Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Posts tagged ‘Poverty’

I dread the rains


People say that they enjoy sleeping as it rains; that it makes them sleep like babies; that the sound of rain pouring, as they cuddle in warm blankets is soothing and comforting,  and one of the closest experiences there is to heavenly peace.

How I would love to be among those that enjoy sleeping as it rains. Sadly, I am not, if anything I dread the rain; because every time it rains, it means starting my life over again.  It means loss and pain.  The rains hold with them uncertainty and the potential of dreams cut short.

As it rains tonight, I go back memory lane, to last year at a time like this, when it rained  and our house was swept away.  I am lucky my children had gone upcountry to visit their grandmother, otherwise, I would tell a story similar to that of my neighbour, Grace, who lost her only daughter to the flood.

That night we slept in the cold, some of us trying to salvage the little we could of our belongings, as they were swept away by the water.  Some people lost their lives, as they tried to swim and salvage their belongings.  The next day, we got into mourning, for the little girl, Grace’s daughter, and nine other neighbours.  We couldn’t spend too much time mourning, as we had to reconstruct our houses.

I had saved 6,000 shillings with my SACCO, hoping that I would get a loan, triple the amount I had saved and use some of the money to improve my grocery business, and the rest to pay school fees for my son Joshua, who had just joined secondary school that year.

The rain cut short that dream, instead I had to borrow money, not to improve my business or to send my son to school in the new term, but to reconstruct our house, and replace some of the household items that we had lost in the rain.  I didn’t know how to explain to my son that he would have to stay at his grandmother’s home longer, as I tried to look for school fees to send him back to school.

Broken - dreams

I got the loan, and built our house. Determined not to disappoint Joshua, I saved all the money that I made from my grocery business.  To make more money, I started hawking on Tom Mboya Street after 5pm, as people were leaving work.  On the first day, business was booming, and I sold all my stock.

Though I arrived home late and tired, I could afford to have a smile on my face.  I called Joshua, and excitedly shared the news with him,  reassuring him, that I would soon be sending him back to school. Joshua kept asking me to repeat different segments of the story.  I guess just like me, he could not believe the miracle.

In a bid to hasten the process, on the second day, I bought double the stock of the previous day.  I was determined to send Joshua back to school before the end of the month.  As fate would have it, I was arrested that night for hawking on the streets.  The askaris chased after me, but my wares were too heavy and they caught up with me. I was thrown into the truck and taken to a cell, where I spent the night.


I gave all the money that I had, together with the hope of sending Joshua back to school to the askaris, as it was the only way I would gain back my freedom.  All my wares were confiscated, and they were never returned to me. I had to start afresh again, this time unable to borrow from my SACCO as I was still repaying the loan.

Downtrodden, I quit selling groceries, and resorted to casual labour.  I wake up at 5am every day, and leave the house at 6 am, for a two – hour walk to the nearby suburb.  In some cases I find work for 500 shillings, and on good days, 1000 shillings. Some days there is no work, and I have to walk back home for two hours, tired, hungry and still uncertain of what the next day holds.  Life must go on though, and so I never give up.

With the ups and downs, Joshua never went back to school. He also looks for casual work, and helps me here and there with the bills.  I don’t see him going back to school, but I hope that the two of us can work to provide a better future for his sister Brenda.

The rains are now here.  I am now afraid because I don’t know what they hold this time.  I haven’t been sleeping much, as the roof has been leaking, luckily, we have not been swept away yet.


Skip Lunch and Save an African

Save all the Africans

I have never experienced poverty, and so I will not claim to speak for the poor. That said, I have experienced the indignity of poverty, and will therefore speak for the dignity of the poor.

It was in the streets of London, where a“beggar” with a container approached me and asked for a donation to “save Africa and other poor parts of the world”. My contribution would send a poor child child to school, and provide a meal for a starving family. He looked tired from all the talking and efforts to convince passersby. I imagined the smirk on his face, as he went to bed with sore feet and a sore throat, but with a happy heart, having saved an African or two, with a container full of coins. As if this was not enough, advertisements on TV begged for money to “save poor Africans”. Miserable women in need of maternal healthcare, young girls and women walking many kilometers to fetch dirty water for their families, starving and emaciated children and mothers were the faces of such campaigns. As an African, I hated this representation of Africa, and every time I saw these “beggars” and watched the campaigns to “save Africa”, I felt my dignity stripped.

Save Umgoga

These campaigns made me understand why I had to go through so much humiliation when I applied for a European visa, or to get into a European country. They made me understand why I was expected to have nothing between my ears, and there was often surprise if I failed to meet this expectation. I understood why the colour of my skin was associated with sex work. As an African, I was the face of desperate poverty, hunger, starvation, ignorance, war and death. I was therefore perceived as ready to run from my country or even sell my body to escape my poverty. I imagined that these perceptions were often based on the idea that I was likely to be another African that had been saved by those who were charitable enough to “experience” my starvation by skipping a few lunches. I became so conscious of the “stench” of my “poverty”, I almost suffocated in it. I identified with Dambudzo Marechera when he speaks of the “identity crisis, self-hatred, self re-examination, both excessive Afro-pessimism and Afro-optimism, reversed racism, escapism and alienation” that he struggled with as a student at Oxford.

