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Take 5 with Makena Onjerika

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By ABIGAIL ARUNGA
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Makena Onjerika won the 2018 Caine Prize for African Writing for her story ‘Fanta Blackcurrant’, making her the fourth Kenyan to bag the award. Her literary works have previously appeared in Wasafiri and Urban Confusions, and “Fanta Blackcurrant” is forthcoming in New Daughters of Africa and Nairobi Noir anthologies.

1. Congratulations for winning. A lot of the time, writers’ least loved stories are the ones that end up winning prizes. Did you love Fanta Blackcurrant from the go?

I did. I enjoyed experimenting with language in this piece and discovering all the ways in which we bend English into Kiswahili and mother tongue into English. It was also exhilarating going through draft after draft and seeing the story take shape – A wow-I’m-doing-this kind of experience.

2. There’s always a lot of debate on the validation of prizes as done by international bodies for African writers. Who do you think are some of the good African writers who should be awarded, if, say, you were running your own prize?

Indeed, the Caine Prize is controversial and there are those who feel that it is an imposition on African writers from the outside. It does have its flaws, chief among them being the cost of mailing physical copies for submissions to London. Many African publishers and publications cannot afford to do so.

This is why there were only about 150 submissions last year, a small number compared to the number of stories African are writing and publishing every year.

Correcting this is one of the tasks the new Caine Prize administrator has taken on.

But one thing that gets overlooked in the debate about the Caine Prize, specifically, is that this prize is judged by African writers. It’s as African as the judges and writers are.

I think the best African writers are already scoring African and international prizes. My only point of discontent with regard to prizes is that Yvonne Owuor’s novel ‘Dust’ did not get shortlisted for the Man Booker in its time. That book is a BOOK. Go buy and read it.

3. Why is the cause of street children something you chose to focus on? Why is it close to your heart, so much so that you chose to donate a portion of your money in the direction?

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This question is an interview favourite. Usually, the person asking this is actually demanding to know why I wrote a story that is so distant from my own reality. Did I intentionally write a sad story of poverty in order to increase my chances of winning the Caine Prize? My answer is: I write what interests me, when it interests me. And seven years ago, for a period of several months, examining the lives of street children in Nairobi was what I needed to do.

There is no topic that is not my territory as a writer. I pledged a donation because I feel for street children, just as I feel for sick Kenyans who go without healthcare. Or those who work so hard and remain in poverty. I am sad about the education system in this country, about corruption, about unemployment, about never ending taxes. I am sad about the ineffectiveness of our electoral system.

I am sad that LGBQT persons face discrimination here and are considered shameful and sinful. I am overwhelmed by the bad news of yet another government loan. Like so many Kenyans, I feel I have no control over what is happening. So I write and sometimes, I make donations.

4. And of course the question that every winner is asked – have you taken a long rewarding vacation yet, or bought the vehicle you said you might buy?

With the traffic jams in this city it makes more sense to buy a motorbike. Cars are pointless. This is to say that I am putting my prize money towards books and carving out time and spaces in which to write. Writing is my great holiday.

5. What can we expect from you next – a longer piece, a novel perhaps?

I am working on short-stories-as-a-novel based in Hunters, Kasarani, in the late 90s and the early 2000s.

I grew up there when there were hardly any houses, let alone the multi-storeyed tenements of today. My mum moved us there from Zimmerman in 1996, and we went a whole year without electricity until KPLC supplied us under the original rural electrification scheme.

The novel will be heavily driven by place and character. I want to remember that place that now only exists in my memories.

A fantasy novel is also gently simmering at the back of my head. I am feeling particularly inspired to write fantasy, especially after the hours I spent with Tade Thompson, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Brandon Sanderson, Ursula Le Guin and others.

We’ll see what comes out of all these thoughts.



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Public officers above 58 years and with pre-existing conditions told to work from home: The Standard

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Head of Public Service Joseph Kinyua. [File, Standard]
In a document from Head of Public Service, Joseph Kinyua new measure have been outlined to curb the bulging spread of covid-19. Public officers with underlying health conditions and those who are over 58 years -a group that experts have classified as most vulnerable to the virus will be required to execute their duties from home.

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However, the new rule excluded personnel in the security sector and other critical and essential services.
“All State and public officers with pre-existing medical conditions and/or aged 58 years and above serving in CSG5 (job group ‘S’) and below or their equivalents should forthwith work from home,” read the document,” read the document.
To ensure that those working from home deliver, the Public Service directs that there be clear assignments and targets tasked for the period designated and a clear reporting line to monitor and review work done.
SEE ALSO: Thinking inside the cardboard box for post-lockdown work stations
Others measures outlined in the document include the provision of personal protective equipment to staff, provision of sanitizers and access to washing facilities fitted with soap and water, temperature checks for all staff and clients entering public offices regular fumigation of office premises and vehicles and minimizing of visitors except by prior appointments.
Officers who contract the virus and come back to work after quarantine or isolation period will be required to follow specific directives such as obtaining clearance from the isolation facility certified by the designated persons indicating that the public officer is free and safe from Covid-19. The officer will also be required to stay away from duty station for a period of seven days after the date of medical certification.
“The period a public officer spends in quarantine or isolation due to Covid-19, shall be treated as sick leave and shall be subject to the Provisions of the Human Resource Policy and procedures Manual for the Public Service(May,2016),” read the document.
The service has also made discrimination and stigmatization an offence and has guaranteed those affected with the virus to receive adequate access to mental health and psychosocial supported offered by the government.
The new directives targeting the Public Services come at a time when Kenyans have increasingly shown lack of strict observance of the issued guidelines even as the number of positive Covid-19 cases skyrocket to 13,771 and leaving 238 dead as of today.
SEE ALSO: Working from home could be blessing in disguise for persons with disabilities
Principal Secretaries/ Accounting Officers will be personally responsible for effective enforcement and compliance of the current guidelines and any future directives issued to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.

