A Christmas not so merry but hope springs eternal across East Africa

Saturday December 25 2021

Kampala residents leave the city on December 23, 2021, to celebrate Christmas upcountry. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI | NMG

By Johnson Kanamugire

East Africans are spending the Christmas festivities with a dark cloud of the fast-spreading Omicron Covid variant, government curbs, and financial pressure from the pandemic effects hanging overhead.

From vaccine mandates to travel hassles and curfews; rising cost of transport and consumer goods and the January school opening, citizens are facing tough choices between austerity and making merry as Omicron infection numbers soar, despite a drop in hospitalisation and deaths from Covid-19.

For Rwandans, this will be the second Christmas under a curfew, with no gatherings, live bands and clubs permissible. Save for Uganda, the rest of the region enjoy curfew-free festivities.

Uganda is still under a dusk-to-dawn curfew instituted by President Yoweri Museveni in March 2020 as a means to control the spread of the coronavirus, and this year’s festivities will be marked in muted celebrations.

Last Saturday, Kigali authorities imposed the 10pm curfew, suspended popular mass sports and the car-free day, in new Covid-19 restrictions as the country grapples with a fresh wave of virus infections.

“Everyone is requested to be vigilant and avoid mass gatherings as Covid-19 remains a threat,” municipal authorities announced Friday. The Prime Minister’s office issued “additional measures to control further spread of the virus” only three days after Cabinet had suspended night clubs, concerts, live band entertainment and returned remote working rules for employees.


Temporary closure

“The Ministry of Health may temporarily close public or private premises with identified clusters of people infected with Covid-19,” Rwanda’s Prime Minister Edouard Ngirente said in a statement.

While bars, restaurants and all services held at places of worship are allowed, they are restricted on the number of people they host, but “in Kigali and secondary cities, all clients, attendees must be fully vaccinated. Event’s organisers will be penalised for non-compliance with health measures,” Mr Ngirente said.

In Kenya, despite the cloud of uncertainty and stringent government measures, thousands flocked to bus stations as they sought to travel to their rural areas for the festivities, enjoying restriction-free Christmas as compared with last year when they had Christmas under lockdown.

In July, President Uhuru Kenyatta lifted restrictions on movement into and out of the Nairobi Metropolitan area, paving the way for a conditional resumption of public service vehicle operations, which had been halted since March 2020 to contain the spread of Covid-19.

In Nairobi, buses heading for various upcountry destinations were fully booked ahead of Christmas as city residents prepared to travel to their rural homes to celebrate with their families. Airlines have increased fares from Nairobi to Mombasa ahead of Christmas on early bookings. The ticket prices are expected to rise further in the coming days.

Flights to Mombasa from Nairobi are almost fully booked with the cost of remaining seats rising to $160, from an average of $64.18 in November. Airlines have also increased the number of flights to popular destinations in response to high demand for air travel.

Jambojet, a subsidiary of the national carrier Kenya Airways, added Mombasa flights to 56 times a week, up from 48 starting December 20 to January 9. The carrier is now flying to Malindi from its hub in Nairobi 22 times a week up from 18 flights currently. It also flies to Ukunda 20 times a week up from 14 times, signaling high demand for domestic flying.

Kenya Railways increased passenger capacity on the Standard Gauge Railway train between Nairobi and Mombasa to cater for the rising demand during the Christmas festive season. The company has increased coaches to 11 from eight for economy class passengers.

First-class passengers got an additional unit from the two coaches in operations. The increased capacity from the extra coaches will run till January 6, 2022. The Madaraka Express train's bookings register shows it is fully booked for the Christmas season.

However, for Kenyans, a new vaccine mandate will be enforced, especially for those seeking to access public places such as parks, hotels and restaurants, bars, domestic flights, trains and PSVs, muting celebrations for millions who remain unvaccinated. And to circumvent a court order that stopped the government from demanding a vaccination certificate, the Health ministry has said it is now invoking the Public Health Act.

Situation in Tanzania

In Tanzania, passengers travelling North for Christmas and New Year holidays have had to dig deeper into their pockets, as fares shot up. The most affected were those heading for Kilimanjaro and Arusha in the northern tourism circuit, forking out $23 for a one-way ticket, up from $13.5.

Deputy Transport minister Mwita Waitara directed Land Transport Regulatory Authority (Latra) to supervise the sale of tickets to would-be travellers. Mr Waitara said the government will re-enforce its directive to implement electronic ticketing system as a permanent solution in the future to alleviate unilateral fare increases.

“The e-ticketing system will be rolled out in April 2022 to minimise fraud in bus ticketing,” he said.

Latra director Gilliard Ngewe said the transport regulatory authorities are now forcing implementation of e-ticketing to control exploitation of passengers by transport companies.

For those not travelling, various tourism players have offers. Tanzania National Parks has already offered discounts in a bid to woo domestic tourists.

Jointly with safari companies, Tanzania Wildlife Authority has also organised travel packages during the festivities that is set to attract locals to spend the holiday in nature and conservation areas. Special tours have been organised for Mpanga – Kipengele Nature Reserve in the southern highlands and Kilwa Historical Site on the southern coast.

Tanzania Association of Tour Operators Executive Secretary Siril Akko told The EastAfrican that tourist movement in northern Tanzania has been normal, as firms continue to attract more holiday makers.

■ Johnson Kanamugire, Amina Wako and Apolinari Tairo