Albert Otieno

Albert Otieno - Kayole, Nairobi | Photo by Brian Otieno / Oxfam in Kenya

COVID-19, Cancer & Hunger: The daily adversities of family man Albert Otieno 

“I tell you, I've never believed that I could not do anything, or that anything could defeat me. So I tried anything that would make money because I have two children, I have a wife, I have rent I have to pay. I have responsibilities.” - Albert Otieno

32-year-old security system technician Albert Otieno is no stranger to adversity | Photo by Brian Otieno / Oxfam in Kenya

Since birth, he has battled life-threatening health conditions and the loss of his father and sister to cancer. Nevertheless, with a stable job, Otieno was able to help his family secure a good life – until the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Otieno lost his job and this year he has diagnosed with cancer himself. | Photo by Brian Otieno / Oxfam in Kenya

No longer able to provide food for his family, and medicine to fight cancer, Otieno was in great need when he received his first cash transfer from the European Union-funded Safety Nets programme.

This is his recorded testimony, translated from Swahili to English.

 

Albert Otieno, the security systems installer

Albert Otieno standing in the doorway of his mother's home - Kayole, Nairobi | Photo by Brian Otieno / Oxfam in Kenya

 

“My names are Albert Otieno. I am 32 years old.

I used to work in a company called ORAD. It was an Israeli security firm. We installed cameras, biometrics and other security items.

Our team installed the cameras at Garden City Mall, KCB headquarters, KENCOM, HUB Mall, and the Italian Embassy in Gigiri. I even travelled all the way to Dadaab to install cameras for UNHCR. 

Everything was ok, until the COVID-19 pandemic. We didn't miss anything. We could afford 3 meals a day. My salary was 17,000 per month, but on some special days, including travel allowances, I could earn up to 8000 KSh per day. Like when we went to Dadaab, which is very dangerous because of Al-Shabaab. The more dangerous the palace, the higher the allowance we would receive.

When the pandemic began, we were laid off. There was no work for us to do. And I was on a contract that was expiring that month. 

Albert Otieno' mother's home in Kayole informal settlement - Nairobi | Photo by Brian Otieno / Oxfam in Kenya

 

Because of my good work, my contract was always renewed. So when I was laid off, I wasn't worried. I just thought it was temporary, and that my contract would be renewed.

And then they told me that they would not be renewing my contract. That's where my work ended and my struggles began.

I had big plans, for me, my family, my mum and my brother, but the pandemic tore them all up.”

 

Albert Otieno, the fighter

“Since coronavirus began in January, I've been without work. In the beginning, my friends would sometimes find me freelance installation jobs, and I would earn even up to 3000 KSh in a day, but then nothing for around 2 weeks.

Albert Otieno holding his son - Kayole, Nairobi | Photo by Brian Otieno / Oxfam in Kenya

 

Then even that work dried up.

Rent has been a serious issue since coronavirus began. My rent was 4000 per month, but after not being able to pay for 4 months, the landlord closed the house and threw me and my children out. Now I am living with my mum and hoping for the best. 

Albert Otieno (right) and his mother (left) in her home - Kayole, Nairobi | Photo by Brian Otieno / Oxfam in Kenya

 

I struggled and struggled. I became a bouncer at a club on Mombasa road called Tycoon. But when the curfew was put in place, they made nighttime work illegal. That's where my meals came from.

I got into construction work. I would earn 600 KSH per day. Or I would do odd jobs for 300 KSh. You have to live. My wife and two children have to live, and the house needs to be paid for.

When the movement-restrictions were put in place, shop owners took advantage of the pandemic to raise prices.

1Kg of sugar used to cost 100 KSh, now it's 125 KSh, flour went from 120 KSh to 135 KSh, 145 KSh.

When we get some money, we feed the children.

We would go some days without eating at all. When the food isn't enough for us all, the children will eat and the adults will stay hungry. 

Sometimes my son would say 'dad, let's eat!' but you look at the food, and knowing it isn't enough you just smile and say 'yes let's eat' and pretend to taste some.

Albert Otieno | Photo by Brian Otieno / Oxfam in Kenya

 

Sometimes the only money we have goes to my medicine.

We really struggled to get a meal, some weeks I only ate 4 times. Some days I would visit a friend and catch up, and they would offer some food. But then you come home, and they are just looking at you. there's nothing, no flour – nothing.

Even affording masks is a challenge. You pay 50 KSh for one, but it is disposable, and you are working a dirty job, so you have to throw it away in two days. And If you meet a policeman he will not listen to excuses.”

 

Albert Otieno, the survivor

Albert Otieno | Photo by Brian Otieno / Oxfam in Kenya

 

“I was born prematurely, as a twin, into a cancerous family – leukaemia and many others. My twin sister died in my mother’s womb.

Thanks to God's help, I was born at 6 months and a half, weighing 1-point-something kilos. I was in the incubator for 3 months and I survived thanks to my mum's care. I thank God for that.

My dad had a good job, he used to work for customs, then Voice of Kenya, then KBC. He used to treat my mum well. I was young then but I could tell. Then eventually he got cancer and fought for 6 years, and I buried him. 

Within two years, cancer also took my big sister from this world. 

And now, I have it.

Albert Otieno | Photo by Brian Otieno / Oxfam in Kenya

 

My mother has high blood pressure. She has been through a lot. From her operation during my birth, and my dad's illness. She even got tuberculosis, and it broke her down – we took her to Kenyatta hospital for 3 weeks. 

That's why this pressure eventually got her. My cancer was just going to add more pressure, so I tried to hide it for her at first. Then, I thought she would eventually find out from someone else, and that would be worse, so I showed the bumps on my hands and my spine.

That's what is ruining my life right now – are these bumps. 

Albert Otieno has painful bumps on his arms due to his cancer  | Photo by Brian Otieno / Oxfam in Kenya

 

My uncle died from leukaemia, another one was fortunate enough to go tho the US for treatment, he is still alive. My cousins have these bumps. Everyone on my dad's side is affected by cancer.

I spend 5000 KSh per month on medicine.

Right now not having a job is a very big issue. Sometimes I have to skip a month’s dose, and when that pain comes, it doesn't know that you don't have money, or that there is a pandemic.

I've really fought with it since February.

Albert Otieno | Photo by Brian Otieno / Oxfam in Kenya

 

Sometimes I look at life, and I think about how my dad, who was making good money, had all that money taken away by this disease. And it came a time, when he decided to endure his symptoms and leave his money instead to his children.

The pandemic has gotten me to a point where I am also feeling that way. I am 32 years old, my oldest son is 4 years old. my second son is 2 years old. How can I buy that medicine for 5000 KSh while I watch my sons go hungry, or get locked out of our house?

Albert Otieno | Photo by Brian Otieno / Oxfam in Kenya

 

So when the pain comes, I struggle to get even 1000 KSh to get a half dose for 2-3 days. Then, when the pain goes down a bit, I go on with working to feed my children.

Of course, I am worried about Corona. I can't want my body to get another disease worse than the one I have.

And when it finds you when you have a disease like ours, oh one time, you're gone

I am a parent and these kids...I wouldn't want anything to come and hurt them.”

 

Albert Otieno's new lifeline

Kayole informal settlement - Nairobi | Photo by Brian Otieno / Oxfam in Kenya

 

“There's a Nyumba Kumi chairman that I used to visit when I was at rock bottom and I had nothing to feed my children.

One day he told me he had met a man named 'Tom' from the Red Cross. Who told him that there's a programme for people with disabilities and serious illnesses like me. 

He told Tom my story. Tom interviewed me, he checked my papers and condition and took down my details.

After one week, I got a phone call. I was asked similar questions to what Tom asked me, and I was told that In two weeks I would receive help. 

I have been promised many things that never happened, so I thought this was just another one of those promises that wouldn't come through.

