The four weeks from mid-March to mid-April 2020 has for so many around the globe, no doubt felt like the longest, age-old month of our lifetime! In Africa, in particular, it really took us by storm. Until then, the African continent seemed the place where it’s still good to be. That was until South Africa at one end of the African continent topped the number of Africa’s confirmed COVID-19 cases (2,028), while Algeria, on the opposite end, suffered the highest number of fatalities (275) as of 12 April 2020.
It is however helpful to remember that this Coronavirus crisis will be the fifth zoonic viral attack on humanity since the start of this new millennium: In 2003, the Severe-Acute-Respiratory-Syndrome (SARS) loomed large. It was followed by Avian Flu (H1N1) in 2005 and then another avian flu (H7N9) in 2009. Then came the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012. All of these zoonic viral attacks had crossed the animal species boundary to contaminate humans. But it is the surge of the COVID-19 pandemic—with hospitals and morgues in much of the technologically advanced world running out of space for patients and the dead—which has made this latest zoonic viral attack appear quite apocalyptic.
Against this ‘apocalyptic’ surge of COVID-19, public health experts worldwide quickly devised a host of guidelines to live by. Governments too, the world over, have translated these public health guidelines into policy directives for all under their care to abide by. Chief among the strategies against the spread of COVID-19 thus far has been the #StayHome advocacy campaign! The fronted rationale for this two-word campaign message is as follows: ‘The virus doesn’t move, people move it; we stop moving, the virus stops moving, the virus dies.’
In this brief reflection, I’d like to focus on the idea of ‘home’ that is so ubiquitous in the campaign against the spread of COVID-19 worldwide, not least in Africa. What is really meant by ‘Home’ in this #StayHome campaign? Whose idea of home is being captured? What else is truly at stake in this #StayHome campaign? These are questions I am much preoccupied with in this reflection. It seems to me, from the outset, that the current assumptions undergirding the idea of home in this #StayHome campaign are quite lofty!
By the tail-end of February 2020 when Coronavirus—like all pathogens which know no borders, race, class, gender, ideology or religion—left its alleged birthplace of Wuhan (China) for Lombardy (Italy) it became apparent that we were in for a global pandemic of unprecedent proportions. Like many in my neighbourhood, I also resolved to put my domicile in some order for all eventualities. For the benefit of my readers, I reside in Buziga—one of Kampala’s more comfy suburbs. But mine is by no means one of those residences atop Buziga Hill. I dwell in the valley in a modest studio—the kind of accommodation where the majority of the less affluent of Buziga’s residents find their footing. So, in early March 2020 I decided to get all loose ends in and around my house fixed: Small leakages from the water tank through the bathroom; drainage for often-stagnant rainy water; broken sockets in the house corridor and veranda; energy-saver bulbs for security lights; woofer-wiring to the radio set; enough gas for the refrigerator; etc.
All such things needed some form of attention to make my stay at home all the more comfortable. Thank goodness, for all that fixing I had to deal with only one guy. This is one of the many wonders of Kampala: one true jua kali (hands-on street engineer) can be fixer of all—from plumbing to electric wiring, from sewerage drainage to painting, from wood joinery to tiling. My jua kali fixer, Kyali Wawano (not his real name) had my house brought to the level of comfort I could afford and so much desired.
Though very well known to me, I’d never known where Kyali hailed from. Nor did I know where he actually resides. All I knew was that Kyali wasn’t a Buziga resident. While he spends much of his day in Buziga, Kyali always commutes to Buziga from somewhere else in the city. And being erratic on phone, it’s almost a miracle to get Kyali through the telephone line when most needed.
As March 2020 began to unfold, I became much aware of the possibility that I may long for Kyali’s further fixing even after he’d brought my house to some comfort. So, I resolved to get to know Kyali’s actual abode, the place from where he normally and regularly departs for Buziga. Fortunately, it did not take too long before I came across Kyali. I intimated to him my deepest desire to know where he resides, the place he calls home. “Are you sure and serious that you really wanna go with me to my place?” Kyali reacted. “Of course, I am. And I’m even ready right now,” I replied. “Alright, let me finish up a little fixing at your neighbour’s house and then we’ll be good to go,” Kyali promised. I waited with much eagerness. In all sincerity, all I so much wanted was to know Kyali’s home such that I may get hold of him should he prove hard to get via phone! Kyali’s services to the best of my comfort-at-home have been, above all else, satisfactory and very affordable. There was now writing on the wall that the days ahead would be the most trying ones. And comfort-at-home, moreover at affordable cost, would be something one wouldn’t wish to do without. I thus went with Kyali to discover his actual home. I was, however, in for great surprises. Home means different things for different people!
