Breaking news in context; the KNH story

For some two to three weeks in late February/early March, news of the KNH botched operation moved at a dizzying and harrowing speed. And thanks to concerted efforts by both the Mainstream and Social Media, the central facts of the case were always at hand to fuel our rapidly growing outrage. Since I don’t wish to belabour mechanics of the case or rehash the sequence of events that followed, I will restrict my take to the coverage itself.

The tone with which the media covers stories generally dictates the tone of public discourse on the subject; which elements of a story are important? what feelings should they evoke? Who should be the target of said feelings? In so far as the coverage of this story, a few things were done right i) The media took the operation seriously enough to elicit the necessary public anger and demand for accountability and ii) Some of the media took some effort to put the story in the wider context of a failing/failed healthcare system eg this piece by KTN News. I say “some media” and “some effort” because in popular news outlets the story was largely postured as a “freak” accident that was horrifying only because it was unpredictable and unexpected of the “largest referral system in East Africa”. The economic and political context in which KNH and this operation exist was not only ignored, it felt deliberately obscured. Allow me to use this comically distasteful article by the Daily Nation to illustrate the point. The objective of the article, it seems to me, was to aggrandize the difficulties of the CEO job at KNH, but attribute the entirety of said difficulties to the individual CEOs unfitness for the job. Even the title of the article implies that to be a CEO at KNH requires exceptionalism that is not necessarily true of other institutions. The article then goes on to list all the individuals that have run the institution since antiquity, but does not concern itself with the political interference, inadequate funding, and other problems in the health sector that have made being a CEO at KNH so difficult in the first place. The writer’s only motive through and through appears to be to make a somewhat comedic entreprise of the high position turnover and leave it at that.

Now that I have highlighted what was right and wrong with the coverage, what was un/under highlighted?

  1. KNH is underfunded

I don’t imagine it is news to most people that KNH is grossly underfunded, but it is surprising that most analysis on what ails KNH makes no mention of it, especially given that it is arguably the biggest contributor to the poor state of affairs at the hospital. So surprising in fact that there seems no explanation for it other than the general avoidance of Mainstream Media to antagonise the Jubilee government; do not poop where you dish and all that. I will illustrate the magnitude of this point using some numbers. From KNH’s and Auditor General’s archives, I was able to access audited financial statements for the hospital for the years ending June 2014, 2015 and 2016. This is not enough to demonstrate a patterned underfunding over the history of the hospital, but it’s sufficient in putting recent events in their malnourished context. For the year ending June 2016, KNH received KES 6.67B from the national government, KES 150M from donor funded projects and KES 3M from public contributions and donations. Including the KES 4.6B collected from rendering of services (revenue collected from patients) the total annual revenue was KES 11.7B. Of this, employee costs took up KES 7.7B, which is 66% of total revenue and 115% of the grants from Treasury. The rest was mainly spent on clinical costs (pharmaceutical supplies, surgical consumables, lab chemicals, patient food etc) and General Admin expenses (Utility bills, legal fees, security, cleaning etc). In short, the funds received from Treasury is not enough to cover employee costs, much less the clinical costs and administrative expenses to run the hospital. The implication is simply that patients have to dig into their pockets for the operational running of the hospital, many of who are not able to pay at all or in time. The hospital therefore often runs on steam.

There are a few reasons this underfunding bears emphasis. i) Universal Health is one of the Big 4 Agenda items that the Jubilee government has committed to delivering in its second term and ii) The underfunding is not for lack of funds, but done so that more money is available for the blatant and persisting plundering of the state’s resources by the powers that be. The three years I looked at (2014, 2015, 2016) tell a similar story, with overall National Treasury grants amounting to KES 20.8B against a combined employee cost of KES 22.7B  (circa 108%).

Based on the direness that these numbers portend, it should not be surprising that KNH is grossly understaffed and only employs about 450 doctors, that it heavily relies on postgrads from the University of Nairobi for the bulk of clinical work (KNH has least 700 registrars), that patients often share beds or even that doctors do not have the time and capacity to give each patient the due care mandated by the profession.

2. The referral system does not work

In January 2016, the then Health CS Cleopa Mailu announced that in two years KNH would stop offering outpatient services in a bid to decongest the hospital and enable it to focus on inpatient care. More than two years later, KNH is still not a full referral hospital, and is still taking walk ins . Worse still, there has not been a statement from the Ministry of Health either from Mailu or from the current CS Sicily Kariuki on why this was not achieved, or what the adjusted timelines are.

