I arrived in Tunis at 3.30PM on 21st March 2015 aboard a Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul. The flight had taken three hours, much shorter than the six and a half hour flight from Nairobi to Istanbul. Together with me on this flight were several fellow East Africans. We were in Tunisia to attend the World Social Forum.
These other East Africans were all from the NGO world and although I had never met them before, we had networked quite well during the long journey from Nairobi to Istanbul, then to Tunis. This showed the power of the World Social Forum in connecting people.
Upon arrival in Tunis, we waited at the airport for about one hour for our visa, changed our money and left for our respective hotels. I left for my hotel together with Jackie from Tanzania. Along the way, she told me about a pre-World Social Forum meeting that she would be attending. The meeting would be discussing a debt-free world. I was also intrigued to learn that she worked with an agricultural organization in Morogoro, Tanzania. As I am a farmer myself and interested in the role of agriculture in nurturing sustainability, we had a very fruitful discussion about this.
Thus it was that by the time I checked into my hotel in the centre of Tunis, my networking was already in high gear.
This was my first time in Tunisia but my second time in North Africa as I had previously visited Egypt. I naturally found myself comparing the two countries and found one of the key differences to be in attire. The ladies in Tunisia were quite liberal in their dressing and I could count those who were wearing the hijab, the face veil that was much more common in Egypt and even in the coastal part of my own country Kenya.
The following day, I began to meet fellow delegates from RITIMO, the French network that had facilitated my participation in the Forum. Over breakfast, I had a lively discussion with Laura from Brazil. We later met the RITIMO staff and for the rest of week, they became like family. Despite the language barrier, I enjoyed their company as I found them to be easy going, or in lugha ya mtaa (Swahili for street language), they keep it real. Vivi from RITIMO became my adopted sister and kept me fully informed through tireless interpretations.
The following day, I got a chance to meet almost one thousand RITIMO delegates where I gave a short passionate speech on the need for Africa to forge a common African language that should be taught across the continent. I suggested Swahili or Yoruba as they are the most widely spoken languages on the continent. I would prefer Swahili because it is spoken in more African countries than Yoruba. In July 2004, I celebrated when Joaquim Chissano the then Mozambique President and Chairman of the African Union (AU) gave his farewell address in Swahili in order to remind the continent of the need to promote African languages and identity.
This African language potential was driven home two days later when I shared a taxi with Nicole and Eric from the Democratic Republic of Congo (the land of the great Patrice Lumumba). They speak French and I speak English, so we couldn’t use these two languages. But like me, they speak Swahili so we had a great time using Swahili to communicate. Unfortunately, also with us in the taxi was Makaila, my friend my fellow RITIMO delegate from Chad. He only speaks Arabic and French so he couldn’t participate in the joyous conversation.
Makaila is an eminent blogger who is now living in France after he became persona non grata in his country because he writes it as he sees it, without massaging the egos of authorities. Despite the language barrier between us, we became very close due to our mutual passion for Mama Africa. He became my brother from another mother and we shared a lot of our dreams and frustrations.
It was also great to finally meet Moussa Coulibally from Mali. I had corresponded with him on the Indymedia mailing list for many years. He too proved to be a passionate son of Africa who just wants to make a difference in his country and continent. I also met with Bintou another Indymedia member from Mali. I had first seen her during the RITIMO evening party and was quite impressed by her speech on the rights of domestic workers in Mali.
Bintou, Moussa and I together with Sphinx from Cameroon, Gretchen from Canada and Norm held an Indymedia Africa meeting one rainy evening. It was a very fruitful meeting and poor Sphinx had the difficult task of switching between English and French so that we could all be on the same page. After this meeting, I joined Gretchen and Sphinx for a drink at a different location. This was a very interesting time because I learnt from them a lot about Indymedia’s early days. It was really nice knowing more about those heady days in Seattle.
Despite its shortcomings in nurturing participation of grassroots movements, the World Social Forum remains an invaluable platform for regional and global networking. For me, this networking was particularly strong at informal levels since some formal sessions were a bit too official and rigid for me.
The nearly one hundred people sat patiently at the customs section of the airport. Many had travelled with me from Nairobi with many more travelling in the same connecting flight from Istanbul. We had all arrived in Tunisia for the World Social Forum. Despite the fatigue, we were happy to be there because the World Social Forum always presents a unique opportunity to meet like-minded change agents from across the world.
I had first participated in the World Social Forum in Nairobi back in 2007. I was the local coordinator of the Independent Media (Indymedia) platform and we were hosting Indymedia colleagues from all over the world. I was delighted by the social revolutionary spirit of many people who came from all over the world for the event.
As I sat at the customs section of the Carthage International Airport in Tunis, memories from the World Social Forum in Nairobi came back into my mind. This forum gave Julian Assange, the Wikileaks co-founder one of his first opportunities to start introducing Wikileaks to the world. For four days, he did what many other gathered activists were doing – handing out fliers about his initiative; talking to people about social injustices and how his initiative would play a role to fix them; debating about the ideals of this other world that was possible and generally interacting with fellow World Social Forum attendees.
Julian Assange is said to have been so thrilled that he referred to that particular World Social Forum as ‘the World’s biggest NGO party.’ After the event, he spent a better part of two years in Nairobi as he attempted to extend the ‘beach party’ of alternative ideas and action towards another world. A few years later, these ideas and action, as implemented by wikileaks, burst onto the global scene.