The Biblical tradition, in the narrative of God’s creation (Genesis 2), puts forth the idea of home as a truly self-contained place of residence for humans. The first instance of the Biblical human residence comes in after all other essentials have been put in place: the earth and the heavens were made, rain had been sent to water the earth, grains were growing on the earth, all sorts of trees were growing up from the ground — including trees that were beautiful and produced delicious fruit. This Biblical home, the Garden of Eden, pictures a space of comfort in the truest sense, a place of residence it is really good to stay in.
Another ancient idea of home is lucidly glimpsed in Western pre-modern thought, first in Plato’s Republic. Pre-modern Greek societies, viewed through Socrates’s exchanges with his interlocuters in Plato’s account, saw ‘home’ as a microcosm of the Greek ‘city-state’. For ancient Greeks of Plato’s generation, freedom, justice, nobility—briefly put, the good enjoyed by veritable citizens of the Greek city-states—were borne of their homesteads. In Book IV of his Republic Plato captures the conversation of Socrates with Adeimantus, pointing out that those to whom the city in truth belongs do enjoy all the good from the city. This includes possession of large plots of land, building fine big houses, and possessing all the accessories that go along with these things. Here too, pretty much akin to the Biblical inaugural idea of Adam’s home, the Greek city-state is an assemblage of exceedingly comfort-giving homes. We further learn from Aristotle (in his Politics, Book I) that the Hellenes (ancient Greek citizens) ascribed nobility to the Barbarians (those outside Greek city-states) only when at home in Greek city-states.
If pre-modern societies, like the ancient Greek city-state, saw a bridge connecting home with the polity, modern societies would instead place a barrier separating home from the polity. In modern times, domesticity (the idea of home) will be dichotomised to polity (the idea of the state). The former will consist of an exclusive private domain, whose extant comfort (or lack thereof) is de-linked from the latter, the public domain. Post-1789 Revolution France became the prototype par excellence of the modern state. That the sans-cullottes (French Revolution’s front-liners) who hailed from the fairly ramshackle homes in Louis XIV’s France were now claiming ownership of the new state bore testimony to the ensuing separation of domesticity from polity. This separation and further crystallisation of home (as private domain) and state (as public domain), coupled with the subsequent control of the latter over the former, will come full circle in the colonial period.
The colonial state in Africa, to be sure, distinctly named the state ‘a domain of public life’ and the home that ‘of private life’. But while doing so, it was as much concerned with governing public life as it was with the private realm—the domestic sphere. The making of colonised African homes à la colonial state will consist, above all, of an economic process. Intersecting units of African households (of production, of consumption, of reproduction, and of co-residence) that originally did not fit the European colonial template were mostly reshaped by the motives of the colonial state. Like elsewhere in colonial Africa, British colonialists’ concern over the reproduction of the Ugandan population intensified in the first two decades of the 20th century. Social hygiene eventually became an important therapeutic tool whereby the colonial administration worked to instil shame over the previous behaviour of individuals— and to reshape African family structures and private life in ways which colonised time, space and bodies.
Let me now connect back to the story of my discovery of Kyali’s home. Getting to where Kyali resides, or rather spends his nights, was itself a daunting trek. The two of us walked past the slums of Makindye and Kibuye to land in the grand slum of Katwe. There was Kyali’s neighbourhood, colloquially known as Katwe-ku-bi-fridge. His, I soon remarked, was neither an idea of home in pre-modern times nor was it typically one in modern configurations. Kyali’s place of rest which he called ‘home’ was an abode without even the meanest of comforts. An oozing old tarpaulin was the only roof over his head, and an assortment of papyrus and flattened metallic reservoirs made up the walls.
But the real shock awaited me from the inside: Kyali always had to have both his arms and legs considerably folded while sleeping, for even his modest height still outsized the length of his bed. A ragged curtain separates his sleeping space from the rest of the one-room house where everything else is amassed together for lack of just enough space—clothes heaped on shoes, over cooking pots, over a stereophonic radio. There is no window; none is actually required for aeration given the numerous holes that puncture the makeshift walls. Cooking can only be done from the outside atop a sewage culvert. Bathing takes place directly next to the cooking spot. To say the least, Kyali’s home is not even prototypical of the peri-urban discomforting African domiciles of the interwar period of British rule in Uganda. It is, however, an inevitable by-product of colonial modernity writ large. And across this grand slum of Katwe-ku-bi-fridge, Kyali’s residence is not the outstanding exception; it is the commonplace rule. Hundreds of such shanty, ramshackle places of residence surround Kyali’s in every direction and at close range. It’s impossible even to begin to fathom what actualisation of ‘social distancing’ might look like in the event of an outbreak of contagious disease - as is the case today with COVID-19.