From an observer, there have been a number of contributors to the non-achievement of this goal including unequipped, inefficient and unsympathetic County Level 4&5 hospitals (I once tweeted at length about the maltreatment of a loved one at Thika Level 5 Kiambu County hospital, but that’s a story for another day), the poor coordination between County hospitals and KNH and as always a lack of goodwill from both the County and National governments in ironing out the system. Failure of the referral system has been known as one of the main reasons for the congestion of KNH and the underfunding discussed in preceding paragraphs only serves to exacerbate it.

3. The health sector’s general attitude to medical errors.

It would take me another thousand words to talk about the God complex in the medical field that make misdiagnosis particularly prevalent and painful for many patients. For a field that was manufacturing measly grams of insulin out of vast amounts of liquefied cow and pig pancreases less than a 100 years ago, the demonisation and instinct to bury/ not to acknowledge medical errors is befuddling. On the KNH front, it was disappointing that at least initially, suspending and vilifying the staff involved was sold to us as important and sufficient, feeding into the trope that errors in medicine only result from malice. It was a prime opportunity for the media to lead a discussion on how the gaps in medicine’s feedback loop can be closed and how one unfortunate error can be studied to make structural adjustment to processes such as patient labelling and filing of records. This opportunity was missed.

That being said, the level of public participation especially on Social Media went a long way in making up for shortcomings on Mainstream Media and it’s my hope that we will continue to engage with each other on this issue, but more importantly, that relevant stakeholders are paying attention.

 

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A Walk in the Dark

It’s 8pm. It’s dark. There are not many cars in the street/path I am about to take, even less people. I have half a mind to get an Uber, but it is 2018 and I am all about saving my coins when I can and I just don’t see the justification here, personal safety be damned. So I decide to brave it out, and walk. It’s not smart, but it’s not the dumbest thing I have ever done. So I put my phone in my bra, the change in my pocket and wave my waitress goodbye. Here goes nothing.

I have this dangerous habit where if it’s dark and I am properly frightened, I walk slower, not faster. Perhaps it’s my body recoiling unto itself, or the part of me that thinks of itself as “unfazeable” telling me I ought to stay and fight because I have a right to walk in a public path anytime I want. I also tend to sing if I am scared, war-like songs, daring anyone to come between me and THIS BLOOD OF JESUS (I’m not even a believer) and witness what I am made of (I am not even a decent fighter).

So I walk, slowly, less than half my usual pace. But I don’t sing. It is too dark, too lonely to make an audience of anyone. Too scary. Too personal, almost.

There is something to be said about expecting violence. The feeling that your body as is is easily disposable, that your possession of your “self” is fleeting. I see a silhouette approaching me, and I panic, I prepare to react. And then it turns out to be a woman carrying a child, scared to cross my path. And I feel shame. Shame that I suspected that of an innocent, even vulnerable, stranger. Shame that she probably thought the same of me, shame that she has to be afraid in the first place. And yet she must. And yet I must. And yet one must. Because there are mountains of data prescribing fear when walking alone at night, especially if one is tipsy and female; The autopsy report says she was inebriated; She must have provoked him.

In this walk of mine, possible help is far. There are a number of shops along the way, but they are closed. There are homes, but they are too far away to be of help. For most of the walk it’s just me and prolonged periods of bush. It stands out, and I think how it must harbor animals, human or otherwise. I think how it could easily harbor me, especially given how useless I am; I am holding a phone that couldn’t go for more than 2k on its best day and 500bob in cash. It makes me think how often this must happen to others, not just tipsy walkers, but people we don’t think much about like watchmen, guards, people who routinely get late from work and don’t have access to taxis. The waiting in the dark. The expectation of violence. Day after day. It’s devastating, but it’s, I think, the perfect metaphor to life; we are all walking in the dark; we are all walking alone.

Nothing profound or extraordinary happened on this walk of mine. A car pulled up too close to my feet, a man catcalled me, but by and large I got home safely 15-20 minutes later (Praise be!). It did give me things to think about though, and that’s something to be grateful about.