Such is the power of the world social forum. It obviously has many weaknesses and critics but its enduring legacy is the fact that it is a breeding ground for lasting, grassroots-oriented change. That’s why I was quite delighted that RITIMO had facilitated my presence and participation in this particular World Social Forum in Tunis. Based in France, RITIMO is an information and documentation network for solidarity and Sustainable Development.
On Sunday 22nd March in the morning, I met with the vibrant RITIMO team, including Erica and Viviana, who had worked tirelessly to ensure that I would be in Tunis to join them and others in yet another World Social Forum. Hopefully, our meeting of minds will spark powerful ideas that will usher the world towards more justice and empowerment.
Our morning meeting was about tackling the programme of the World Forum of Free Media, which was starting later that Sunday. Free Media nurtures more empowerment and justice.
As I sipped my lemonade and listened to the dynamic RITIMO team talking about the week ahead, I felt that another world was indeed possible not just years from now, but from today onwards.
The biting cold sliced right through his seven-year old body. Although the sun was already peeping out of the hills on the distant horizon, the cold was unrelenting. He hugged his tiny chest tight. But that wasn’t enough to keep him from shivering. Bob knelt down and began milking one of his grandfather’s cow.
Bob Marley was born on 6th February 1945 in Nine Miles, a little rural town in the northern part of Jamaica. Nine Miles is etched high up in the hills. Up there, the cold bites hard. But that never stopped him from waking up early not because he was eager to do so but because his uncles often left for him a lot of their farm work responibilities.
Bob’s mother Cedella Booker was only 19 when she gave birth to him. His father was a white man from England but working in Jamaica. He wasn’t present in his son’s life. He died in 1955 when Bob was only ten years old. The only heritage that he left Bob was mixed race, which left the young man searching for his identity for his entire teenage years. When he moved from Nine Miles to Trench Town, a ghetto in Jamaica's capital Kingstown, he began finding this identity through music.
When Bob Marley died today, 11th May, 1981, he was only 36 years old. He recorded his first song when he was sweet sixteen, and achieved more in twenty years than most people do in a lifetime. While still in his early twenties, he turned the trickle of reggae, a Jamaican music style, into a torrent that swept all over the world. He then rode this reggae wave in concerts all over the world and used his global stardom to preach peace.
Bob Marley was also a passionate pan-Africanist. In his song, ‘Africa Unite,’ he proclaimed that, “How good and how pleasant it would be before God and man to see the unification of all Africans… Africa unite, because we are moving right out of Babylon and we are going to our Father’s land... Africa unite for the benefit of your people.”
His love for Africa was so deep that when Zimbabwe got independence from Britain, he joined the country on its independence day, April 19, and performed to a packed Rufaro Stadium in Harare, Zimbabwe. He even composed a special song entitled, 'Zimbabwe.' As screaming fans cheered on, he sang and chanted, “We gon' fight; We'll have to fight; We gonna fight; Fight for our rights!”
What the crowd didn’t know was that by that time, Bob was already suffering from melonama skin cancer, which had been diagnosed in 1981. He was a man in pain. A man with limited time on earth.
on April 17th, two days before the independence day performance, Bob stopped over in Nairobi. A Nation Newspaper headline screamed about his presence, ‘Reggae King Bob flies into Nairobi.’ The Standard too, wasn’t left behind, declaring triumphantly that, ‘Reggae King Stops over in Nairobi.’ He had also visited Kenya two years earlier in 1978 during his first ever visit to Africa. That visit also took him to Ethiopia, the spiritual home of Rastafarians.
As we remember the passing on of this icon, there is a lot of inspiration that we can draw from his life and words. There is a phrase from one of his songs that sums up how he lived his life and how we can follow in his footsteps. The song is ‘Get up, stand up’ and the phrase is ‘don't give up the fight!’
Don’t give up the fight of your life. Don’t give up on your aspirations. Don’t give up your pursuits. Don’t give up on your dreams. Don’t give up the fight. As Bob said in yet another of his powerful songs, ‘keep on moving.’
Even when you fall down, stand up, dust yourself and keep on moving. May God help us to do so.
Thank you Bob Marley, for the inspiration of your life.
His brown eyes were always happy even though that joy never strolled over to his lips. Baraka rarely smiled. One might say that he was a sad child. But there were two things that always made him smile instantly. The first one was right there, in his parents fence-less compound. Just outside their two room, makuti-thatched house, three coconut trees stood guard. They were so tall that you could clearly see them from the road almost two hundred meters away. Baraka loved to climb them, or any coconut tree for that matter. He would slide up these trees with stunning agility. But whenever he would hit the ground after climbing a tree, his smile would retreat back to his eyes.
Baraka means blessing in Swahili. But for seven-year old Baraka from Ganze in Kenya’s Kilifi County, the blessing of food is hard to come by. In 2007, six years before Baraka was born, Ganze was declared as Kenya’s poorest constituency. It may no longer be holding this unfortunate record but poverty still accompanies thousands of Ganze residents to sleep and yanks them from bed every morning.
When Baraka’s twenty-one year old mother Salama was fourteen and in class 6, she dropped out of school because she got pregnant with him. In Kilifi County where Ganze is located, one out of five teenage girls ends up pregnant. Baraka’s mother was one of them. In 2013 when she got pregnant, seven out of ten people in Kilifi were living below the poverty line and she was also one of them. This is the poverty that Baraka was born into. But the worst was yet to come. Three years later when he was a toddler, he was among the more than 200,000 Kilifi residents who were caught in the clutches of a terrible famine. There were days when the only meal he ate comprised of wild seeds from a local tree known as Mworya.
