This Time: Variations on the theme, 2020 | Yvonne A. Owuor
How are you?
No, I mean it:
How are you being and doing?
You see, this question that used to fall from our mouths with unthinking ease now bears extra weight, power and meaning.
So…how are you?
Me, I’m mulling over things, mostly about aspects of the meaning of this 2020.
(Sometimes, harbingers of the character of a year show up as simple words, plain words that you do not realise will change even the shape of the meaning of life for you: On December 31, 2019, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission, in Hubei Province, China, informed the WHO China Country Office of cases of pneumonia of ‘unknown aetiology detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province of China. Like most of the world, I was, in that moment writing my New Year’s resolutions, and colour-coding a travel and writing schedule in a newly bought, sky-blue planner. Oh, those days/that day of bland innocence!)
The author Anna Badkhen, who was in Nairobi in February, on her way to Ethiopia, just before the Big Shutdown, in reflecting on what was to come, presciently observed that this virus situation (it had not yet been declared a pandemic), would for the first time in a long while of human history offer the world a common story and a shared grammar. She was correct. And what a story it is, among other things, one that is about an existential test prepared for humanity, to be experienced and taken at the same time. Who would have predicted outcomes (still unfolding)? It appears that all those who had presumed they would ace the process have crashed to the bottom, a lot like Humpty-Dumpty, who also had a great fall…unfortunately. (Maybe).
[Calendar | ˈkalɪndə | noun origin: kalandae (latin), kalendarium (account record); Kalends: the 1st day of each month in the Roman reckoning with the passage of time. From the verb calare–to call out, which referred to the call linked to the first sighting of the new moon.]
52 weeks and 2 days
In 1079, or thereabouts, Persian (Iranian) polymath, the mathematician, astronomer, thinker, mystic, poet, Omar Khayyam oversaw a review of society’s operating calendar, and would announce that the year was, in reality, measured as 365.24219858156 days, subject to adjustment as the centuries progressed. The findings of the Persian Calendar Committee were confirmed in October 1582, during the reign of Pope Gregory XIII, who when having the Julian Calendar modified, reduced the median year from 365.25 days to 365.2425. The Gregorian calendar is what we topically apply in Kenya. It does, admittedly co-exist with covert others that we also use to mark the passing of our life and time and their seasons.
(On January 12, 2020, China shared the genetic sequence of what we have come to know, officially. as Covid-19. Not that it mattered. I thought then, even though on February 14th, the virus entered Africa through the body of a European who visited Egypt)
[“What does it mean for you to be human? What does the humanity of the other mean for you?”]
To be human, it seems, among so many other things, is to mull over time, to attempt to harness and manage and label time; to categorise time and break time down into digestible portions; and keep track of it even as it escapes from our grasp, dragging us into the unknown. Minutes, hours, days, weeks, months; lunar, solar, astronomical. We mark the passage of time with bells, and the adhan. And the passage of hours is not just a human endeavour, the birds, and beasts are enjoined in this mysterious pilgrimage; cock crow, birds returning to the nests in the evening at twilight, or chirping the dawn into being.
An acquaintance at one of those unmemorable event, a European migrant who was making his living in Kenya, was drawn to the lives of residents of our desert nations up North. In our brief conversation he told me how when he had visited the Chalbi, he had happened upon a traveling Gabra family. In the evening, under the vast expanse of land, sky and imagination, he had asked the elders about their notion of time and space. After a long moment of silence, one of the elders told him to return for a reply when the moon had changed its face. He returned about three weeks later. This is what he was told (I am paraphrasing the reply):
“Time is that which passes through us; Space is that through which we pass. That which passes, and that through which we pass is measured only in intensity, not duration.”
(What is in a word? E.g. Pandemic. On March 11, 2020, having read the entrails of what was to come in the world, alarmed by the extent of human denial, WHO assessed that Covid-19 was now a global pandemic.)
Pandemic: (an adjective that masquerades as a rather scary, disease-tinted noun. Also, “an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people”). Synonyms: widespread, pervasive, global.
What is in a thought?
What is in a way of thinking about other humans?
What is in an assumption?
What does it mean ‘to presume’?