Of new year resolutions and such

I’m typing this at 12.22am. I’m up because I had a confusing and emotional day and the reconciliations in my head are making it very very difficult to fall asleep. In my background is the sound of a guest on Wendy Williams describing how the porn star (Stormy Daniels) with whom the President of the United States had sex, allegedly, was allergic to latex and therefore the sex was unprotected. A) Now I really wish I didn’t know that and B) I feel terribly bad for her. He looks like the kind of guy to spend one’s remaining lifetime showering off. Jus sayin.

It’s 31st of January, which is a good time to talk about new year resolutions, I guess. One of those resolutions was to go back to writing, and not just about books (which I still love to do but they can feel limiting sometimes). Earlier tonight I was discussing with some people how sometimes a very singular and busy 8-5 can crush your hobbies. And the whole time I was thinking about my blogging, which while I wasn’t particularly good at, I loved it and it was an unregulated/ungovernable way to let my thoughts onto the page and not feel the need to explain myself. You know what I’m saying?.

So yeah, expect to see more. A whole lot more on current news, sex (which feels like current news all the time nowadays-What can I say, on behalf of a whole bunch of us Time’s Up!), politics, books, feminism, regular stuff etc.

It’s now 12.50am. It took me circa 40 minutes to write a measly ass two paragraphs but I feel better about shit. And that’s the entire point.

 

No tagline for now,

Bree

 

 

 

My favorite books in the first half of 2017

It is mid-July, which means the window to gush about the books one has read for the first half of 2017 is still open. According to goodreads, I have read and finished 21 books so far (11 nonfiction, 10 fiction). I have also read and abandoned 5 others including, regrettably, some of the books I paid for directly through the nose.

Here is a round-up of my top favorite books, in the vague order from most adored.

Nonfiction

  1. The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee– Medical history is one of the new genres I have discovered this year, and Siddhartha is most definitely my most treasured author of the genre, The Gene its mascot. This book blew my mind, made me giggle, made me cry, and gave me a truckload of new knowledge. Reading this book was definitely my best of times this year. I’m currently reading Siddhartha’s other book; The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, which is just as good, and the one that won the Pulitzer.
  2. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari– It’s difficult to put into words how much I adored this book. I actually ruined my copy because for months I went everywhere with it, sitting quietly in my backpack, re-reading sections, thinking, making it a quiet companion even while I was reading another book or not reading at all. It has a white cover, which is my least favorite thing about it, but even now in its dustiness, folds and peels, I can’t wait to re-read it sometime this year. Two days ago I bought Harari’s other book and Sapiens’ “sequel”; Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. I haven’t read it, yet, but whoop, I’m I psyched!
  3. Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick– History like a thriller.
  4. Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth about Success by Matthew Syed- I don’t highlight or annotate my books, so I prefer to use page markers. I have never used so many markers on a single book as I did this one. So many chunks of wisdom.
  5. Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus by David Quammen- This book read like a horror story. My only issue with it was that it was too short. I saw David’s other book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic at a bookshop recently. It looked at least 600 pages long, and I am so very excited to get it in my next round of book shopping, I can’t keep calm.
  6. Autobiography of a face by Lucy Grealy- This memoir was haunting. For weeks after reading this book, I couldn’t look into a mirror without thinking about it. Man, this life.
  7. Interventions: A Life in War and Peace by Kofi Annan- Candid, raw and everything you hope a book about the UN would talk about.

Fiction

  1. Disgrace by J.M Coetzee– Everytime I see this book on the street or at the bookshop, I get butterflies in my stomach, then start convincing strangers that this is what they want, and not the copy of James Patterson they are holding. This book is it, and definitely my favorite fiction this year [so far].
  2. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion- This book made me laugh, made me cry, and made me just sit there numbed. I didn’t think about it as a book about mental illness at the time (even when Asperger’s syndrome was all over the book), but it is. For the most part though it’s just good ole comedy, and it’s gorgeous.
  3. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison– So sad and lyrical. So so sad.

I also read some seriously underwhelming books. Namely:

  1. On Palestine by Noam Chomsky+Ilan Pappe– What a dud
  2. The Case for Christmas by Lee Strobel- I bought this on a whim along the streets of Nairobi for KES 100 because sometimes it’s good to read “completely random collections”. Oh boy!
  3. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro- To be fair this wasn’t as bad as the 2 above, but it was still pretty terrible.

Those are 13 books. The other 8 were pretty average. There was An Abundance of Katherines by John Green which I gave 4 stars because I thought it was absolutely hilarious, but now I realise it wasn’t that memorable. There was also The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, which while I fell in love with the story,  I now realise the writing was downright average, which means it doesn’t deserve this walk of fame.

