By Eucabeth Odhiambo, author of middle-grade novel Auma’s Long Run
Writing Auma’s Long Run, my debut middle-grade novel set in Kenya in the 1980s, took me back to what things were like in Kenya when I was growing up and how so much has changed.
Changes in communication
Many changes happened in the area of communication. Not many people had landlines, so to make a phone call we had to use public booths. Booths were available in shopping centers and some developments. Just calling to chat was not easy; you called to pass important information. Leisure calls happened only when you found a booth in a low-traffic area.
In the village, booths were a luxury. We had to take public transportation to the nearest small town to use a phone at a post office. Depending on the town one or two booths could be available in a public spot.
In Auma’s Long Run, Auma and her family only saw some of their relatives during Christmas or funerals. When someone died, the women wailed because they were sorrowful but also to alert the villagers of the death. Nowadays, a text message goes out instantaneously.
Auma’s family was not able to communicate with their father at all while he was in the city. He had to come home every end of the month to see his family and bring money for their survival.
You would think that letter writing would be a faster alternative, but no. Snail mail was just snail slow as the name implies. It took a minimum of two weeks to get a letter to its destination.
All the same, when I was growing up I enjoyed getting mail, reading it, and then writing back. I still miss receiving a letter, sitting down to read it, and then composing a reply. Everything in the letter writing process was well thought out. I mailed letters once in a while to very close friends over school holidays.
Receiving mail was also not an easy process. One had to go to the post office and collect their mail via their mailbox. And sending money to another person meant using money order at the post office.
Life was slow and full of meaning. You had to take time to think through what you needed to communicate to someone far away. Unnecessary communication was easy to avoid. Who had time and money to send a phrase like we now do through texting?
Things have changed. I do not know anybody in Kenya who goes to the post office regularly nowadays. Today in Kenya almost everyone has a cell phone. I can talk to my family any time of the day or night. I can send money and they receive it in an instant.
Vehicle transportation has also changed. Auma traveled only once to go and see her aunt because it was very important. Trips took a lot of time. Public transportation was limited to a few buses and matatus (mini-buses). You were at the mercy of the transportation owners if they changed their mind about where they wanted to go.
Back then Auma’s running came handy. She simply zipped to get whatever her mother needed.
Now in Kenya more people have personal cars/vehicles and can take flights between major cities. There are more organized transit systems and better roads. But, I have also come across drivers who are rude, inconsistent, and uncaring.
In addition to faster communication and transportation, people in Kenya now have cyber cafes, charging stations, and better customer service. One might feel that there is more comfort in their lives today in Kenya. However, I feel that with comfort comes the sacrifice of the slower paced lifestyle we had in the past.
Communication and HIV
Inefficient communication was a factor in the spread of HIV. Apart from face-to-face campaigns, the radio was the only reliable and commonly used method of getting information into homes. Even though not everyone had a radio in the rural areas, it later became the best communication tool for teaching people about HIV/AIDS.
Auma herself did not have access to the little radio they had in the house. It may not even have been working. But if she had been able to listen to information about the virus, she would have been old enough to decipher simple facts about HIV that could have answered her questions.
Worse still, education had not taken root as most people, including leaders, were still in denial. Public education started with leaders making announcements during public rallies. Written forms of communication including pamphlets and posters were later used but not everyone had the same access.
Plus, adults including those in Auma’s village were not talking openly about what they knew, their fears, and their inhibitions. They let fear and culture stop them from finding out what they did not know and to answer Auma’s questions about HIV.
Today, getting such information is only a tap away on a cell phone. There is no excuse for such lack of information even for any grandmother.
When life is threatened, any form of communication is an asset. If used effectively, lives are saved.
Then and now
I miss parts of the way my village in Kenya used to be when I was growing up. I liked the organic lifestyle we lived back then. However, I have to say I like the modern Kenya too.
Fortunately, I can still reach both worlds because some of the old world still exists. For example, most people in the village still go to the river to fetch water, cook their food on a three stone open fire just like Auma did.
My hope is that readers of Auma’s Long Run will appreciate the modernity that exists now and use it to save lives.
Order Auma’s Long Run
Watch Eucabeth Odhiambo and editor Amy Fitzgerald discuss Auma’s Long Run at BEA here.