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Together Apart: Kenya’s New Normal during Covid-19 Pandemic

The Kenyan community of existence[1], brotherhood, and carefree fellowship laced with laughter and wild partying is gone. The alluring aroma of Nyama Choma (roasted meat) better enjoyed with a legion of friends and family are now replaced by sullen lone meditations in the stifling covens of personal libraries, empty compounds, and deserted streets. The breathtaking sceneries of the natural flora and fauna in Kenya are no longer magical. The aura has been forcefully towed away from our very eyes by the novel Coronavirus.

This must be the time that prompted Charles Dickens to write the following often cited phrase in the opening paragraph of his novel A Tale of Two Cities: “[i]t was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…[2]” It seems to be the worst of times for us in Kenya today. With partial lockdowns and dusk to dawn curfew, closure of eateries, dens of booze, schools, and places of worship, ours is a time of great despair.

Our despair is amplified by our peculiar habits[3]: people blatantly refusing to keep social distance and even to wear face masks; the wheels of justice coming to gridding halt and the defenseless Kenyans left at the mercies of the police who have brazenly become the jury, the judge and the executioner, violating human rights with impunity. The Kenyan hawk-eyed capitalists have seized the opportunity to fleece Kenyans through hoarding of essential goods like foodstuff, hiking prices to unreasonable heights. This, coupled with rumours of employers downsizing their workforce, retrenching, and slashing their employees’ salaries has turned the legendary happy Nyama Choma eating fellows to gloomy-faced disembodied solitary mourners. All these thanks to the infamous novel Coronavirus.

Words like lockdown, curfews, and social distance have gained currency and make a lot of sense today than they did in yesteryears. It is like they have just been invented. They are being uttered with a hitherto unknown phonetic seriousness. This is because the government of Kenya has presented them as carrying the hope and the future of the Kenyan people. Lockdown, night curfew, maintaining social distance, and sanitizing our hands will save lives, the government has urged. Together apart is the new normal in Kenya today. The Nyama Choma country is no longer partying yet the resilience coming from the hope that the new normal will just pass is overwhelming. The weekend getaways from the carefree middle-class citizens have ebbed away and we are now adopting a look-after-yourself-first dogma. 

This strategy has brought out two atypical groups of people in Kenya, each fighting a different war altogether. The middle class is seriously fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, religiously heeding to the government’s directive of stay at home. The other group, the hoi poloi, sees hunger as a more serious pandemic more than the Coronavirus. To them, hunger will kill them faster than the corona bug; to them, hunger presents an uglier death than the virus. However, as Michel Foucault once argued, a plague of this stature is met by order[4]. The government of Kenya has laid down new regulations aimed at restricting movements, even for the poor. Anyone flouting these rules is put in a forced quarantine under his or her cost. Together apart is the way to go.

This “together apart” mantra has adversely affected human relationships, especially the family units here in Kenya. Togetherness is now a frowned at virtue. Brotherhood is gone, and the women chamas (women support groups) have slowly died out. The men who have been part-timers in their own homes, the absentee fathers have now come home and have nowhere to go. Happy families have been turned into new prisons, spouses of many years becoming strangers to one another. You see, in Kenya this plaque is unmasking people, exposing new identities that all this time have been hidden in the deep recesses of our psyches. The inward gaze is making us examine and evaluate our relationships. The superficiality and pretense that characterizes our togetherness, brotherhood even in places of worship and dens of booze has been put in the open and is no secret anymore. Behind that veneer of modesty, holiness, and Ubuntu apparel we are just base, hollow and dishonest friends, taking advantage of friendships, relationships, and family to satiate our colossal cravings. This pandemic has told us who we truly are. 

The near-death experience, the scare that has laid bare the vulnerability of human life has put checks and balances upon human relationships. For many here in Kenya, Covid-19 pandemic, while unmasking the villains in our families, society, and government, it has trained people to focus more on those neglected sites of their being; the self and the spiritual. Many of the other things that join us in relationships are basic, ephemeral, and phantasmagorical. 

May 2020

Stephen Mutie is a Gender/Sexualities Studies Lecturer at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya, and a Fellow at the Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies.

[1] Olney, J. 1973. Tell Me Africa: An Approach to African Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

[2] Dickens C. 2003. A Tale of Two Cities, Book the First, Chapter I.

[3] Kim, P. 2017. Kenyans' peculiar habits that are funny and worrying. https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/ureport/article/2000229923/kenyans-peculiar-habits-that-are-funny-and-worrying

[4] Foucault, M. 2008. “Panopticism” from Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts, Volume 2, Number 1, pp. 1-12

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