy Annie Mwaniki, an administrative assistant with USAID’s Aphia Plus Project rightly informs that it is the 21st century; men are dressing very freely, as they want to. Young men’s dressing decisions depend on themselves not their parents. We mustn’t forget peer pressure. Boys, young men are looking at their peers in different parts of the world and desire to look like them. They imitate.
Dressed in the standard yellow garb of a parking attendant, average heighted and of lean build, James Leteipa opines that the world is changing and that as long as you are comfortable with what you are wearing, you are good to go.
While Annie has seen feminine fashion items such as piped and skinny jeans on boys, James says sometimes you cannot differentiate a boy’s shoes from his mother’s and I would add his sister’s or girlfriend’s. The colors and appearance are girl like. What does this tell us about society?
I would say that societal values are becoming a tad warped. When a parent can see that his or her boy child is dressed as a girl would and does not put his or her foot down then there is a problem. For James, the reference point is one’s parents as well. For him, society will always judge. As long as one’s parents are fine with what one wears society can be kicked to the curb. The argument is that as Annie puts it, “People dress the way they feel like and according to their personalities.” In other words, people, young men included are free to choose what they want to wear. She reiterates that there is the need to fit in, there is peer pressure and boys find it hip when they dress as their counterparts in the Western world do.
It could then be said that the line between appropriate and inappropriate dressing for young men has become blurred. Good fashion sense is however relative and James states that how you like to dress might not please another. If you are comfortable in your apparel, that is what matters. As a mother, Annie lets her son choose his own style but advocates for decency as far as appropriateness is concerned. Decency should be defined. Both Annie and James think of decency as some of the clothing traditionally ascribed to men; shirts, men’s trousers and men’s shoes. In addition, Annie wouldn’t want her son to have his hair worn long in dreadlocks for example. Clean cut is best.
The metrosexual male defined as a man keen on his appearance and in touch with his feminine side is what young men may claim to be. The term metrosexual is associated with English journalist Mark Simpson who first defined it in a 1994 article for The Independent, a British newspaper. Simpson describes the effect of consumerism and media proliferation specifically the men’s style press on traditional masculinity.
The worry is precisely that, that young men can have problems with their masculine identity when they dress as young women do. Gender identity, how you feel and express your gender is very important. Gender is a social status and gender roles are defined by culture. Kenyan culture is housed in its forty two ethnic groups which affirm traditional masculinity especially where dressing is concerned. Young Kenyan men should be keen on this affirmation.
Moreover, metrosexuality connotes homosexuality for some. Young men should be careful about what they call themselves and the notions they subscribe to. Like gender identity, our sexuality affects who we are and how we express ourselves. Boys shouldn’t only look to the media and friends (peers) as influences for sexuality.
They should also remember their culture and religion. One’s sexual orientation shouldn’t be susceptible to peer pressure. Sexual health comprises our values, our sense of self, our self image and the quality of our relationships. Young men need to have parents and guardians who hold them accountable for their dressing sense.
Perhaps and more specifically when parent is mentioned, the father-son relationship or paradigm can be called upon. Father-son relationships are essential to boys’ development. Despite the generational difference young men may face when it comes to bonding and emulating their fathers, a strong relationship between the two can teach that appropriate dressing especially for men outlives this disparity. The call is for fathers to take on the challenge and guide their sons dressing choices.
And so when young men return to the presented argument that dressing sense is individual and relative, the counter is that no human being lives for themselves. No man is an island. We must be conscious of how our dressing affects others and be sensitive to this. It is part of learning to be a social being. Without rules, norms, society wouldn’t be. When one conforms to the norm, they are building society at large. One shouldn’t just board a band wagon, be part of a crowd. From where I sit, the verdict is: it is commendable for a man to be interested in his appearance but could our boys steer clear of fashion items and accessories that are both traditionally and contemporarily women’s. Call it being fashion conscious, call it metrosexuality. I say: please boys, be boys.
I pat my hair dry and comb it into what I consider to be the most respectable form that I’m ever going to achieve with my unruly hair. However it looks, at least it smells good – of patchouli and citrus fruit – and my shower gel, infused with vanilla, offsets it nicely. I’m clean, and I feel ready to start the day. I’ve even had hot water this morning, so I’m feeling particularly cocooned in a sheath of cleanliness and comforting warmth.
I buckle my sandals and put my bag on my back, waving goodbye to Priscilla, my host’s house girl, and set off for the day of meetings that lay ahead of me, down in the centre of Mwanza town. To begin with my feet float above the dust of the road and I feel sprightly and positive, almost invincible.
Sometimes those first few steps you make out of your front door are the most full of conviction and promise, and today was certainly one of those days. Precious and Mary, who I estimate can’t be older than about 8, wave to me from the other side of the road, heading up the hill towards school, as I head down towards town.
