38-year-old mother of four Beatrice Mbendo in her one room home in Kibera with her daughter Ashley (left) and her son Ryan (right) | Photo by Blandina Bobson / Oxfam in Kenya

Is there a dawn to follow the dusk of COVID-19 for Beatrice Mbendo’s family?

“...Do you remember when we met last time, I told you I was five months pregnant?” I pause and give a faint “yes”.  “Well, I just wanted to meet with you so that you can write my story again. I am due in October, it’s just a month away. I have nothing for the baby...” said Beatrice Achungo Mbendo, a 38-year-old mother of four.

I first met Beatrice in May. She is a “stone lady” – a name that describes women mainly from informal settlements who wait for domestic work clients on large stones by the roadside in middle-class suburbs of Nairobi. That’s where I met Beatrice, sitting on stone steps in a leafy suburb; desperately hoping someone would offer her domestic work. She had lost all her former clients almost immediately after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and with them, she had also lost her means of providing education, shelter, food and healthcare for her children.

Beatrice Mbendo sitting on stone steps in a wealthy suburb of Nairobi in May | Photo by Blandina Bobson / Oxfam in Kenya

I felt compelled to write Beatrice’s story at the time because she represents thousands of female domestic workers in Kenya who are left without a source of income, seemingly because their former clients are either too afraid of being infected with COVID-19, or can no longer afford domestic work. She also represents single mothers who struggle to provide for their families during this pandemic outbreak on incomes of sometimes less than 200 KSh a day (USD 2), while also doing an increased load of unpaid care and domestic work at home. Beatrice also represents pregnant women who need to access ante-natal care but cannot afford it, and are also too scared of contracting COVID-19 in Kenyan hospitals. She also represents the many single parents who have had to seek alternative shelter because they can no longer afford to pay rent during the pandemic outbreak.

As a society, we have deemed food, healthcare and shelter to be essential services and enshrined it in our constitution. No human should have to choose between the three. Sadly, this is the reality for very many Kenyans who have lost their incomes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

2-year-old Ryan Mbendo, son of Beatrice Mbendo in her one-room home in the Kibera informal settlement | Photo by Blandina Bobson / Oxfam in Kenya

“How are you and your family doing? “I asked.

Recently, after receiving numerous requests to share her story, I decided to give her a call and check on how she, her family, and her unborn baby were fairing on.

“The children are fine,” Beatrice responded. “I am recovering from a bout of Malaria and Pneumonia. If it wasn’t for ‘Mama’, I don’t know what I would have done. I am grateful for the money she sent me.”

Beatrice Mbendo’s son Ryan Mbendo (left) and daughter Ashley Mbendo (right) in her one-room home in the Kibera informal settlement | Photo by Blandina Bobson / Oxfam in Kenya

In case you are wondering, Mama is a colleague who was touched by the story I wrote, and decided to help Beatrice by sending her some money. There’s many more ‘Mama’s’ out there who are helping people like Beatrice get by each day with donations both in cash and in-kind. Unfortunately, a lot more is needed.

“When she sent it, I was so sick I couldn’t even speak” Beatrice continued. “I am sure she is wondering what kind of a person I am, but I am planning to call her and give her thanks for the money she sent.”  At this point in the conversation, I was getting worried because she hadn’t mentioned her unborn baby. During our last meeting, Beatrice confided that she was too scared to go to the hospital for antenatal care, for fear of being infected, so I started to assume the worst.

It didn’t help when she said “I was actually wondering if we can plan to meet. I want to talk to you about one or two things”. My anxiety went through the roof and I couldn’t wait to plan a meeting. So, I asked, “what exactly do you want to talk about?”

“Do you remember when we met last time, I told you I was five months pregnant? Well, I just wanted to meet with you so that you can write my story again. I am due in October, it’s just a month away. I have nothing for the baby.

“I want you to take my photo and share my story with people out there. Maybe someone would be touched and help me buy clothes for my baby.” Beatrice said. “The money Mama sent me in June, I used it for my medical treatment. I went to the hospital and bought drugs worth 2000 KSh, I used another 2000 KSh to pay rent for a cheaper house in Muthurwa because I could no longer afford the house I was living in; and used the remaining 1000 KSh to buy food.”    

I felt a wave of relief after hearing her baby was fine, and we planned to meet.

Beatrice Mbendo outside her one-room home in Kibera with her son Ryan (left) and daughter Ashley (right) | Photo by Blandina Bobson / Oxfam in Kenya

We met on a chilly and cloudy Tuesday afternoon. I sat on a thin mattress in Beatrice’s single-roomed wooden shack that she shares with her 3 children – about 6X4 feet in size. Her daughter Ashley sat on the floor and listened intently as we spoke. Her son Ryan was eating sugar. Their mother described to me how none of the over-the-counter drugs she had used was relieving her what she suspected to be “Malaria and Pneumonia”. She was still in pain. She described feeling stabbing pain on her back and having vomited the previous night. Beatrice reported seeing traces of blood in her vomit and that frightened her.

38-year-old mother of four Beatrice Mbendo in her one-room home in Kibera with her daughter Ashley (left) and son Ryan (right) | Photo by Blandina Bobson / Oxfam in Kenya

“I know it’s not Corona,” she said. “I don’t have a headache, have never had breathing problems and don’t have a fever. It’s just the pain on my back that has refused to heal. I can’t even go to work because I am not feeling well. Even if I went, I wouldn’t get any jobs because I am heavily pregnant. No client would give a job in this status. I just want to get tested and get the right treatment. I cried yesterday because I don’t want to die and leave my children. They have nowhere to go.” Beatrice confided.

Beatrice Mbendo’s daughter Ashley Mbendo (left) and son Ryan Mbendo (right) in her one-room home in the Kibera informal settlement | Photo by Blandina Bobson / Oxfam in Kenya

“Take my photos and share my story everywhere, someone might come to my aid. I just want to access treatment and to get clothes for my newborn.” Beatrice said hopefully.

I thanked Beatrice for hosting me and walked away wondering – when will a better day come for Beatrice and the thousands of domestic workers, single mothers, and domestic caregivers struggling to support their families and deal with the increased burden of unpaid care work in their households during the COVID-19 pandemic? What will that day look like when it arrives?

With the help of European Union funding, Oxfam in Kenya, The Kenya Red Cross Society, Concern Worldwide, ACTED, IMPACT, CREAW and the Wangu Kanja Foundation have transferred 91,060,280 KSh to date to 11,328 vulnerable households in Nairobi informal settlements to help them afford basic necessities during the COVID-19 pandemic, complementing the Kenyan Government’s Inua Jamii initiative for those enrolled. Over the course of three months, and with additional funding from the Danish Government, the NGO consortium aims to transfer 564,000,899 KSh to 27,390 families (an estimated 69,560 people) in Nairobi and Mombasa informal settlements.

Beatrice Mbendo outside her one-room home in Kibera with her son Ryan (left) and daughter Ashley (right) | Photo by Blandina Bobson / Oxfam in Kenya

As we continue to try to expand our social safety nets programming, there are many more vulnerable female domestic workers like Beatrice who haven’t been reached. Women who are contending with childbirth and caregiving, and at the same time fighting an invisible, terrifying enemy– COVID-19.

An enemy that has built a wall between them and their employers, leaving them at the mercy of well-wishers; until an uncertain time when the doors of the well-to-do will be opened for them again.