Will charging Uhuru park have an impact on Nairobi’s mental health

Last week, I was late for an invitation to the Aga Khan Brain and Mind Institute, which included a media briefing ahead of this week’s conference on Healing the Brain in Nairobi. It was one of those late interventions of fate, and I had to cover for a colleague at the last minute. My usual experience with press briefings involves unidirectional sermons, where the newsmaker sits and pontificates their importance, expecting you to relay the message.

When you show up late, you can usually crouch at the back and ask a colleague to give you a brief before catching up on the Q and A. However, this time was different. The room, cozily lit like a modern-day classroom, had the newsmakers and journalists sitting in a round table, resembling consulting peers.

I came in rudely late to a round table meeting, and to make matters worse, I found myself invited next to the guest speakers. I crouched next to him like a truant student, hoping to catch up on the hour I had missed of the speakers’ irretrievable counsel.

BMI Institute

The Aga Khan Brain and Mind Institute organized a conference to explore cost-effective ways for low and middle-income countries, like Kenya, to deal with the rising mental health issues.

Due to the cost of mental healthcare, research into solutions for poor countries has been limited, leaving scores of patients undiagnosed and untreated. In dementia, for instance, with Kenya’s aging population expected to double in the next three decades, a 316 percent increase in people living with dementia is anticipated by 2050. However, there has been no research on it until this year. Aga Khan University’s Brain and Mind Institute and Davos Alzheimer Collaborative (DAC) signed a two-part research program for dementia, aiming to address the lack of diversity in dementia research, improve care, and increase access to innovative treatments across Africa.

This conference aimed to explore such solutions for communities that would otherwise not afford to address growing mental anxiety. I later discovered all this through a bit of research. But at that moment, I embarrassingly fished out my notebook and tried to look as penitent as possible next to Prof. Lukoye Atwoli and Dr. Zul Merali.

Harmful Journalism

Prof. Nancy Booker, the Dean at the Graduate School of Media and Communications, joined us via a recorded link, where she sought to give a recent example of how the lack of media sensitivity had caused a family much anguish. It was the case of David Maina, whose son had been killed by strangulation, yet coverage of the story claimed it was suicide.

What angered him more was the fact that the media imputed that his son had died of depression caused by family problems. They had relied on the word of an assistant chief and had not had the courtesy to call the family to verify. As Dr. Booker expressed her disappointment in such slips in the industry, I immediately remembered that I might actually be guilty of such crimes myself.

When I was a rookie reporter a decade ago, I was quickly dispatched to Uhuru Park on a chilly morning; there was a tip of a suicide. I made my way there and found the body still hanging before it was brought down. I remember scanty details, but we interviewed the police, and I did the story.

As Prof. Booker took us back to a media class and taught how much harm we can do by failing to grasp how we report on mental health issues, I quickly googled the old story. I was as guilty as that correspondent from Machakos; I never called the family, nor followed up.

AA Meeting

When I came in, I had confused the sitting for a round table, but soon I realized it was more of an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting, and question time was more about us journalists admitting to our shortcomings.

For the most part, we have failed to comprehend how reporting on suicides impacts whether families get justice or homicides are covered up. Reports of suicide also carry huge financial penalties, given it is considered illegal in Kenya and is not covered by insurance.

So, I confessed my decade-old crime and really reflected on Dr. Booker’s inference that, in most media houses, besides the health desks, the rest of the newsrooms are really not well-appraised of mental health reporting. It has taken work to get the media to stop publishing stories about mental health accompanied by a hangman’s rope, and up until that morning, I had not yet learned the error of writing ‘commit suicide’ instead of ‘died by suicide’ because the former has a connotation of a crime.

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After the meeting, I tried to get Prof. Atwoli to give me some sound bites for today’s story, but he had run out of time, or I had not kept mine. Or maybe I was just too guilty of too many crimes, but I know he has something interesting to say about the impact of fencing off Nairobi’s parks, especially during a recessionary period.

During periods of massive job losses, high inflation, and rising poverty, only parks can inspire Gabriel Omollo’s ‘Lunch Time’ than pent up angst. I recently went to Uhuru Park, which has been spruced up into a Disneyland of sorts. But access had been barred; they were not too sure when the park would be open and whether people would be required to pay to access it.