(On April 20, 2020, Melinda Gates told CNN, (in the spirit of one who alone has spotted nyawawa, and must therefore beat pots and pans louder than all), that when she saw what China had to do to deal with the virus, her first thought was ‘Africa.’ (Yes. All 54 nations encompassed in one emotional and caring inner gaze). “How in the world will they deal with this?” She lamented. And then she grasped her head (It is on CNN) and exclaimed to herself, “Oh my gosh we have a crisis in our hands…it’s going to be horrible in the developing world.”)
The first new moon of 2020 was sighted on January 24, 2020, at 02:22:11 PM. The new moon before this one was sighted on December 26, 2019 at 05:13 UTC. That was still in the epoch and era BC. Before Corona. After Corona (AC) everything we as humans and citizens took as sacrosanct and absolute came under scrutiny. You know that futuristic apocalyptical tale (plagues, zombies, dark nights of the soul etc) that we watched on screen for our titillating entertainment….well, I think we are ‘it’. The good news though is that we have been sort of prepared and theoretically, many of know how to create smoke and fire by rubbing two sticks for a long time, or watching which berries birds choose to eat in order to discern which is edible, and which can be used to poison the enemies’ well.
(On March 13, 2020, CS Mutahi Kagwe popped up on our screens to tell Kenyans that the first Covid-19 case had arrived among us in the body of an ex-US young woman; and then afterwards, he kept talking to us. At first we admired him, he was so cool, and in charge, and those shirts suggested colourful hope, and he was the guide that drew out a map of what our future looked like. Now, though, having been ‘Covided’ out, we mimic his words and laugh at him and ourselves, and think about Jack Ma’s undistributed contributions, and also that stranger in Jerusalem who was passing by the KEMSA Virus tender desk and landed a life-changing deal to supply objects that he had not heard of before nor could he pronounce, and then we laugh at ourselves again even as we socially distance and refine our list of excuses for that thin Afande who, with his companions, will stop you at 10:00:01 PM along Olengruone Road, and have you explain why you are flouting the 10 PM curfew.)
By March, with the systematic unravelling of my colour coded resolutions, I ritually set the blue planner alight and from its ashes, invested instead in researching The Exodus’ precursor; The Ten Plagues of Egypt. As a first-born, it is better to be prepared, ama?
Some troubling resonances (in 2020 nobody can be accused of paranoia):
Turning water into Blood/ The rise of the Rift valley Lakes and the inevitable march to the sea); the teeming frogs of the Nile /The Nile burst its banks, like seriously burst its banks. The frogs are just a matter of time; Lice and Gnats, Flies; Hopefully those Yellow Hornets that can kill a human will restrict their new roaming ranges to just Asia and the Americas. Hopefully. However, we are hosts of the Mother of all Locust invasions—just saying– with the next generation now dwelling among us waiting for the signal to attack. With writer Maaza Mengiste, I was also concerned when those archaeologists who have obviously not watched those films where a 3000-year-old curse is activated in the year that there is a Jupiter-Saturn conjunction, and the Nile Waters surge…well these buggers exhumed a whole society of mummies, and opened the sarcophagi, displayed the corpses, and all this in the Year 2020. I am mostly sure that these might be the remains of that court of that Pharaoh that did not let God’s people go.
The stories of this epoch are writing themselves. Few artists will be able to do justice to the swarming archetypal forces that launched themselves into our lives in 2020.
When we disappeared from the city’s roads for a while, how fresh was the air, how bright the skies of the city that is also a home. A question of care: what is our human obligation to the environment and nature of which we are a part?
It is the cusp of 2020-2021, and a wandering mind and imagination traverses and watches the realms of a year that has not yet finalised its boot camp work on our humanity, and on the people of the Kenyan nation. I do not know about many of you, but I have felt every day of this year in a way that I have not felt the days of previous years. A necessary heightened awareness, not of life’s passage as much as a conscious will to live. The words that were background sounds in other years have come to acquire great power, presence and meaning: health, air, oxygen, breathe, breath, safety, family. New words and phrases acquired prominence: pandemic, sanitise, Zoom; wash hands; ventilate. socially distance, curfew, lockdown, travel-restrictions, temperature-check, screening, contact-tracing, test-trace-treat, border-closure, mask, 1.5 metres, intubate, morbidity. Others took on the radiance of heraldic angels; vaccine, and still others the shadow of the Angel of Death, the one that passed through Biblical Egypt (an analogy that re-entered our times as a set of a growing collection of macabre jokes, best imaged by the viral meme of the Ghanaian Coffin dancers). Other tenebrous words: Lay-offs, Loan recall. No insurance. No returns on investment. No jobs.