On the abandoning front, one of the books I was really looking forward to reading was How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney. But I ended up really really struggling with it, and abandoning it altogether. It is also one of the most expensive books on my shelf which double breaks my heart. I also received The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt as a gift late last year (which I must say seldom happens. I buy all my books which is not something I easily sustain. Gift me books my people!). I have read about 600 pages of it but I can’t seem to have the strength to go on, which mighty sucks.

I have counted, and I have about 40 books in my house that I haven’t read, most of them fiction. I’m semi-ashamed of this number and so here’s to hoping I read a hell lot more in the second half of the year, and buy books a hell lot less.

What have you been reading for the last 6 months? What are some of your favorite books? Let us know in the comments below.

PS: Reviews for these books can be found on the blog, hence this list being restricted to my feelings about the books.

June Reading Wrap Up!

I have been thinking about making a post, but every time I am halfway to the blog page I just end up clicking on the next episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. That’s right, I have inevitably been sucked into lower-caste forms of entertainment. It’s delicious because it’s so vacuous and it’s so vacuous because it’s so vain, you know, the works. I have never watched anything in such far remove from my personality and lifestyle. Relatable is overrated, I have come to learn. On the downside though, I can literally feel the dystrophy in my brain cells (I’m on the episode where Kim is crying about her US $ 5,000 earrings getting lost, surely you feel me).

Moving on…

I read 5 books in June (3 non-fictions and 2 fictions), and I apologise for not reviewing any of them sooner. It was all due to the aforementioned Kardashian concerns. But let’s now get into the brief of the reviews, shall we?

1. Interventions: A Life in War and Peace by Kofi Annan

This is a deeply personal memoir by Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian UN Secretary General between 1997 and 2006. As a political memoir, I expected Kofi to largely catalogue his accomplishments and be on his way. That would have been an incomplete story, but I would not really have held it against him. Not for long. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by his candour. It was raw and poignant, which made it beautiful. He held a mirror for us to look into what the UN really has been, your rich friend who hardly ever comes through for you when you really need them, but one that’s kinda useful for your optics so you keep them around. He goes into great lengths to discuss the UN’s failures in Somalia in the early 90s and how that led to the international community’s scepticism of UN’s trustworthiness when it came to the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and as a result all parties doing absolutely nothing to salvage the situation. He talks about the conflict in Sudan, Sierra Leone, and even the post-election violence in Kenya in 2008. Outside of Africa, he gives us a glimpse into Indonesia and East Timor’s achieving of autonomy, which was the UN’s first peacekeeping success story. But it’s not all about war, there is a bit of peace as he reflects on the success of the MDGs and his Nobel Peace prize. That’s pretty much it though, because he then delves headfirst into the Israel/Palestine decades’ old conflict, and his involvement and lack thereof till the end of the book.

It’s genuinely difficult to read this book without prior knowledge of the various contexts Annan bases his experiences. It felt a little like something was missing, and indeed it was, when Israel Vs Palestine is told from a 1997-2006 “review period”, when there’s so much more to it. And I suppose that’s the nature of a memoir, it’s going to be bound by the time the subject witnessed. That, and the fact that Annan could get just a little bit dry at times which didn’t help things move along. Otherwise I found it deeply illuminating and profoundly honest. That Annan is so comfortable in being such an imperfect Sec Gen was probably what made him a great Sec Gen, and I think that in itself is stunningly beautiful.

Rating: 4/5 stars

2. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

This book gave me a lot of thoughts and feelings, and for the most part that was annoying because I didn’t think it was especially good. In fact, the more time lapses since I read it, the more I think it is especially *not* good.

The book is a letter from a certain Balram to the Chinese Premier, who is set to tour India imminently. Balram tells his story, of being born to a poor family by the River Ganges (google it, especially in relation to cremation of the dead. It is a piece of work). Balram soon finds a job as a chauffeur to a rich family, and the rest of the story is basically him ranting about how the poor can’t get squat when the rich has it all. Now, I’m all for this kind of lamentations because I detest capitalism and social schisms and/or hierarchies. This screed though, it felt a little like Aravind was manipulating a story to fit a social justice framework and elicit certain feelings. That made me not trust him or his characters, and worse than that, it made me not relate or sympathise with Balram at all. I did see the worst happen to him, but as long as Aravind used it as a lens into how terrible India is and how everything sucks, I felt used.

