• Somehow in those old days, people got a good night’s sleep.
• Although they did have a habit of waking up very, very early; so much so that many of them were able to regularly hear the cock crow.
In the old days, there didn’t seem to be much comfort. Just look at what they called a pillow – more like a little wooden stool. Hurts the neck just looking at it. In the bedroom, no comforter on the mattress, no mattress, hardly a blanket or a mosquito net.
There might have been some, who were lucky to sleep in the kitchen. Perhaps the embers from the fire helped, keeping the mosquitoes away, at least until you fell asleep. One consolation may have been the absence of blue light – the light we get from our phones and tablets, that disturbs our attempts to have restful sleep on what should be a comfortable bed.
Somehow in those old days, people got a good night’s sleep. Although they did have a habit of waking up very, very early; so much so that many of them were able to regularly hear the cock crow. Something we hear of less and less, except when it’s some tenderprenuer flaunting. Later on, for some, there is the grilling, usually at the wrong temperature with obvious results.
Those days, after working the farm, towards the afternoon, people would visit each other. Because houses were tiny, people sat outside. Furniture was rare, so you sat on a smooth rock or on a nice patch of grass, except if you were a Mzee. An elder had the privilege of a stool or a folding chair. The elder came with his special chair, carried for him to the meeting venue. Of course, all this would be under the shade of a handsome tree.
Today, we still live in tiny spaces, the middle class call them executive apartments. That small apartment will be crammed with a huge flat-screen TV, wall to wall sofa, many, many shoes, maybe a fridge, then a big bed. Air is optional. Our urban areas have few organised open spaces where people can meet for free.
In the eastern part of Nairobi City you can count the number of trees. In the estates immediately surrounding the CBD, Kileleshwa for example, the only trees that exist are those on plots waiting for developers. An illusion of a suburb. So even in the western part of Nairobi, counting trees is now possible. Despite increasing individual wealth, community social wellbeing is disappearing with the trees.
Covid-19 has highlighted the absence of a larger society looking after everyone. At individual level, preventing Covid-19 infection is a three-step process. Keep social distance, wear a mask and if eligible get vaccinated. The minimum distance required to prevent the Covid-19 virus from jumping from person to person is 1.5 metres. The average size of a room in an apartment is about three by five metres. That is, more than 2 people in the apartment breeches the Covid rule of physical distancing.
So, do we then wear masks indoors? At home? Problem is where is the air? Much of the space in the apartment is taken up by furniture, and many, many pairs of shoes, so little air is available, which compounded with our traditional small window approach to building, compromises the airflow.
What about going outdoors? Already we know there is a problem. The little decent space is often privatised, a fee is required to access it. An apparent solution then is to vaccinate everyone. At roughly Sh1,000 per person, that is a Sh50 billion solution at a minimum, solving only the immediate problem. We would still have the problem of our unhealthy lifestyle designed around a poor built environment.
Almost everyone has been affected by Covid-19 in one way or another. Social protection has emerged as a major need. More than ever people have had to come together to help each other out in their time of need. Yet the traditional method, gathering around those bereaved, removing your mask, eating, had been curtailed.
Those institutions that we would turn to, the churches, bars, clubs, to comfort us when we are distressed have been hammered by Covid-19. So the routes of escape from the realities of what we have built have been blocked by the virus. The lie of a functioning health system, where we have learnt to ignore the wails of doctors and nurses who see the façade every day, Covid-19 has exposed.
The pandemic will end. After one year, fewer people talk about returning to the ‘normal’. The opportunity exists to re-examine some of the assumptions of urban development and what wealth is. So, we have to create a new society, not premised on the assumption that good quality air and oxygen is an option. That accumulating things at the expense of social equity means development.
Maybe the idea that we could meet under a tree, where we all sit on the grass or a rock, the odd chair, is a good one. We are all equal. Who knows, the new normal might even be one where we get to grill things at the right temperature. A recipe for a healthy society.