Why every woman needs a memoir… Why mine will be explosive

I have been in a really dark corner lately. I have not been able to write, sing or sew. I am happy that I am slowly regaining my connection with my art. Blogging helps. So last year, I had the privilege of covering one of the most monumental events in global development history:the 70th General Assembly United Nations in Newyork. When I landed in Newyork, it suddenly hit me that I was Kenyan and that I had nothing to make me stand out as such. Code 254. The marathoners. The motherland of art. So, in the company of one of Kenya’s delegate(an MP), while strolling on the streets, I dropped by a tailoring shop. After haggling and paying a little money, I convinced the owner of the shop to let me use his sewing machine and made me a quick fabric flowers with Kenyan flag colours.

Taken from my Instagram. The flower that represented in Newyork City
Taken from my Instagram. The flower that represented in Newyork City

In the evening, still in the company of this MP, and exhausted from going through documents with such jaw breaking terms, we dropped at a bar. There was karaoke, and with the cowboy hat of the MC I was singing “Honey I’m home” by Shania Twain. Surprised, he asked “so where did you learn to do all these things?”. I really wanted to tell him how I’d stumbled on my arts. The sewing, in the early 90s confined to immobility after a near fatal fall from a tree, and I’d been left to recover near a tailor in remote K’anyidoto in Ndhiwa. The tailor, still my friend to date, started inviting me to sew buttons. Then zippers. Then a whole dress. My music and writing were a tool to overcome the darkness of living through a difficult and an abusive childhood. As I grew up, the tailoring took glamorised stance through reading magazines, watching cable TV and hanging around designers like Rialto’s Lucy Rao.

I chuckle whenever I think about these thing.  Last weekend, I was with one of my Godfathers (I have two), a pastor, and I asked him why he brought me up with this guilt and dread of sex and feminine beauty. The old man freaked out and began reassuring me. “Veroh”, he began “it’s okay if you’re pregnant, I’ll be disappointed but…”  When he learnt that he was far beyond the theme, we burst out laughing. “My methods, no matter how crude, worked and God will reward me for a job well done it’s not easy raising girls”, he said. Then I was like “Yea, old man your methods were crude”. Then we laugh some more. These here,these moments, where you take each other’s hands and walk back to the past from where we draw inspiration, lessons and insight… These are what I live for.

You look back into the past. For insight, joy, lessons. PHOTO/ Sandra Ruong'o
You look back into the past. For insight, joy, lessons. PHOTO/ Sandra Ruong’o

Recollections are important. For a woman, it’s a chance to carry out a post-mortem of your life and really be honest with yourself. Take responsibility for the wrongs done to you or those you’ve done to others. Accept that there are habits that you need to “unlearn”,courage you need to garner to confront your ghosts. That looks like a full time job, right? It is, but you do it too. We all do it. It’s just that maybe you’re not as deliberate about it as I am. Then there is the sentimental bastardy: the man who’s kiss you’ll never forget, the one who ripped your fragile heart out of your chest and put it under his sole… Godamned it!

My late father, Charles Okeyo, and I were great friends. He worked at the flower farms in Naivasha and our schedules during my teenage years were so far apart. I would leave very early in the morning for school before he woke up but we needed to communicate. So we would write on an exercise book on issues like “I’ve left your breakfast on the table” or “yesterday you didn’t spread your bed properly dad, improve” and stuff like that. Later, and as I grew older, the exercise book mutated to a safe place where I would tell my father about my fears, expectations and observations for the day. Looking at the fragments of that torn book now, at 28, I am acutely aware of the careful way in which my uneducated father chose his words to speak to fourteen year old me. 

See each of us has grown through stuff that make us who we are. Some have caused us great anguish and astronomical levels of pain. Like TD Jakes, I choose to see them as “beautiful hurts”.  Without them, I wouldn’t have known who I really am. Without these pains, there wouldn’t be a promotion of some sort in your life. Pain, anger and offences are an inevitable part of life. So should you learn to coalesce it, you can mine them for growth. A caterpillar had to die before a butterfly with all its glorious colour came into being, right?

