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COVID-19 IN KENYA: “CRACKY NO PAYEE!”

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When we were youngsters, we indulged in numerous games. From Kindergarten all through to the finality of primary school -myself in cahoots with friends- relished spending countless days together doing anything long as we derived fun out of it. In retrospect, if you were fortunate to have parents that attended to your needs meaning school fee, healthcare, clothes, food and the occasional luxury of toys then you were set. Free to be a child and poised for life. Prepared to surmount the onerous task of passing time. Lest you suffered a great deal of boredom whilst left to your own devices. Any reasoning adult would be compelled to think it is easy for a child to find joy after all his needs are catered for but trust me it’s not that simple. I will annotate. For a start, as a child, your own home is not the venue to do your much needed soul searching because your parents prefer that done elsewhere. Far from the house in fact. Parents find it very difficult reconciling themselves with your ideas of enjoyment. Neither can there be a middle ground nor consensus about this. It’s not profitable, non-negotiable. Why ?
Perhaps, at 8 years, what I made of fun was practicing my painting on the carpet since my art book felt too small a canvas for a toddler thinking too big. In my view, my persona befits the carpet and so I will paint there.
After ingesting some sugar, I would love to trampoline on each sofa in the living room just to sate the rush despite the seats being neatly spread with colourful sheets like all distinguished African households are. But that innocent act is tantamount to courting trouble.


Or I would go out of my way to explore the efficiency of bulbs in every room. Repeatedly switching them on and off to see how many times it takes for one to get burnt. Then with that assessment a conclusion on quality of bulbs in the house can be made.
In school, they had taught us how to hiss like a snake. You narrow the gap between your tongue and top gum then blow air into it. But I am not a snake neither have I gone for the maiden snake park trip meant to take place in Standard 5. Since I am eager to familiarize myself with that sound, it’s only right I deplete the gas cylinder and listen to the “hiss of gas” as it streams out and with a nod of approval, I think, “Bingo! Now that’s what a snake sounds like.”
Sometimes I envy the fictional character ‘Spiderman’. He hovers over places to be inconspicuous , produces enduring webs at the comfort of his fingers, gallantly squares people up and does all sorts of things I believe I can do better. Therefore, via an imbued spirit I hang on the dining table chandelier in a bid to ape and outdo ‘Spiderman’. It’s a rebuttal to fictional cartoon characters for testing my mettle.
All this and more are my ideas of fun. Parents see me doing such and their faces wrench, writhing in want – wondering what has this boy lacked. But they just do not get the thought process behind my endeavor and spell havoc in all I do purely for fun. And since the power dynamics in this, caregiver-child relationship, are inherently rigged in their favor. They have their way and a resounding resolution is made through the thunderous voice of my father, he says, “ Do that anywhere but in my home!” I complied. With fellow comrades, bearers of a similar fate as mine.
So we spent holidays and weekends outside. Our small minds collated together, brainstorming on how best to invest ourselves in a hive of activity fulfilling our eccentric concepts of fun. Concepts of fun that adults judged and berated trying to make us believe we did not belong. But in one another we saw our pain, plight, and affliction. A gaze into a brother’s eye was a gape into your own soul. In each other we saw ourselves. We found uniformity in our peculiarity. In this breath, we came up with pastimes. We came up with pastimes to pass time. The end year November-January recess was the longest annual holiday. Damned were you without anything to do outside the house because that meant you ruffled feathers of “parents” and usually it ended in tears for only one party. Your bet is as good as mine on that.

