What you need to know:
- With the informal economy being the largest urban employer, it was inevitable that they would soon bolt out of lockdown.
- Now, it’s mostly the grim consequences of being caught in a tight spot during the curfew that is keeping many compliant.
In these coronavirus-battered times, I rarely leave my man cave, thanks in part to the fact that I can conduct all my business online.
But on Monday I went to Ruaka, Limuru Road. It was getting to 5pm and there was a massive jam. It reminded me of the period after the 2008 post-election violence when Nairobi and many parts of Kenya were all but dead.
Then-minister Chris Murungaru quipped that he had never been happier to see traffic jams creeping back to Nairobi’s streets as it was indicative of a slow return to normality.
The Ruaka jam brought a similar delight — except, coronavirus hadn’t been defeated. The people, as they have done over the ages in the face of adversities that is the defining condition of life in Africa, had finally plucked the courage to confront the monster and their fears.
Even before the government had considered any measures to formally ‘reopen’ the economy, others like South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda are doing it partially.
In many parts of the city, streets are crowded and hawkers are back. If it weren’t for the face masks and the ubiquitous sanitiser, it would look like a normal slow day. This as Kenya’s confirmed cases of Covid-19 increased.
It’s not because the people aren’t aware of the risks. With the informal economy being the largest urban employer, and so many living from hand to mouth, it was inevitable that they would soon bolt out of lockdown.
As the popular expression goes, the lottery of being infected by the virus is a far more attractive option than the certainty of starving to death if they don’t get out to eke out a living.
Now, it’s mostly the grim consequences of being caught in a tight spot during the curfew that is keeping many compliant.
But that is only part of the story. Most people, but Africans in particular, process danger very differently because it surrounds them on all sides, on most days, in most places.
In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, when the rebellion in northern Uganda was at its worst, we made a suicidal journalistic foray into the area.
Past eerie villages and abandoned gardens, we all of a sudden came upon a grass kiosk. Of all things, it had a shiny new Pepsi Cola sign.
Inside, the young attendant had a crate of Pepsi, and on his ‘counter’ were sweets, cigarettes and handkerchiefs hanging on a wire on the side, some over-the-counter painkillers and buns. There wasn’t any other sign of life.
It seemed extremely dangerous and risky that he would set up shop in such a desolate place, where he could be robbed and killed by the rebels or the army.
But he was unafraid, even saying business was good. He smiled when we asked how he got his supplies.
As to his customers, he said they were all around but we couldn’t see them as they were in hiding. They came out when they needed to shop. And he sold to both sides of the war.
There was that story out of Yemen. When the capital Sana’a was being pounded, there was a place that served as an underground church for East Africans on Sunday.
Despite all the restrictions on alcohol, roadblocks, and murderous purist militia, on the rest of the days the “church” was a bar, serving smuggled Tusker and other drinks from Kenya and offering an illegal feed of the English Premier League on TV as bombs rained outside.
The drinks probably set off from Lamu or made their way from Kenya, into Somalia and on through the battle lines.
In many of our countries, there is a vast space that is not governed through the provision of public goods like education, health, housing, security, transportation or lighting by the State.
Often, the only form of state intervention is police and military terror in periods of restlessness and protests against rigged elections.
Survival takes broadly two forms. One is innovating solutions; people, for example, make lights through all sorts of contraptions off car batteries or steal it from the power line a distance off.
A year ago, a community worker in an African country that will remain unnamed shocked me when he told me he went to an area outside a town which had a 10-kilometre-long illegal power line passing through bushes and gardens supplying stolen electricity to about seven villages.
The second is daring and courage that is deeply wired in, especially, the marginalised sections of society.
It is informed by the knowledge that they are likely to die soon through a hundred possible ways. Coronavirus doesn’t change those odds.
And then, also, by this entrenched idea that we die when our time has come, and trying to do anything to turn back that clock is an unwinnable race against fate.
To many of these people, trying to beat the coronavirus is not a health issue. It’s a class privilege.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the Wall of Great Africans; @cobbo3