It's a chance to grow. To confront your ghosts PHOTO /Sandra Ruong'o
It’s a chance to grow. To confront your ghosts.PHOTO /Sandra Ruong’o

So I am following in the footsteps of my mentor cultural analyst and author Dr Joyce Nyairo. I am going to, as she says, “document, document and document” my 28 years. As all artistes gathering the courage to let people learn from it, criticise and have a history. I’m going to go back to the notes my father and I shared. I’ve kept my diaries and the little notes my friends sent me in high school… Recollection. 

This book may not earn me a lot of money (not that I would mind having a heavy bank account)  but the greatest payment would be feedback that someone whose life has been lived in circumstances such as mine would pick a bullet point on going through life. It’s also a historical moment for me,for my readers. I lived through a musical explosion in South Nyanza where “chomeka”  discos became as famous as Kenya’s father of Benga music,Collela. 

I am excited. I hope you will be too.

 

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Thumbi Mwangi: Disease-causing pathogens talk to each other

Last year, I participated in nominating a professional for the prestigious Aspen Institute New Voices Fellowship. My candidate did not make it. Naturally, I became curious about the Kenyan that had beaten my nominee to the price. That is when and how I met veterinary epidemiologist Thumbi Mwangi. When I read his name, I rolled my eyes and thought “People should consider us Nilotes when they chose names for their children…his name takes a ceremony to pronounce! ”

Yet meeting Thumbi Mwangi was a much needed reminder of an unwritten rule for me as a journalist: That I have to allow myself to flow with what comes in and out of my days; That I have to approach every subject with an open mind; that it is in conversations that the story directs me to what is most important, the silent voices that should be amplified because they have been hushed by the sensationalism that characterise journalism in these parts of the world.

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Prof Thumbi Mwangi, veterinary epidemiologist and a member of One Health Initiative. PHOTO/WSU

I emailed him with that “selfish” he-could-be-a-story attitude. Boy didn’t he live up to it. He scared me when he told me that Rabies—gotten from a dog bite… or scratch— is 100 per cent fatal once the clinical signs start manifesting. Quoi! He also drew my attention to a subject so crucial to human health, yet so underreported: Zoonoses, diseases that come to man from animals. I must also mention that it is in the course of this meeting that I learnt about Kenya’s Zoonotic Disease Unit (ZDU),very few of such in Africa or the world by the way. After two weeks, the initial interest about why he made it to the fellowship over my nominee sublimed to the background, and the publication of a detailed piece on Zoonoses in Kenya in the Daily Nation came to the fore.

It could be modesty or shyness, but whatever it is the Professor does not like to be reffered to as “Professor”. His Twitter handle has a handful followers mostly of people pooled from his field. “Social media? Oh that is a great platform for those that have the grace,” he said. He says he likes racket games, though. That should act as a saving grace in a profile that would have fit the perfect “boring scientist” narrative. However, it is incredible that such a travelled person is so rural-bred. He was born in Kieni in Nyeri County. From St Martins Boys Hostel, he went to Njiiri School for hi O-levels and found himself in the University of Nairobi (UoN) pursing bachelors in Veterinary medicine and surgery in 2000. While at UoN, he met Prof Kiama Gitahi who is the current director of UoN’s Wangari Maathai for Peace and Environmental Studies.

Picking from his description of Prof Kiama, I gathered that Thumbi considers him (Kiama) a mentor. With a tinge of poignancy, he said: “He gave us a Continuous Assessment Test, I passed and he asked me to see him”. From that meeting, many opportunities would present themselves to the young ambitious Thumbi. He worked at Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). Then he pursued interests in small and large animals as well as ranching to as far as Botswana, before getting a scholarship from UoN to pursue a post graduate degree on genetic and animal breeding. Another scholarship would present itself from International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). Later, he joined Royal School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, his interests narrowed to epidemiology. His passion earned him a post-doctoral research opportunity at Washington State University, where he teaches and holds a position as a clinical assistant professor.