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We played games as many as the twenty four hours of the day. In the morning, we would play ‘three sticks’, where you actually jump three sticks and the spaces in between them are extended as the game progresses. The game ends when no one can jump beyond the three sticks including the ‘extender’- the guy who is attributed with the longest hops throughout the game. Girls engrossed in ‘Kati’. It’s like ping pong except there’s someone in the middle and that’s the target, so you throw a ball of sock back and forth at the target till you hit it(her) then she gets eliminated. Afterwards, we would have relay footraces in the estate then the lofty boys who had bicycles would partake their ‘Tour de France’ as well. You barely twitch an eyelid and it’s lunchtime already. Now, this was a moment of the day that was tactfully decided upon. We would go for lunch in whoever’s house we felt the best food was being served. It took some mastery to read this, like the aroma oozing out of the chimney at that hour, or the mood of the house aide when she came to call one for lunch, or if she will actually come outside to fetch you for lunch. Silence said a lot about what was in the works for your tummy. Of course, it was a proverbial crime ditching your own food to eat at a neighbor’s place but if it’s tasty you keep taking that risk.
Post lunch and more play ensued. We arm wrestled, engaged in ‘mchongoano’ – basically belittling one another and even fought for no apparent reasons. At around 4pm it was football time, yes, the plump guy was always the goalkeeper plus the owner of the ball decided who played and when it was time to go home. Those were unwritten rules, nonetheless, enforced. Lucas, I dare not forget, was a hallmark of our childhood. To date it remains undisputed, he wielded the ‘holy grail’ – an item that set him apart from the hoi polloi in the kingdom of children. He had a pedestal the rest of us were bereft of. Lucas was the ‘Haves’ of kids. Us the ‘Have nots’. It was a video game console, PlayStation 2. He was the pioneer of video games in the estate. At least until promotions caught up with our parents at their workplaces. Or maybe until you could convince an African father why you needed to twiddle your fingers before a TV screen all day yet at 8 years of age, he had already walked barefoot to Yugoslavia and back. I know you get the picture. Lucas was a deity for having all that to himself still in lower primary. Everyone pandered to him just to get a chance to play it in his living room. With such a bargaining chip, you arm twist all decisions your way. He was a baby tyrant. Lucas would let out a scathing remark against you then right after, whitewash his transgression by inviting you over to play. That was his childhood legacy – diktat. And we never revolted.
Some ploys were reserved for auspicious dates, Christmas Eve and New Year’s day. Those were nights we would crack fireworks till morning light. Residents would wake up to deflated tyres and contended with continuous ringing of doorbells at night. Perpetrators of these heinous acts not in sight. I am still optimistic karma will be lenient with me in my adult life. Hopefully, my penitence will hand me a tamed level of mischief incomparable to what I put grown ups through in my juvenile days. It’s a prayer elongated to fellow guilty childhood counterparts.
Nevertheless, a single game lay etched in my memory as a highlight of those formative years. Goes by the moniker ‘bano’. Its exciting as it sounds. ‘Bano’ is a game of marbles customarily played in the dirt. Red soiled or sandy ground would do so long as the field is fairly level. It’s a popular game in many neighborhoods in Nairobi. From the suburbs to informal settlements. Rules on how to play are constantly subject to debate. Depends on where you were raised, each neighborhood carved out it’s own. However, fundamentals were maintained despite your area of origin. Purely due to the respect everyone had for the game. Regardless of your status, ‘bano’ reigned supreme and so when people from diverse estates mingled there had to be a way to play ‘bano’ together. That was upheld by maintaining a standard set of procedure. For that reason, everybody loved it, it’s a common kid’s game. Indiscriminate.
Some of the standard rules were;. Two or more players could play. It was accommodating, mattered less how many you were. You have marbles you play. Secondly, a narrow hollow hole had to be dug in the middle of the ground known as a ‘pill’. Fingers, specifically the middle ones, were the tools you used to ply your trade – the ability to squat for prolonged periods is also a deal breaker. It’s simply a flair of marbles being struck till a winner emerges. If your ‘bano’ gets knocked into the ‘pill’ unfortunately elimination looms. When someone knocks it so hard it splinters or vanishes into a nearby thicket, that herculean act is called a ‘sticky’. ‘Sticky’ was an embarrassing moment for any participant taking part. It epitomized the disregard an opponent had for you. This leads me to my favorite rule of ‘bano’ which happens to be the headline of this text.’Cracky No Payee!’ Yes forthright as it reads, if your marble cracked nobody pays including the detractor who inflicted that damage. Marbles would crack and break from time to time especially after a hefty ‘sticky’. Hence, if you are served a ‘sticky’ so gruesome it obliterates your ‘bano’ – the opponent is at liberty to invoke ‘Cracky No Payee!’ at the height of his voice and there is nothing you will do about it.
‘Cracky No Payee!’ is an epigram I religiously identify with as I tread the path of life on Kenyan soil. The path of a sprightly Kenyan person. It’s a phrase I find heavily applicable to our present day politics and current affairs. Even so, our bungling of Covid-19 at the behest of our government. ‘Cracky No Payee!’ denotes zero accountability for damages incurred on the field of play. Nada. Neither is there refuge nor redress for the aggrieved. It’s a leeway for persecution. Woe unto you. You who is browbeaten and further humiliated for being vanquished. Nobody pays for your broken ‘bano’. More so, your cowered spirit. Suck it up and move on unassuaged.
Ditto, in the Kenyan sphere of life. You are hounded by police, arbitrarily evicted from a home you procured lawfully, leaders steal taxpayers money, leaders flout government regulations, leaders shoot civilians at work, still it stops at nothing. Periodically, Kenya blatantly disdains your sense of humanity it makes you numb. Indifferent. The state is a savage of a polity. Every time I think of justice for an aggrieved party, a banner pops up in my head reading – welcome to Kenya the land of impunity. Sincerely, anybody can get away with anything in this place if they hold the long end of the stick.