“Good morning, how are you?” They ask, as always, never awaiting a reply, but always just as proud to have asked me the question in their best English, and receive a friendly wave in return. They’re soon out of earshot, their little legs used to the climb and their morning chai giving them the force they need to conquer the hill in youthful speed towards another day of Tanzanian primary school education.
I hold my head up towards the sun, letting my hair fall down my back, and the shadows of the trees lining the road project their natural forms onto my face, making the sun create momentary works of art across my cheeks. The air smells of ‘mandazi’, and I can see the round doughnuts frying in the old lady’s pan further down the street, for young men’s mid-morning snack (for they start work at the crack of dawn, and when my day is just getting started they’re already in need of a break).
Then as I turn in front of the school, the one at the bottom of the hill which is much better appointed than its higher-up competitors where Mary and Precious attend classes, I suddenly find myself retching. I can barely breathe and I feel my eyes, ears and mouth all clog up with a prickling and burning sensation that I can only describe as horrid.
Nobody around me reacts in the same way; all those who are walking down the same street as I am are oblivious to the internal horror I’m facing and I can’t understand why. And then I realise that I’m clearly not as used to it as they are, to the burning rubbish by the side of the road, which the very children who had generated the rubbish are cremating before classes start.
This is not a one-off. I have often come back to the house I am staying in to find a steaming pile of household waste behind the building, being burned by some do-gooder from the household who carries out what they deem to be their household duty of getting rid of the rubbish. But plastic wrappers and banana skins are not intended to be burned, their components don’t go onto the shelf of the shop or the plate of the diner with the dream of one day releasing all of their contents into the air in a toxic cocktail of fumes and harmful molecules.
The gases that are released don’t just stop at clogging my airways every time I walk past the local primary school. They stick to the lungs of the children who burn them. These same fumes will float around the land in which they’ve been brought into existence, having small but significant effects on the climate, the air quality and the health of the humans which inhabit that same land. Dioxins released by certain plastics are some of the most toxic fumes we could possibly wish to create, and we readily do it in our gardens, schools and roads, so that they can be absorbed through the lungs and the skin of those we know and love.
The reasons for this burning are strong and rational: if waste is not collected then it must be gotten rid of, and it is certainly more practical than letting it build up on the streets or in piles behind the house, attracting animals and scavengers.
However, in the many years that we’ve been burning rubbish to dispose of the evidence of our consumerist existence, we’ve learned some important lessons about our impact on the environment, and we need to bring these two schools of thought together into a more harmonious existence, and one each even brings some benefits.
Communities can take their rubbish into their own hands (not literally, as that may be a little smelly and pointless) and create neighbourhood landfills. Local NGOs can support in these projects and advise on the best place to do this, as national regulations for landfills in Tanzania are not as developed as we might wish.
Organic waste can be put to good use to fertilise crops or gardens, and it only takes a small wooden structure to keep the scavengers out. In South Africa, landfills are becoming so commonplace that the country is becoming a pioneer in the field across the continent. In Tanzania we still rely on burning, or carefree waste disposal in rural areas, with no system for the management of the associated gases or rehabilitation of the land following the dumping of such waste.
Tanzanians will have produced almost 47 million tonnes of waste this year, and much of this could be put to better use. In India biogas plants have been created which turn the gasses from everyday waste into useable energy for businesses and households. Plans to do this in Tanzania are moving along slowly but surely, but here’s hoping we’ll soon be feeding energy from our rubbish bins into the national grid.
Not only will this provide more reliable electricity but it will also cut down on the costs associated with powering electronic appliances, and no one can be against fewer power cuts and cheaper electricity. In a district of Chamwino, a town near Morogoro, the residents and authorities decided to implement an official composting facility so that cost-effective fertiliser could be acquired from organic household waste. This was a result of pressure from inhabitants and collaboration between people and power; this can be done elsewhere, Chamwino is not an exception, but an example.
The industrialisation of the African continent, and the globalisation brought about as a result of increased imports, man-made products and foreign-produced goods, means that we each have even more of a responsibility to ensure that the way we act on an individual level doesn’t increase this noxious presence.
When the power goes out I use glass bottles and jars to hold my candles. When I need a container for my water or fruit juices, I use the emptied and cleaned bottles I have in the cupboard. When I wrap leftovers up it’s always in ripped-open food wrappers and branded containers. My waste bin is small and my impact is limited, and I’m not doing anywhere near enough yet. There’s always more to be done, and there’s always cleaner air to be had, if we want it.
Heri a class 2 dropout, a mother of two, the third and last wife (for the time being) of a man twenty years older than her stood under the only cashew nut tree left in her husband’s farm.
