A busy section of the Nairobi central business district. The impact of social distancing, dusk-to-dawn curfew and closure of businesses has impacted on consumer spending, leading to job cuts and unpaid leave for workers as firms race to cut costs. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Mugisha could hear the child wailing through the paper-thin walls and the mother trying desperately to console the little one. It happened every night. As a young boy he had gone for weeks with barely any food, so he knew the crying child was starving. His neighbors had become impoverished by the health regulations brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, and some did not have food to eat.

Kenya recorded its first coronavirus case in mid-March, a few days later the government asked companies to allow employees to stay home; to limit infection. As those in upper and mid-level management continued to earn a salary, the non-essential workers were either sent on unpaid leave or were let go. His neighbours were among the latter.

Israel Mugisha is a Ugandan Gospel musician who came to Nairobi to perform when his home country closed its borders to prevent people infected with the coronavirus from entering. Like many other people, he spent his days at home and noticed the forlorn expressions on mothers’ faces, heard the children crying and decided to do something. Also, his mother would have expected him to help.

In 1980 Mugisha’s mother was working as a nurse when Milton Obote, the president of Uganda, was fighting rebels who were threatening his presidency. While he killed rebels and the civilians helping them, Mugisha’s mother was giving free basic health services to the surrounding community. Unbeknown to her, the rebels would often come to seek her assistance dressed as civilians.

One day the Special Forces were sent to kill her. They forced her to accommodate them as they bided their time. She did not bear resentment towards them and, eventually, her open and friendly attitude subdued them and they become good friends. They formed such a strong bond that when the rebels took over and threatened to kill the soldiers Mugisha’s mother gave them an ultimatum: either they spare her six “sons” or kill her together with them. The rebel leader agreed to let the soldiers live. Mugisha admired how his mother was able to make friends with anyone who crossed her path.

That was not the only thing she taught him. As a child, he liked the trumpet. He watched in awe as players blew air into the mouthpiece releasing a blaring sound. Alone, Israel would try to mimic it. His mother heard him and taught him to make trumpet noises just with his mouth. The first song he learnt was Blessed Assurance. With time, he would play many other songs but as he became a self-conscious teenager, he felt that he had outgrown trumpeting and stopped.

Almost 30 years passed and he was having a hard time finding a job when his friend invited him to Nairobi to get away from his troubles. He attended a church event and decided to try trumpeting. He went on stage and trumpeted Blessed Assurance for the first time since he was a child. There was pin-drop silence from the audience. As he hit the last note the entire crowd rose to its feet and gave him a standing ovation. Event organizers gave him an honorarium for putting up a different show.

Since then, he has been coming to Nairobi, regularly, to trumpet and sing. He’s usually invited to different churches and lately, private gatherings, as well. All songs in his performance are inspired by the Christian faith. As an Evangelist, he also preaches if performing at a religious event. Mugisha works mainly in Nairobi because of its thriving Gospel music industry. His outgoing personality makes it easy to forge relationships with his neighbors, wherever he lives in Nairobi. And even though he is a struggling musician he never refuses to give them food, when they have asked.

So, it was not difficult for him to help his neighbors when the coronavirus pandemic made them jobless. He had another equally motivating reason. When he was about eight years old, the family were having a particularly difficult time. They had become so broke that they had gone for weeks eating nothing but porridge. When his mother went out to look for food, she would come back empty handed, frustrated and begin crying. When Mugisha and his siblings found their mother in that state, they also begun weeping. He still remembers the sense of helplessness as a child at not being able to alleviate his mother’s suffering. Therefore, when he heard the child crying recently it spurred him to action.

Israel wanted to help as many people as possible. He went to Facebook to ask money from his more than 4,000 followers. He raised 112 dollars, topped it up with his savings and bought food for the 40 families living near him. “As long as I have put a smile on someone’s face and the children are happy, I am content,” Israel says. The food will keep them going for some time.

By early June, more than a million people in Kenya had already lost their jobs due to the corona virus. In the absence of any government relief fund, it’s been left to individuals like Israel to help their neighbors. Some give one-off donations while others make regular contributions. As long as the pandemic lasts, these efforts though small, are making a difference.

Marie Mulli is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker living in Nairobi, Kenya.