That Saturday, I was at rock-bottom. I didn't have any work or money. 

Albert Otieno fondly remembers receiving the MPESA message from the EU-funded safety nets programme  - Kayole, Nairobi | Photo by Brian Otieno / Oxfam in Kenya

 

I decided to go to a school nearby to watch a football match. While I was there, I heard my phone ring. I was shocked. I had received an MPESA transaction.

And you know because of Corona, you don't even want your friend to see that you've received money! Because they will ask you to borrow it. 

So I stepped aside and looked at my phone properly - I had received 7780 KSh. I remembered Tom, and the other fellow I spoke to on the phone.

I had a new motivation in life.

I had that hope that I wasn't finding every day. That feeling that this day is going to be yet another waste, was gone.

Albert Otieno | Photo by Brian Otieno / Oxfam in Kenya

 

I immediately paid my landlord 3000 KSh, just to let me back in to get my clothes and my kids clothes back. I owe him 12,000 KSh in total.

And we ate my friend! 

I also bought some medicine - just enough so that the pain wouldn't come back.

It made my life, I felt...I don't know how to put it... I felt 'you can still be helped' 

That all was not lost, that there was someone out there that doesn't know me, but he cares about me and the well being of my family.

I am so grateful for them."

 

Modest victories 

Albert Otieno with his mother (left) and son (right) | Photo by Brian Otieno / Oxfam in Kenya

 

Those months of February, March, and April...I was in a lot of pain because I couldn’t afford my medicine. When I am healthy, I can go out and look for work to make sure these kids eat.

There are many of these projects here where you are registered based on who you know, or you even have to bribe someone just to get help.

This one came to me free, without even having to plead or beg. Someone else knew my issues and who registered me on my behalf.

I can't say things are back to the way they were before the pandemic, even with this money, but it has helped a lot. 

These days, at least we can all eat 3 meals a day for one week after receiving the money, and then the following week we will tighten our belts as I look for more work.

The money also helped my wife and I feel like we did before. She's a great woman, we've been together for 5 years, and she's put up with me.

That money helped me see the smile from 5 years back.

Before we could only afford a small piece of soap, now we buy two. These days my son says 'dad we are sanitizing' I tell him yes. 

Albert Otieno washes his hands near his mother's home - Kayole, Nairobi | Photo by Brian Otieno / Oxfam in Kenya

 

Now we can sanitize in my house.

Just like when they say someone lifted you up where you couldn't jump. At least, even though they didn't lift me all the way up, they gave me a step up.

I was able to buy a full dose of medication for two weeks, without a problem. Now, these bumps don't hurt as much as before.

Due to that money, now I can afford masks for my family.

I still have needs. I have a very big debt with my landlord, my family needs three meals per day, my medicine costs 5000 KSh per month. 

It helps, but unfortunately, it is not enough.

My brother is 29 years old, he has his own life. I can't make him help me and my mom, but he still plays a big role in the life of my kids. 

Some days he would feel my shame, and he would give me some money, just to make my kids smile. 

Albert Otieno (right) teaches his son (left) how to box - Kayole, Nairobi | Photo by Brian Otieno / Oxfam in Kenya

 

He would give me 100 shillings, and I'll ask my kids 'what do you want today?'

'baba we want to drink yoghurt' 

So I would go and buy them the 90ksh yoghurt and divide it for them. They feel happy... like dad is providing."

 

Our Safety Nets Consortium is grateful to the European Union for funding cash transfers to #KomeshaCorona and for helping us provide safety nets for vulnerable Kenyans.

To date, the consortium has transferred Ksh 326,734,040.00 to 16,411 vulnerable families in Nairobi, including 621 households that are victims or at risk of sexual and gender-based violence in Nairobi informal settlements. 

By November, the consortium will have transferred Ksh 422,558,039.00 to 18,425 families (an estimated 73700 people) in Nairobi informal settlements, to help them afford basic necessities and cope with the Covid-19 pandemic.