A Kenyan mother’s solitary battle with hunger and COVID-19
Life before COVID-19 was good, according to 38-year-old mother Beatrice Achungo Mbendo. “Even if we couldn’t afford a good diet, we had three meals a day”. She had four regular clients from whom she earned at least KES 3500 (or about 33 USD) weekly. She would spend the money to meet her family’s basic needs and save some of the money for rent.
“Now things are really bad, we even miss breakfast in the morning. My children would eat something small during lunch and wait for me with the hope that I will come back with something in the evening. If I don’t come back with anything, we sleep hungry. Things are really bad. I am single parent, in my condition with nothing and no one to turn to.” One time her family of five went for two days without food. She was so distraught that she left her house in tears to look for something to eat. “God heard my cries. One employer brought us 2 kgs of maize flour, sugar and cooking oil which got me through for a few days”.
As governments worldwide are fighting tooth and nail against COVID-19, domestic workers like Beatrice are spending sleepless nights worrying about where their family’s next meal will come from. The pandemic has dealt a huge blow to domestic workers as their employers have taken all necessary measures to keep their families safe, including letting go off the domestic workers that managed their homes before COVID-19 struck.
“Stone Ladies” left out in the cold
Beatrice is a single mother with four children aged between 2 and 13 years old. She is also five months pregnant with her fifth child. She lives in Kangemi, one of the informal settlements in Nairobi. Beatrice came to Nairobi in 2007, the same year she started engaging in paid domestic work to earn a living. Beatrice is a “stone lady”, a name that describes ladies mostly from the informal settlements who sit on stones in leafy suburbs of Nairobi and wait for the middle-class citizens in these areas to offer them casual domestic jobs. A trade she has used to provide education, shelter, food and healthcare for her family since 2007.
Her husband was employed when they met in 2007 but lost his job after two years. He then struggled to maintain a steady stream of informal jobs in the construction industry until the couple eventually separated. “My husband left me five months ago after we found out I was two weeks pregnant. He wasn’t happy about it. I have tried to look for him, but nobody knows where he is, including his family”.
Sometimes she wakes up and has no kerosene or vegetables but has maize flour. To cope with the little she has, Beatrice budgets the little money she gets. Since charcoal is expensive, where a 2kg tin goes for KES 120, she prefers to use kerosene. If she gets KES 100 (1 USD) from a well-wisher, she would buy kerosene for KES 30, water for KES 10 for a twenty-litre jerry can, a piece of soap for KES 10, a bunch of Kale for KES 10, which she prepares for the kids to eat with ugali from the maize flour. Alternatively, if she does not have maize flour, she would buy three cups of boiled maize and beans for her family.
Beatrice says that her life changed the minute the government announced the first confirmed Corona case in the country. “All my employers called me and cancelled on me. They told me to wait until covid-19 has been contained then they will call me for work. “It’s been two months since I last went to anyone’s house to do laundry and clean”.
Her landlord hasn’t spared her either. He has been calling her to ask for the 2 months’ rent she already owes. “I explained to him that I don’t have any work. Every morning I go to the waiting place hoping to get something but nothing. There are so many of us waiting and hoping to get work.” She openly admits that she prioritizes any money she gets to feeding her children. Rent is currently not a priority over the survival of her children. When the worst comes to the worst, she’s ready to sleep in a ditch with her children as long as they have food.
Unemployed caregivers ‘collateral damage’ in GoK fight against Covid-19
Beatrice explained that because of COVID-19, the local administration and the police have been chasing them and asking them to go and stay at home until the disease is contained. “But we can’t, we have widows here, you have single parents like me and even those who have spouses, their spouses have lost their jobs. There’s no way we can stay at home. The only thing that makes us come here every day even when the chief and police chase us, is the kids. When they chase us, we just go into hiding and come back. We just hope to get even a kilogram of maize flour per day.”
Beatrice says she diligently practices all the measures endorsed by the government to protect her family. Every morning when she leaves her house, she reminds her children to play in the house or just outside the door. When she gets to the waiting place, she doesn’t shake anyone’s hands, tries to maintain social distance and has a mask to cover her mouth and nose. “When I buy the piece of soap for washing clothes, whatever remains I tell my children to use it to wash their hands. I have taught my children on the importance of washing hands and they have put that into practice. When they started talking about CORONA, I used to work for a Doctor, the wife gave me a mask. It’s a disposable mask, but I wash it when I get home and hang it to dry. I can’t afford to buy a mask for KES 30 shillings every day.”
Even as she and the other “stone ladies” undertake the preventive measures, Beatrice says none of them knows anyone who has been taken ill. They are just surprised how a disease that neither of them has suffered from has changed everything. The face of COVID-19 for them is joblessness and hunger.
The government stimulus package has not benefited her even though she was among the people who were registered to benefit. She highlighted that she has heard from her neighbours that some people had received food aid (2kgs of beans, 3 packets of maize flour, 2kgs of sugar and 1 litre of cooking oil), and some had received KES 2000 on their mobile phones. She feels the targeting and distribution wasn’t done in a transparent and accountable manner. She also hasn’t felt the benefit of the reduction in taxes. “Even if they reduced taxes on food and you are not working how does that benefit you? You have to work to get money to go and buy food to benefit from the tax reductions.”
An uncertain future for six
Beatrice who is pregnant is yet to start ante-natal care. “I haven’t started ante-natal care and when COVID-19 came I decided I will not go. I got scared because I might get infected at the hospital. I feel healthy and strong. Can’t you see? I don’t think I have any problem. If anyone came and asked me to work, I will go and work. I don’t have any health issues. I will start ante-natal care when COVID-19 has been contained.”
Given a chance, Beatrice would like to tell the government that “We have COVID-19 in the country and everyone wants it contained. The president can lock the county for 2 months but before that, he should ensure that they conduct an exercise similar to census and list all the households with vulnerable women like me, then give us food aid enough to last us two months. We will lock ourselves and stay with our children at home for two months until the disease is contained. But if they can’t do this, they should just let us work.”
For now, Beatrice has no plans for the future on how to cope with the impact of COVID-19. “I just sit by myself and tell God, I have nothing. I have no plans. If I don’t get anything from well-wishers, I won’t hide; my kids and I will sleep hungry. If this continues like this, the only thing left is death. I feel like my life has hit rock bottom.”