As a story teller (do we even tell stories in science?), I was most intrigued by his work during his doctoral studies. The conversation began with: “We are most interested in pathogens as a harm to people and animals, but rarely do we study how these organisms interact”. There wet my “aha!” moment. My internal dialogue was like “Wait! So protozoans and all those jaw breaking names I read in Binomial nomenclature class in Biology not only cause diseases that kill, but also talk to each other?” I need to listen to that recording again to get the scientific terms right, but I heard of how a cow gets infected with some pathogen which in turn protects it from another harmful pathogen. That is like saying if your child gets malaria, do not treat it because the malaria parasite is going to protect it from some other common disease. I know, right? Then there were organisms that we should just label as hoes. I mean how could they be able to live in so many domestic and wild animals and still be able to reside in a human body so as to make us sick.

You know what journalists lack in knowledge, they make up for with an unhealthy amount of reading. So I scoured the internet, books and outdated magazines about disease patterns. Let us start with the most basic mind-blowing nugget that the literature gave me. Did you know that 60 per cent of the pathogens that cause infectious diseases in human beings come from animals (WHO)? Then there was Thumbi’s paper published at Plos One that drew a direct line from healthy animals to happier, healthier and wealthier farmers and their families. Wouldn’t it be economically sound if farmers were taught these things?

So with all that, it is understandable why Thumbi champions One health Initiative. This is a global program where many scientists and other professionals advance the idea that human, animal and ecological health are intimately linked and need to be studied and managed as a whole unit. I think I should join  it too… to design posters to announce the latest research. So, thanks to technology, I met a scientist to ask him about one thing and I got the opportunity to be pointed to so many possible stories that could be told, all from his research.

Thumbi is a visiting scientist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), a visiting lecturer at Wangari Maathai Institute for Environmental Studies and Peace where he teaches and supervises graduate students. He also works closely with ZDU.

Difficult sources of information every young journalist must learn to handle

One day my colleague John Ngirachu told me “If you want to do well in this career, you must learn how to handle big egos”. One of the other requirements of this job is listening to your sources of information. You listen to what is (or not) being said in words and body language. In the process of listening you will meet very difficult characters. There are two reasons why people are difficult sources of information several reasons: one, they are afraid of journalists or two, they do not know how the media works. Once you know the reason behind their actions, you can build a long term relationship and get your stories every day.

  1. Mr/Ms know-it-all who thinks journalists are bimbos

You must not fail to add to that article that… I don’t think you can understand what I am saying it is too complicated for a person outside the engineering circles… How are you going to write about fashion and you do not know who Karen Millen is…? How can you ask such a basic question, didn’t you do your research? I don’t think that is the article you should be working on, why don’t you write about…?

Those are some of the questions I have encountered in my three years in the newsroom. It is easy to assume that Mr/Miss Know-It-All may just a proud prick with an inflated ego, but maybe s/he had a past interview with a journalist and got disappointed. Maybe that journalists watered down the interesting bits of a subject about to such basic pedestrian knowledge that Mr/Miss know-it-all was so embarrassed to be associated with such common knowledge that everybody has on the tips of their fingers.

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Me in 2014, in Machakos listening to a researcher and a Public Relations Officer explain their concerns about a study to me

The worst move here would be to engage in ego-competition. Do not, and I repeat do not blow your own trumpet about your own qualifications to assure Mr/Miss Know-It-All that “you got this”. I was tempted to tell another upcoming fashion designer that I have been a tailor way before she joined Facebook and I could tell her not only who Karen Millen is but who manufactures her fabrics. Instead, make your source know that you value the knowledge they bring to the table (even when it does not exist). I told her “You are right. These things about fashion are not for every Tom, Dick and Harry. I have googled since yesterday night in preparation for this interview and I was hoping I could learn a thing or two about the subject from a household name in the industry like you. I hope I can ask for any clarification on an issue I don’t understand?” Believe me when I say, she will take it upon herself to educate you. In future Mr/Miss Know-it-All will even take it upon herself to let you know of an interesting bit if info in her circles that she thinks you may write about.