52 weeks and 2 days]
2020 condensed human pasts, presents and futures into a cauldron and then given this to the biblical Angel of Death to drink. That Angel of Death roams with careless, and familiar ease among us. It always has, it is true, yet not in such an overt manner. A tickling throat that BC would have had to take care of itself, is now immediately drowned in Garlic-Tumeric-Lemon-honey-ginger concoctions sipped throughout the day. Pharmacists, and other remedy dispensers are members of our WhatsApp groups. We dare not cough in public places, or sniffle, and when we sneeze we raise our arms, adjust our masks, lower our eyes and move out of the place where the now-offensive sound happened. In the KCB banking hall at Sarit Centre, even with spaces between seats, a man’s single cough turns all our eyes towards him, and a silence loaded with questions, fears, concerns, worry interrupts the bank on-goings, which resume a moment later. We unconsciously mark this person, each of us in our way. We will try not to be in his vicinity. He adjusts his mask, he lowers his head, and like others before him, will swallow, condense, and suffocate his next cough.
Home-based work style of things that means that even our ideas of the office have been transformed. On-line schools, on-line conferences, on-line community making. The gregarious cultures like ours have had to endure a new layer of caution; the stories of families that can no longer meet except via zoom is no longer new. This is a year of longings that have emerged out of the diminution of that which we all once took for granted: human touch; hugs, handshakes; gathering around ritual, prayer, funerals, weddings. Visiting grandparents and seeing in teary eyes behind ill-fitting masks, a bewilderment at such a time as this that has made it an act of love to keep a distance from cherished grandchildren.
This year has certainly widened and deepened the dimensions of pain. It has proven how governance incompetence, of things undone and diabolic greed wounds us, and increases suffering. Ah yes, the year that brought into prominence a Scavenger Class; mostly made up of necrophiliac politicians and their ravenous business cronies that embarked on an obscene carrion feeding frenzy, devouring what death delivered, who chose to rollick in the refuse of broken human lives. They scoured the earth to gather discarded items to re-sell to their own dying people, and to revel in their self-elevation (?) to a category called “Covid-billionaire”, and that achieved while frontline workers—the class upon which our lives and ‘health’ depend, die because the donated PPE’s were turned into private wealth and then rendered inaccessible in medical stores.
[Disgust: revulsion, repugnance, repellence, yuckiness.]
What horror! The hollowness of the souls. The anguish of realisation: is that the extent to which our core has decayed as a people and society? Are we this broken as a race? How did the sites that should have been beacons of light, the medical and health centres turn into low-end butcheries demanding money upfront before they would deign to attend to hurting human flesh? Who watched unmoved as life gasped for air in front of them? Why would health Insurers flee their patrons in this, the anticipated hour of need?
The good news amidst this is that new ways of delivering health services and serving community health needs are going to emerge. Nature abhors a vacuum. Happier news is that, with time and disruption, the scavenger class and their enablers are likely to suffer the fate of all unimaginative, hunger-focused behemoths; they will disappear unremembered. There is, after all an army of a younger generation who are witnesses to these times, who live the void created by the hot air and emptiness of the illusions constructed to deceive them, who are aware that the elders have no fresh imagination to draw from, and are wholly dependent on old learned tricks that cannot serve the call of the times.
Speaking of the children, what a time for a new generation born and growing up.
What a launch.
Who will they become after this?
A four-year-old nephew picks his mother’s phone to call his cherished grandmother to command her to sanitise, to wear a mask, to be careful because there is Corona. Who worries when he sees crowds, and asks, why these are not socially-distancing, why those one are not masked, and we who witness it secretly wonder how this can be right in the world.
“Time is that which passes through us; Space is that through which we pass. That which passes, and that through which we pass is measured only in intensity, not duration.”
The intensity of time, and space through which the children of 2020 have passed…the intensity….)
What do we do now when the structures we had built to prop up our imagined lives are coming apart at the seams? After the shock, the grief, the terror, is there space and time left for us to try another dream of us? Is there? Do we dare?
I see that one of the best-selling books this year is Victor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. A line in the preface notes that ‘It is first of all a book about survival.” Frankl quotes Nietzsche: ‘He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.’
Why do you live today?