Her eyes wandered around the farm, surveying her work for the day and how far she still had, to go. She thought of a better, easier and faster way to toil the barren piece of land that caters for the miserably large family her husband Kenga had put together.
Just as she was about to decide, she saw her drunk husband muttering insults as he staggered his way into the compound through an opening in the hedge. She sighed, feeling stuck between the rock and a hard place. Would she spend the rest of her life stuck with a lazy drunkard and toiling on barren land?
Seven out of ten poor people in Kenya are women like Heri. Despite their poverty handicap, their husbands, children and society as a whole still expect a lot from them. These expectations often undermine their Sexual, reproductive health and rights (SRHR) which cover four areas: sexual health, sexual rights, reproductive health, and reproductive rights. These are rights, conditions and opportunities that enable men and women to enjoy their sexuality and their God given command to reproduce without coercion or discrimination.
For Heri, SRHR simply means that sex should not be a tedious, mandatory chore in the same league with the barren land that she tills day in, day out. Sadly for her, sex is even worse than that tilling because it is often demanded by her husband, which kills her mood completely. It doesn’t help matters that he is often done before she can count to thirty. She dreads sex yet she can’t say no. She loves the children that results from it but hates that he can’t take care of them.
In September 2015, I attended SRHR related training at the GoDown Art Centre in Nairobi. The UN International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in 1994 brought SRHR to global attention. ICPD transitioned into the UN Commission on Population and Development that recently played a critical role in developing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that touched on SRHR.
During the training on SRHR, participants were asked to review the goals one by one picking the goals that were connected to Sexual rights, Sexual health, Reproductive Health and reproductive rights. I attempted to draw a link between the environment and SRHR but this was met with blank stares.
However, Wangari Maathai had drawn this link a few years earlier when she noted that, ‘When I first started, it was really an innocent response to the needs of women in rural areas. When we started planting trees to meet their needs, there was nothing beyond that.’ I often wondered what link there was between tree planting and women’s needs but cases like Heri’s make this link clearer. A vibrant environment can empower women economically and help them to stand on their own two feet which will embolden them to say no when they don’t feel like it.
Indeed, women like Heri are the anchors, the very foundation of our communities. Although their holistic wellbeing was enshrined in the recently adopted 17 SDGs and their accompanying 169 targets, these good intentions must be enforced.
The fourteenth and fifteenth SDGs address the sustainability of marine and terrestrial ecosystems that women like Heri depend on. If she is left to carry the burden of the ecosystem that she depends on alone, both will crumble.
In Kilifi County where Heri comes from, many men behave like her husband. They spend most of their days sipping mnazi (local brew) as they engage in idle chatter.
When they finally stagger home at night, they have the nerve to refer to their unresponsive wives as “dead fish” or “overturned cockroaches.” Women are not romance ATMS – you can’t just key into them cold gestures and expect several doses of hot romance to tumble out!
Indeed, it is often said that “Women use all the four parts of their brains at all times” while men use only “one part at a time”. Therefore Women and men perceive risks and opportunity differently which begs the question, do we need different policies and implementation strategies, when it comes to matters of SRHR?
The world must meet women like Heri at the points of their needs. Because of the disconnect between SRHR policies and the ecosystems, they are often left languishing both on their farms and in their bedrooms.
Research shows that strenuous activities can result in premature births. In addition, it is impossible for a woman to get cosy and get romantic when she is tired to the bone. Even worse, women’s reproductive health has been known to suffer from unhealthy environments. For instance, contaminated water and surfaces can cause genital infections.
Although environmental hazards do not discriminate, women suffer more from them. This is why they must be protected and empowered from degenerating environments. If Heri is assisted to replenish the environment, her health and livelihood will be better of and this will boomerang back to the ecosystems that depend on her healing touch.
As Ken Mwangi ‘Mwas’ walks towards the Indian businessman he is about to rob, he feels no fear and has no second thoughts. Pattni, the businessman, is just opening his Mercedes C230 Kompressor when Mwas intercepts him, drives the butt of his favorite hand gun into his side, and urges him to unlock all the passenger seats. One of Mwas’ guys comes out of seemingly nowhere and gets into the front seat.
Mwas and his second accomplice get into the back. He looks outside to see if anyone has noticed them, but it does not matter anyway, they will be long gone before anyone gets to the crime scene. They order him to drive west towards Waiyaki Way and he complies. His hands are shaky on the steering wheel and as they pass a police stop, Mwas gives him a piercing look through the inside rear view mirror and he quickly looks away.
As they approach Kangemi, a slum located just outside Westlands Nairobi, they take several turns until they reach a deserted road. Mwas gets out and orders the devastated victim to do the same. He does not bother to beg them for mercy.