With the hindsight brought on by just a couple of days of lockdown, what preoccupies me most here is how much sense could this #StayHome campaign make from the standpoint of Kyali’s home? The brief ethnography I carried out in and around Kyali’s home—seeing for myself and exchanging both with him and his neighbours—left me stunned. I found out that the idea of home for Kyali, many of his neighbours and so many more around Kampala in situations similar to his, is very dissimilar to the one assumed by #StayHome campaigners. To begin with, what Kyali calls his home is transient in the profoundest sense. It only functions as his true abode for a short period of the night, specifically between half-to-midnight and half-past five in the morning! Very soon after that his home folds away, becoming a sort of mere store for his countable assets.
Secondly, and more revealing as I found out, Kyali (in his late twenties) himself is part of a wider kinship network, of which he is one of the most prominent members. A surviving orphan and elder brother of four siblings, Kyali’s residence connects to his maternal auntie’s. The latter is a young single-mother of four looking after her own four children plus three more children of her deceased sister (Kyali’s other auntie) in her house-at-dusk and restaurant-at-dawn. What home, I therefore wonder, is there for Kyali (as for his auntie and so many more like them) to stay at for the many hours, days, weeks and perhaps months of COVID-19 quarantine? Isn’t it somewhat naïve of many a #StayHome campaigner—messaging, tweeting, e-mailing, teleconferencing from the bourgeois hills of Nakasero, Naguru, Kololo and Buziga—to imagine that there is concrete, permanent space that Kyali and so many in situations like his can call home, and in which they can exercise safe “social distancing” in these trying times of COVID-19?
Thirdly, and perhaps most disquieting of all, Kyali’s abode, as with his entire neighbourhood of Katwe-ku-bi-fridge (to cite but one example of Kampala’s pathetic slums), is perfect recipe for fastest contagion of any pathological sort, COVID-19 or otherwise. Their ‘homes’ in Katwe-ku-bi-fridge are places of residence perfectly reflecting a combination of broken citizenship and social torture. Telling Kyali and his fellow slum dwellers around Kampala (or elsewhere) to stay home and simply stopping at that is comparable to someone belching (having eaten to their fill) while exhorting a yawning hunger-stricken crowd about the dangers of malnutrition! Kyali’s abode, along with so many of his neighbours’ places of abode are akin to dry grass next to a blazing wildfire!
And the figures are quite staggering for the African continent in general as well as for Uganda in particular. The accelerated growth of slums is an imposing and unwelcome reality in the face of many post-independence African states. When the United Nations Human Settlement Programme—today best known as UN Habitat—carried out a major survey in 1990, it was reported that some 689 million people, the world over, dwell in slums. As of 2017, it was reported that about 881 million are now urban slum dwellers—something like one in every eight persons worldwide resides in slums! The picture gets much more miserable in Africa, harbouring 55.9 per cent of the world’s slum dwellers (UN Habitat 2017). For these African slum dwellers—for whom Kyali’s Katwe-ku-bi-fridge represents the tip of an iceberg—going about their already precarious lives, COVID-19’s #StayHome campaign adds insult to injury.
I’ve definitely composed my reflection not from the vantage point of #StayHome campaigners, with due respect to the quintessence of their concern at such a loaded moment. Nor am I here concerned with those heirs of and full partakers in the digital dividend—those who can afford the luxury of remote working, instantly and permanently connected audio-visually to the rest of the globe behind their laptop, tablet and phone screens. I am here concerned with the ‘wretched’ of our urban life, to borrow inspiration from Frantz Fanon. With those who became true pariahs of the colonial-modern urbanity even before it went digital. With those slum dwellers—pathologized poor settlers and economic fortune hunters in the much vaunted city life—for whom the idea of home is but a liveable place to stay in for no more than five short hours of the night. Just as colonial social hygiene campaigns colonised their space, time and bodies in the previous century, the #StayHome campaign is set to re-order their space on much harsher terms than their own. And to cap it all, the proclaimed requirement of social distancing in view of the spread of COVID-19, constitutes the last nail in the coffin of these slum dwellers, for whom strong social bonds (in the most literal sense) are inextricably linked to survival.
At the present hour of real concern, humanitarian charity across Uganda as elsewhere around the globe, reminds us that of those to whom much is given, much is required. That quite too few have quite too much in terms of decent, spacious accommodation is an undeniable fact in Kampala - as is the case for many other urban centres around the African continent. Having myself come from Buziga (much known for its fancy, roomy housing in Kampala) to discover Kyali’s abode in Katwe-ku-bi-fridge was in itself revelatory. I couldn’t help fathom that my neighbourhood alone could technically—even temporarily—alleviate the disguised homelessness of much of Katwe just for safe quarantine’s sake! The COVID-19 pandemic is already sweeping the most affluent of our society with lethal and wealth-destroying consequences. But to those wretched of our urban world—in Kyali’s neighbourhood and similarly elsewhere—there would be nothing else to lose before their own lives are shortened by masked homelessness. It is the latter that, ironically, a #StayHome campaign ostensibly concerned with our collective vulnerability as human beings, has been too concerned to notice.