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KENYAN LIVES DURING COVID-19

Kenyan weddings, births and deaths in the virus age

TheGitongas held their wedding reception at home with only 12 people present.

In Summary

• Mr and Mrs Gitonga's is a story of true love in the midst of a pandemic. It's also the shape of a new normal in Kenya - small, intimate and pocket-friendly weddings.

• Overall, the Covid-19 crisis has wiped away politicians' ubiquitous presence from the media and Kenyans seem to be enjoying the peace and quiet.

Francis and Veronica Gitonga spent a sixth of what they had budgeted for on their wedding.
Francis and Veronica Gitonga spent a sixth of what they had budgeted for on their wedding.
Image: FRANCIS GITONGA

In our series of letters from African journalists, Joseph Warungu looks at how coronavirus has changed the lives of Kenyans, from birth to death.

Sheila Atieno* is on standby to help a young woman who is 32 weeks pregnant deliver her baby. Dr Atieno has done this many times before. But this birth, when it happens, will be unusual.

The expectant woman was brought into a special ward at a public hospital in the capital, Nairobi, after testing positive for coronavirus.

 

Dr Atieno, a consultant obstetrician gynaecologist, is part of a small team of doctors who have been identified to attend to expectant women who display symptoms of the virus.

Dr Atieno's world has changed drastically. She is a mother of two children under the age of two years.

"It's been very difficult to cope with the fact that I will be specifically attending to expectant mothers who are infected with the virus," she tells me.

"I'm about to perform a caesarean section, which usually involves handling a lot of body fluids. Although I'll carry out the operation while dressed in a protective suit, it makes you quite hot and uncomfortable.

"And when I get home, the children will want to rush into my arms. But I can't touch them until I have changed, showered and sanitised myself.

"It's tough mentally and emotionally. But I have no choice - it's my job to usher in new life, with or without the pandemic," Dr Atieno says.

The newly wed couple

 

Francis and Veronica Gitonga are a young couple on honeymoon at their rural home in Nyahururu, which is about 200km (125 miles) from Nairobi.

They had planned their wedding for 5 April. They invited 500 guests to witness the big moment when they would each say: "I do!"

But when they did, only six people were allowed inside the church - the bride, the groom, their best couple and two presiding pastors. No parents, no family, no village mates.

Social distancing rules and travel restrictions brought about by Covid-19 distanced hundreds of people from their wedding.

The couple held their wedding reception at home with only 12 people present.

They had the option of postponing their wedding until life returns to normal. But they chose not to.

I asked the couple if they regretted not delaying the wedding to allow more of their family and friends to attend.

"No, we have no regrets," says Mr Gitonga, who works with the Redeemed Gospel Church in Nyahururu.

"We felt like God had spoken to us to go ahead with the wedding. After all, Veronica and I love each other deeply and being joined together in church before God was all we ever wanted.

Mr Gitonga told me Covid-19 not only changed the couple's wedding plans, it brought some unexpected benefits.

"Our wedding was going to cost about 300,000 Kenya shillings ($2,800; £2,250). But without the guests, the catering, hire of a venue, etc, in the end we only spent 50,000 Kenya shillings.

"And now we are receiving a lot of calls from young people in different parts of Kenya saying we inspired them to do humble weddings instead of marrying big and then falling into debt."

Mr and Mrs Gitonga's is a story of true love in the midst of a pandemic. It's also the shape of a new normal in Kenya - small, intimate and pocket-friendly weddings.

The mourning family

During the night-time curfew imposed by the government to try and curb the spread of the virus, a 13-year-old boy, Yassin Hussein Moyo, was shot dead by police.

Yassin is not the only victim. Across the country people are nursing broken limbs and other serious injuries inflicted by the heavy hand of a police force whose motto ironically is, "Service to all".

Covid-19 has opened the door to state-sanctioned brutality.

Yassin's father, Hussein Moyo, bitterly captured the sentiments of many Kenyans when he said at his son's funeral: "During the day we face the threat of the virus and at night we have to contend with police terror."

Yassin Hussein Moyo
Yassin Hussein Moyo
Image: COURTESY

Kenyans, most of whom earn a meagre income from the informal sector, are frequently heard on radio and TV explaining how they have to grapple with three enemies - the new coronavirus, hunger and the police.

The ridiculed politician

James Orengo is a veteran politician and an elected senator from the main opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party. He usually has his finger on the pulse of the nation.

At a special Senate sitting on electoral laws in January 2017, Mr Orengo, who is a lawyer, spoke on the dangers of passing bad laws and famously warned ruling party legislators not to be too comfortable in government.

"Sometimes revolutions eat their own children… governments eat their own people. This government is going to punish you more than they will punish me, I am telling you," he said. "In another one year, you'll be crying in my office to come and represent you."

That quote is one of the most cited by Kenyans. But with Covid-19, Mr Orengo misread the mood of the public when he tweeted: "Drove myself to parliament to take the COVID-19 test. Compliance with the guidelines critical in the fight against the pandemic."

The backlash was immediate.

"So where do commoners like us drive ourselves to?" tweeted one Kenyan, and another tweeted: "Politicians really think that driving themselves is such a big deal. What's wrong with this country?"

Overall, the Covid-19 crisis has wiped away politicians' ubiquitous presence from the media and Kenyans seem to be enjoying the peace and quiet.

There appears to be an unspoken rule among media organisations - keep politicians off the news agenda unless they are speaking in a medical or other relevant professional capacity.

Politicians must be worrying what will happen if Kenyans get used to life without them.

The lucky prisoner

Covid-19 has forced justice to go digital in Kenya with some magistrates using video links to serve their orders.

One beneficiary of this is a man accused of stealing a bible from a supermarket.

Following proceedings via a TV screen while in police custody, he was relieved to hear that he will now continue his case as a free person after the judge ordered his release on a free bond.

It's part of new government efforts to tackle Covid-19 by decongesting prisons, which has already resulted in the release of 4,800 petty offenders.

The man in the bible court case will no doubt be using a bible to join other Kenyans praying to be spared the worst ravages of Covid-19.

Life, clearly, cannot be the same again.

* The doctor's real name was not used because she was not authorised to speak to the media.