2. The skeptical send-me-the-article-before-you-go-to-press kind.

Researchers and public relations officers are especially fond of this: asking you to send the article after you finish writing so that “they can ensure you have all the facts right”. It is not only against editorial policies of many media houses, it makes you wonder whether the source knows you will deliberately not get the facts right. I understand them. Scientists, scholars and researchers have invested 10 or more years to be who they are. Dr A, Prof B are not just titles. In the quest for “hooking the reader” and simplicity to communicate jargon and hard scientific data to the common reader, journalists have communicated something totally different from what the scientist meant. Let me give you an example. A Proffesor has been researching about a drug that may cure AIDS for 15 years. He is still awaiting clinical trials of the drug and approvals and all that. Then a journalist begins his story this way “A Kenya professor has found a cure for AIDS”. Just that one word and that professor has lost all the respect in his circles and, maybe, funding and that would be the end of his career. So what do you do with Skeptical sources? Explain why you cannot send them the article. Offer to email back what he said only. Tell them that you have a lot to lose too should you report on the wring thing: you could get fired, sued and most importantly, you will lose your credibility.

WE CONTINUE NEXT WEEK …

ARE YOU A YOUNG JOUNALIST WHO NEEDS TIPS ON THIS CAREER? ARE A YOU A COMMUNICATION AND MEDIA INSTITUTION THAT WOULD LIKE TO HAVE A HANDS-ON-TALK TO YOUR STUDENTS FROM A REPORTER WHO HAS BEEN OUT HERE?

EMAIL ME okeyoverah@gmail.com and cc talktoverah@gmail.com or WhatsApp me +245732324609

 

 

 

 

 

Medic of the month,Dr Juliana Otieno: I don’t tolerate excuses on health

Last year, my colleagues Eunice Kilonzo, Jacqueline Kubania and I set on out on a journey to audit public healthcare in Kenya especially after devolution. The stories, like a doctor so busy she couldn’t have a minute for a meal and the neglect of mentally ill, broke our hearts. However, in the midst of the dread and gloom, we met medics whose style of management was as much a story as the facilities they were heading. In Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Training and Referral Hospital in Kisumu (famously known as Russia), I met Juliana Otieno, a pediatrician and the medical superintendent of the facility. On a motorbike to see her, I thought about the studies that states that hospitals are better when run by medical doctors. That, to me, was a conflicting piece of information because I had just left other hospitals not so far away from Russia run by medical doctors and the deplorable conditions that they were in were appalling.

Under her care, Russia has improved tremendously especially on matters of hygiene. During my two-day rounds at the facility, I learnt that Dr Juliana—yeah that’s how we call her in the newsroom— had not been spared of the hiccups that came with devolution. Be that as it may, the pediatrician had learnt about the value of “beneficial friendships and contacts”: some of the successful projects in Russian are funded by people she had met in her postgraduate studies or along her career.

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Dr Juliana Otieno, medical superintendent at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Training and Referral Hospital in Kisumu during the interview on May, 24 2015 in her office

Russia’s state of the art Ksh28million (about 274,000 USD) Intensive Care Unit was partly funded by the government and technology company General Electric. The Renal Unit was funded by the Taiwanese and the Kenyan government. The renal unit also has water treatment system from the Kenya Commercial Bank. My favourites were the new maternity, new born unit and Obama Children’s clinic. As a deputy medical superintendent in this very hospital in 2004, Juliana had met the Norwegian queen who visited the facility on matters related to HIV. Juliana, and her colleagues, had sought the royalty’ assistance to construct the maternity and the newborn unit whose value is estimated to be Sh75million. Being a pediatrician, it’s understandable that the Obama Children’s ward in Russia is semi-autonomous well run clinic where children get free treatment with the comfort for both mother and child guaranteed. The Obama clinic was partly built by Americans, the Walter Reed Project. Of the Walter Reed folks, she told me: “They had stayed here for so long researching about malaria and when they were just about to leave we asked them what they would leave in Kenya and they agreed to help with the Obama Children’s hospital”. Obama runs with great assistance from Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri).