I identified with parents that I met in a research I had conducted, several years back, seeking to understand why children in Nairobi’s slums attended poor quality low cost private schools in the slums, yet the government had declared free primary education. The parents cited poor quality public education, as a key factor that had forced them to take their children to private schools in the slums.

When I asked these parents whether they had officially complained about the state of public education, some considered themselves to be “beggars”, who could not afford to be “choosers”. They took whatever was offered to them, “waiting for a better donor to bail them out.” While these kind of responses expressed the indignity of poverty, relegating the poor to the mercy of anyone that could help, I also got responses that demonstrated the basic need for human dignity. One woman observed that her poverty required her to withstand whatever was offered, without complaining. This observation led her to conclude that, “free things are bad”, and strongly believed that, “it is better to go for a service you have struggled to pay, no matter how cheap it costs”. These kind of responses made it clear that even though they were poor, they did not want to be at the mercy of charity. They valued their dignity and voice, and they wanted their voices to be recognised and listened to. I realised that, charity, while gratifying to the giver, and even to the recipient, it has this tendency to strip people off their dignity.

I am concerned that we are becoming a charity state. Public services have become synonymous with services for the poor. We have a state where elected representatives serve the poor through handouts, rather than develop laws that cause systemic transformation. It is no wonder the culture of “Mheshimiwa nisaidie” or “naomba Serikali” is not dying even with a Constitution that gives all sovereign power to the people. Sadly, the idea of a charity state, is extending from the government to the people; where the wealthy and middle classes “skip lunches” and “run marathons” to “save the poor”. The desire of the West to save Africa, and the gratification derived from it, is the same desire and gratification that Africa’s wealthy and middle classes derive from saving the poor among them.


I am concerned when I see people happy to “save the poor”, but not seeking to question the corruption and poor policy frameworks that underlie the state of our public services.  It becomes even more galling when several of these “charitable” elected representatives, are rumoured to be making money illegally, by selling drugs, grabbing land and inflating tenders. They steal from the poor to give peanuts to the poor; gestures that are are met with loud applause.

When I give food to the poor

I am concerned with the small vision that the government and its citizens have for this state. I wonder if there is anyone who is daring to dream differently. I choose to have a bigger dream. I see the vision of a dignified citizenry. I dream of a day when public services will not be for the poor, because services for the poor tend to be poor services. I see a day when our taxes will provide decent healthcare, quality education, affordable and decent housing, regular supply of clean and safe water, electricity, and security for all its citizens, and not just the poor. I long to walk into a public facility for treatment, confident that I will enjoy high quality and efficient service and treatment. I commit to give the best of myself to support a cause that holds a similar vision.

I've seen the promised land

I know such a dream will quickly be dismissed as insane. Like Erwin McManus, I realise that I live on the bubble of insanity, because I feel the weight of human suffering, loneliness and despair on me all the time. It’s not getting easier; if anything, it’s always right on the edge of my skin.

Insane as this dream may be, I choose to persist and not be quiet, complacent, tired or discouraged, until the campaign for dignity and equality is won.

We must not tire

Between Rhetoric and Reality: Recognising the Struggles of Poor Women

Picture - women hawking Photo

The streets of Nairobi paint a clear picture population struggling to survive in a harsh economic environment.  Hawkers throng the streets at night, with resilience and determination to work beyond what is considered normal in a bid to make ends meet.

In recognition and support of these hardworking Kenyans, particularly the women, I hardly ever miss an opportunity to buy groceries on the streets.  This also tends to be a convenient way to stock up at fair prices.  Recently, as I was walking on the streets I decided to buy some groceries.  After my shopping was packed, I reached out to my purse and as soon as I was about to hand money, there was commotion and the woman selling disappeared. City Council officers were on the streets harassing hawkers as usual. The hawkers ran with their wares to escape arrest.  A few were unlucky and did not manage to escape.

I stopped to watch this particular woman who clung onto her sack which she had improvised into a mat, to sell her stock.  The city council officer attempted to confiscate her stock, but she wouldn’t let go.  As the struggle ensued, I wondered what would happen to her.  Would she eventually let go, and lose her stock? Would she be arrested for the night, or would she bribe her way out?  As I wondered what would be her fate, I thought about the woman who had lost an opportunity to sell to me, and the money that she would not make from other buyers that night.  I thought of the women that would spend the night in cold cells, those that would lose the goods they had planned to sell.  I thought about the children that would be sleeping in the cells with their mothers, as well as children that would be sleeping alone and terrified as their mothers spent the night locked up.

The struggles of the women on the streets is one that never ends.  Life for these women is challenging enough without the harassment they face on a daily basis.  They work in the cold night, when most people are making their way or already in the comfort of their homes.  Some have children on their backs, or sometimes seated, walking or playing next to their mothers.  Yet the government has decided to ignore the hardships that these women face and focus on the ‘menace’ that they are, just because by these women being on the streets ‘illegally’, the government does not make money from them.

The hypocrisy and irony of the whole situation is when government sets up a fund for women ‘in recognition of their marginalisation’, but at the same time mistreats a group of women that faces immense difficulties.  It is ironical that the government encourages youth to be creative and entrepreneurial, yet when hawkers identify opportunity to sell to people going home from work on the streets that they pass, they are labelled illegal and a nuisance.

Which women and youth then does the government purport to support, if not those who sacrifice their comfort and those of their children to survive?

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