It was not until last week that I finally gasped at another ‘Cracky No Payee!’ moment. Midday, July 6th, Harambee house. Uhuru Kenyatta has the whole country listening in on his verdict – to reopen or not ? Before we delve into the decision he made on that day, it’s important we revise the parameters he had earlier stated as thresholds for reopening. Perhaps what would guide the return to at most, a semblance of normalcy. On June 6th, Mr. Kenyatta stood before his “fellow Kenyans” to deliver a similar update. It was a day more anticipated than July 6th, with netizens christening it ‘independence day’. He was in an agreeable shirt. The umpteenth one he has worn before the republic – fished out from his collection of gregarious shirts.
In that address he stated the following as ‘irreducible minimums’ for lifting restrictions put in place. First, infections must be contained and headed downwards. Additionally, our healthcare systems must be prepared sufficiently to take on a surge in infections. Healthcare systems must not be overwhelmed at any one point during the pandemic – giving the example of Siaya county having only 10 beds and having recording 9 infections already. Not only must the healthcare systems be prepared but also access to testing, isolation and quarantine must be a bare minimum. Lastly, government capacity for surveillance and contact tracing must be in place.
As he concluded that speech, there is a paragraph he read that evoked a slight sense of security. It goes, “Finally, I wish to assure each and every Kenyan that I shall do all that is necessary to limit the negative effects of Covid-19 on our people, economy and way of life. Rest assured, my administration will restore our lost livelihoods, our lost opportunities and lost wealth.” I am yet to come across a graver promise in a time when everything is in a precarious state. Assurance and 2020 sounds so contradictory, like an oxymoron. Our President took the high road and boldly assured us, I chose to believe him because assurance is a feeling we have been immensely deprived in our national psyche for years. And so we conformed for another 30 days hoping in that window progress towards ‘irreducible minimums’ will significantly be met.
Alas! July 6th talk in town is about ‘civic duty’ in fighting the pandemic. Response to Covid-19 would be contingent on county preparedness. Which indeed is true for health is a heavily devolved function despite the innumerable times counties get spited by the Executive. More so, all restrictions lapsed apart from dusk-dawn curfew. Then I thought, are infections and deaths plummeting ? Is our healthcare system up to speed ? Or does he actually have a plan to restore all that has been lost ? Answers were not forthcoming. The wording around that speech was greatly inclined towards resuscitating the economy. Which of course plays right into the President’s hands because he has to find a balance between sustaining lives and livelihoods. Nevertheless, government has a cardinal duty of delivering necessities of life to citizens. The fact is, the President backtracked on his word and the task before him at large. We all thought shutting down was in essence buying government time to adequately equip itself with what was needed for a proper response. Kenyans acknowledge that Covid-19 is a situation every other government in the world is teetering it’s way about. Kenya too is winging it. But we made derisive remarks about our neighbors in Tanzania for their approach. Which was no approach at all, life is going on just fine there. What was the point of Kenya taking a course of action without going the full length of fulfilling it ? Restrictions were put in place while cases were way below three digits then 100 days plus down line, de-escalation happens and still Kenya is ill-prepared .
It is not lost on me that the effects of the pandemic have been far reaching beyond the disease itself. Collateral damage emanating from the government’s response has led to more deaths than Covid itself is responsible for. From domestic violence, Police Brutality, heightened crime, joblessness, disruption of normal healthcare services especially victims of non-communicable diseases but to mention a few. That is as lucid as daylight.
For the President to stand on a national podium, pontificate that the response to this magnanimous pandemic is down to ‘civic duty’ was harsh to hear. Further, using an economy that was already on it’s knees pre-Covid as a scapegoat. Again was underwhelming. Now counties are looking into the heavens for help. Grapevine has it that Migori county has resolved to buying coffins in preparation for mass burials. It is now on newspapers, Governor’s and other top state officials are equipping their homes with ICU beds. But for the rest of taxpaying Kenyans it is their ‘civic duty’. If we were to reopen, the very least we expected was to have a clear outlook on what to do in response to Covid-19 together with the array of side effects it has presented. For the head of state to jump ship just 30 days after arming us with the warmth of assurance; such an act, surely is a mother of all capitulations. It is a flagrant affront to the people of Kenya. Here we are jobless, hungry, clobbered and when we fall sick we do not know where to look. This has actually turned out to be the case. One week post reopening and we are recording fatalities within communities because hospitals are unable to cope. We lost Doctor Adisa earlier this week– to even think that a compensation package for doctors is yet to be implemented is absurd. Frontline workers putting their lives on the line are footing their own medical bills. The state perpetually alienates itself from it’s own people including in crises when unity is needed most.
The beauty of language is it provides latitude to guise real intentions under palatable words. It is indeed, in the interest of every politician to obfuscate. Politics is about that business – fence sitting. However, in times of crisis politicking is counter-productive. The President vowed to be transparent with the handling of this thing and what we are witnessing has been anything but. As a leader, you may be utterly inept but in times of crisis, a little candor goes a long way in mitigating a problem. People are uncertain, fiddling with their haziness only makes them more despondent. Consequently, they engage in even riskier activity despite facing an imminent threat. It’s convenient to blame Kenyans for accelerating transmission because they have downed their tools in fighting this pandemic. But that only happened because they were pushed to by the singular organ they looked to for salvation.
‘Civic duty’ for me, is a declaration of abdication. The President just told as, live live, you are on your own in this. ‘Civic duty’ means nobody is accountable with whatever happens including those who are to be held accountable. Perhaps because the rules are lopsided. ‘Civic duty’ translates to the fact that Kenyans are in a ‘force majeure’ situation and they are in it for a free fall.
Mr. President. In lieu of equivocating and attempting to mask government deriliction in two words, ‘Civic duty’. In my view, it would have saved everyone the burden of interpretation. If. You came before us in one of your swanky shirts. And said, “My Fellow Kenyans, Cracky No Payee!”


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