New Internationalist

Hope FM

Issue 379

A mother and family reunion…

A mother and family reunion…

‘You saved me! You saved me! You saved me!’ Hope FM is blasting through the taxi’s sound system. It’s a Christian evangelical station, playing pop music with a religious message, interspersed with soundbite homilies from a smiley-voiced DJ.

We have arrived at Nairobi International Airport and been met by Nancy’s eldest son Joel and taxi-driver uncle Munyui. Nancy’s two big suitcases are bundled into the trunk, the various overcoats she was wearing – gifts of course – have been removed and the taxi has joined the jam to leave the airport compound. So far it looks like anywhere else in the world, logos for international car-hire firms and airlines giving the stamp of a uniform, globalized identity. It’s as if the intended message were: ‘This is Nairobi. See. It’s just like anywhere else.’

Soon, however, I get my first distinctive feel of one of the nation’s favourite topics of conversation – the state of the roads. It’s a persistent, jolting reminder of the degradation of Kenya’s infrastructure during the long reign of Daniel Arap Moi and his disgraced KANU party. ‘They stole everything, ran everything down,’ is the common refrain.

We travel through what, in the dark, looks like a wasteland. Every now and again we have to slow down for metal spikes in the road indicating a police roadblock ahead. ‘Car-jacking’ is a regular crime, prompting owners to keep doors locked and have serial numbers engraved in large letters on their windows.

Hope FM continues blasting out its message. Nancy and I have already had the ‘God talk’ on the plane. I’ve established that her family are devout Christians and she has established that I am not. ‘I don’t understand you English people,’ she says. ‘You brought us Christianity and now you don’t want it for yourselves.’

Hope FM is now preaching the virtues of sexual fidelity and abstinence. AIDS isn’t mentioned by name but it’s the unspoken backdrop.

The taxi makes a sharp turn and we stop at a big iron gate. A sign reads ‘Komarock Phase IV’. Before letting us in a guard asks for a house number. I had not expected a ‘gated community’.

To my eyes this neighbourhood is not especially wealthy and the houses have fewer mod-cons than the rented house Nancy and her daughter Ruth share with another African family in England. But the level of security suggests that for many Kenyans this is wealth. Around 60 per cent of the capital’s people live beneath the poverty line.

Nancy is pleased to be home – and pleased with her home. Understandably. She was able to buy this house for $25,000 out of her earnings as a nurse in England. ‘I would never have been able to do it on a Kenyan nurse’s salary.’

Nor in England on a nurse’s salary today. This is one of the factors contributing to the migration of 8,000 British nurses a year to better-paid jobs in countries like the US, prompting Britain’s own serious – though by African standards, trickling – brain-drain of medical staff.

Nancy’s house in Komarock currently provides a home for her son Joel and great-niece Juliet, who works nearby in a hairdresser’s shop.

Inside the house, a TV screen takes over from Hope FM. It’s tuned to Family TV, and is showing a US hybrid of a chat-show and a fire-and-brimstone sermon. But no-one in Nancy’s living room is paying much attention to the preacher’s high-voltage offerings as we eat and chat, the conversation switching between Kikuyu, Swahili and English, as Nancy catches up on family news.

Alarming statements

After a meal of ugali – a kind of cornmeal mash – and kale the big moment comes. Nancy unzips her hand luggage to reveal a Sony video camera. She hands it over to her eldest son Joel. For a moment the 26-year-old is speechless. He suddenly looks about nine years old. It is the piece of equipment the young journalist and cameraman has dreamed of. He thanks his mother as he examines it from every angle.

He knows that this has been a big sacrifice for her. It’s a pricey piece of kit by anybody’s standards – but he has assured her that with this camera he will never need her help again and she can concentrate on helping other family members.

I ask him what difference it will make.

‘It will have an immediate effect on my income. I can use it for filming news footage and for hiring out.’ Joel, a communications studies graduate, has shot film for the country’s main TV channel, Kenya Television Network, but has been hampered by lack of his own equipment.

This is a good time to be in the news media. When it came to power in December 2002 the National Rainbow Coalition opened the door to unprecedented press freedom. Today some ministers are doing their best to close that door, especially when they find their activities – or assets – questioned in the media.

‘There’s now a battle between the journalists and the politicians,’ is how Joel sees it.