It will be a huge test on whether Uhuru Park, the home of political revolutionary movements, can be cordoned off for any price, especially such an important mental space.

Parks in Nairobi

Nairobi Parks have always held out something personal for me, coming from the countryside still clinging to the little bit of sane greenery for a while.

When I first came to the city in April 2013, the only place I knew was Machakos Country Bus Station. I had been here as a child on those rare city visits to see our working fathers squatting in single rooms in Nairobi. What comes to mind about this particular visit was Machakos Country Bus Station; all I remember is the sea of people.

In fact, when I got to the city, the bus that I had carefully selected to drop me at Machakos Country Bus Station came in from Haile Selassie Avenue. I didn’t know that at the time, though. When it took a turn at the roundabout towards Landhies Road, I saw a sea of people, and I could swear this was Machakos Country Bus Station, as I had seen it almost two decades ago.

The crowd, much larger now, were coming in wave after wave, crushing shoulder to shoulder around the buses; everywhere there was an inch of space, someone jumped in to fill it.

I waited to see signage but saw nothing; worse still, the bus was now halfway down Landhies Road, snaking its way through the crowd, and I was not too sure anymore. Should I rely on my childhood memory or let the wisdom of the drivers, who I had given full instructions as to where to terminate my journey, take charge?

Legend has it that all buildings look alike

The bus went past a petrol station and took a turn somewhere, vanishing into a vacant space. I was furious that they had not dropped me off at Machakos Country Bus Station; and now I was surely lost. The driver reassured me that we were at Machakos and gave me hurried directions before sending me off. Somehow I found my way to Muoroto Police Station and called my brother to come pick me up.

Perhaps to cure me of such cluelessness of the city, my brother later took me to town to show me places where I could ‘barizi’ in the Central Business District. Our knowledge of Nairobians as “watu wa kukuja” (villagers who come to Nairobi to look for work) is what we hear from househelps and small cousins who never set foot in the CBD. It is no wonder we marvel at Nairobi as a place of awe; as a maze where you get lost. Legend has it that all buildings look alike, and if you try to ask for direction, they will either ignore or rob you.

My brother decided out of the entire palette of the city, three places would suffice for what he guessed were my interests. Poetry, Politics, and Pombe. He took me to Kenya National Theatre for the poetry, for the pombe it was to an unnamed building on Latema Road that housed innumerable keg joints. For Politics, he took me to Jevanjee Gardens, situated between Muindi Mbingu Street and Moi Avenue.

Today, at a corner of Jevanjee Gardens, middle-aged men are stretched out in a smokey visage. This corner of the five-acre parcel of vacant plot in the middle of Nairobi’s CBD is the most forlorn and egalitarian space of the garden, where suits and rags share a ‘halflife’ – cigarette stubs.

At Jevanjee, one can smoke out in the open

The smokers are a contemplative lot, silently puffing away their thoughts, emboldened by being forced to crowd together inside their narrow allocated space of shame that must have been the intent when the smoking zones were created. Typical Nairobi public smoking zones are small claustrophobic spaces built next to toilets.

At Jevanjee, one can smoke out in the open, and this freedom litters the ground with cigarette butts that have dodged the cleaning brooms of the City Council workers. There used to be a cold cement bench here, if my memory serves me right. Now that is gone; just like the rusty metal statue of the park’s benefactor, businessman and philanthropist Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee (AMJ), which was the centerpiece of the recreational park and has been temporarily removed to pave the way for the reconstruction of the park. In their place is debris from the construction work; heaps of murram and crushed rock.

The Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) had until June last year to develop a magical botanical garden with children’s play areas at this garden. NMS was the interim military entity set up in 2020. It took over operations of Nairobi after the signing of a Deed of Transfer of functions between the national government, through the Ministry of Devolution, and the Nairobi County government through ex-Governor Mike Sonko.

Government is talking austerity

The NMS’s mandate over affairs of Nairobi City ended after the August General election, paving the way for the incoming administration of Governor-elect Johnstone Sakaja. Even as the new administration plans its own strategies, today the government is talking austerity, and the Jevanjee refurbishment is limping.

