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Monday, November 30

“I might look okay, but inside I slowly die as COVID-19 attacks ubuntu – the way of life that roots us,” says a young Kenyan

Covid-19, the a pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, stalks Africa having hit hard other parts of the world. Governments desperately fight this death hungry monster with curfews, quarantines and stimulus packages with no end in sight. On the other hand, scientists day and night peer into microscopes in search for a cure or a vaccine. They do this heroic work while fighting for breathing space as the unraveling pandemic widens rifts in the relationship between science-society. No continent nor country has been spared. Kenya, my home country, has reported more than 300 confirmed cases, 14 deaths and rising. The Kenyan government has put in place measures to help combat the virus even as the citizenry protest that the leadership isn’t doing enough. Chiefly these measures are: a 7 to 5 night curfew and restricted movement in and out our two major cities Nairobi and Mombasa. These measures have come at a great cost to personal freedoms. With little or no lead time, Kenyans have had to adjust to a new strange way of life. Personally, I’m slowly dying inside as COVID-19 attacks ubuntu, the philosophy of life that roots me, the way of life from our forebearers.


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Every community has its on way of greeting. Some hug, some peck, some kiss the hand. The Kenyan trademark is a firm grip handshake and the fist bump aka ‘kugota’. The former of our favorite ways of greeting is more widespread for legacy and whichever reasons. Depending on which side of the country one comes from, a Kenyan handshake may last up to 5 minutes. Heck, our entire politics as a country is centered around a ‘handshake‘.

Kinsmen gathered

Believe it or not, different regions in Kenya have trademark handshakes. Shaking hands has been cultivated into us by our fathers and forefathers; and for every region, there’s a proper way of doing it. That said, they all aim at one thing: expressing your warmth to the other person.

Therefore, with new public health measures that stipulate that at no point are we allowed to shake hands, Kenyans are having an awkward moment when they meet a friend. But that’s just the tip of it.

Nigerian, African literary god Chinua Achebe wrote:

When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.

African handshakes might open the way, but it is food that lubricates the bonds between brethren and kinsmen.

Ubuntu is sharing food, but as COVID-19 attacks ubuntu, it not only ensures that there’s no food to share in the first place, but also takes away the opportunity to ‘gather together in the moonlight’

Take for instance our Luhya brothers and sisters known for their prowess in making plates of food disappear like a magic show. I’m told they are having a hard time washing hands every time, yet there are no intentions of scaling down a mountain of ugali. Just like in conditioning by Ivan Pavlov, to our mulembe bros, washing hands is culturally associated with a reward in form of food.

Now this constant washing of hands with soap attracts strong desire of food that is not present thus occasioning deep frustration. It’s even more infuriating for the urban majority in African cities, majamaa who live on a daily wage. For them, unlike in the Luhya food joke above, there’s literally NO FOOD. But it gets worse as COVID-19 illuminates the differences between us. These kinsmen have to watch the fortunate few stock up on tissue, food and alcohol for themselves and their nuclear units. As they watch, they must be wondering: What happened to the Ubuntu ways of our forebearers?

Indeed as COVID-19 attacks Ubuntu — or whatever is left of it after slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism — we might as well be damned to plan a funeral for the whole damned way of life. This is because some forms of betrayal brought about by COVID-19 break things in us that can’t be fixed. Like the betrayal of facing the choice between life and livelihoods: #StayHome or #Hustle.

Broken inside? Don’t let it show: Mask it

Now that the government has stipulated that everyone must have a mask at all times outside their homes, demand for masks has shot up while supply is low. Kenyans are well known for their entrepreneurial acumen and skills have seen a gold mine in this demand vs supply dynamic.

Tailors have rolled up their sleeves and without doubt are showcasing their prowess. Moreover, budding African fashion designers have come up with all kinds of cloth face masks for different occassions – some cool, others as practical as it can get. My neighbor was rocking one the other day and I couldn’t wrap my head around his choice. Let’s just say kids uniforms are not being spared either in this endeavor to mint out a coin to sooth the pangs of the time. Of course, the worry here is what kids will wear to school once they reopen.