One warm evening in July 2016, Salama sat on a low three-legged stool in the verandah of her house. Her stomach was empty but the look in her eyes was emptier. Her son Baraka lay at her feet, awake yet asleep. She knew that he was weak. As was his one-year old sister who was suckling her left breast even though there was no milk there. When she looked up and saw her husband walking towards the house briskly, her eyes lit up. Maybe he had brought some food: bread, flour, mchicha… that would be amazing! She felt her heartbeat hasten in anticipation. Well, he did have some food, but not what she had in mind. In his calloused hands was a plastic bag that contained those same wild seeds that they had eaten the previous day.
“Eat this” he said, averting her gaze, “it’s all I could find.”
A few weeks later, the famine slithered back to the dark place where it comes from. But the biting poverty lingered. Even now, four years later, Baraka continues feeling the fangs of poverty every single day. This convergence of misfortunes left has left with the body of a four-year old even though he is seven years. Health officials refer to kids like him as stunted. Yet within his tiny frame is a battered spirit reflecting his mother’s daily struggles to provide food for him and his two younger sisters. She didn’t want to get the third child but her husband forbade her to take family planning pills, insisting that religion didn’t allow it.
Six out of ten African children do not eat sufficient meals on any given day. For them, meals are like finding a job in Africa – you have no idea when you will get it but hope keeps whispering in your ear that a job is around the corner. Job prospects are virtually nil for primary school dropouts like Salama and her husband.
Now pause for a moment and take a deep breath. Do it.
By the time you are done breathing in deeply, a child will have died somewhere in the world. A child dies every three seconds not because of cancer, covid-19 or a road accident but because of hunger. Many of these children are in Africa.
Yesterday, somewhere in Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar or any of the 54 African countries, children died because of hunger. For most of them, their hearts didn’t literally stop beating because they had stayed hungry for days. Rather, their hearts stopped beating because years of irregular meals with insufficient nutrients had left their immune systems battered and vulnerable to disease. For the few years their angelic presence had graced this earth, their food had too little iron; too little vitamins; too little proteins; too little of other critical nutrients. This is why micronutrient deficiencies are responsible for one-third of all child deaths in Africa.
The first one thousand days of a child’s life are super critical for the child’s mental and physical development. Failure to feed children properly during this period can leave them stunted like Baraka and in worst-case scenarios, it can leave them literally dead. This often happens when empowered pathogens keep hammering that weakened body.
Hunger doesn’t kill immediately. Like an evil genie, it saps life gradually. If left unchecked, it goes on rampage and eventually takes away life. In that sense, extreme hunger in children is like a sentence to slow death. If entertained for too long, extreme hunger leads to severe malnutrition, which then ushers in death through the back door of disease.
Thankfully, many children emerge from this shadow of death. However, their lives are bereft of the spark and fulfillment of childhood. Hungry, stunted children do less well in school and suffer from low self-esteem.
Do you remember those afternoons when you could barely focus on your computer screen, not because it was faulty but because your stomach was empty? Because you had missed lunch, you could barely focus. So how are hungry children supposed to focus on blackboards and textbooks? C'est impossible! It is impossible.
Millions of African children do not compete on a level playing field with children from developed countries. Millions begin the journey of life so hungry that they can barely function in school, which undermines their educational foundation. Consequently, their dreams for becoming doctors and pilots crumble into realities of manual labor in the informal sector. Because millions of malnourished children on the continent never realize their potential, child hunger eventually costs African countries as much as 16 percent of their GDP!
Feeding children with a healthy diet doesn’t just save lives, it also saves economies. For every dollar spent to ensure that a Kenyan child has a healthy lunch at school and the parents can feed them healthy meals at home, USD 60 will be saved. A similar scenario in Sudan and Nigeria will see a saving of up to USD 60 and USD 85 respectively!
One in three Africans lives below the global poverty line. Living beneath that dreaded line is more dangerous than living in a war zone. At least in a war zone, you can hide in a bomb shelter. But beneath the poverty line, there is no hunger shelter into which you can crawl into and hide from ever present hunger pangs. This is the tragic plight of millions of African children like Baraka. Back in 2013 when this agile coconut tree climber was born, half of Africa’s children were living in extreme poverty. Sadly, the Kenyan society is yet to grant him and his family a visa to move from beneath the poverty line.
Apart from climbing coconut trees, the second thing that always brings an instant smile on Baraka’s face is the KDF mandazi. It’s a first cousin to doughnuts but crunchier. On those rare mornings when his mama buys three of them for him and his two younger sisters, he always breaks into a massive smile. His small fingers clasp it protectively as he raises it to his mouth. It feels hard in his hands and soft in his mouth. He munches it so happily that it’s almost as if the grains of hair on his head start dancing in delight. When he is done devouring it five minutes later, his palms are left with an oily remnant that he licks until it disappears. Beneath the poverty line, where extreme poverty reigns supreme, a simple KDF mandazi is but a dream.
The World Bank defines ‘extreme poverty’ as living on less than $1.90 per person per day. As Baraka’s life has shown, when a child wakes up into a day that is soaked in extreme poverty, hunger shadows that child from sunrise to sunset. Baraka may not have Covid-19 but the hunger pangs that assault him every day are just as bad, if not worse than the corona virus.
