Zipporah Kwamboka. Photo Credit: Oxfam

Against all odds

As one walks in the streets of Kibera which is Africa’s largest urban slum, one may be tongue-tied by the sheer sight of its environment. If you are baffled by the dumping of garbage and litter almost everywhere, then the poor drainage systems and the poor housing is nothing to be compared to the shock that will hit you once you step foot in this informal settlement.

Children under five years are seen hanging around their houses gazing into thin air as though meditating, men and women on the move either in search of casual labour or going to their places of work or businesses. Kibera is indeed a busy slum. What intently catches the eye is the high level of poverty in this area that is characterized by people’s inability to put a meal on their table for their families. It is even more heartbreaking to learn that children have unfortunately adapted to the life of surviving on just a single meal a day and in worst case scenario, have no meal at all.

Kibera is divided into several villages which include Gatwekera, Kianda, Kisumu Ndogo, Lindi, Laini Saba, Siranga, Makina, Mashimoni and Soweto East. Life here is not a question of survival for the fittest, but it’s a matter of beating all odds to survive though this is reserved for those with the will to do so.

The high cost of living and high food prices have seen most slum dwellers resort to various means of catering for their needs. For women especially, this has been a real struggle. Most of them are single parents and highly depend on casual jobs to feed their children. It is not unusual for women in urban slums to engage in prostitution in order to earn money to feed their children, a priority that comes first before attending to other needs such as house rent or school fees.

Unlike the rural areas where people often get the support needed during food crisis situations, urban slums have often gone unnoticed yet the need to support them is equally important just as in the rural areas.

Currently, the food prices in Kenya have shot up rendering the food situation a crisis especially given the fact that the country suffered a severe drought. A packet of maize flour (which is considered Kenya’s staple meal), was previously retailing at about Khs. 90/-, currently it is being sold at Khs.150/- something that slum dwellers cannot comprehend. It was until recently that the government intervened and had the maize flour prices reduced to Khs. 90/- but despite this move, maize flour has become a rare commodity as most suppliers hoard.

Kibera dwellers are barely making ends meet and with the current food crisis, life will become more unbearable if something is not done and fast. Many are living to tell tales of how tough life has become for them with only an income of about Khs. 100/- per day and torn between which needs to prioritize first.  

One such individual is Lillian Wanjiru a single mother of three (two boys aged ten and five, a girl aged eight), has lived in Kibera close to ten years now. For Lillian, the high food prices have affected her entirely. With a daily wage of Khs. 150/- life only gets tougher.

Lillian narrates her story with nostalgia as she looks back to her life with her family at the coast. Life was good then with nothing to worry about other than school and getting good grades. But her seemingly good life was cut short after she got pregnant at 16years with her son and had to drop out of school. This was the beginning of her now tough life. A relative persuaded her to come to Nairobi and help her get a job that could earn her an income to take care of her son. A decision she didn’t hesitate to make. Her son was barely two months when she came to Nairobi and she knew for sure she had to make due.

To her shock, the relative who invited her to Nairobi wanted Lillian to help raise her own children and not get her a job. Lillian had no choice but to hang in and do the best she could to find a job. She eventually found a casual job and a cousin who lived in Kibera left her the house he lived in and Lillian moved in and started her own life.

She later met a man whom she thought would marry her but after having two kids, the man took off, never to return again. So, close to ten years living in Kibera raising her three children has not been easy for Lillian who represents many more families who only hope that the future is at least bright for their children.

Lillian’s works as a pub attendant and reports to work at around 4 PM-10 PM. She is always worried for her children’s safety at night because they stay alone at night until she gets back home from work. Despite the fear and worry, circumstances have left her no choice. With her little wage, she is finding it hard to keep her children in school, pay her house rent and put a meal on the table (but literally floor).The house rent is Khs. 1,500/-, school fees Khs. 5,000/- and a single meal Khs. 100/- Lillian gets tips from some of her customers and this has somewhat helped manage her bills. During the day, she often does laundry work for people who need her services.

Lillian’s children recall the many times they have gone to bed hungry because their mother was not able to provide. Her last born son who is too young to comprehend why that is so, says his mother is the best whether she provides or not. Their normal breakfast is black tea and ‘githeri’ a mixture of maize and beans which is a common, affordable meal in urban slums. The children take lunch in school and when Lillian has some money, then dinner is assured for the children.

Despite all these challenges, Lillian is hopeful that someday, she will be able to save enough money to start up her own business. Her biggest desire is a better tomorrow for her children for they are her greatest pride and joy.

Until then, Lillian and many more urban slum dwellers will do everything possible to beat all odds to survive.

The intervention

Oxfam and partners, Concern Worldwide, Kenya Red Cross, Nairobi County Government through the Start Network funded intervention; Urban Early Warning Early Action (UEWEA), is working to develop early warning systems and early action responses to crises that affect the poor people living in urban slums such as Lilian. Through this project, the partners aim to have response mechanism in place to avert food insecurity and health related crises in the urban slum areas of Nairobi.