The book had brilliant comic moments and such lyrical quotes though;

“There’s a sign in the National Zoo in New Delhi, near the cage with the white tiger, which says: Imagine yourself in a cage. When I saw that sign, I thought, I can do that-I can do that with no trouble at all”

“Do we loathe our masters behind a facade of love-or do we love them behind a facade of loathing?”

“Servants have to keep other servants from becoming innovators, experimenters or entrepreneurs”

“The life of a poor man is written on his body, with a sharp pen”

Rating: 3/5 stars

3. On Palestine by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe

I have wanted to read a detailed account of the Israel/Palestine conflict and hopefully complement the articles and Youtube videos I have seen, so when I saw this book in an obscure bookshop in Lusaka I lurched with such excitement thinking it would be the bridge between my ignorance and expertise of all of Middle East conflict.

Makosa.

This book is written in dialogue form, with one guy asking the questions, and the two gentlemen and professors of history responding to them. Sold like that, it sounds ok. No one tells you how tedious it is to read responses by two people not only agreeing on virtually everything, but parroting the same ideas from end to end. The main ideas of this book are twofold 1) that the US is to blame for most of the pain Israel continues to inflict on Palestine and 2) that there are important parallels to be drawn between Apartheid in South Africa, and Zionism (or certain brands of Zionism) in Israel. They sound like decent and agreeable premises to me, and the problem is not that I disagree with anything said per se. But how this becomes an entire book with nothing new added to it is a thing of [opposite of beauty]. By the time I was half done with this book I was so tired I didn’t have the mitochondrial capacity to go on. So I jumped pages a little, before I called it a day. It’s just July, but I feel fairly certain this will be my worst book of the year. Rather than reading another book like that I’d prefer to terminate my semi-successful reading entreprise at this point.

What a remarkable way to waste time.

Rating: 2/5 Stars

3. Paper Towns by John Green

I love John Green. Being a geeky guy means his books are super readable to me, and I get to interact with him through his Youtube content and podcasts. He is witty and works so hard to sprinkle all these trivia your way while interacting with his content. With Paper Towns I expected no less.

I should have.

The book is a treasure hunt, but the boring kind, and for a girl who has wittingly disappeared to punish her parents and the universe I guess (a search party for a dumb brat. Not my thing). Her “love interest” and the person doing most of the searching is a guy in her class, but one who hasn’t had much of a conversation with her, except for the day before her disappearance and not in a very romantic way. And even then, he places her on an impossible pedestal, almost as if she’s not human. Her on the other hand, predictably, condescends upon him every step of the way. There has never been a couple more difficult to root for in the history of YA fiction.

I tried to put myself in the spirit and shoes of a teenager, but even then I couldn’t give a remote crap about what either the girl or guy was going through. It sounded so implausible and corny to me I just couldn’t bring myself to relate at all. At the end they did find each other, but I didn’t cry, which is to say a lot because I am the biggest crier I know. I have cried in Keeping up with the Kardashians 😦

In the usual JG style though the book was hilarious, but I have read better John Green Books. In fact, I have now read all 4 John Green books and this ranks last for me.

Rating: 3/5 stars

5.Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick

This was the book to end all books. If these books were men I’d introduce this book to my parents, wed and sire kids with it all on the same day. This book is the definition of magnificence.

I feel weird telling people how much I enjoyed reading this book. I mean, I did, but it’s a book about ISIS; A jihadist organisation so cruel even Al Qaeda has in the past repeatedly sought to distance itself from it.

It is an incredibly long story, and Warrick helpfully segments it into three parts (“books”). (i) He tells a story of Al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian largely believed to have been the founder of the wave of extremism that ISIS inherited, and a mentor to the would-be leaders of ISIS. (ii) The story of the America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. This part of the story was particularly interesting to me as I had just read Kofi Annan’s version of it not too long before. Like Annan [and almost everyone ever], Warrick goes into the detail of how ill informed the attack was, and how vulnerable it left civilian Iraqis and created the sectarian divides between Sunnis and Shiites to be exploited by Al-Zarqawi and his gang. (iii) The story of the Arab Uprisings, and especially Syria’s, and how the chaos that resulted between Bashar al Assad’s government and the rebels created the right temperatures for ISIS, especially in the North, in Raqqa and Aleppo.