They take him to a nearby bush, take off all his clothes save his socks and underwear and ask him to count to one hundred before he opens his eyes. By the time he does, no doubt well-past the hundred counts, Mwas and his team are back home, safe and sound, and looking forward to a luxurious weekend courtesy of the Muindi, Indian.
Mwas is now 33 years old, currently ‘unemployed’ and living with his longtime friend, Chris and his wife, Amina. They have known each other for almost a decade, Mwas and Chris. They met back when they were both 24. Mwas was a world-class criminal at the time, and Chris a budding entrepreneur. He sold clothes. He loved to sell clothing. In fact, it was his dream to someday own an elegant, top-notch boutique.
Chris and Mwas are almost the same height, 5’8’’, are of the same chocolate complexion, and are also coincidentally from the same village in Kiambu County. Well, almost the same village if you look at the bigger picture. Anyway, Chris and Mwas have been good friends for a long time which classifies them as brothers. Brothers look out for one another.
Mwas has been raised in Huruma which is in the Eastlands part of Nairobi, where many a young man who grows up there becomes a criminal, or has been at one point in his life. Not all of Eastlands is dilapidated.
However, the sum areas are all the same with their open sewers that residents have to jump over on a daily basis and iron roofs that make sleep impossible during rainy season. The evenings are the best as this is when traders of all types come together to sell their goodies.
The streets are always laden with vegetables, mutura (intestines stuffed with other offals), fried fish, French fries, roast maize and even clothing going for as low as Ksh.20 that not everyone can afford. No wonder crime is so prominent in these parts.
Every so often there is news of a young man being killed because of crime, according to Mwas. He speaks incessantly of his past escapades. Sometimes he seems sad about them, other times one gets the feeling that he feels the things he has gotten away with are some kind of achievement.
Chris and Mwas met in Eastlands over cold Tuskers and in the company of beautiful women, the two recall the old days; the mutura on the side of the road and the many times they had to bury their friends lost at the hands of policemen. Sometimes they even smoked a blunt or two at home when Amina was not around, just like they invariably did all afternoons years earlier.
Chris has been kind enough to house him for almost two months now with no complaints. But Chris can only support him as if he were his own brother or child for so long. If you ask Chris why he is letting his brother live with him when he could be dangerous he replies, “Tumetoana mbali” we’ve come from far.
Mwas misses his past life. Not the gruesome parts, though. He misses the thrill of not knowing what the next day holds. He misses his friends, most of whom have left us. Only two of them remain. The other is in exile in a faraway land. He is not afraid to die but is afraid that he might never drive a Range Rover Sport like some of his more successful counterparts.
They own bars and clubs and big businesses. All he owns are the clothes on his body and in the tiny leather suitcase in the corner of the living room. This makes him reconsider the next steps he has to take to get his life in order. Perhaps he will go back to his old trade for a few months.
“Just for a little longer so I can at least drive a Range,” he convinces himself.
Deep down, however, he knows that he would not be able to leave once he goes back in. He wants the glamour, the flashy car, the big house, the beautiful wife, and the well-fed, well-clothed children. He has a soft spot for children. His own bundle of joy softened his heart and turned him into the calm man he now is.
“Eh, nilikua mbaya,” I was really bad. These words are always on his lips when he talks about his past.
Mwas’s cold, deep-set eyes are the only things that reveal his dangerous side. Otherwise, you would mistake him for just another hustler on the streets of Nairobi. You would also have to know him to read that intense look in his eyes that says, “I’ve seen it all and I’ve done it all.”
‘I have been to prison many, many times,’ Mwas tells me as he sips his ever-loyal cold Tusker beer.
‘The last time he was in prison was in 2014, almost twenty years after I stepped into those cold rooms way back during my Form 4.’ He says quietly a faint smile on his face.
Back then in his final year of High School, hewas caught with ammunition, drugs and stolen items in his ‘box.’ In Kenya, all secondary school students have metallic suitcases for storing their clothes and other personal stuff. He was imprisoned for a few months, but was able to resume school upon his release.
According to him, you either get better or worse when you get out. He got worse. What made him the worst, though, was the death of his best friend. He turned into an animal, then. Got into harder crimes, and was unforgiving to those who betrayed him.
It was Mwas’s best friend, Oti who introduced him to this life of crime. He was only fifteen at the time. His first assignment was to tag along with him and his gang as they carjacked a PSV and stole passengers’ possessions. Mwas’s first step was taken when he asked a young lady to hand over her purse to him for perusal.