It is rare that one sits still, as part of a new routine, to reflect attentively and intentionally on the reality, possibility, tangibility of one’s own death. Few of us can claim to be ignorant of the character and echo of the footfall of the Angel of Death, not in 2020 when all it needs to lay claim on a life is a breath, a sigh, a cough. And so, our eyes are forced to look at an-avoided truth– of death. Not of the other, not in a vague dimension of a future time, but as a possessive pronoun: My death. The death of those I know well and love helplessly. This too shall pass; I long to desperately hear. Tushapona. Tutapona, But it is not so simple anymore, is it? Maybe it has not even been simple before.
Refuge in the fantasy of ‘the future’:
Next year we shall…
Next year we will…
Next year, the postponed Tokyo Olympics.
Next year is here. It enters hand-in-hand with that 2020 visitor , Covod-19. ‘Next year’ we are still marching through the Valley of the Shadow Death’, ‘Next Year’ chauffeurs us down a dark tunnel with neon lit moments, signs that proclaim ‘Exit Ahead’, but the further we travel, the more the tunnel curves and deepens, and no Exit has revealed itself.
Are we, then, to learn to live with this? How, when we still struggle to live with one another?
Hard, lucid lessons: that the vast majority of human beings with a little power will still choose to profit from human anguish, will not act for their better angels, will choose their devotion to mammon over the elevation of (hu)mans. That some of the most profound lessons unfold within intimate almost invisible spaces in and of time; lessons about the value of the person, the ones to whom we are close. To love better on a daily basis, to let go of the accumulation of annoyances; these do not matter when a soul might slip away from us, and us from the other with strange ease.
Indeed, to be human is to keep learning, to notice things again: However ramshackle at first sighting, the general African pandemic response infrastructure, honed through the years has proven to be most resilient, and able to better withstand the vagaries and moods of this ‘visitation’. Yes, there have been heart-breaking casualties, and we deeply grieve our losses. There’s much we have learned, are learning, will learn about ourselves as Kenyans, as Africans and as human beings in the world. We have witnessed now that, beyond propaganda, when a real existential crisis confronts humanity, much vaunted systems once proposed as templates of nirvanic excellence, have not merely faltered, but have also disintegrated. Can the reality now help serve as a factor to restore our certainty and confidence in home-grown responses and innovations to tackle our challenges on our terms? Shouldn’t this be the time for brave and bold nations to declare a clean slate, stimulate collective blue-sky thinking, declare a moratorium on costly licenses and taxes in order to stir their citizens into imagining, experimenting with and implementing the seeds of new form of dynamic, resilient and future-prepared society?
What questions have re-entered your lives this year; what have these done to you?
Walking. Dealing with ‘cabin-fever’. I join the stream of Nairobi’s walkers. Today, I focus on jogging feet on the pathways. And observe how bodies move. Some move most awkwardly as if they are searching for an old rhythm and lost connection with the ground. The human body: shelter of immortal dreams, as vulnerable to the whims and wiles of an invisible presence, the virus that seeks its breath.
Counting breath. I have never been more grateful for air, for the meaning of my lungs, and the lungs of those I love.
(On May 25, 2020, a human being, a citizen of America 46-year-old man called George Floyd was murdered in Minnesota by another man, a policeman who knelt on his neck for nine and a half minutes, and he died pleading for his mother, and for air. The witness of his murder entered the concentrated gaze of humanity, and disgusted by the horror, it triggered a global protest that pronounced very dramatically that business in the world will never proceed with business as usual ever again)
52 weeks and 2 days]
[2021: 365.24219858156 days]
We will start a countdown, stare at the clock and wait for the minute hand to move into 12. We will peel the cover off a new paper calendar. We will try to keep at the story of our lives, of trying and breathing. We will hope that the Virus-bearing Angel of Death is a mannered guest who knows that it is time to leave when a clock strikes January 1, 2021.
The portals of a new year creak open.
Here we are.
Perhaps a little less confident about ‘the future’, whatever that means; more familiar with uncertainty—able to laugh a wryly at our old notions of ‘control’. We may not hear the midnight crackle of fireworks accompanied by the barking of many nervous neighbourhood dogs, or listen to voices counting down, 10…9…8…7…., or the New Year midnight church bells tolling the end of the vigil, and heralding the new year….
May we thrive.
For inasmuch as we can, and breathe,
It is good, so good to be here.
Heri ya mwaka mpya.