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Story-telling, life and heroism in the time of novel coronavirus

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CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO
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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).

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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.

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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

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Our wizards saw the Brave New World, but none saw coronavirus

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By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO

Last year in December, Nation Media Group held its first Kusi Ideas Festival in Kigali. The festival tried to peer ahead the next 60 years in Africa.

There were many Brave New World ideas about how that future might look like, and also the perils that progress almost always brings. Needless to say, no one saw Covid-19 coming.

A futurist curtain-raiser in The EastAfrican, titled Africa in 2079, came close to outlining a mirror universe to the one Covid-19 is bequeathing us.

Between London, Zimbabwe, and the corners of Africa where Econet’s fibre optic network reaches, Strive Masiyiwa, founder and chairman of Econet Wireless and former chair of the board of AGRA wrote:

“I recently invested in a tech start-up that has created an Uber-like platform for tractors, enabling farmers to link up with a central database and order a tractor via SMS…freeing the farmer from the drudgery of the hoe. This service is particularly valued by women farmers, enabling them to circumvent social norms that might otherwise hamper their ability to hire a tractor.” From wherever we are hiding from the virus, unable to roam the farm, Uber farming could be the new way a lot of our food is produced.

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From Tanzania, Aidan Eyakuze, who is executive director of Twaweza East Africa and has been confined in-country as an elegant prisoner for nearly two years because of his love of inconvenient data, painted an intoxicating but strange utopian-dystopian picture of Africa at the end the century.

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By 2079, he foresaw the “vast majority of Africans earn their living through multiple micro-tasking (MMTs) ever since every ”job” was unbundled into its component tasks…leaving only those unbundled micro-tasks needing social intelligence, creativity or dexterity to be done by people. All ”taskers” are always-on private contractors who bid relentlessly for the privilege of tasking.

Incomes are kept low by the relative scarcity of tasks requiring the human touch.

“The unrelenting competition for tasks is both stressful and socially divisive — you are competing against everyone all the time…even marriages have renewable term limits, ‘in case someone better comes along.’” With work-from-home regimes, the former has come 78 years earlier.

Indeed, even for the latter, more people now probably think being cooped up with the same man or woman in the house “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part,” is a very archaic model.

Between Italy and Kenya, the Society for International Development’s Arthur Muliro, peered into a what a truly borderless Africa might look. Among others, his gaze settled on, of all places, Libya.

“Libya…was now welcoming other Africans and allowing them to settle. The peace deal that had come after a decade of civil war was holding and there was new optimism, in part boosted by the arrival and expansion of new migrant groups who had settled there and were helping rebuild their adopted country.”

On a close re-reading, turns out Aidan hinted that Turkey, which jumped in the Libyan fray as the coronavirus made its way out of Wuhan, might have something to do with it.

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Stadiums progress welcome – Daily Nation

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By EDITORIAL

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Last week, the Sports ministry’s top officials, led by Chief Administrative Secretary Hassan Noor Hassan and Principal Secretary Joe Okudo traversed the country to access the ongoing construction of stadiums.

President Uhuru Kenyatta also made an impromptu tour of the Nyayo National Stadium to ensure that all is well besides giving Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed full support. That has made sure that renovation works resume at all the stadiums — including Kasarani, Nyayo, Kipchoge Keino, Kamariny and Wote — and that everything is running on schedule.

Upon completion of some of these arenas, the country will have positioned itself to host major world events, especially in football, athletics and basketball. The ministry must, therefore, ensure that, while it has given contractors an ultimatum to finish their work, it also insists on quality delivery.

But there are concerns about work at county stadiums, especially in Mombasa, where those who redesigned the arena have done away with the internationally approved running track.

The new stadium has been designed for football only hence won’t host any track and field events. The four lane track will only be for warm up and this has raised eyebrows.

Mombasa County Chief Sports Officer Innocent Mugabe said Bububu grounds in Likoni and Kenya Ports Authority’s Mbaraki Sports Club will be upgraded for sports use. Mombasa being at low altitude, it is suitable for staging major World Athletics events, having staged the 2007 World Cross Country Championships.

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Kenya is bidding to host the 2025 World Championships in Athletics and Mombasa can easily be the venue with a good stadium in place. There is still time to build a county stadium.

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Ensure reopening of schools runs smoothly

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By EDITORIAL

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When Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha announced a fortnight ago the postponement of school reopening to January next year, he gave an exception. Universities, teacher training colleges and technical training institutions were directed to be ready to reopen in September.

Consequently, they were asked to put in place safety measures prescribed by the Health ministry, including reorganising classrooms and hostels to ensure social distancing. Just a month to the planned reopening, are those institutions really prepared?

In the past few days, Prof Magoha has convened meetings with the heads of the institutions to plan for the reopening and visiting the colleges to assess their preparedness. Preliminary reports from these engagements indicate that just a few institutions are ready.

POOR STATE

At the university level, so far, only Strathmore has been declared ready for reopening. Ensure reopening of schools runs smoothly

For teachers’ colleges, three — Murang’a, Kibabii and Kericho — have met the threshold. Assessment is ongoing for the technical training institutions.

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But the broad observation is that most of the institutions are not ready. Though not surprising, most of them are ordinarily in poor state and Covid-19 has just exposed them. Beyond the situation, long-term actions are required to revamp and revitalise them.

Reopening the colleges in September will be the starting point for relaxing restrictions in the education sector. The reason for beginning with colleges is that they have mature students who understand the health protocols and can, therefore, take care of themselves and minimise infections. Their experience would then inform plans for reopening primary and secondary schools.

REPEAT CLASSES

Closure of schools and colleges has dealt a huge blow to education. Learners in schools have lost a whole year and have to repeat classes next year. This comes with high social, economic and psychological. Indeed, this is the first time in history that schools are being closed for a year.

The last time the education sector suffered most was in 1982, when, following an abortive coup, the University of Nairobi and then-Kenyatta University College were closed for nine months. That created a major backlog and that took five years to clear. This is the reason steps should be taken at the earliest opportunity to mitigate the damage.

The challenge, therefore, is for the colleges to work on those health protocols to prepare for reopening. All other sectors, such as transport and tourism, are reopening and, therefore, colleges have no reason to lag behind. We ask the management of the institutions to expedite the required processes and get ready for reopening in September as directed.

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