PS/ Most of the data in this story was gleaned from the amazing publication below:
ACPF (2019). For Lack of Will: Child Hunger in Africa. Addis Ababa: African Child Policy Forum (ACPF).
The SANY bulldozer, in all its yellow splendor, charged at your house like a furious rhino. The rugged black teeth of the bulldozer’s massive bucket tear into your weak concrete walls. As the walls crumble into a rubble of helpless concrete smithereens, the bulldozer’s black teeth reminded you of the unstoppable ruthlessness of a lion’s large canine teeth. Your crumbling house could feel the haplessness of a gazelle whose agile neck has just been cracked open by a ferocious lioness. When you finally made it home after frantic calls from neighbors, you came face to face with a small mountain of concrete rubble. Your house had been razed to the ground.
In March 2019, this scene played out in real life, in Nairobi’s Chokaa Estate. The Kenya Power company demolished houses that had allegedly been built on its land. As a result, over 2,000 residents of the estate were rendered homeless.
Thousands of priceless wild animals have experienced this scenario above countless times over the last few decades. Among them are the chubby gorillas and cheeky chimpanzees that swing, sing and sleep in the dense, musky forest of Central Africa and West Africa.Because these trees are indeginous and endowed with lucrative hardwood, logging companies often salivate after them. Those that get logging concessions send in their trucks, to ferry away massive logs of hardwood. Not to outdone, villagers from adjacent villages sometimes venture into the forests in search of the same hardwood and firewood. Such industrial and artisanal logging has razed down large parts of the forest and left some wild animals without a roof over their heads.
Also guilty of gulping timber resources from these forests are millions of kitchens across Central Africa and West Africa. Ninety percent of people in this region use fuelwood to cook. In this regard, innocent fireplaces are symbolically burning down forest habitats of wildlife.
In a strange twist, human beings – the perpetrators of wildlife habitat loss – are also becoming victims of their own actions.
Whenever human-induced habitat loss pushes a wild animal to the brink of extinction, the animal’s body ends up with double the number of disease-causing viruses as other similar species whose extinction threat stems from other reasons. Such an animal becomes a walking time bomb.
Unfortunately, this time bomb can easily explode in farmlands that have encroached into forest lands. A recent study by Stanford University revealed how farmlands adjacent to Uganda’s Kibale National Park had become unwitting enablers of wildlife-to-humans diseases.
Chimpanzees, gorillas and many other animals live in Kibale forest, which was gazzetted in 1948. Previously, these animals had the entire park and its environs to themselves. But now, they have to share the Park’s environs with an increasing number smallholder farmers that live on the forest’s margins. Consequently, the hoots and howls of monkeys fuse with bleats of goats and mow of cows to form the symphony of animal noises.
The Stanford study uncovered these disturbing interactions between humans and monkeys: a woman who stumbled on a dead vervet monkey in her maize farm and dragged it away; a black-and-white colobus monkey bit a boy who was tilling his family’s shamba; A dog that was with its owner in the forest leapt at a l’Hoest’s monkey and clutched it in its jaws until its owner freed the monkey. All these are dangerous encounters that could easily transmit lethal viruses that can birth another pandemic.
Indeed, nearly three-quarters of Africa’s recent forest loss is attributable to agriculture.
We have to stop this bulldozer-like encroachment into the natural homes of wild animals. If we don’t, we risk ending up with even more high fever, coughs and a myriad of symptoms from numerous diseases.
Picture this. I have a flu. You visit my home in Donholm and we spent the entire Sunday afternoon together. We talk intensely about an urban farming project that our organization is rolling out in the City. Because we are both big fans of Trevor Noah, we watch (for the third time) his Netflix show, son of Patricia.
As a preamble to one of his jokes, he declares that, “you can hate immigrants all you want but if you do, you don’t get to eat their food.”
Then he nails it, “no Mexican food, no Caribbean food, only potatoes!”
You laugh so hard that tears form at the edges of your eyes. As for me, my hearty laughter can be heard from the gate. A few minutes later, I open that gate and you dash off to your place.
The following morning at 10AM as you are furiously typing a response to an urgent email, a cough erupts from your lips. Then another one. And another one. A running nose appears soon afterwards.
Flu doesn’t run marathons. Rather, it sprints so fast that one minute you are fine and the next minute you are sneezing, coughing and feeling like a wet blanket that needs squeezing.
You got your flu from me. The flu viruses didn’t care that my flu symptoms weren’t showing yet. It’s only later that night that I also started coughing, sneezing and blowing my nose. Unknown to both of us, my laughter and conversation opened the floodgates for droplets containing flu viruses to ambush you.
If you hadn’t come to my home, you wouldn’t have gotten the flu.
Zoonotics, the diseases that spill over from animals to humans, can only affect us, if we keep intruding into the homes of wild animals. Or if we yank those animals away from their homes. This is exactly what was happening at the Wuhan wet market where Corona virus was born. The civet cats, live snakes, turtles, cicadas, guinea pigs, bamboo rats, badgers, hedgehogs, otters, and wolf cubs that are typically sold at wet markets across China have no business being in these markets. They belong to their natural homes in forests and wild landscapes.
As far back as four years ago the United Nations Environment Programme reported that, ‘around 60 per cent of all infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic as are 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases. On average, one new infectious disease emerges in humans every four months.’
