If you are an East African devotee of international sports, you will have been struck by the sights on TV of American and European stadiums and racing tracks brimming with 100,000 plus fans.
They are not masked, and life has gone back to pre-Covid times for them. They are sans masks because they are vaccinated. With us, stadiums are still empty and where fans are admitted, they are masked. Tanzania is perhaps the exception. It has only recently woken up from its Magufuli era Covid-19 denialism, and compared to Kenya, Rwanda, or Uganda, the number of vaccinated people is a smidgen. However, it has not lost its old courage in the face of the virus.
Vaccination rates are still shamefully dismal in our parts, below three per cent of the adult population. There is still a lot of rage about western “vaccine apartheid” and hoarding. They hate us, their true racist colours have been revealed, an East African leader implied not too long ago. The people meanwhile are raging against incompetent governments that have failed to get on top of this virus, and officials who have stolen Covid relief funds and PPEs.
All the above are true, but there is something else. Covid-19 is also a generational crisis for Gen Y, or Millennials. The forces of history and nature created Covid-19 for them to overcome it.
East Africans who were born at the start of the 20th century battled plagues, tsetse flies, and colonial invasion. They fought in the First and Second World Wars, learnt the ways of the coloniser, and fashioned from it weapons to fight for independence.
The independence generation’s challenge was nation-building, and “Africanisation”. They were warriors in the bitter divisive Cold War as it played in Africa. They fought imperialism, and some went to bed with it. They lost. Murderous military rule and one-party dictatorships became the order of the day, and by the end of the Cold War, most of our countries were a wreck.
A new generation; the Yoweri Musevenis, Paul Kagames, Meles Zenawis, John Garangs, name them, in their different ways fought the new wars and became third-generation nation builders. Many young people went to the bush and died there. Then HIV-AIDS came along and exacted an even deadlier toll, and again they battled and prevailed.
Many problems, especially poverty and democratic failures, remain. But the primitive conditions and extreme deprivations of the 1970s to the 1990s are mostly gone. The world has opened. There is the internet; folks can travel; a large middle class has emerged, and life expectancy is sharply up in eastern Africa.
Compared to the lot of their parents, Gen Y has been having it all too good. Covid-19 and its ravages are the biggest challenges they have faced. However, it is also an opportunity for them to shine by coming up with some very clever things that put the virus in its place.
Covid is the millennial’s rite of passage. If they can defeat it, they will have won the right to inherit the world that comes after it, and the “wazee” should honourably pack their bags and leave it to them.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]