Urban-rural migration opens up countryside to Covid-19 refugees

Saturday May 09 2020
By Charles Onyango-Obbo

When a few weeks ago the Kenyan government announced new restrictions to combat the coronavirus, choking off movements in and out of the greater Nairobi Metropolitan region, there were scenes that had been witnessed days earlier in Uganda.

In one of the stiffest lockdowns on the continent, all private and public vehicle transport was suspended, along with a dusk to dawn curfew.

In both Nairobi and Kampala, thousands of the cities’ working and underclass, fearing they would perish if they didn’t get out, took to the roads on foot and headed back to their villages, hundreds of kilometres away.

Because even that movement was in violation of lockdown rules, many of them travelled off the main highways where they might have been arrested by overzealous, corrupt and brutal police.

Videos in Kenya showed groups of dozens of people desperately crossing streams, and clambering up hillsides, to make their great escape.

It is a familiar scene in Africa in times of crises; many flee to the safety of ancestral countryside homes.


We have a sense of the places they leave when they go to the big cities, and why they do so. There are fewer opportunities upcountry, no lights, meagre social services, and better off relatives whom one can piggyback on are all town people. Thus, people live in the clichéd rural-urban migration, where most of them will struggle, only able to survive in swelling slums.
We don’t, however, give as much attention to the places they are running back to. In many cases, they are really not the same places they left in the first place.

The countrysides are not as shiny as the big cities. Some are blighted with poverty and joblessness. For many people agriculture, which provides the bulk of their livelihoods, has gone belly up; ruined by degraded soils, fragmented lands, and absence of state investment. Except in a few cases, health services are horrible, and education crappy.

Overall, though, life is better in rural Africa today than at any time in the last four decades. The infrastructure mania has opened up many once remote areas, integrating them into the modern economy and bringing loose change.

Never comprehend

Some well-run local and devolved governments are providing health care, equal to that in the big cities. There is ever increasing diffusion of solar technology.

With the worst of the HIV/Aids pandemic behind us, less civil war, and improvements in life expectancy, the countryside is hemorrhaging less human capital.

And lately, a large cohort of retirees, who came to service in the boom of the post-Cold War era, are going back, many with money from graft proceeds, and investing it in real estate and agriculture.

The ancestral lands the Covid-19 refugees have fled to, will always be there for sure. Except that soon, they will not be villages anymore. And they could be strangers to them, much the same way they are in Kampala or Nairobi.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3