In December 2019, Covid-19 was one of those emerging infectious diseases. Years earlier, diseases like Ebola, Lyme, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Zika had also emerged from that lethal confluence of unwanted human and wildlife interactions.
We can keep lethal pathogens from spilling from wildlife into our bodies by keeping wildlife away from our hands, homes and plates. When wildlife cuisine makes it into our plates, the only thing that will emerge out of that plate is not a delicacy, but the deadly aroma of disease and death.
When wild animals become our housemates in the name of pets, we are guilty of kidnapping them from their natural homes and might pay the price of contracting viruses from them one day.
When it comes to wildlife, extreme social distancing from them is the best course of action. It will conserve them and keep us healthy.
God forbid that Covid-19 will spread in Africa so much that more and more patients will require ventilators (also known as respirators). A ventilator is a breathing machine that helps people who can’t breathe on their own to breathe. One of the tragic potencies of Covid-19 is that it can yank you to a place where you simply can’t breathe on your own. When that happens, a patient needs a ventilator to help pump oxygen into their lungs and body even as it helps the body to get rid of carbon dioxide.
USA has approximately 160,000 ventilators. Meanwhile, Sierra Leone whose population is almost 8 million has 13 (it also has 31 Government Ministers); South Sudan has 4 for its 11 million people (it also has five vice-presidents); Central African Republic, with a population of 5 million, has 3 (it also has rich deposits of diamonds, gold, oil and uranium); Liberia, a country with roughly the same population of 5 million also has seven ventilators, with at least three of them being in the private hospitals. To make matters even worse, ten African countries have zero ventilators.
If you searched for an African country with ventilators in the three digits (100 and above), that search will come up with less than five countries. Because data is a notoriously slippery creature in Africa, its virtually impossible to know the actual number of ventilators in each country, leave alone across the continent.
God forbid that the corona virus should infiltrate refugee camps in Africa. There are approximately 18 million Africans living in these refugee camps. They live in such close proximity that social distancing is a near impossibility. For instance, Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp is home to 194,000 refugees. This means that there are twice as many people in this singular refugee camp, than the entire country of Seychelles. These resilient refugees are fellow Africans and shouldn’t flee war in their countries only to fall into the invisible corona arms.
God forbid that corona virus should slither into heavily populated informal settlements like Nairobi’s Kibra. I have friends in Kibra who often have no idea where their next meal will come from. How are they supposed to win the war against a tiny, invisible enemy when they can barely find visible food? The system has let them down during normal times and will probably fail them during these unusual times. Which makes you wonder what would happen if the corona virus decided to set up camp among them and millions of other low-income earners in Africa.
God forbid that the lockdown juggernaut starts ripping its way across Africa. Whereas to the middle and upper income earners a lockdown will just be a detour on the road back to health and normalcy, the story is markedly different for the low-income earners. For them, a lockdown is akin to a solitary confinement where hunger abounds. Most of them eat what their daily hunt delivers. If they don’t hunt (work) on any given day, there will be no food at the end of the day.
God forbid that Covid-19 visits the bodies of thousands of Africans per country, not the current tens or hundreds. We simply don’t have enough doctors to treat that many patients. While Italy has 1 doctor for every 243 people, Kenya has 1 doctor for 17,000 people. Tanzania is worse, with a doctor to patient ratio of 1:20,000. Unsurprisingly, this life and death ratio is a lot worse in many other African countries. But Corona virus doesn’t care if you are prepared for it or not. Within two weeks in April, it claimed the lives of three Cameroonian Doctors: Dr Kakizingi Lazare, Dr Felix Kwedi and Dr. Tchouamo Michela, all of them from Douala General Hospital. Their tragic passing on worsened Cameroon’s already dire doctor to patient ratio of 1:40,000. These doctors were however, not just tragic statistics. They were fathers, sons, uncles, colleagues. And now they are gone. In Cameroon, as in the rest of Africa, the loss of one doctor doesn’t just rip away an irreplaceable life; it also shatters a lifeline for thousands of people.
The World Health Organization recommends a doctor to patient ratio of 1:1,000. African governments must move mountains if they have to, in order to meet this target. Corona virus must jolt them towards this direction. Indeed, this lethal virus has exposed the underbelly of deeply flawed governance on the continent. It has revealed the dark truth that in most African countries, there are more big cars than isolation wards where patients with infectious diseases like Corona can be treated; that if you fill South Africa’s FNB Stadium (also known as The Calabash), which is Africa’s largest stadium, to its full capacity of 94,736 people, those people will be lucky to get four or five doctors. In many African countries, there will be only two or three doctors for almost 100,000 people.
So God forbid that there will be an influx of Covid-19 patients into hospitals. There will simply be nowhere to treat them and no doctors to treat them. And even those that will find space in the few isolation wards available will find health workers with insufficient Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). BBC reported last year that in certain hospitals in Southern Nigeria, doctors lack basic PPEs like gloves, so they often have to borrow them from patients. Yes, gloves.
It’s time for Africans to take off their gloves and call out the total underfunding and corruption in the health sector. How can Kenya, a country of fifty million people, have only 518 ICU beds?! Nairobi, a City of five million people, has only 247 ICU beds. Yet unfortunate as this is, it is double the 120 ICU beds in the ENTIRE Nigeria! Please remember that Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation. At least that was the case in 2017, so one hopes that Nigeria has in the last three years added drastically to their ICU beds capacity. All in all, there are less than five thousand ICU beds for Africa’s 1.1 billion people.