Now, if you thought my neighbor had taken it a bit too far, a section of people from Murang’a in Kenya’s Central Region should get the Nobel Prize for the craziest masks in the whole wide world yet. Seen donning female underpants, some of them explained that they had been duped into saving a coin by opting for what they though was a cheaper alternative. Such mean spirits some of us are. Go figure!

But ubuntu isn’t as mean as COVID-19 is forcing us into

Kenyans are known for their love of socializing in large numbers. We also like to think of ourselves as the party animals of Africa. These tenets of our traditions and culture have encountered a major setback after with COVID-19, the maximum number of people at a gathering has been set at five. Birthdays, chamas, weddings, burials and weekends have been hit the most. All these are functions that attract large crowds – especially weddings and burials which often pull crowds of at least 200 people per event.

This 5-person rule has brought a strain on these functions since it is hard to choose who attends and who doesn’t. We simply don’t know how to do that. Especially not in burials where ubuntu demands that everyone has to pay their last respects. Oh, we die slowly inside as COVID-19 attacks ubuntu – the way of life from our forebearers.

No football makes Shiundu sad

Cancellation of all sporting events thanks to COVID-19 has just made things even harder for men. Sports is the sole entertainment for a large number of our men. Sole, I repeat. Therefore, canceling sports makes weekdays a torture. Imagine going through a whole week and having nothing to look forward over the weekend. Given the lives most of us lead in our beloved Africa, the mental anguish is real.

I dare suggest that the emptiness of weekends without sports, and thus no escape from the pressures of our daily lives, is enough to trigger a national epidemic of mental disease. This coupled with the stay-at-home directive and curfew has been a big blow on men all over the country.

Most Kenyan men come home late at night. Over the weekends, we scrape for excuses not to be present just to escape the constant nagging from the kids and scorn from the wife. Having to stay at home all day or be home by 7.00pm, is nothing short of a death sentence. If you think I’m lying, the memes circulating on social media ought vindicate me.

Home schooling should be right up our alley but….

African kids are learning very little about our ways. So, just like the kids, African parents struggle too with this education whole thing. In Kenya, in particular, parents have been at odds with the recently introduced competency based curriculum. Thus, as with keeping with global practice, Kenyan authorities directing parents to help their children study during this uncertain time is nothing short of adding salt to injury.

Just like that, parents have now turned into teachers. This corona! If you grew up African, from several miles out one can see the problem with this new normal. I speak of African parents (read all African parents) in the habit of harassing their kids at every turn with tales of how they were always number one in class during their time; COVID-19 is here to burst their facade: this is the time for them to showcase their prowess.

Beyond that, growing up African means that ones interaction with their parents is on a needs be basis. After all, as a child, you have the whole community to raise you. In my books, this shared parenting was/is the basis of ubuntu. This is because right from infancy, one is socialized to be accountable to a body wider than the nuclear unit. In the days before westernization supercharged by the internet, I reckon ubuntu stayed strong as the limited interaction between parents and children ensured ‘the respect remained’. This homeschooling business places all that in danger.

Ubuntu is dead

Beyond the serious stuff of parents becoming teachers and men being denied their weekly ‘catch-the-game-with-the-boys’ visa, COVID-19 attacks ubuntu in other more nuanced ways. For example, consider how thanks to COVID-19 occasioned restricted movement, urban parents can’t send the children upcountry. As a result, as we speak teenagers are cram in bedsitters with their parents as they #StayHome and #BeSafe. Beyond the taboo scenarios that are likely to arise, other even more pressing reasons force parents to look out for ways to escape this.

My mother used to say that it’s no issue if she slept hungry, but not us the kids. Parents have the responsibility of feeding and providing for the needs of their children. The prevailing hard economic times coupled with chronic scarcity of jobs in the continent and closure of many businesses during this time makes it hard to put food on the table. For most of us, it’s a choice between the rock (livelihood) and and hard place (lives). And that threatens whatever little of ubuntu that is left.


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