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Story-telling, life and heroism in the time of novel coronavirus

by kenya-tribune

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Journalism and writing in the time of novel coronavirus has turned out to be an experience like no other.

This thing has sucked oxygen from every corner of the world and nearly everything, because all else that’s worth writing about is happening or not happening because of Covid-19.

To write about anything else seems like an egregious form of “Afghanistanism”, the term coined by American journalism to describe the practice of concentrating on problems and stories in distant parts of the world while ignoring more pressing local issues.

We have a long history of stories, histories, films, and art about “love in the time of war”. But I haven’t yet seen a story about love in coronavirus times — if only because you are supposed to keep at least one metre apart.

You can’t take the object of your affection to dinner, go for a walk in the park, send them flowers, or hang out in the club or pub, due to lockdowns and social distancing.

During the deadly post-election violence in Kenya in early 2008 in which 1,400 people were killed, one of the poignant stories was that of artist Solomon Muyundo (aka Solo Saba).


Solomon went around Kibera painting messages of peace on any wide surface he could find to calm the violence. “Peace wanted alive” and “Keep peace and justice” he wrote in white paint. Not in coronavirus times.

Virtually every time some African country is going through a bout of madness in war, or a genocide as in Rwanda 1994, we have tales of heroic people saving targeted groups, or some selfless men and women putting up makeshift classrooms to continue giving the local children an education.

Try that and you will get no students, or you will get jailed. An upmarket school in Kampala defied a lockdown and opened, and parents dropped their kids off to learn.

The police swooped in and arrested the teachers. In wartime, teaching against the odds makes you a hero. In coronavirus times, you will be considered reckless and evil.

In crisis times, churches and mosques are places of sanctuary. In Covid-19, they would be a death trap. Sunday services have gone online. So has education. And museum visits and music concerts.

In many conflicts, there has always been room for sports and play. When in 2000 allies Uganda and Rwanda fell out in eastern DR Congo after they had helped oust thieving dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in Kinshasa, and fought what became known as the “Six-Day War”, the troops on the ground were playing football and board games with each other, oblivious of the deadly politics.

As they tell the story, they were then called to go to war and, minutes later, were shooting and killing fellows with whom they had been playing cards and other games.

During the famed 1914 Christmas Day Truce football matches, British and German soldiers played football against their enemies, although historians have said it happened on a smaller scale than popular myth makes them out to be.

You cannot do that in this coronavirus crisis, let alone with friends. Sport has become some form of pestilence, and the Tokyo Olympics just got scratched, and moved to next year.

In Italy, desperate to shake off cabin fever, people open their balconies and sing the national anthem, or the humble Catholic prayer and song “Ave Maria”.

In Spain, a musician brought his piano to his balcony to play to the locked down street. Opposite, a saxophonist heard him, stepped out with his instrument, and they did a jam. A big cheer went out when they were done.

Music has that power, the ability to defy distance, but it was still disembowelled, because the sense that it was being played into an empty space people couldn’t step into was inescapable.

Some Nairobi malls and clubs are taking the temperature of patrons and members before they enter, to ensure they aren’t suspiciously hot.

And, especially if you look like a “small person”, ask that you also splash on some hand sanitiser.

Just a month ago, we would have thrown up a ruckus, considering that the height of insult, and gone to Twitter and unleashed a firestorm, with the digital lynch mobs deliciously joining in. Today, it gives us a sense of security.

We line up one-and-a-half metres apart to enter supermarkets. Broadband has become more than a lifeline, because the distractions of the internet, streaming services, and remote links to our work places, are all that link us safely to the rest of humanity.

The social media heroes of today are the people who battle human diseases — exhausted doctors and nurses, with mask abrasions on their faces, or crashed out on hospital floors.

The diabolical genius of coronavirus has been to turn humans into the thing we fear most. But not to despair, I think a very clever writer will find a romance story in it.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the Wall of Great Africans and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com @cobbo3

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