By Sylvester Brown Jr.
The St. Louis American

The Caregivers is a unique series focused on the challenges and triumphs of caregiving. These stories have been created through a strategic partnership between AARP and Word In Black.

Kimani Chege and his wife, Jane, where alarmed when they learned that their youngest daughter, Kat, and her family in St. Louis had been infected with the coronavirus.

This was in early 2020, when travel to the United States was largely banned due to the emerging pandemic. Because of such restrictions, Kimani and Jane couldn’t make the 8,000-mile trip from Kiserian, Kenya to St. Louis even if they wanted to.

“All we could do was pray. God does miracles,” Jane said.  

More than a year later, Kimani and Jane were finally able to make the long trip to be caregivers for Kat Kimani, her husband, Sabastian Mwangi, and their two kids, Skyler, and Sebastian. Fortunately, Kat said their symptoms were relatively mild and no one was hospitalized. Still, having her parents in her Spanish Lake home has filled a cultural and communal gap that was sorely needed.

Kenyans rarely isolate themselves, especially when times are tough. It’s been a long, almost two-year stretch for grandparents who live in different countries than their adult children. Even those who were able to travel abroad could only see or hug their grandchildren under certain conditions. For many Africans, where intergenerational connection is woven into the family dynamic, COVID-19 was more than just a physical threat. It was a disconnect from culture and tradition.

Geoffrey Soyiantet is the founder of Vintendo4Africa, a local nonprofit that provides programs and resources for African immigrants. Death from COVID-19 has been prominent in the community of immigrants he serves. 

As an example, Soyiantet spoke of a young father who lost his wife to the disease. Thankfully, he said, the children’s grandparents were able to come from Africa “to stay with the kids and give them the love and attention their mother could no longer give.”

Immigrants are often at a higher risk of COVID-19 infection due to a wide range of vulnerabilities, including higher incidences of poverty, overcrowded housing conditions, and jobs where physical distancing is difficult.

According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 1.5 million children around the world have lost a parent, or primary or secondary caregiver, from COVID-related deaths. The pandemic, Soyiantet added, has emphasized the important role African grandparents play as caregivers in the home.

“Most of the homes in our community have women who work in the healthcare industry. It helps a lot to have grandparents in the home.”

Essential workers, Soyiantet said, benefit greatly from having grandparents in the home.  

“Working mothers and fathers who have little interaction with their kids have confidence and peace of mind knowing that grandmother or grandfather is in the house or taking their children to daycare or school.”

Kat’s parents aren’t homesick, she said, because the Kenyan community in St. Louis is similar to her homeland. 

“Our community hasn’t really adopted the American way of life. For instance, when you go to a Kenyan home, you eat Kenyan food. We have stores here that sell food and spices from home. Many still speak the traditional language (Bantu Swahili). There’s no separation. It’s like being with the same people in a different part of the world.”

According to Cultural Atlas, a collaborative project with a mission to provide cross-cultural information, family” is the most important priority and a great source of pride for the people of Kenya. In a country with an extremely young population (nearly 40% are under the age of 14), great deference is paid to the elderly, especially grandparents.

In Kenya, Kat said, it is customary for the young to take care of their elders.

“Until recently, there was no such thing as retirement or nursing homes. Traditionally the family takes care of the older generation.”

Because of the disproportionate impact the coronavirus has on immigrant communities, the traditional caregiver role has been reversed with some grandparents having to step in and parent again. 

Not only were Kimani and Jane comforted by the fact that they could be near their daughter and grandkids during a perilous time, but they were also able to fulfill another long-honored African tradition. 

Kat stressed that Kenyans and most Africans don’t celebrate a traditional Thanksgiving. Soyiantet said they utilize the occasion to “give thanks for family.”  The term “Harambee,” a Swahili Bantu tribal word that means “pull together,” has special meaning for Kenyans during the holidays.

Kat’s family and grandparents were invited to Soyiantet’s house for the holiday. There, Kimani and Jane and another set of grandparents fulfilled their duty of informing young kids about their culture and heritage.

Soyiantet said it’s tradition for African children to gather around their grandparents during festive occasions to hear valuable anecdotes about preserving their culture and heritage and maintaining their African identity. 

“It’s about encouraging them not to get carried away by American culture and not to forget the African way of life,” Soyiantet said.

Kimani and Jane have been at their daughter’s home since June. The couple were able to get their booster shots during their visit. They plan to go back home soon. Kimani says he’s not a fan of winter weather.

Kat, who laughed at her father’s comment about the cold weather, said, “There’s a connection between the grandparents and grandchildren that will be missed.”

The pandemic interrupted the family’s usual annual visits. But, Kat stressed, her parent’s recent trip filled an almost two-year void:

“I just needed to see them.”

Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow.