After six months of isolation in Kenya, we are being asked to leave the isolation of our homes, and try to rediscover normal situations.
This comes two weeks after the informal reopening of Kenya. While the night curfew duration was extended, larger social gatherings were allowed and bars were officially reopened.
Last Friday, I went to my first formal corporate function in seven months at a Nairobi hotel.
There are lots of new gadgets in buildings all around. There was a tiny screen that showed the temperature of my face as I walked into the hotel. Did it also take my picture?
There was a handwash basin at the entrance that starts the water flow by pressing a button with your knee. It was neat to use but I’m not sure if ladies with short skirts were considered in the manufacturing design process.
Inside, everyone was wearing masks. People look unfamiliar, and if you don’t expect to meet someone, you won't recognise them behind a mask.
There will now be a premium on being on time. First, you RSVP so the organisers assign you a seat, and by filling your name at the registration desk, this could become part of an all-important contract tracing list. But if you are late, you may find the venue saying no to more admittance.
Those events where the hotels bring over extra seats and line them up at the back of the room are gone.
Social norms changing
The old event norm of starting conversations with strangers at tea-time is gone. I got a cup of coffee and went on to sip it and bite a meat samosa. But a strange man also came over with his plate of food and stood at my small table with his mask hanging off his chin. I stepped back discreetly and put my mask on as I pretended to read a message on my phone. When he went to get a refill of tea, I lowered my mask, ate quickly, then moved away.
In the new normal, payments have evolved. It’s no longer necessary to carry a wallet. Your phone is all you need to pay for anything – except buses who once had a head start.
A few years ago Equity Bank and Google tried to bring cashless payments to public transport. But, the project did not take off as expected, and so while other companies quickly adapt to cashless payments, of card and mobile, the PSV sector has come out of the Covid period as tied to cash as it was at the beginning.
One good thing is that matatus and buses are now more comfortable with the middle seats empty.
This reminded me of the time when John Gakuo and John Michuki tried to bring sanity to Nairobi streets and matatus respectively, and end some of the bad behaviour that was their characteristic. And while there has been some backsliding, a new normal was established, one in which people did not expect to stand in a matatu and they waited to find a dustbin, before throwing away a used soda bottle or bus ticket.
But when a Covid vaccine is found, will we go back to squeezing into a matatu? I hope not.