When news about the local outbreak of infectious pneumonia of an unknown etiology hit headlines in December 2019, most here in Kenya viewed this with skepticism. Never would we have imagined that what we thought was just a small localized infection was in fact a global health pandemic spreading its tentacles around the world. Never would we have imagined that there would be a new surge here thanks to the travel that continued in and out of the Nairobi airport from Asia and Europe well after the warning signs suggested it should be closed to stem the pandemic’s spread. Never would we have imagined its devastating effects on our families, our health, our livelihood, our basic survival.
Although there had been an explosion of information regarding its origin and implications across various media platforms, at first people here joked about Chinese people eating wild bats and snakes as the cause of this deadly pandemic, COVID-19. Chinese nationals here were and still are framed, profiled, stigmatized, stereotyped, and scapegoated as the force behind the rapid spread of infections, which now as I write are occurring and recurring at an unprecedented rate.
As this new “unprecedented” year began, Christine (my wife) and I thought 2020 would be like any other year, not imagining that a global public health crisis was already brewing. The very first activity that was abruptly cancelled was a baptism church service for my baby Emily, named after a dear friend and partner in gender equality work, Emily Nielsen Jones. One by one a flood of other plans and activities were subsequently cancelled as the COVID-19 pandemic spread locally and globally.
Having a baby girl in my arms during this pandemic has shaped how I have gone through this challenging time and what I have seen and noticed.
As reality and fear of contracting this deadly virus became real, Christine and I decided to go back and live in our childhood rural home, Kodumo village. We wanted to safeguard our lives and the health of our young children, especially little Emily, who by then was just four months old. The decision to go back and live in the rural village would see my family adopt and cope with a totally different environment, with no electricity, no running water, living in a small one-bedroom house. We had to adapt to a village lifestyle of pastoring/grazing and taking care of my mother’s animals, working on the corn and bean farm, and re-learning how to burn charcoal for fuel.
This kind of life is what I lived more than twenty years ago. Now, with my mother as our teacher during this pandemic, my wife and I have exposed baby Emily and our three other children, Samuel (age four), Mimi (six) and Bill (nine) to this same life – working on farms, collecting firewood from the bushes, collecting water on our backs from the village water pans, and grazing the animals. At night, sounds of hyenas and wild dogs drive sleep away. Snakes are daily visitors in our compound, as fears of the pandemic continue to knock on our door.
Although stay-at-home orders, self-quarantine, lockdowns, and restricted movement help curb the spread of the virus, these measures have negative and serious consequences on low-income communities like mine, as hunger, biting poverty, and rising cases of sexual and intimate partner violence are on the rise, with women and girls experiencing the blunt end of all of this. Many women and girls are being forced to “lockdown” with their abusers, increasing their exposure to physical, psychological, and sexual violence. With support from the Imago Dei Fund and other partners, my organization – the Institute for Faith and Gender Empowerment (IFAGE) – is currently reaching out to support local communities impacted by COVID-19. We have been working with and through our network of local faith leaders, community paralegals, community health volunteers, local chiefs, and police/security officers to distribute food and relief to approximately ten thousand vulnerable families/groups, including people living with HIV, disabled women-headed families, and families/women with young children.
As we have been doing this work, our chief concern has been finding ways to raise awareness and work to stem the increasing tide of sexual and intimate partner violence – an ancient pandemic that existed long before COVID-19 but is made worse during natural disasters like this.
The impact of COVID-19 on the Kenyan economy has been profound; the economy is teetering on the brink of collapse. Markets and supply chains have been disrupted, businesses have closed or scaled back operations, millions who work in the informal sector have lost their jobs and livelihoods. This is harming everyone, but humanitarian crises like COVID-19 disproportionately impact women living in poor or developing countries. Their capacity to absorb economic shocks is less than most men, as they carry the lion’s share of the burden to feed and sustain their children and family.
Juggling my work with IFAGE and the daily struggle to survive here in the village has not been easy. As I got back into the rhythm of village life for my own family’s survival, I have become more in awe of women in general, particularly my own mother, Mary Aching’ Misolo (featured here with her cattle), a fifty-seven-year-old woman who has lived through many of the struggles and oppressions of women her age. Like so many grandmothers here in Kenya, she is the backbone of village life and continues to do brutally hard, strenuous work. A silver lining of this pandemic has been living and working shoulder to shoulder with my mother and kin here. She is such an example of the strength and resiliency of the human spirit. But I wish life were not so hard for women like her. When she was just fifteen she was married off to an older man. She bore twelve children and suffered regular, normalized abuse at the hands of my father, usually with a stick, while we children watched.
To put myself in the shoes of women here, I did my work in the field with my daughter Emily on my back. I learned firsthand that with a baby strapped to your back, any already arduous job becomes more taxing and makes you move more slowly. I don’t know how women do this! More men need to do this so they better understand what a burden they are putting on their wives, their mothers, their grandmothers, and their daughters by not shouldering their fair share of the day-to-day work of survival.
As we look ahead to another launch in the fall of our reading journey – The Girl Child & Her Long Walk to Freedom: Putting Faith to Work through Love to Break Ancient Chains – I literally am carrying the ancient burdens the system of patriarchy continues to put on the backs of our sisters, our mothers, our aunties, our grandmothers, our co-workers, and precious girls like my Mimi and baby Emily. We can do better. Change starts with each of us. Change starts in our churches where we continue to preach that patriarchy is God’s “natural order” mandated by the Bible. Change starts by giving yourself space to care and to reflect on how you take part in these large global problems, which can seem so immune to change.
One lesson the world has learned in and through this still unfolding pandemic is that when these large structural problems impact our lifestyles, we can together make change happen. What kind of world do we want after this pandemic ends? What is yours to do? What is mine to do to stem the more ancient pandemic of gender-based oppression, which is hidden in plain sight throughout many layers of society and the normalized sexual and domestic violence that happens behind closed doors?
I invite you to keep these questions on your mind and heart and consider signing up to join us for the second cohort of journeying through this reading to better understand how our world got this way and how we each can put faith to work through love to break ancient chains. These chains greet girl children right from the womb, boy children, too, and live on like a disease in our social fabric that will persist long after COVID-19 has ended – unless we do our part.
Change can happen. Change is happening. But it needs each of us to allow ourselves to feel the wrongness and pain of something that oppresses our neighbors and, from this place of shared vulnerability and heartbreak, make it right.
I will sign off here in the same way that Emily and I do after every chapter in the #girlchildlongwalk reading journey: “It is afternoon for us, but morning for our world’s girls.”