Recently Security Minister Chris Murungaru invoked criminal libel laws and an arcane colonial offence of ‘publishing an alarming statement’ to arrest the Kenyan Standard newspaper journalist Kamau Ngotho for an article he wrote about the minister entitled ‘Mr Moneybags’.1

There was a furore. Maina Kai, chair of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, declared: ‘It is only in dictatorships and repressive societies that libel is criminalized and the continued existence of this law is a slap in the face of Kenya’s aspirations of becoming an example of a functioning democracy in Africa.’

While an editorial in The Daily Nation pointed out: ‘Politicians are not special. They are servants of the people, and they should resort to civil process if they have a beef with journalists, not shackle them in handcuffs.’2

Nancy gives her granddaughter her name – and a glimpse of the family pastor, Great Aunt Evelyn. Photo: Vanessa Baird Some members of the Government are defending the press, however. Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Deputy Minister of Environment, has called upon her fellow politicians to protect press freedom. ‘Everyone in power would rather the press only reports on the good things about them,’ she observed, before urging the media to be courageous, as it had a crucial role to play in the democratization of the country.3

After midnight, Ayub, Nancy’s younger son, appears. He’s come straight from his shift, serving in a restaurant and bar. Nancy, who does not drink alcohol, is not too happy about the job. But it’s better than being unemployed – which was his previous state.

Ayub usually works a staggering 18-hour day, starting at noon and finishing at six the following morning. He is red-eyed and exhausted. And he’s got a five-month-old baby daughter. He goes home for just a few hours before going to work again.

For this he earns $70 a month – not nearly enough for him, his partner Winnie and the baby to live on. He knows it can’t go on like this and so does Nancy.

‘Now I’ve helped Joel, I must concentrate on Ayub,’ she says.

Eventually, we go to bed, Nancy and I sharing a room. Outside the dogs are barking and toads croaking. Sleep comes, but not for long – at 3.00am Nancy announces that it’s time to get up. ‘We need to get going!’

I point out the time. Nancy laughs cheerfully and goes back to sleep. Instantly.

She is up again early. I pretend to be asleep, but it’s no good. Nancy has started doing housework. She wants to get going. She is a woman with a mission and soon I understand why. She cannot wait to see her new, and first, grandchild.

Wambui meets Wambui

We set out for the Nairobi suburb of Mwiki where Ayub, his partner Winnie and the baby, live. On the way we pass large gangs of young men hanging around, waiting. There is a quarry nearby and they are hoping for a day’s work shifting building materials. Unemployment statistics for Kenya vary quite dramatically, ranging from 25 to 40 per cent of an 11.5 million workforce. Either way it’s high and its social and economic effects are clear to see.4,5

This has not happened overnight. The negative effects of IMF-imposed structural adjustment programmes and globalization have been filtering through for many years. The public services have been ‘retrenching’ workers by the tens of thousands since 1993.4 The new government promised to create half a million jobs a year, but these have not materialized. A recent survey indicated that 73 per cent of Kenya’s poorest people were willing and able to work but could find none.6

In this context it’s not so hard to understand why Ayub is putting up with such appalling work conditions. We arrive at the couple’s one-roomed flat. Their daughter, to whom they have given the first name of Alexis, is now to be given Nancy’s traditional Kikuyu name, Wambui.

The baby had been crying a lot in her first few months, but she is all smiles and bright-eyed curiosity now. Nancy picks her up with the confidence of a midwife and says: ‘She looks like me.’ Little Alexis Wambui gurgles obligingly. Nancy dresses her in a little woollen jacket that one of the residents in the Oxford nursing home knitted for her.

Ayub is smiling. The soft-spoken 24-year-old tells me: ‘It makes me very happy to have my mother here. We miss her a lot. When she is around we can talk and she can see, she can have a vision of what it is you are saying. But when she is away, she is sending money and she does not see what her money is doing.’

Ayub has a vision. He wants to ditch the bar job and start a small business selling cigarettes.

Once he has made some money from this business, he and Winnie, who is a cook, could set up a small restaurant. I imagine that Nancy, as a health professional, will be keener on the second part of this plan. But Ayub does not want Nancy to sacrifice her own dream: when she gets back to Kenya she wants to set up a health clinic in a poor district which has none.

Nancy Wambui leaves her son’s home content.

‘I have seen my granddaughter at last.’

The next part of our journey is not to be so happy.

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