He did not look into her face for fear they might meet another time, and she would remember him. Years after this first encounter on a sunny Saturday in June, Mwas lay over his best friend’s body and watched as his eyes rolled for the last time. He had been shot by the police outside his home somewhere in Eastlands.
“What changed him from a ruthless criminal to a calm individuals?” You might ask.
“Mtoi wangu amenichange. Amefanya at least nafikiria kuendelea kuishi juu yake, yaani I have hope because of her,” my child has changed me. She has given me hope in life, he says with a soft look on his face.
Mwas is not foolish. He did not proceed to college, but only because he started his craft early, and had no need for education at the time, or so he thought. He grew up knowing that the only true path for him was a life of crime, he didn’t know better.
When you start a habit in your teenage life, and it turns into a career, there isn’t much you can do to fight it. You let yourself sink in until you need to come up for air. Mwas has come up for air, but he will soon miss the water, and will dive back in. Once he does this, there’s no telling what will come next.
As Mwas wakes up to leave the restaurant we have been sitting in for the past two hours, I feel sorry for him. I wonder whether he will dive back into the water of crime and desperately hope he will not.
It was the first day. There he sat; hands clasped with his chin resting on the tips of his forefingers and his gaze oozing preoccupation. He didn’t make a loud first impression until he popped a question and responded quite testily to the answers given, leaving me and I bet the others too, apprehensive. If only I could have known how tough the next three months would be.
From then on he would come oft dressed in a kitenge shirt, some pendant or interesting item (that alludes to culture) on his neck and teach as if we were a bunch of professors with absolute knowledge of all things cultural. I therefore took it upon myself to baptize him “cultural man.”
Not knowing about one’s culture and ethnic background and he insisted that it was ethnic and not “tribal or tribe” dare you say so, amounted to a barrage of stinging criticism and bad vibe coming from him. In many non-verbal ways, subtly, he made you aware or so I felt that you were worthless without such knowledge.
One can only imagine his disgust and utmost condemnation when I very loudly and perhaps a bit naively declared that I only speak and understand English, Kiswahili and a bit of French. I was the perfect example of all those lost in the “modernity and utter stupidity” of not knowing where they come from.
I hated the cultural man’s guts. How each topic somehow wondered toward knowing one’s ethnicity and cultural background, how he rubbed it in that I didn’t know mine and how wrong that was. I hated his arrogance and bravado. I just hated the sight of him.
I felt guilty that I didn’t know all these things I was supposed to know, I began to blame my parents for not taking the time to teach me those things and I felt worthless whenever he was around. He had such a way of making one feel useless, especially me. So I sought his acceptance.
I tried, put intense effort into learning and understanding my culture and did all his assignments which quite frankly few others bothered to do. I tried and tried but to no avail, so I quit trying and became indifferent to all his highhanded opinions and suggestions. He was beginning to chip away my confidence and self esteem.
I ignored and blocked out all his negative vibe. I dreaded all his lessons but I wouldn’t miss them for the world simply to prove the point that I would not let him get to the core of me.
I can however say that the generation I am part of is mostly clueless about its cultural roots. The importance of language as a carrier of culture is incomparable. It is no wonder that we are suffering from a loss of culture and severe identity crisis. We are lost in a myriad of other cultures that are anything but ours and it all begins with language because language embodies culture, it facilitates our thought process and carries our cultural beliefs, attachments and values. Having studied linguistics I deeply appreciate the knowledge of one’s mother tongue or L1 (language one).
Still, why is it that English is our official language and we are required to be able to communicate as fluently as possible in this foreign language? Even a seat in parliament requires that one can at least communicate in English and Kiswahili, the latter of which some of our MPs are extremely miserable at. Furthermore it is the language we are all taught at school and knowledge of the same facilitates holistic progress.
Is it a question of development versus culture? Dumping linguistic concerns for whatever will get us closer to the rest of the world. Can’t we develop at our own rate? What is development anyway? And what is it to be without a sense of culture, identity and ownership when put against “development?”
All these questions rise in the wake of this debate. Where do you stand?
As for me, I believe that we live in a dynamic and individualistic world where survival is for the fittest; every man for himself and God for us all. Whatever gets you to tomorrow is what you embrace. Mother tongue or no mother tongue, English or no English, development or no development and that puts a lid on the issue.
Furthermore, perhaps “cultural man” should have been a bit more inquisitive about my history in as far as not knowing my mother tongue. My mother is Ugandan and my father is Kenyan and by result it was a bit of a challenge for either parent to teach me and my siblings their language.
If my mother taught us Lusoga (she is a Msoga of the Basoga ethnic group and not tribe as would say “cultural man”), my father would not be able to meet us at the point of communication; he does not speak Lusoga. If he taught us Gikuyu (he is of the Kikuyu ethnic group), my mother would not be able to communicate back. It can be quite a challenge.