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Uhuru convenes summit to review rising Covid-19 cases: The Standard

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President Uhuru Kenyatta (pictured) will on Friday, July 24, meet governors following the ballooning Covid-19 infections in recent days.
The session will among other things review the efficacy of the containment measures in place and review the impact of the phased easing of the restrictions, State House said in a statement.
This story is being updated.
SEE ALSO: Sakaja resigns from Covid-19 Senate committee, in court tomorrow

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Drastic life changes affecting mental health

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Kenya has been ranked 6th among African countries with the highest cases of depression, this has triggered anxiety by the World Health Organization (WHO), with 1.9 million people suffering from a form of mental conditions such as depression, substance abuse.

KBC Radio_KICD Timetable

Globally, one in four people is affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives, this is according to the WHO.

Currently, around 450 million people suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.

The pandemic has also been known to cause significant distress, mostly affecting the state of one’s mental well-being.

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With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic attributed to the novel Coronavirus disease, millions have been affected globally with over 14 million infections and half a million deaths as to date. This has brought about uncertainty coupled with difficult situations, including job loss and the risk of contracting the deadly virus.

In Kenya the first Coronavirus case was reported in Nairobi by the Ministry of Health on the 12th March 2020.  It was not until the government put in place precautionary measures including a curfew and lockdown (the latter having being lifted) due to an increase in the number of infections that people began feeling its effect both economically and socially.

A study by Dr. Habil Otanga,  a Lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Department of Psychology says  that such measures can in turn lead to surge in mental related illnesses including depression, feelings of confusion, anger and fear, and even substance abuse. It also brings with it a sense of boredom, loneliness, anger, isolation and frustration. In the post-quarantine/isolation period, loss of employment due to the depressed economy and the stigma around the disease are also likely to lead to mental health problems.

The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) states that at least 300,000 Kenyans have lost their jobs due to the Coronavirus pandemic between the period of January and March this year.

KNBC noted that the number of employed Kenyans plunged to 17.8 million as of March from 18.1 million people as compared to last year in December. The Report states that the unemployment rate in Kenya stands at 13.7 per cent as of March this year while it stood 12.4 per cent in December 2019.

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Mama T (not her real name) is among millions of Kenyans who have been affected by containment measures put in place to curb the spread of the virus, either by losing their source of income or having to work under tough guidelines put in place by the MOH.

As young mother and an event organizer, she has found it hard to explain to her children why they cannot go to school or socialize freely with their peers as before.

“Sometimes it gets difficult as they do not understand what is happening due to their age, this at times becomes hard on me as they often think I am punishing them,”

Her contract was put on hold as no event or public gatherings can take place due to the pandemic. This has brought other challenges along with it, as she has to find means of fending for her family expenditures that including rent and food.

“I often wake up in the middle of the night with worries about my next move as the pandemic does not exhibit any signs of easing up,” she says. She adds that she has been forced to sort for manual jobs to keep her family afloat.

Ms. Mary Wahome, a Counseling Psychologist and Programs Director at ‘The Reason to Hope,’ in Karen, Nairobi says that such kind of drastic life changes have an adverse effect on one’s mental status including their family members and if not addressed early can lead to depression among other issues.

“We have had cases of people indulging in substance abuse to deal with the uncertainty and stress brought about by the pandemic, this in turn leads to dependence and also domestic abuse,”

Sam Njoroge , a waiter at a local hotel in Kiambu, has found himself indulging in substance abuse due to challenges he is facing after the hotel he was working in was closed down as it has not yet met the standards required by the MOH to open.

“My day starts at 6am where I go to a local pub, here I can get a drink for as little as Sh30, It makes me suppress the frustration I feel.” he says.

Sam is among the many who have found themselves in the same predicament and resulted to substance abuse finding ways to beat strict measures put in place by the government on the sale of alcohol so as to cope.

Mary says, situations like Sam’s are dangerous and if not addressed early can lead to serious complications, including addiction and dependency, violent behavior and also early death due to health complications.

She has, however, lauded the government for encouraging mental wellness and also launching the Psychological First Aid (PFA) guide in the wake of the virus putting emphasis on the three action principal of look, listen and link. “When we follow this it will be easy to identify an individual in distress and also offer assistance”.

Mary has urged anyone feeling the weight of the virus taking a toll on them not to hesitate but look for someone to talk to.

“You should not only seek help from a specialist but also talk to a friend, let them know what you are undergoing and how you feel, this will help ease their emotional stress and also find ways of dealing with the situation they are facing,” She added

Mary continued to stress on the need to perform frequent body exercises as a form of stress relief, reading and also taking advantage of this unfortunate COVID-19 period to engage in hobbies and talent development.

“Let people take this as an opportunity to kip fit, get in touch with one’s inner self and  also engage in   reading that would  help expand their knowledge.

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