Doreen Muthoni, 38, a small scale trader, in Mukuru, an informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo Credit: Katie Nelson

Enabling women to exert their rights in Nairobi

My name is Doreen Muthoni. I have a husband Linus and three children. Ken Rogers my firstborn is 20 years, Mike* 13 and Ruth* my youngest is 7.

I came here (Mukuru South) in 1998 from Meru. I came with my firstborn child to look for a job. I first got a job of a domestic worker but I was not happy with the job so I decided to start a small business selling damaged bread and cakes. I collected them from different companies. Domestic work was not my career and I had no interest in it, I was doing it to get capital to start a small business.

Where I was employed as a domestic worker, I used to see my employer coming with that bread at home. Outside the house, beside the tarmac road there were women selling the bread there. When I finished my work I used to go there and see how they sell and I borrowed their knowledge. One of them showed me how they do everything from how and where they buy them to how they sell. At that time we used to buy each bread at 5KSh and later sell at 15KSh in the settlements.

When I came here, the business started improving my way of life. I also started teaching others and went to Nairobi city centre to sell it as a ‘hawker’. But it got to a time when there were so many of us doing the same business so the profits reduced. I used to wake up as early as 3am in the morning so I can get the broken bread before others finish it. I changed my line of work and started selling clothes. I went to Gikomba to buy clothes and on that process I met my husband. He used to buy t-shirts from me. He approached me and we started talking and I found out that we came from the same community. He courted me until I found myself as his wife. I was married in 2002 and in 2003 I was blessed with my second born and his name is Mike.

I continued selling clothes until 2007. In 2007 I saw it was not going well. The thing with me is that when I see that one business is not doing well I change to something else. So I decided to start selling meat. I did that to 2015 when I met the likes of Eric from Wezesha Jamii.

Before I met Eric I was not making enough money. Sometimes I could go and not get the meat or sometimes I could only get it in small quantities. Some days I couldn’t sell all the meat. My meat business was not doing well, sometimes the meat could spoil. I worked from 3 in the morning with the dark until 10pm at night and roasting the goats heads and legs made smoke that affected me.

In December 2009 I gave birth to another child, my last born on Boxing Day. I have been struggling with life since until we met with Wezesha Jamii and since then life has been much better.

In November 2015 I was working in my business and I saw Eric and Domitila passing by (from SITE) and they looked as if they were stranded. So I called them and asked them if they were new within the area. They told me they were looking for women with small scale businesses and want to take them through some trainings that would empower them. So my heart melted with thankfulness.

After going through trainings like advocacy, our rights and I took that knowledge to teach others. From a lot of trainings I learnt a lot about business, like how to budget my money, how to make records on my business and many other things about a business. I am now much better in business, my life has improved and for the children, everything has changed.

I have come to change my business and set up the one that you have seen. The project (Wezesha Jamii) helped me choose the business I could do and one that could bring me more income than the meat business. A business that is less stressful and has more custom. What I do now is sell hair products and also do women’s hair. It is a beauty shop and salon. I have bought some equipment. For now when I arrive from the market I just sit and customers come and I even groom myself from there.

Also before I used to pay house rent but now I have my own house, I own this house – all five rooms belong to me, I bought them (in late 2016). We used to live in rental and making matters worse I used to live in a single room with all my children and going with Meru tradition I am not supposed to live with my children at the same room when they get to 12 to 13 years. Because of the problems I had I was forced to live with them in a single room, with three children and a husband.

But now I have three rooms that I occupy, so my sons live in the first one and then I stay with my daughter and my husband. I rent the other two rooms.

Through the training they showed me how to save, I didn’t save before. We have joined a group of women together through the trainings. With my savings I have joined a Sacco, I do merry go round and table banking. So each week I can save more than 10,000 KSh through my business.

I saved a lot and took a loan in Sacco for 250,000 which I am still paying and with that bought this house. I pay the loan with the rent from the two rooms at 4,000KSh and some of my savings.

The money I get has helped me a lot to educate my children. I use it to pay their school fees. I also save so in a day I make sure I save something and I have taught my children how to save too. The oldest one has an account at family bank. The younger ones have the small accounts dubbed ‘jumbo account’ where they can save their little money and at the end of the month I take their savings to the bank. This money has helped me also to build my house at home (Meru).

I have done a lot at home. I have bought dairy cows and goats among many other things. As we speak my husband has travelled there to look after them.

The electricity we are using here is always present. We rarely suffer blackouts. It is illegal though, we pay about 300KSh a month. Before I never had electricity, I couldn’t afford it. So we used to light up a lamp or a candle. Now my 7 year old has improved in her studies immensely. She can study more with the light. Even my second born started doing well. Last year he did his Kenya certificate of Primary Education exams and he attained 320 marks out of 500.

Our lives have changed, before it was even a problem getting meals. Sometimes we used to skip lunch and they used to go to school just in the neighbourhood. So if the child is hungry will he be able to study? And if they used to be sent back home now and then because of lack of school fees, can he study?

Now I foresee a life for Ruth* going on well if I continue to do well. I can save and I am hoping to get Ruth* to a boarding school, this is not a good environment to bring up a girl child.

I see that life has changed even in the way we dress. How we dress now is not the same way we used to dress before. You can see even my head, I was not pleating my hair, I used to shave it. Even the diet, everything, now if I want to eat meat or eggs I can get it, before I could not afford it. On that time I had high blood pressure, but not anymore.

We enjoy many things now we don’t have so many problems. We feel free and happy now. Sometimes during holidays we got to the city centre like Uhuru park, we stay there with my children together with my husband. We also sometimes leave for home and they learn about the lifestyle. We are free to do a lot of things, I also take them to the animal orphanage, museums and let them explore.

All this is possible because of the trainings from Wezesha Jamii, if it were not for WJ I would not have been in that position, I don’t know where I could have been.

I am filled with joy. The things we are doing, WJ has been able to help me so much and now I know more than what I used to know. I never progressed in my education, I only got to class 8, I didn’t finish primary school. But now I can even talk and communicate with confidence. I recently talked to the national government in Machakos county. I have even educated women on their rights as I have been taught. In this village we had people bed ridden, women and children dying in houses but now I am collaborating with the county government and national government as we speak. In the afternoon I will go to Mama Lucy hospital to get some referral books to support others. We have a training session from 4pm today.

I have heard through the media that other sub counties have ambulances that transfer patients from the community to the hospital. So I kept asking myself why not us. Why is it that in Nairobi South we have none? I decided to find one individual from the sub county who works to put me in touch with the people from the national government, so I went to advocate for our rights to get an ambulance, referral books and other things that can help the community as a whole. I am a community health volunteer in this community so I was trained so that I can teach other health volunteers. So I attained my goal, we now have one ambulance.

With my husband, the love between us has got stronger. When you have problems you don’t appreciate your husband. We sit down and talk and help each other discuss and made decisions. Life is sweet. He respects me and I respect him.

*Children’s names changed

About the European Union funded urban economy project

Oxfam’s Wezesha Jamii (swahili for 'empowering communities') project is run in partnership with local national organisation’s SITE Enterprise Promotion, Youth Alive! Kenya and National Organization for Peer Educators (NOPE). It operates in five informal settlements around Nairobi - Mukuru, Kibera, Korogocho, Mathare and Kawangware.

This EU-funded project is reaching 30,000 women working in the informal economy (10,000 domestic workers and 20,000 small scale traders).The Wezesha Jamii project is helping vulnerable people who depend on the informal economy in Nairobi