When I finished this book I felt quite sad, and I am quite likely going to re-read it in the next few weeks. I just haven’t read a book like that since maybe The Gene or Sapiens, except this is not about the human genome or evolution, it’s about man fighting man, which to me is arguably a more urgent point of interest.

Rating: 5/5 stars

I am currently reading another Siddhartha Mukherjee because for some reason Medical Biology/Science is one of the genres I have really fallen in love with this year. Soon I’ll do a short list of my favorite books for the first half of 2017, but I’m sure one can tell which ones they are going to be from the reviews.

[Book Review] The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Gene: An Intimate History

One of the greatest joys of being a young reader is how many books I am still yet to discover, and how many great works are still yet to interact with my consciousness. That’s right, I’m immensely ignorant and it thrills me. It just thrills me.

I discovered Siddhartha for the first time at Text Book Centre during a window shopping exercise, because that’s a thing dorks do; just going to bookshops and looking at books and then going home to think some more about the beautiful covers and opening lines the great goddess Athena keeps showering upon us. Over the next few weeks I got obsessed with the book, and when a friend took me to Bookstop for yet another ‘sightseeing’ sojourn, it was time to acquire this beauty.

What is it that makes us so similar that we are able to identify each other as members of the same species, and yet so different as to have circa 7 Billion variants of us dithering around on planet earth [as far as we know]. This, essentially, is the question Siddhartha Mukherjee sets to answer in this tome. As the story weaves along, this question breeds interesting subsidies; what is the essence of our genetic makeup? What are genes? How do they work? What controls our whims and quirks? What determines sexual orientation? How are family traits perpetuated? Why are twins so similar to each other but not replicas of each other? Is Cancer heritable? Nature or Nurture? What are the Eugenics-esque moral and ethical questions of our day? And so on and so forth.

The book begins with one of the most heart-breaking/braking stories I have ever heard, of Mukherjee’s family struggle with mental illness post the Great Indian Partition of 1947 and ostensibly Siddhartha’s motivation to write the book. Schizophrenia, then polar disorder. I thought this prologue made Mukherjee instantly relatable, the vulnerability making the book that much less abstract, which I thought is essential for a topic so unlikely.

Upon finishing this prologue though, one realises that the book is a work of deliberately and extremely didactic nonfiction, but unlike a lot of books that aim to teach, it also works extremely hard at being a moving storybook. It is both a work of history and a work of art, literally and figuratively.

The first story is an introduction to the life and work of Gregor Mendel, a young Monk in Czech Republic (you may have heard of his peas in Biology classes), and we follow him through the 19th Century, before realising that his work that should have changed the world, ended up being buried in relative obscurity until way after his death in the early 20th century. We are then transported to England (where it would appear almost all major milestones in the field  of Genetics were made, so much so the word ‘Cambridge’ appears 108 times throughout the book), where we meet the familiar work of Charles Darwin and his immense struggle reconciling natural selection to evolution.

It is amazing to me how Siddhartha links these stories, because no sooner do we learn about Darwin’s work, than we are introduced to his cousin Galton, who became the father of Eugenics. If you are not familiar to the ‘Science’ of Eugenics, it is the theory that there are certain human traits worth promoting, and some worth suppressing. It is essentially artificial selection, with the belief that this process should eventually result in an improved race of humans. Both positive eugenics [promotion of superior traits] and negative eugenics [repression of inferior traits] are about cleansing of the ‘other’. Originally, the theory was pro-promoting traits such as intelligence and physical fitness. But because the cleansing of the entire human race wasn’t fast enough [coupled with the racism of the day], it spiralled into promotion of sterilisation of persons with ‘undesirable traits’, before culminating into the mass extermination of these ‘others’ in Nazi Germany in 1930s and 40s.  Mukherjee highlights the particular case of Carrie Buck, who was sterilized in 1927 while being committed to a Colony for the Epileptics and Feebleminded in Virginia, the same colony her mother had ended up a few years earlier.

The case of Carrie Buck was possibly the toughest bit of the book for me to read, but if it is any consolation, the book has plenty of other mind-blowing segments, but in the utmost wonderful way. For instance, we take it for granted the knowledge that the structure of the gene is a double helix, but this discovery took years to come to, and Mukherjee tells the story of Watson and Crick, and their discovery/construction of this model in the 1950s that completely changed how Science imagined the Gene and the arrangement of the ACGT bases alongside it. There are also segments about the patenting of the Recombinant DNA technology that subsequently and controversially gave us the mass production of insulin et al. The Human Genome Project, the struggles and prospects of Stem Cell research, the future of Gene Therapy, the Asilomar Conference of 1978 where Scientists proved to the world that they had the capacity and discipline for self-censorship to preserve a moral and ethical position. There is so much goodness in Science!