Fellow Africans, take off your gloves so that doctors, nurses and all health workers can have gloves, masks and all the critical Personal Protective Equipment that they need not just during this Covid-19 crisis, but thereafter. Take off your gloves so that your governments can prioritize health by: training and employing at least ten times as many doctors and nurses; building at least five times more hospitals; purchasing thousands of ventilators and PPEs for these hospitals and filling all hospitals with thousands of new critical care (ICU) beds.
It is utterly immoral and unacceptable for Africans to keep being sacrificed on the altar of greed, incompetent leadership and corruption.
Let us take off our gloves so that our doctors can put on their gloves; so that when diseases visit our societies, they can find strong shields of quality, world-class healthcare.
Only the woman or man in your mirror can tell you what your version of taking off gloves is. But whatever it is, its implementation will depend on your courage and principled stand.
God forbid that we should be afraid to take off our gloves. Africa is counting on us to do so.
War Crimes entail serious violations of international humanitarian law.
Are you guilty of war crimes if your action (or deliberate inaction) results in the death of more than 113,000 people and the infection of nearly two million people? I will leave the legal answer to this question to legal scholars. But from a moral standpoint, I dare say that the answer to that question is a resounding ‘yes!’
Dr. Xu Zhiyong, a legal scholar and former university lecturer from central China agrees with me. In an open letter to China’s President Xi Jinping, Xu writes that, ‘your prevarication led to an unconfined and explosive spread of what is now a nationwide epidemic.’ Simply put, to prevaricate is to lie; to create a false impression. For weeks, President Xi and Chinese authorities created a false impression that there was no corona virus in China; that everything was under control. That was a lie.
In his open letter, Xu Zhiyong went on to state categorically that, ‘A disaster is bad enough, but bungled leadership can make it much worse. In this case, it resulted in a chaotic response.’ Spot on bro. Spot on. Because truth hurts, Chinese authorities have since arrested Dr. Xu.
Because of the lie perpetrated by these same authorities and their chaotic response, invisible assassins swaggered out of China to South Korea, Singapore, USA, Kenya, Cameroon, Ghana and the rest of the world.
Before walking away from Wuhan, these lethal assassins were roaming the streets, homes and hospitals for almost a month. Chinese authorities initially ignored them, consequently empowering them to go on an infection spree.
At this moment in mid-April, more than 3,200 Chinese from Hubei, the region where Wuhan City is located, have died. Among them is Li Wenliang a 34-year-old doctor with a Masters in Medicine. He was among the first whistleblowers to lift the lid on the corona virus that was crawling, flying, walking, riding and moving stealthily through Wuhan.
This young doctor lost his life on 6 February 2020, leaving behind an expectant 32-year-old wife and one child. About six weeks before his tragic death, he had informed friends on a Chinese online chat platform about patients who were flooding his hospital with a mysterious illness. Three days later, City Health officials summoned him and forced him to sign a statement indicating that his online disclosure had been ‘illegal behavior.’
Such silencing extended to dozens of other doctors and health workers across Wuhan. In seeking to save face, Chinese authorities were arming those tiny, silent, lethal assassins to storm the world and murder unsuspecting mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, aunts, uncles… masses of people from all races and classes.
If China’s President Xi Jinping had been honest not just with the Chinese people, but with himself, he would have contained the virus speedily. Instead, his administration oversaw official denials and lies during the pandemic’s first weeks. If Chinese authorities had walked along the path of truth, it’s highly likely that the virus wouldn’t have made it out of China. And if it did, it wouldn’t have swept to every corner of the world.
Because President Xi Jinping chose to be dishonest with his people and the world at large, the world is at a virtual standstill, writhing in physical pain, social turmoil and economic ruin. There should be legal and moral consequences.
President Xi is a trained Chemical Engineer. He therefore understands that certain equations have absolute results! He is also a very tenacious fellow. In the early seventies, he applied to join the Communist Party of China a record ten times before he was finally accepted. Obviously, tenacity runs through his veins. He could have used this tenacity and China’s mammoth government apparatus to uproot the corona viruses before they flew wings and took off to the rest of the world. China, the leading global exporter now has the dubious distinction of having exported corona virus to the world through infected people.
Imagine if Corona Virus had been unleashed because people in Kenya, Cameroon or any other African country were eating bushmeat bought from a legal urban market. Imagine then that the government of the said African country had denied existence of the disease, then suppressed information about it. Can you imagine how the world would have reacted with RAGE!
To be clear, corona virus is not a Chinese virus in the same way that the malaria-causing anopheles mosquito is not an African mosquito. The Chinese people are also victims of their government’s totalitarian BS that created perfect breeding ground for the virus to thrive unbothered for several weeks.
That totalitarianism found new life in 2018, when China ended the presidential two-term limits, in effect making Xi president for life. And you know what they say about absolute power? It corrupts absolutely. Leaders who deliberately nurture a personality cult end up treating those who don’t worship them as devils who should be cast out. Such leaders, whether they are in Asia, Africa, Europe or America, do their countries a lot more harm than good.
It was therefore unsurprising that on Christmas day 2019, the politburo, which is the Communist Party’s principal policy making committee, officially named Xi as the ‘people’s leader.’ Only Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People's Republic of China, had held this title before.
