• Kageni, Mutia, Winja and Mumo have learned to live with confinement, gloomy news
• They feel ‘Covidiots’ breaking virus rules back home are ‘guilty of attempted murder’
One of life’s small pleasures in rainy Britain is going to the park to soak up the sun. In Scotland, avenues of cherry blossom line The Meadows. But anyone sitting down to enjoy the atmosphere finds themselves being shooed away by the police.
“The weather is so nice at the moment, it sucks we can’t do anything,” says Brenda Kageni, 21, from the University of Edinburgh.
Fellow student Daniel Mutia, 23, says if someone told him this could ever happen, he would flat out deny it. “It feels like a bad dream, which will be over in the morning,” he says.
“Stay at home” is the buzzword that has brought life to a standstill to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared a lockdown on March 23, four days before revealing he himself had been diagnosed with the virus after famously announcing, “I shook hands with everybody” at a hospital with Covid-19 patients.
The Star spoke to four Kenyan students in the UK on how they are faring in the eye of the storm, and why did they did not take the offer to fly back home today.
University of Edinburgh trio Kageni, Mutia and Veronica Winja, 27, as well as University of Reading’s Mumo Liku, 23, all admitted to some difficulties but made it clear they are not stranded.
Fortunately, none of them has experienced Covid-19. In any case, all students pay for medical cover and, as such, expect to be treated well. “But I guess the biggest worry is the stigma and stress that may come with suffering from the illness,” Mutia says.
It’s a reality that over 170,000 people in Britain have woken up to, and counting. The UK is now the second-hardest hit country in Europe after Italy as both race to the 30,000 mark in death toll.
Because its curve is flattening a lot slower than Italy, Britain is expected to overtake the Italians and have the highest death toll in all of Europe.
What people are seemingly trying to protect right now will not matter once their health or that of the public is compromised. Be wise and stay at homeVeronica Otieno, 27
STUDYING FROM HOME
“This season needs a lot of willpower,” says Winja, who is pursuing an MSc in International Business and Emerging Markets.
“The first week of staying at home was so hard for me. All I did was curl up in my bed with so many fears. I wasn’t productive. However, with support from God, my family and the school, I managed.”
At Reading, Mumo had only two lecturers left before the semester was derailed. The MA in Creative Enterprise student was planning to shoot a film as part of his final dissertation, which was to be based in Morocco. But with the prevailing uncertainty, he’s thinking of a plan B and even C.
The university is supporting him and all students transition to online learning. “There are coursework deadline extensions, exams have changed from sit-in to take-home, and there is student-staff matching to help those vulnerable to infection receive essential food or medicine,” he says.
Kageni is grateful for the deadline extensions. “Honestly, online studies are quite challenging with everything that is happening,” the Biomedical Sciences student says.
“Some disruptions caused by the lockdown can’t be compensated, really. Including work experience and internships that were cancelled. That was quite devastating but necessary, I suppose.”
Mutia, an Electronics and Electrical Engineering student, makes use of a lecture recording system, where recordings from last year have been uploaded so students can watch concepts they were not able to cover.
Moreover, every course has a discussion board, where students can upload questions and get answers from fellow students or the lecturer.
However, the closure of libraries and lack of group work has hindered his progress. “As an engineering student, I do a lot of projects that require me to be in the lab. My university closed a week before I could finish and hand in my labs,” Mutia says.
“That was a bit discouraging as there are things I had been working on for over 10 weeks and was really looking forward to seeing them through.”
Weren’t the students tempted to fly back home and ride out the pandemic among family?
Mumo says he and his folks weighed the flight and quarantine costs and decided against it, initially because they thought the pandemic would be a passing cloud.
“Furthermore, my family felt it was better for me to stay here since the healthcare system is in a better position to treat me if I was to be infected,” he says.
Mutia considered the stable Internet connectivity. “Also, at this point, if you travel to Kenya, then you have to do 14-day quarantine, which could translate to 28 days. I don’t think it’s worth it.”
Such confinement would throw Winja off balance, considering she is only left with dissertation in her course. “Initially, my goal was to protect my family. The UK was highly exposed and I didn't think I was safe, too,” she says.
“But with time, other factors, such as a good study environment, love for the city and of course, the sun, kept me here.”
For Kageni, it was a hard decision to make. She would have loved to see her family but could not anyway since they live in Meru and Nairobi is on lockdown.
“Personally, I am afraid of contracting the disease at the quarantine centres after managing to come all the way home,” she says.
Their families are worried about their safety and keep urging them to take care, as Kageni recounts. “They call a lot, every day with the same message of stay indoors, wear masks,” she says.
She feels the media has hyped the situation to be worse than it is. Her family, on the other hand, thinks she is not worried enough.
But all four are grateful to their families for always checking on them and providing emotional support. “We will rise again,” Winja says. “God will see us through.”
‘NOT A HOLIDAY’
Every time Mutia turns the TV on, whatever time it is, day or night, the only conversations and broadcasts he finds are about Covid-19. More cases. More deaths. He finds it sad and demotivating.