There are two themes of the book that made the utmost impact on me. The first is our mass cultural delusion of what is normal and what is “other”. For instance, we live in societies that ‘other’ persons with disability, gay persons, persons with certain [genetic] illnesses and often make their lives difficult to live. Mukherjee emphasises severally that what is interpreted as normal is simply a statistical advantage. We then use this advantage to create structures that promote persons who are like us, and this only creates inequalities for members of our species who are just as naturally occurring as we are. (Consider this, there was no concept of dyslexia until we invented reading, and then all of a sudden people with dyslexia were suddenly disadvantaged). The word unnatural is a misnomer when used to describe things that occur in nature. No such thing. He reminds us that it is because we have so much variety that we evolve.

The second idea was the inextricability of politics and Science. As long as there are capitalistic/political motivations in the world, there will always be Pseudo-science to support said motivations. For instance, Eugenics in Nazi Germany rested on the work of a Josef Mengele, who was a PHD graduate, and a professor of Race Biology (which is not even a real thing). In the year 2000, Bill Clinton was going crazy when it became apparent that a private entity [and not the government] would likely be launching the results of the The Human Genome Project. In 2001, George W. Bush withdrew funding from embryonic stem cell research. As long as Science exists under political and capitalistic structures, there will be political influences on Science, and it’s upon us to be critical of what is sold as Science by the powers that be.

There is only so much I can write on this book, even after going way above our usual word limit (I apologise). I can’t possibly review it all. I learnt about the case of Jesse Gelsinger which made me cry like a baby (check it out), that until the 70s, insulin used to be produced from ground up dogs’ and cows’ liver, that dry vs wet ear wax is genetically determined and that there are so many women scientists in history, we have just not learnt enough. On and on.

This book is large, uber detailed and delights in occasionally being Super Science-y. However, it is incredibly enjoyable and readable [even for us who are not sufficiently nerdy]. It is impossible to state with accuracy how much I want to read it again.

Highly highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5 stars

 

Announcing a new category!

A few months ago I semi ranted to a semi-friend that I wished I had a proper creative outlet for all the seemingly “useless” info I gather through books. I posited that since some/a lot of the details in books do not constitute the main subject matter, one often ends up forgetting them with time, and I’m one keen on optimising the outcome of my reading routine. At the time of this conversation I was reading a book about Ebola by David Quammen, and my friend kind of bored from the whole convo suggested that my best outcome would be to apply for a job at Amref. Cue…Ohmigaahd! Just. Stop. Whining!

But I kept thinking about this, before it hit me that I was looking for what I already had; an accessible, laid back, fun way to learn in depth about some of the issues shallowly laid around in books as excrement of the main subject. Namely, this blog. For instance, I am currently reading The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee, and some of the anecdotes revolve around the politicisation of science,shocking medieval treatment methods, Eugenics, the greatest events that changed the course of science etc. Now, since the core of the book is the history of the gene, Siddhartha understandably doesn’t launch into a research log of medieval medicine for instance, except to the extent that it aids his points about Genetics. That’s where I come in.

The idea is to have an opinion/research/article piece about an issue/object/concept that features in a book, but not prominently enough to be explained by the book. In the Gene, I would not write an article about the history of the Gene for example as a) I’ll already have covered this in the review of the book and b) This would be mere regurgitation without much benefit to readers who already have or intend to read the book. Since I like writing,  this will ensure a constant flow of ideas to execute.

The pieces will run concurrently with the usual Book reviews, but as stand alone posts and will cover every book I read [and some that I have read], including fiction and (Auto) Biographies. From time to time they will take a “How Things Work” approach, interrogative approach, an approach solely in the Kenyan context etc. I will also mention the book that inspired the topic and my basis for deciding to delve into it.

You will notice that even though I post a review on average once every two weeks, I don’t have strict preset timelines. I shall post a review and accompanying post once I’m done reading a book. Hopefully this will be twice a month [4 posts], hopefully it’ll be more frequent. Lastly, posts in this series will have 500-1500 words, as opposed to the 500-600 words we write in reviews.

See you on the other side!