As far as am concerned, you don’t become a people’s leader because someone confers that title to you, but because you lead your people to a better place. That’s what Thomas Sankara did in Burkina Fasso; what Mahatma Gandhi did in India; what Patrice Lumumba did in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Tragically, these three leaders – true people’s leaders – were all assassinated. But their ideas and inspiration lives on:
Thomas Sankara, “Imperialism often occurs in more subtle forms, a loan, food aid, blackmail . We are fighting this system that allows a handful of men on Earth to rule all of humanity.”
Mahatma Gandhi, “I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.”
Patrice Lumumba, ““Political independence has no meaning if it is not accompanied by rapid economic and social development”.
Indeed, President Xi Jinping is many things, but the people’s leader he is not. His inaction early on has directly affected more than one billion Africans economically and socially – corona virus has now infected thousands and killed dozens.
As a compensation, China should wipe away all the debt it is owed by African countries.
Those quick, no-strings-attached Chinese loans paved the way for China to drive into Africa, roll out colossal infrastructure projects and generally take over vast parts of national economies.
While am happy to drive on new Chinese-funded roads, I wonder whether that good feeling is just a lull before the storm. After all, abusive relationships often last for long because of the few moments of bliss that abusive partners use to hoodwink abused partners.
China’s sheer negligence during the onset of the Corona virus pandemic should be a wakeup call for Africa that it is time to walk away from this abusive relationship.
Lenin, the Russian communism maestro once said that, ‘a lie told often enough becomes the truth.’ This works most of the time, but thankfully, not all the time. Not even China’s famed propaganda machine could quash the virus. As such, China’s post-covid-19 PR tsunami should not sweep us back to business-as-usual.
I don’t expect that President Xi will be charged at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
He should at least be charged in the court of public opinion, especially in Africa where thick red carpets are always laid out for him and his team.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr used to say, ‘a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.’ Ultimately, it is up to Africa to stop bending and allowing China to ride its back.
For starters, the African Union should charter a flight to go and evacuate the African students who are being victimized in China.
In the mid and long term, Africa must STOP bending her back and walk away from this abusive relationship.
On that day that I left for my first ever trip to Egypt, my sister Gish escorted me to the airport. She always did this back then. Whenever I was traveling out of the country, papa would pray, then Gish, myself and any other visitors who happened to be visiting us at that time would pile into Ngash’s taxi - it was one of those black London taxis - and we would drive off from Umoja to the airport.
That day, after they waved bye through the glass walls at the airport, Ngash dropped them back home.
My boss Charles Sebukeera was also flying on the same flight, which made me a bit nervous. Although he was quite easygoing, he was still my boss, so there was a mountain of respect between us.
When the history of Africa’s environmental assessment is written (maybe I should write it one day?), Charles will be one of the top three lead characters in that book. He has been part of Africa’s environmental assessment journey for almost three decades now.
That morning as we waited to board, Charles and I talked a bit about the Africa Environment Outlook for Youth, whose production I was spearheading, then strolled into the Egypt Air plane and disappeared into our respective seats.
When we landed in Cairo, I just couldn’t stop smiling. I was in Egypt! The land of pyramids. I could literally hear my heart beating in my chest. Even before reaching the immigration desk, I instantly texted Papa to tell him that I had landed in Egypt. Then I looked behind me and smiled at the three men and one lady who were behind me in the queue.
“Is it your first time here too?” I asked the guy immediately behind me. He had a shaggy beard and professor spectacles. And a deep frown that he instantly dished out after grunting a singular word, ‘no.’
We matched out of the airport right into the welcoming party’s smiling faces and outstretched hands. Two gentlemen ushered us into a black car and we drove off into the open arms of Cairo. President Hosni Mubarak’s photos were everywhere - on the billboard, sidewalks, building walls - everywhere. During the first decade of his reign, Kenya’s former President Moi’s photos had also been everywhere but not to this extent.
Looking at President Mubarak’s photos caused me to remember about his predecessor, President Anwar Sadat. He had led Egypt from 1970 until his assassination in 1981. He is one of my favourite presidents from Africa, with my all-time favorite being the late President Thomas Sankara of Burkina Fasso.
President Sadat once said that, “He who cannot change the very fabric of his thought will never be able to change reality and will never, therefore, make any progress.” Can I hear an Amen to that? If you desire progress in your own individual life, your community or country at large, focus on changing the fabric of your thought.
After checking in into a swanky hotel, I literally jogged into an elevator, as if afraid that it would leave without me and I would miss my room. Thankfully, my room was waiting for me when I matched into it two minutes later. I felt as if the walls had an extra shine to them. The room seemed happy to see me. The large bed cajoled me to lie in it instantly, which is exactly what I did. Within seconds, I leapt up and dashed to the window to see Cairo, half-expecting to see some pyramids in the distance. I was particularly eager to see the Great Pyramid of Khufu, which was the tallest man-made structure on earth for over 3,800 years. Makes me wonder if the Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest building in the world, will still be holding this record after 3,800 years! It may not even survive for a fraction of that time. Time will tell.
Of course I didn’t see any pyramids from my window. Just nondescript buildings that could have been in Nairobi or Lagos. But I felt the thrilling vibes of being in Cairo, Africa's largest and oldest city. I couldn't help but agree with the Bantu Poet Bwak, who wrote that, 'like the Nile that flows through it, Cairo glows with shimmering life.'