“If I have a busy day inside without looking at social media, I can, for some moments, forget what the world is going through and focus a bit,” he says.
To stay informed but also sane, Mumo only seeks Covid-19 updates every two or sometimes three days.
Winja has quit watching the news altogether. She’s even deactivated her Twitter account. “Keeping up with the numbers heightened anxiety, considering I was monitoring both UK and Kenya,” she says.
Kageni is keeping an eye on developments back home, where cases are now approaching 500 and deaths are in the 20s. Otherwise, she is also avoiding the news.
“There is too much panic information being passed forth. I am sure if anything changes, I would just hear about it,” she says.
The students miss the freedom of life before the lockdown, just being able to move out and not really worry about sickness.
Winja misses coffee dates and hugs with pals. “I miss interacting with people in church, school, shops and even on the streets,” she says.
Mutia misses the Premier League and playing football himself every Friday. Kageni misses meeting friends and eating out. And Mumo misses open mic nights at the Student Union building, festivals and concerts.
Confined at home with depressing news, they have found different ways to distract themselves.
Winja turns to prayer and reading the Bible for hope and peace. She entertains herself by watching movies. Kageni cooks a lot more than she used to, reads novels and follows a home workout plan.
Mutia has been too busy with schoolwork to notice the days flying by. But in his downtime, he video-calls friends on Houseparty to catch up and plays games.
Assignments are the bane of Mumo’s existence, who has also taken up online courses. “I always have to remind myself that this is a lockdown and not a holiday,” he says.
When taking a break, he walks in the park, rides a bike and also works out at home.
DIFFERENCE WITH KENYA
The four do not think the UK will have anti-lockdown protests like in the US. Mumo points to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which began on March 1 and will run for at least three months.
The government has also stopped landlords from kicking out tenants for three months, while suspending mortgage payments for 90 days.
Students have not been forgotten, Kageni says. “I heard the university has set aside money for those who are going through financial hardship as a result of the pandemic. It is not a lot but it is something to get us through,” she says.
Mutia, who has been in the UK longer than the rest — since 2017 — is a student representative who liaises with the Kenya High Commission.
“The embassy has stated their availability to help any Kenyan who is distressed in any way,” he said.
“I know they are already helping out a couple of students and families that have lost their breadwinners.”
Having seen how bad things got in Italy and Spain, Britons understand why the lockdown has to go on. Plans to ease restrictions are in the pipeline anyway.
However, Mutia and company would not prescribe a total lockdown for Kenya. “For a developing country, the economic effects could be dire,” Mutia says, calling instead for self-responsibility.
The problem is that many people in Kenya are still not taking the virus seriously. High-profile individuals have been caught breaking the rules, while some commoners believe it is a rich man’s disease that only affects travellers.
“They should stop being Covidiots,” Winja says, citing a Swahili saying to forewarn them. “Ukiona cha mwenzio cha nyolewa, chako tia maji.”
Kageni is also scathing of such Kenyans. “They should know they are guilty of attempted murder,” she says.
The restrictions are not only to protect them but also an entire nation, she adds. The only way to end this pandemic and go back to normality, she says, is if everyone is willing to bear a little discomfort with the hope of a better tomorrow.
Unfortunately, Winja adds, many people, including the UK, waited to learn from their own experience. “What people are seemingly trying to protect right now will not matter once their health or that of the public is compromised,” she says.
Mumo says educating the public about the pandemic should be of utmost importance. “More than just instilling fear, it is important for the population to have a full grasp of what is at stake,” he says.
Mutia thinks myths led to a false sense of security. At first, he says, many thought it was a disease for Asians, and then for whites. By the time reality hit home that it does not discriminate, it was too late.
That scenario where the police find someone lounging at the park would probably play out very differently in Kenya, where police have reportedly killed 11 and tortured 41 during the curfew.
“Police in the UK are more of servants rather than masters,” Mutia says. “When you see the police, you feel safe.”
Winja says the cops are very friendly. They walk around, yes, but you’ll not be stopped or harassed unnecessarily unlike in Kenya, she says.
Mumo says using force is the last resort when all else has failed, a point Kageni reiterates. She urges Kenyan police to “stop beating people ruthlessly”.
“I don’t think all the brute force they use is necessary to maintain law and order. If they have to fire their guns, they should not use live bullets, unless they are anti-terrorism police,” she says.
However, Winja notes that citizens are also taking personal responsibility. “The streets are actually empty,” she says. “People are not playing Tom and Jerry games like in Kenya.”
She says Covid is an opportunity for Kenya to redefine itself, citing industries that have come up. “This means we have always had the capacity, just not the motivation,” she says.
Brenda says anxiety and fear are more dangerous than the disease, urging everyone to keep calm and take the necessary precautions. Mumo also calls for positivity, saying the human race is resilient.
Mutia wishes countries would strive to be self-sufficient and create more opportunities for their people.
“When this is all over,” he says, “I hope we will be better human beings. That we will take better care of each other and the environment.”