You may wonder why I am writing this. Is it that I just want to rage on about “cultural man?” Well, that is part of the reason why but the main reason why I am writing about him is that despite who he was, he made an unequivocally amazing difference as regards my perception of my culture as has my undertaking a course in linguistics.
He made me feel passionately enough to know whatever I didn’t know. He made it seem imperative. It was a crime not to know and being one who prides herself in being knowledgeable; his bluntness stirred me to action.
He was a catalyst for change.
As he walks up to me, black bag on his left shoulder, I breathe a sigh of relief. Our reunion is not as uncomfortable as I thought it would be. He seems older. This is no doubt as a result of the ample greys on his head, eyebrows and moustache. Only a few months since we last saw each other and he looks five years older.
“I hope I also don’t look five years older,” I think to myself.
His face seems darker, like mine does when I spend too much time outdoors in Mombasa without sunscreen. His hair has not thinned out, and his eyebrows are as thick as mine if not thicker.
The sun causes his forehead to glisten and this brightens his face. His eyes are bloodshot, as though he didn’t get enough sleep the night before. He also seems to have lost weight. Not too much, though. I wish I had slimmed down, rather than gained as much as I have since we last saw each other.
I’m glad he brought the black bag along with him. It puts me at ease. The three-hour journey from Nairobi to the Kiganjo Police Training College seems to have relaxed me, as well. Thank God for road transportation.
The area visitors have been assigned is vast and dry. The heat is unbearable. Luckily, my brother finds a spot under some eucalyptus trees for the two of us when I arrive. This is where my dad finds us. I arrive an hour and a half earlier than him and am almost finished eating when my brother fetches him from the main gate. My brother respectfully drags a construction stone for him to sit on and places it strategically at a distance from me. This makes us all slightly uncomfortable.
“Eh, Ivy. Bado uko Kenya?” I see you are still in Kenya Ivy, he says. I flinch. I didn’t come here for a fight so I restrict my tongue. It has gotten me into too much trouble with too many people too many times before.
“Hapana, niko tu,” no, am around, I reply trying as hard as possible to control my voice. I do not want him to hear the amusement I feel at this statement.
Swahili is the language of choice in awkward situations for him. I do not know why, but it just is. I ask him if he wants some food and he feigns surprise, “You cooked?”
I nod and serve him a plate of the coconut rice and biryani I had made at four a.m. that morning. I love cooking for people, and if it means waking up at four, I am all for it.
He settles himself onto the stone my brother brought for him, and asks my brother, who is seated between us as if to act as a buffer, to hold his peach plastic plate as he opens the bag.
I do not know why, but I watch him closely as he opens it. Out comes a bag of chicken and chips, a plastic container of pilau, and a pack of English muffins. Suddenly, I flash back to my high school days when he would visit me, black bag laden with goodies that I would then toss into my jacket before anyone saw.
This exchange was usually done at the front of the school, and someone probably almost always saw me! Luckily, I wore this oversize maroon coat my entire three years at Moi Forces, nerd that I was. I could therefore stuff as many illegal items (food) into its large pockets as I could.
Their voices bring me back to the present. They are talking about the training Omanyalla is undergoing at Kiganjo. He is a year and a half younger than me and we have been brought up together closely. We both came to Nairobi for further studies. He is the opposite of me, but we have our similarities.
For example, even though he is training to be part of the Kenya Police, he is a much better writer than me. He studied Journalism at the Mount Kenya University. We are both rebels! We never do as we’re told. As I watch him I laugh at him good naturedly, interrupting their conversation.
“Longi yako haifiki chini!” Your trousers are too short!
“Si uziingize kwa boots zako,” tuck them into your boots, I add.
He is slightly taller than me, and was unlucky enough to get the shortest trousers. He is wearing a navy green uniform with the funniest looking hat, which he hangs on the back of his neck. They call them kurutus, recruits.
I have heard most of Omanyalla’s stories about his training already so my attention drifts back to my thoughts. This time I recall another time in high School when I was selecting which subjects to drop, and which ones to continue with. Both my mom and dad were there. Academics was the single most important thing to them when it came to me. I remember I was the first one in class with a fifty-something in Mathematics.
What stood out in this performance was the fifty-something and not the number one. My father chastised me so harshly that day that I cried in front of the whole class. Luckily my tall self sat in the back so not a lot of people saw my tears. Such was the tough love I got from him.
The bag was a reminder of his softer side. It reminded me of a simpler time when choices were simple and decisions were not as heavy as they are now. When life was not as complicated, and I was just a young daddy’s girl doing everything I was told to do. I have two bones to pick with time. One is that it takes away the innocence of youth. The other is that it has steals familiarity from people once so close to the point that they become strangers.