From the corner of my eyes, I noticed a TV remote on a shiny wooden study table. It was one of those big remotes with one million buttons on them. After a long search, I found the power button, pressed it and smiled with satisfaction when the TV came on and poured out an avalanche of Arabic. I increased the volume, eager to soak in as much Arabic as I could.
The following day, I met amazing young North Africans who were attending the Africa Environment Outlook for youth meeting that I was leading. There was Saada from Sudan; Medhat, Shaimaa, Suhayla, Asmaa and Mahmoud from Egypt; Sofian from Tunisia; Khaled from Libya and Muhammad from Morocco.
Shaimaa had a cheeky glint in her eyes that mirrored mine. My heart instantly whispered to my mind that Shaimaa and I belonged to the same emotional tribe. For the five days that I was in Cairo, our eyes locked several times and uttered words that our mouths couldn’t or wouldn’t. She was my protector in the busy, crowded streets of Cairo. Whenever we had to cross the crazy roads, she would practically hold my hand as Mahmoud kept vigil. These two were utterly incredible. I owe my enduring love of Cairo to them.
Sofian from Tunisia was a big, quiet guy. Probably had the spirit of an elephant hiding somewhere in his soul. I would have told him this but he only spoke French and Arabic. Back then, I hadn’t started learning French, so the only French phrase I knew was 'voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?' I definitely wouldn’t use this on Sofian. Google its meaning.
Then there was Sohayla from Egypt. The dimple on her right cheek injected an extra sparkle into her smile. Even now, ten years later, I can still see that smile glistening from a corner of my mind. I can also clearly see Asmaa another Egyptian lady, shy but quite cheeky. Her tender voice has stubbornly refused to depart from my ears. Mohammad Hassan, her country mate, was a bearded young man who could easily have won the title of the most jovial in the group. He was one of those people whose faces are permanently in smile mode. Leading this team as the north African sub-regional coordinator was Medhat Nagi, a recently graduated lawyer. He had a calm soul that helped in shepherding the occasionally boisterous meeting. The final member of the team was Mayar Sabet, who was the editor of the youth publication that this youth process was going to produce. Her deeply analytical mind was a marvel.
This was the dynamic team of young North-Africans who ended up writing a critical chapter of their region’s environmental story. I was privileged to lead and partake in this endeavor. And to exchange those sparkling looks with Shaimaa as our eyes spoke in a beautiful language that our tongues couldn't taste.
Dahlia and Suzanna from CEDARE, were amazing hosts. Their story will come soon. CEDARE was and still is, UNEP’s Collaborating Center in North Africa.
There were three of us on the high table, and I was the only one dressed in casual attire. The two other gentlemen there were both in official shirts, tucked in properly. I was too excited to notice this discordant dress code. You see, it was my first time in Mauritius and ever since I knew about this trip in the final months of the previous year, I was too excited to sit still – and dress officially.
My journey to Mauritius had begun the previous day at Seychelles International Airport.
When I handed in my passport to the ticket attendant at the airport, there was only one goal on my mind – to make sure that I would share a seat with Fabrina, my new friend from Seychelles. Luck had placed us on the same flight, so now it was up to me to ensure that we would share adjacent seats. That way, I would have a chance to ask her a million questions and tunnel deeper into her heart. Thankfully, that’s exactly what happened. For nearly three hours, I asked Fabrina about her family, favorite food, hobbies, relationship status – thank God she was single – and many more. When I had arrived in Seychelles earlier that morning, she had graciously picked me from the airport and hosted me at their home for several hours. Despite the fact that I had known her for less than twelve hours, it already felt like I had known her for a long time.
When we landed at Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport in Mauritius, my eyes were darting everywhere like an excited rabbit. Finally, I had set foot in Mauritius for the first time ever in my life.
Because you never forget your first time, I still remember my first landing in Mauritius as if it was yesterday. Because of this Island country’s fame as a beach destination, I had been half expecting that serene white beaches and palm trees would be visible at the airport. But all I saw were immigration officials with the kind of glum faces that all immigration officials seem to wear irrespective of the country. I did notice that many of them were Indians, which left me wondering why there were so many Indians yet we were in Mauritius. That was before I knew that one out of three Mauritians are of Indian origin.
Sarjoo, the Western Indian Oceans Sub-Region Officer of our project was waiting for us when we stepped out of the airport’s immigration area. He was short and slender, with a calm visage and an earnest presence. We drove with him to the Young Farmers Training Center in Belle Mare. Also staying there were the youth environment leaders who were attending the UNEP Africa Environment Outlook for Youth Western Indian Ocean Islands sub-regional meeting. Among them were Sébastien Martial from Reunion Islands, Vola from Madagascar and several other leaders from Comoros Islands and Mauritius the host country. It felt strange that I was the only non-Islander in attendance.
For three days, I joined my fellow youth in exploring the Western Indian Ocean Islands environmental challenges and opportunities. I marveled about the way they talked about the ocean with such passion, as if those salty waters of the Indian Ocean were life-long friends. Five days later, on April 23rd, I left Mauritius for Jo’burg. Sadly, Fabrina wasn’t seated next to me this time. She was on a different flight. But we were on the same team of young people who were deeply invested in Africa’s environment.
Through my organisation, Environmental Africa Trust, I am still deeply involved in environmental action across Africa. Visit the website below to find out more about how you can be involved: