Journalism and writing in the time of novel coronavirus has turned out to be an experience like no other.
This thing has sucked oxygen from every corner of the world and nearly everything, because all else that’s worth writing about is happening or not happening because of Covid-19.
To write about anything else seems like an egregious form of “Afghanistanism”, the term coined by American journalism to describe the practice of concentrating on problems and stories in distant parts of the world while ignoring more pressing local issues.
We have a long history of stories, histories, films, and art about “love in the time of war”. But I haven’t yet seen a story about love in coronavirus times — if only because you are supposed to keep at least one metre apart.
You can’t take the object of your affection to dinner, go for a walk in the park, send them flowers, or hang out in the club or pub, due to lockdowns and social distancing.
During the deadly post-election violence in Kenya in early 2008 in which 1,400 people were killed, one of the poignant stories was that of artist Solomon Muyundo (aka Solo Saba).
Solomon went around Kibera painting messages of peace on any wide surface he could find to calm the violence. “Peace wanted alive” and “Keep peace and justice” he wrote in white paint. Not in coronavirus times.
Virtually every time some African country is going through a bout of madness in war, or a genocide as in Rwanda 1994, we have tales of heroic people saving targeted groups, or some selfless men and women putting up makeshift classrooms to continue giving the local children an education.
Try that and you will get no students, or you will get jailed. An upmarket school in Kampala defied a lockdown and opened, and parents dropped their kids off to learn.
The police swooped in and arrested the teachers. In wartime, teaching against the odds makes you a hero. In coronavirus times, you will be considered reckless and evil.
In crisis times, churches and mosques are places of sanctuary. In Covid-19, they would be a death trap. Sunday services have gone online. So has education. And museum visits and music concerts.
In many conflicts, there has always been room for sports and play. When in 2000 allies Uganda and Rwanda fell out in eastern DR Congo after they had helped oust thieving dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in Kinshasa, and fought what became known as the “Six-Day War”, the troops on the ground were playing football and board games with each other, oblivious of the deadly politics.
As they tell the story, they were then called to go to war and, minutes later, were shooting and killing fellows with whom they had been playing cards and other games.
During the famed 1914 Christmas Day Truce football matches, British and German soldiers played football against their enemies, although historians have said it happened on a smaller scale than popular myth makes them out to be.
You cannot do that in this coronavirus crisis, let alone with friends. Sport has become some form of pestilence, and the Tokyo Olympics just got scratched, and moved to next year.
In Italy, desperate to shake off cabin fever, people open their balconies and sing the national anthem, or the humble Catholic prayer and song “Ave Maria”.
In Spain, a musician brought his piano to his balcony to play to the locked down street. Opposite, a saxophonist heard him, stepped out with his instrument, and they did a jam. A big cheer went out when they were done.
Music has that power, the ability to defy distance, but it was still disembowelled, because the sense that it was being played into an empty space people couldn’t step into was inescapable.
Some Nairobi malls and clubs are taking the temperature of patrons and members before they enter, to ensure they aren’t suspiciously hot.
And, especially if you look like a “small person”, ask that you also splash on some hand sanitiser.
Just a month ago, we would have thrown up a ruckus, considering that the height of insult, and gone to Twitter and unleashed a firestorm, with the digital lynch mobs deliciously joining in. Today, it gives us a sense of security.
We line up one-and-a-half metres apart to enter supermarkets. Broadband has become more than a lifeline, because the distractions of the internet, streaming services, and remote links to our work places, are all that link us safely to the rest of humanity.
The social media heroes of today are the people who battle human diseases — exhausted doctors and nurses, with mask abrasions on their faces, or crashed out on hospital floors.
The diabolical genius of coronavirus has been to turn humans into the thing we fear most. But not to despair, I think a very clever writer will find a romance story in it.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the Wall of Great Africans and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com @cobbo3
A thief for all seasons: Not even Covid-19 will stop the corrupt
Albert M’peti Biyombo, Democratic Republic of Congo’s Deputy Health Minister, is a very brave man.
In a leaked letter to the prime minister, he accused Cabinet members of receiving kickbacks on contracts for the coronavirus response, while health workers went unpaid for months. He said Covid-19 funds are being embezzled by a “mafia network”, which are taking kickbacks of up to 35 percent off contracts for virus supplies.
Biyombo might also have a death wish. Remember in that same DRC, in May Judge Raphael Yanyi, who was presiding over the corruption trial of President Felix Tshisekedi’s chief of staff Vital Kamerhe, died suddenly of a “heart attack”. Kamerhe has since been found guilty and sentenced to 20 years’ hard labour on charges of embezzling almost $50 million.
Turns out, Judge Yanyi didn’t die of a heart attack, after all. He died of stab wounds to the head. When $50 million is at stake, things like that happen in DRC – and many other countries. DRC is not alone.
Zambia’s Health Minister Chitalu Chilufya was arrested last month on suspicion of corruption after he suddenly came into a lot of money and went on a property buying spree.
Zimbabwean Health Minister Obadiah Moyo had his snout deep into a $60 million Covid-19 contract scandal, and just got fired by President Emmerson Mnangagwa. You know it’s bad if Mnangagwa, like Robert Mugabe before him, fires someone for corruption.
South Africa just announced a probe into allegations of corruption involving 500 billion rands ($26.3 billion) relief fund to ease the impact of Covid-19.
In Uganda, several officials were jailed over coronavirus supplies theft. Not too long ago, in Kenya the hashtag #MoneyHeist trended on Twitter for days, after a parliamentary committee sniffed high corruption in the use of KSh1.3 billion ($12.2 million), a big chunk of it donated by the World Bank for the fight against the pandemic.
Where big money goes, corruption usually follows, so perhaps it is not surprising that the Covid-19 bounty is attracting crooks. What is surprising is that even in the face of a pandemic that has taken so many lives, ruined millions of livelihoods, and set back the progress of most of our countries by decades, the corrupt aren’t able to draw a line and say, “no, this we will not steal”.
For that reason, coronavirus-related corruption is a barometer of just how deep the rot runs in our governing structures, and how broken public morality is. It also raises the question of whether anything is left that is so sacrosanct the corrupt will not touch, or would wish to but are too afraid.
Our corrupt don’t even fear God, perhaps only the wrath of the president. They wouldn’t steal from the president’s pot, or would they? Ask Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni. The biggest pot every five years in Uganda is Museveni’s re-election war chest. At the last election, word is that it was plundered by his minions so much, to save his campaign, in the last stretch he literally had to keep the money under his mattress at State House. So, the corrupt have nothing left that they fear.
We can pick a few leadership lessons from animals
George Bernard Shaw made the following observation: “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.”
Flipping through my WhatsApp messages, I was captivated by one video post in which, lions were collaborating in a hunt. I paused to watch what was a really intense moment of life and death. The lionesses took the lead, with their matriarch seemingly guiding them along every step. A dazzle of zebras, fifty meters away, were unaware of the plan. In a split second, the lead lioness crushed one zebra into the ground. The rest joined to finish the job.
As the zebra wriggled for its last breadth, a male lion appeared with a roar that sent the lionesses scampering for their lives. Although the male lion takes the leadership responsibility of the pride and was part of the strategy, its role in the kill is often minimal. Often, males have been known to drive the targeted animals towards the ambush of the lionesses, but they always appear to unfairly benefit from the kill more than the real workhorses, hence the phrase, “the lion’s share.”
It struck me that this was analogous to life. That no matter how history repeats itself, we always elect leaders who tell us the same things our grandparents were promised. At independence, leaders told us that we elect them so that they can bring development. We always expect them to build roads, schools and hospitals, but then the unexpected always happens. Is it possible that we are incapable of learning from experience?
In the lion kingdom, it is expected that male lions will eat first, followed by the lionesses and the cubs last. As we work like lionesses and taking salary cuts, some of our leaders have other intentions. Since March, Members of Parliament (MPs) and Members of Count Assemblies (MCAs) have been quietly pushing for more allowances although some of the allowances they want were scrapped by the Salaries and Remuneration Commission. This is in total disregard of the prevailing conditions of stalled global economies as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
I have since discovered that even in the animal kingdom, some animals’ behaviour patterns are better than that of lions. I watched a pack of wild dogs hunting a gazelle. Their strategy centers on stamina and positioning themselves in such a way that they can eventually wear out the fast-moving gazelle. Once they manage to make the kill, they share the meal peacefully and even remember to take the meat to their elderly, the injured, the sick, cubs and the caretakers that didn’t join them in the hunt.
Leadership of a pride of lions and a pack of wild dogs determines the outcome. Many of the leadership theories come from studying behaviour pattern in order to predict leadership outcomes. Prior to the advent of Western civilisation, Africans had their own methods of choosing their leaders.
The process often took very long as the community studied the behaviour patterns of potential leaders – sometimes based on lineage – but what they sought to know was always if the person had the interests of the people at heart. This they referred to as Mtu wa watu (Swahili), Omonto bwa abanto (Kisii), Mundu wa andu (Kikuyu), part of the Ubuntu (Nguni Bantu) worldview.
There is no direct translation of these words but they are variously thought to mean a person with humanity in them or in other words an empathetic person who has a worldview that is larger than himself. Africans could see these qualities in a young person who will go through apprenticeship for several years before they take up leadership.
Dylan McGarry says that apprenticeship is perhaps the oldest form of education and is closely related to transformative leadership and intergenerational learning, as traditionally it consisted of the transfer of knowledge from skilled (usually older) and more experienced members of society to younger generations. Parents too were supposed to take their children through apprenticeship.
It is this leadership process that we have destroyed in favour of other approaches to leadership development assuming that traditional education as we know of it today will produce the leadership we want. In leadership, it is not how much education you have or how little educated you are. It is how much humane you are. It takes time to see this in people before they are bestowed with leadership.
There are indeed theories of leadership that come closer to the old African model of identifying and apprenticing leaders. J. Robert Clinton carried out several studies of Christian leaders—Biblical, historical, and living. His work, The Making of a Leader, centered at formulating a method of identifying the incidents involved in the development of a leader’s capacity to lead, which he referred to as leadership emergence.
He eventually realised that “a great leader is shaped over a long period of time, and that this formation is not automatic”. He defined his theory of leadership emergence as “the overall process in which God is at work in selecting that leader. It is the broad life-time process in which a potential leader expands capacity for influencing to become the leader God wants him or her to be.”
Further, he noted that throughout the life of a leader, certain incidents happen that shape the leader’s character, leadership skills, and leadership values. This is not a one-off thing, but an ongoing process. His conclusion was that “Leadership selection is a lifetime process in which God continues to ‘select’ leaders for leadership responsibilities at higher and higher levels.”
The kind of leadership that we have is one where individual force themselves into leadership positions based on either money or education. The outcomes have always been disastrous. As we approach the 2022 elections, many prospective candidates are busy looking for consultants to identify issues in counties where they plan to run for office.
Many have no clue about the history of their constituencies and care very little about the problems of the people they want to lead. They say their money will give them the seat. That is not the leadership we want. Such leaders just want to be the king Lion, which eats before those who are more deserving. Let us be more thoughtful as we make our electoral decisions this time round.
The writer is a professor of entrepreneurship at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.
Guidance on lengthy school closure crucial
The initial shock at the prolonged closure of schools by the government over Covid-19 fears is ebbing but the harsh reality is beginning to dawn on learners, teachers and parents.
This is the first time in Kenya that a whole generation of learners has lost an entire academic year. Even during some of the worst moments, such as the aftermath of the aborted military coup of 1982, schools were not closed for a long time.
Only universities were closed for nine months to deal with restive students, some of whom were allegedly involved in the insurgency.
The learners’ greatest challenge now is coping with the reality that they have to repeat a class, irrespective of their academic abilities, and what they should do with themselves for the next five months.
That is quite distressful and dispiriting. In the same vein, parents have found themselves in uncharted territory. Staying with their children at home since March, without a proper plan for their schooling and academic progression, is discomfiting.
Most of them are thoroughly disoriented and unsure of what to do. Equally troubled are teachers, who have to stay out of work for months, worry about their learners and are unprepared to deal with the challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.
When schools were closed, the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) embarked on an intensified school broadcasting programme to fill the void. To its credit, many programmes have gone on air and, more than ever before, the public is much more aware of the online lessons.
However, there are discernible loopholes. In the first place, the broadcasts to schools were conceived as supplementary to face-to-face learning. In the absence of physical classroom sessions, the programmes are inadequate in delivering the curriculum.
Secondly, the programmes do not reach all learners, given the logistical challenges such as lack of access to the requisite gadgets as well as connectivity.
Additionally, the mode of delivery is traditional; there is little interaction between teachers and learners. Yet modern learning is two-way: Interactive and participatory.
Having deferred school reopening to January, the government has to give direction to learners, teachers and parents. The ministry should mount communication campaigns to sensitise parents and communities on what they should do to support children.
We are faced with unprecedented challenges and it is not sufficient to postpone school reopening without providing guidance on how to cope with it.
The psychological, social, academic and economic ramifications of the long closure of schools will reverberate for years. That is why we call for psycho-social support to learners, teachers and parents.
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