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Entrance to the pediatric children in Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Training and Referral facility in Kisumu

Before meeting her, I had been told that Dr Juliana does not “suffer fools” especially when the fool is a journalist. So I called her. I informed her that I would like to talk to her. I also told her that I was not coming for the interview tabula rasa as I had gathered information about the inadequacies of the  hospitals that I wanted her to give me a few answers for. To my surprise, and in a matter-of-fact attitude she told me: “I did not expect you to find a palace, it is a hospital but whatever challenges that are there are being worked on, a lot has changed and I have absolutely nothing to hide. Come to my office tomorrow at 10.”

To the office I went. Juliana looked into my eyes and told me I had 45 minutes. She said as she asked the secretary to make me tea: “Here, time is of essence, it always and literally is a matter of life and death, Verah”. Her gaze was imploring yet very attentive, direct yet very inquisitive that I must admit it intimidated me. Her statements were straight and curt. Earlier during my information gathering period, I got a mixture of feelings about her from workers in Russia. Most felt she was too strict, never listening to opinions that differed from hers but peculiarly enough they did not want her replaced. “She gets the job done,” one had told me.

In our conversation, I got the feeling that she is a guarded woman but also very honest in a way that  allows you to connect with her, at least for purposes of a genuine conversation. I understood that deep contrast by the bits and pieces of her life that she dropped in between the chat. A first born of eight, Juliana learnt about being responsible for a large number of people at an early age as she grew up in Muhoroni. “There was milking before school, fetching water and cooking and of course, being asked where you were as an elder sister when your junior siblings were making mistakes,” she said. When she passed her national primary examinations, her father could not raise the Sh4,000 (That is hundreds of thousands right now) needed for her to join Limuru Girls. The community gathered, fundraised and she went to school. “That is why I grew up with the resolution that, for matters such as education and health, I will give back to the community and to a genuine case,” she said.  She went on to take her bachelors degree in medicine at the University of Nairobi (UoN) in 1979, graduating a year later because of the 1982 coup attempt. She took her postgraduate studies at UoN in pediatric medicine. Apart from working in the civil service, Juliana has taken part in research in Europe, America and various countries in Africa.

a mother of three biological children “and so many others that are just mine but I never gave birth to”, she says she raised her children the very same way she was raised and the way she relates to her colleagues. “I just have to let you know I am not the enemy but I do not expect laxity even in that love,” she said.

Her tips for being the professional of her cadre are straight forward. “Do not cheat me. If you feel that tea will take ten minutes to make, say so. Do not make me come asking for it fifteen minutes later.”

“I tell every healthcare worker to do the best they can with what is available regardless of the circumstances. I know there is pressure, and we are understaffed but do not tell me you yelled at a patient because you were under pressure.”

She said she did not understand the job-hopping of younger people who are always  “claiming to be too busy they cannot even mentor one person”.   She said: “Stay at a point and learn. Oh I know my job and my work place intimately. I interned here, have climbed up the ladders in this very hospital so whenever I am told there is mischief, I do not need an investigator because I know this hospital from corner to corner and I will leave my office, walk to this place and unearth those hidden drugs or whatever is missing”

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Interviewing Juliana was so tough I drank a whole bottle of water when I was done…the struggle is real ehehehe

Juliana says she enjoys Benga music, walking barefoot in her farm in Seme and farming.

DO YOU HAVE A PROFESSIONAL YOU ADMIRE? LET ME MEET HER (OR HIM) talktoverah@gmail.com or WhatsApp 0732324609