As I zone back to the present again, I realize my silence is making things awkward for both of them. I slowly begin to ease back into the conversation and make small contributions. Eventually, after a bit of coercion on my part, I am welcomed into the conversation, and it almost feels like old times. Almost.
After a few minutes of small talk, the bag opens for the last time. He takes out a bottle of diet coke and familiar-looking plastic cups. I remember those cups very well. I had left them when I left home a year ago. This familiarity warms my insides, but not to tears. I am all grown-up now, and my tears much further down than they were eight years earlier.
Soon after, my brother’s squad-mates come to say hello. Dad is delighted. Here is a chance to impart some of his knowledge. He loves to do this. One of his most memorable words to me is a quote he loves - only fools don’t change their minds. This is my go-to-quote when I have to go against something I believe in, or when I need an excuse to do the wrong thing.
I pull my brother aside for a little private talk as he goes on and on about service to the people, and respect for human life. Of course I eavesdrop because just like him I love to talk, and tell people things they already know, but do not care for. Soon, it’s time for us to start the long journey back to Nairobi.
We say our goodbyes and walk together towards the matatu stage. I feel satisfied with the trip. When we reach the gate, however, a sadness engulfs me. I stare at that unimpressive square black bag in front of me and conclude that life is too short to hold stupid grudges against those people that should matter the most to us.
“I can’t hear you!!” I shouted desperately into my mobile phone, “Lawrence? Can you hear me?”
Though we’d been through the same rigmarole at least half a dozen times, I was still perturbed when Lawrence called me from a matatu. I always expected, when I received a phone call from my partner in crime, my loved one, the man who made me feel like I was the only woman in the world, that it would be to have a conversation.
But every time I received a call that consisted of a racket of noise and an impossibility to hear any human sounds or words, I knew that he was sharing his matatu party with me.
Every time, once I realized what the reason for the call was, I settled down, wherever I was when I picked up the phone, and rode away on a sonic dream into a Nairobi matatu to enjoy the deafening noise and existential numbness which Lawrence knew I loved.
But I hadn’t always loved them. The first time I took one I was ill, with feverish sweats, a painful throat and a nose unable to perform any of its normal functions. I was able to lie down on the back seats, a rarity on public transport, and attempt to let the pounding music soothe my throbbing temples, giving a disturbing counter-rhythm to the beat in my head.
It didn’t make me feel better, but it plunged me into surreal dreams, and meant that the bus didn’t just take me from one side of the city to the other, but to a world of turquoise waters, on a far-away planet where the sky was pink and winged horses flew down from the heavens and licked poorly young women’s faces. Fortunately, I didn’t awake to any animal or other living creature licking at my face, instead I was carried to my sick bed and left to rest for 24 hours being fed fresh fruit and plain broth.
A matatu is most likely the last place anybody should be when not feeling at their best, for there are few other places where you find yourself in such close proximity to other human beings, exposed to colds, flus and irrational behavior from all over Kenya and even further afield, cramped into tight spaces,sometimes with no room to breathe or stretch your legs.
I generally manage to slot mine into the cavity in front of me, though my knees go numb being pinned up against the seat facing me. Lawrence, however, tall and broad as he is, generally has to call upon all of his flexibility and endurance to get through a journey.
The longest journey we ever did in a matatu was 6 hours, and was more eventful than an evening out on the tiles. I managed to get 2 naps in, we had hawkers and preachers, a near fist-fight and a stunning sunset, all of that from Ngong to the centre of town. The music was barely audible in that matatu, which I remember noticing and noting how unusual it was.
Generally speaking, where there is music in a public bus in Nairobi, there is a deafening level of decibels. This lack of “thumpety-thump” left airspace for the God-fearers and the bible sellers who squeezed their way up and down the central aisle, and paused at strategic spots to address the commuter crowd, much to everyone’s amusement and frustration.
One traveller even replied that no one had any money today and that they should come back tomorrow, when they might have more luck. Everybody offered a weary smile and communal chuckle, and the matatu was a unit, a familial zone for honesty and solidarity, for one short moment.
I keep referring to ‘we’ because I rarely ventured out into the streets of Nairobi to complete a journey on my own. Lawrence had grown up in the capital and could navigate the streets and chaotic transport system with his eyes closed and walking backwards, whilst I on the other hand needed my hand held through the whole process, or I would undoubtedly end up in the wrong area, or even the wrong city.
I would often insist on having my hand held during the journey, both out of safety and reassurance, and because I had a specific emotional attachment to these unique vehicles, and wanted to feel that I was sharing the experience with Lawrence, and that we were there, together; joined.
