There’s no doubt that for the last few years, Kenya’s First Lady Margaret Kenyatta has been one of Kenya's most popular public figures. The height of her popularity is usually experienced during the First Lady’s Half Marathon, an event organized to raise money for the #BeyondZero campaign. The campaign’s goal is to raise funds for mobile clinics which would provide maternity and neo-natal health services, and contribute to reducing the unacceptable number of Kenyan mothers and new-born babies dying from lack of access to emergency care.
That Kenyan woman is me.
As it so happens, every philanthropic intervention in healthcare by a Kenyan public official hurts me very deeply, and I speak about it very openly. You see, I once had breast cancer. By the grace of God, the sheer willpower of my parents, and the resources of the Kenyan taxpayer, I was educated enough to know that I should keep getting checked, and so the cancer was detected early and treated with only six chemo cycles. But the cost of each chemo cycle was almost equivalent to my monthly salary, so that even if my employer provided me with insurance, the idea never left me that I was vulnerable to not affording treatment.
During my treatment, I was particularly haunted by stories of women who chose between paying KES 3,500 for a chemo cycle and feeding their children, and who decided to go for the latter, and only returned for treatment when it was too late. At that time, Kenyatta National Referral Hospital was the only public hospital offering cancer treatment in the whole country, despite breast cancer stats showing that one in eight Kenyan women would be diagnosed with the disease, and that cancer was killing about 40,000 Kenyans every year. After I finished my treatment, I was told that research shows that the cancer strain I had has the highest rate of recurrence. But this time, when I returned for the expensive hormonal treatment, my insurance provider said it was a chronic ailment and would cover only a fraction of the cost.
And so, I also know that if the cancer returns, I will, most likely, have limited options in seeking treatment. People in my income bracket and social circles are already jaded by numerous requests and fundraising for cancer patients, and so if I suffer from cancer again, they will probably be too fatigued to help. Public health facilities that work are, therefore, my best hope.
That is why every story of healthcare and public officials that is personalized, from the so-called heroism of Anyang’ Nyong’o and celebration of Beth Mugo surviving cancer, to the one-million shilling Christmas gift from Muhoho Kenyatta, to Ruth Odinga’s orange-colored cast at a London hospital, to now the First Lady’s Marathon, leaves me livid and frustrated.
I am livid, because despite the precarious situation of the 90% poor and employed Kenyans when it comes to healthcare, many citizens are willing to substitute asking critical questions about healthcare for drooling over public officials kind enough to donate hospital fees, run a marathon and start a foundation, as our public healthcare system remains in shambles. I am frustrated, because the attempts of several Kenyans to speak out about the contradiction of private philanthropy by public officers is silenced by a bevy of media houses, media personalities and a well-oiled PR machine. The strategy is simple: portray Kenyans who ask those questions as haters attacking a selfless woman with a big heart.
I, too, got intimidated by the support, but because my questions wouldn’t leave me, I penned a boot-licking piece apologizing to the First Lady for doing what Kenyan tax-payers paid for when they funded my education: thinking. The idea behind my apology was to silence the almost inevitable backlash from Margaret Kenyatta’s supporters. But what happened instead was that the person I silenced was me.
Not any more.
In contrast to what I said in my groveling post, I don’t admire the First Lady. But I don’t not admire her either. I do think she’s a beautiful woman, and a good role model for my students who are mimicking Vera Sidika and Kim Kadarshian. However, I know her for political reasons, not because she’s nice – which I have no doubt she is. She is married to a politician, and my taxes fund the Presidency which publicizes her, fund her security, her residence, and I’m sure, a whole host of many other things. It is therefore my duty as a citizen to analyze her public actions first as a public official.
And just like I’ve said before, I find private philanthropy by public officials, especially around healthcare and education, deeply disturbing. As I’ve said in many different ways, these social services are broken in Kenya for two main reasons.
First, our politicians have contempt for trained professionals, especially doctors and teachers. Second, our politicians and their immediate families seek these social services abroad or in expensive, private local facilities. Because they don’t have to seek medical care in public hospitals or take their children to public schools, politicians have no real commitment to improving our hospitals and schools. The lip service they pay is normally limited to paying hospital bills and bursaries, and talking about that generosity at election time.
That is why, against the backdrop of the First-Lady’s Half Marathon, the ironies of Kenya’s social services, are simply mind-blogging. For instance, it was reported that the mobile clinic donated by the Beyond Zero campaign to Kisumu County was grounded for lack of staff, yet counties are refusing to employ the 600 doctors the country graduates every year. Nurses, who are the backbone of Kenya’s healthcare, are leaving Kenya in the thousands, for greener pastures in the private sector or even abroad. Among the donations to the marathon was a multi-million mobile clinic from the wife of the Samburu county governor, a county which, you would think, would be the beneficiary of the mobile clinics.
Philanthropy remains annoying because no matter how many billions our royal family raises, that money is useless without doctors and nurses to treat our people, and decent working conditions for our medical staff. And the risks that Kenyan medical workers take to treat their own people, especially when they could get better opportunities abroad, should be ranked among the most patriotic gestures in this country. So instead of raising money for clinics, why not create prizes to celebrate ordinary doctors and nurses? Why not raise money for scholarships for medical training, or social amenities and fellowships for medics, especially in remote areas? Why not focus more on the people who provide healthcare, and leave the question of medical equipment and infrastructure to the national budget?
I suspect that politicians do not support medics and teachers, because they fear professionals, especially people who touch our bodies and minds, interacting with ordinary wananchi. Recall that even Jesus Christ caused a lot of anger among the religious teachers when he healed the sick and taught in parables, because he was disrupting the dependence of the people on the government and religious leaders for teaching and healing.
Just like the Pharisees cared more about the law than about whether the people were taught, healed and fed, our politicians care more about the money than about the service. But money cannot treat the sick or teach our children. And that is why, until we have a law compelling politicians and their nuclear families to use public schools and hospitals, we the citizens have to fend for ourselves and ask the tough questions.
And so public healthcare remains one of the topics I will continue to address with great passion, and hopefully with great honesty from now on. I am not alone.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of Kenyans who still ask the bold questions despite being shouted down. I speak from the heritage of people like Mekatili wa Menza, Mary Nyanjiru, the Mau Mau, the Saba Saba demonstrators, and the thousands of ordinary Kenyans who have raised their voices against structural injustice. As a public official, the First Lady is obligated to protect my voice, not to suppress it, be it deliberately or by proxy. She remains free to perform philanthropic acts as a citizen of this nation, but the price should not have to be my silence about something that affects me so personally.
And yes, for me, public healthcare is personal, not just political. For me, it’s about life and death. I know it is even more so for millions of Kenyans who have even less access than I do, because they may not have a regular income, a voice, or even a healthcare facility within a 100 kilometer radius. It would seem, however, that those Kenyans less fortunate than me have the First Lady and a horde of sponsoring companies and foreign embassies to talk for them. So if I have to talk for anyone, I have to talk for me.