Before the stalled refurbishment, Jevanjee simply comprised the smoking zone, a tuck shop, two public toilets, and concrete benches. Now only the trees stand as they have always done, the cracked barks of the Jacarandas with their dried out branches still flowering purple propaganda. The crowds are reclaiming their spaces in between the rubble of abandoned reconstruction material after sections of the park were bulldozed off.

When my brother brought me to Jevanjee that April in 2013, he took me to this humongous grove of old bougainvillaea at the center of the park. In this cove, young men, who were neatly dressed and articulate, were discussing topical issues and the latest politics, setting the country’s political agenda under a tree. These were men who talked ideas, often revolutionary, as University of Nairobi students rushed by, ears plugged by music earbuds and brightly-colored headphones. This home to the famous open-air Bunge la Wananchi is now gone.

The men, perhaps having aged, perhaps fazed by the exposure of sitting out in the open to conduct politics, are spread out on blocks of an incomplete sitting area. The pastors are also reclaiming their spaces; they have caught the spirit and gesticulate rather threateningly at each other, shouting hoarsely, competing over different pages of the same book. Those who come to sleep away their troubles are stretched out where the trampled grass has grown back.

Mastery of the spoken word

As we cross where the winding paths used to be, picking our way through the debris, this chokora approaches us. I can tell his hair was shaved a few weeks ago, and that he cared so much to have had a cut done, that small line that made so much difference and which determined how cool you looked as a child.

“Habari zenyu wasee,” he said cheerfully. After a decade in this city, I have learned not to respond to strangers. The general fear of common crime makes one constantly on guard in this city, especially around strangers. But he is unfazed and instead holds out his fist for a ‘gotta’ fist bump, and I feel drawn out.

“For a mbao I will do a spoken word for you guys, just give me a minute,” he says. He is wearing a black synthetic jacket with a white inner lining, that is now caked in dirt and body grease. He goes off with a lame line, something to do with the youth. You can see that he does not believe in the words he is reciting. He is looking for a rhyme, but it is more from memory than from a burst of creativity. He finishes off with a call from our founding father, Jomo Kenyatta, a clarion call to love our country, Kenya.

Then he fancies that we are surprised by a chokoraa’s mastery of the spoken word and feels the need to explain. He says he used to recite at KNT (Kenya National Theatre) and he had a name; Mikey, he says, Mike Magu Njogu in full. “Nilikua Naperform huko KNT hadi kwa show kubwa kubwa, niko mpaka YouTube”. And there, in the recollection of his name, as if uttered in a way he rarely does, he smiled and a tear glittered at the corner of his eyes. I felt embarrassed for him. 

Millions to turn Jevanjee into an arts exhibition

I felt a little empathy and I could see a path in my own life that could have crossed with his on purpose; I, a fairly well-to-do former professional and him, a third-rate talent act hawking poems for twenty bob in public parks. I pulled out my wallet and took out a fifty-shilling note. And just like that I financed a drug habit by trying to trade in my guilt.

As I trudged on through the asphalt wondering how I could help our unfortunate spoken word artist and as quickly hoping someone else should think about him to outsource the guilt, I realized I was walking away with the unexpected gift of Mikey’s spoken words, and the price of the stories I wanted to sell.

Jevanjee Garden continues to endure, much like the gift intended by Mulla Jevanjee as a place to unwind. It serves as a fitting tribute to the Indian entrepreneur who built Nairobi and his vision of preserving the 1904 look, offering a recreational space amid the evolving city skyline dominated by new glass and concrete structures.

Jevanjee persists, having weathered challenges such as the failed land grab attempt in 1991, which aimed to transform the space into a multi-storey car park. The park still awaits completion under a new county government. Jevanjee can endure delays, having grown accustomed to them, and even withstands complete abandonment as projects fall through the cracks of changing regimes.

In 2014, then-Governor Evans Kidero invested millions to transform Jevanjee into an arts exhibition and children’s play area with free wifi. The extent of his success with those millions remains uncertain because Jeevanjee remains unchanged.

As the new county government contemplates charging entry into Uhuru Park, it should be cautious about how fiercely Nairobians would defend a free open space.

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