Recently there has been a spate of projects to map the myriad routes and tangents of the system, including a pioneering technological project run by the University of Nairobi, MIT and the Rockefeller Foundation, called ‘digital matatu’.
This innovative system has enabled a map to be drawn up detailing all the routes taken by buses in the city, and also highlight the gaps and failings of the system, meaning pressure is being put on authorities to improve the services provided for Nairobians and visitors.
What these maps can’t show you, are the tunes played during your journey. Or the posters which adorn the ceiling, the window frames and the sides of the vehicles, enticing passengers to choose that matatu above all others.
A highlight during my time in Nairobi was an instant shout-out system, with a scrolling light display showing messages sent via SMS by individual passengers, addressing one or all of their fellow commuters.
One young man was brave enough to call for the attention of “the byootiful lady with the wavy hair and blue top in the second row” who “caught my i and my heart and I truly wanna hold your hand forever”. I don’t know what became of it, for she didn’t reply to the message being flashed up for all to see, but I sincerely hope it led to a happy ever after.
These aspects of matatu journeys can’t be summed up in a map or an article. They can be shared anecdotally, photographed, filmed or recounted, but all merely serve as an invitation to experience it, and savour it for yourself.
If you take a matatu every day, it may be easy to become tired of these garish excesses and the loudness, but it’s important to stop, listen to the music, drown everything out, and maybe even make a phone call, to remind someone far away of what they’re missing out on.
I remember a few years back with a one thousand note you could actually walk into a supermarket and come out with a reasonable number of things. The shopping list could have included maize floor, sugar, some cooking oil and even a nice perfume. Today with that you can just get the nice perfume and even be forced to up some few shillings. The other day I was walking in the crowded aisles of a local supermarket doing my shopping and I hadn’t carried my debit card for back up.
I picked what I thought my budget allowed just the basic necessities; toilet paper, toothpaste, Nivea deodorant spray and coco butter lotion and confidently walked to the cashier. The queue was quite long and people had all reasons to frown.
The largest frown was from a plump lady behind me who looked like she was having a bad day and was just waiting for an excuse to unleash her fury on anyone who dared cross her path. The cashier scanned the barcodes for the items so fast to get rid of the long queue and showed me the screen. 1185 shillings! Was I seeing my own things? … Well it was time to pay and I didn’t have all that money.
It was one of those embarrassing moments. I asked the cashier to just remove some items from the receipt because I only had a thousand shilling note and that was inclusive of my fare back home. The looks that I got from the people behind me, especially the plump lady who wore a sneer as if she had smelt something nasty, were just out of this planet.
Do you miss those days that you would actually stumble upon some money along the dusty paths on your way from school? Well things have really changed, nowadays you can even consider it a miracle when you see a 5 shilling coin lying somewhere. The rate at which prices of commodities such as milk and bread are being hiked is crazy and we actually don’t understand why.
Not so many people have the patience to wait for the business fragment of the news or should I say not so many are conversant with the business jargons. Business news can actually be depressing when all you hear is that the USD, GBP and Euro rate is just going up compared to the KES.
The financial situations are always debatable by different economic theories: I remember studying about the Keynesian and Monetary theories in my Economic class. The Keynesian theory is based on the hypothesis that savings and expenditure are influenced by the real disposable income. On the other hand, Monetary theory dwells on the effects of monetary systems for example, the increase of money supply in the economy directly affects the prices of goods and services. But where are we going wrong as a country, how comes we are not on top of the food chain or swimming with the big fish? The rate of inflation is just so high and sadly enough not all of us can keep up. The gap between the rich and poor is widening day in and day out. If we do our math right the first president’s family might own half of Kenya while some people are living in rented shacks in the slums of Mathare and Kibera. Sometimes I am forced to think that the rich people make their money and burn all sorts of bridges so that by the time we catch up they have escalated to another level.
Honestly speaking I think our “great depression” as Kenyans started after Moi’s regime ended. I don’t recall things getting any better after Nyayo. I was part of the lucky kids who enjoyed free milk in primary school, famously known as “maziwa ya Nyayo”. Those days with just a five shilling coin as a pocket money, you considered yourself rich or rather I used to think I was on top of the game. Right now things are really bad and they are bound to get worse. We might as well not mind some divine intervention or some miracle as Kenyans. The thought of how things will be in the future is both scary and depressing.
This calls for us to act smart. Invest in the money markets, buy some shares in the stock market, invest in real estate or just do something meaningful with the little money that you get if you don’t want your future generation to end up in poverty or struggle financially. I am especially a strong advocate for money markets because they provide an investor with a competitive rate of return for short-term investments. Don’t have the fear to just keep your funds in low interest accounts why don’t you get educated and invest?