Musings of a people: Part I

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Kawangware, a buzzing slum just a few 100 metres from up town Lavington residential area is the location for my first field visit where I intend to interact with the youth.

Perhaps my reason for choosing the location is its close proximity, easy accessibility and more importantly, it is an area that houses thousands of youth in Nairobi. For purposes of this visit, I identified youth as persons between 18-30.

I take a 46 matatu (public service vehicle) and alight at a terminal called Kanugaga where I am then escorted to the house that I will be staying at by my good friend Phanice who resides in the area. We pass several people and I can’t help but notice how vibrant the place is. There are a couple of boys by the corner seated in three saloon cars, doors open with loud music playing. I ask her what they’re up to and she informs me that they are driving instructors who give lessons throughout the day. They were currently waiting for customers. Curious as to the price, I ask and find out they charge Ksh 100 for every half kilometer or so. The boys seem to be enjoying the music, the day and basically their job as they bop their heads to the beat.

We arrive at the house which I am told is located in 56 where I meet my two gracious hosts, Eva and Tossi. Eva is a beautiful 25 year old  girl who has just completed her undergraduate degree in Medical Lab while her brother Tossi, is 24  years and in his third year studying Finance and Economics. The house is made of stone and is a single room approximately 20 by 10 metres. The house is simply decorated, with a single bed, a mattress folded on the floor, TV, coffee table and two sofa sets. The sitting area and bedroom are separated by a bed sheet.

Being of around the same age we immediately start talking and instantly create a rapport. I am grateful to the two for agreeing to host me and to sharing their insight on life growing up in Kawangware.  Both of them have grown up in the area all their lives besides the few years that they spent in high school in shaggz (up country). I soon find out that the two were raised single handedly by their mother who has been working as a house help in the nearby suburb Kileleshwa. Tossi tells me that she is his role model and he aspires to be as hard working as her. This is clearly evident as she has schooled her children to university level and is still currently schooling their younger brother. ‘Very admirable,’ I say.

I am hopeful to tour as much as possible and so we begin our rounds. Tossi has a couple of friends who I get to speak with, of whom I will speak of in another post. Disappointingly, I was able to converse with only two ladies in my two day stay.

As we walk around I am bemused by the number of small children playing on the streets. Another striking thing is the amount of food being sold by the roadside. People really do like to eat around here I think to myself. Eva tells me that it is the one business that residents in Kawangware are a keen to as customers are there on a constant. I find out that food is actually sold as from 4 am when people are heading out to work till 11 pm in the night. One of the favourites is githeri, (a mixture of maize and beans) which is packed in small paper bags (ready to go githeri). Another is chapattis, mandazis, and a lot of meat and vegetables. Looking at the prices I realize that food is very affordable in the area. Chapattis for instance are sold at Ksh 10 and a githeri bag at Ksh 10 as well. Sukuma wiki ( Kale) that can feed two goes for Ksh 5.

One of the issues that arose for me was food security in itself, the job market and the correlation between the two. It’s quite evident that the food prices are relatively low to enhance competitiveness seeing as every two or so metres are food vendors. The upside is that majority of the households in Kawangware are able to feed themselves, however does this business allow room for growth? This grapples me. One of the food vendors informs me that this is a business that he has done for eight years, it pays his bills and feeds his children, he is content with life. Eva alerts me that I will meet several others who share his sentiments; further, that it is very few individuals who have been able to grow their businesses let alone diversify and venture into others.

With limited access to capital how then do these individuals diversify? Does lack of ambition come into play? There being strength in numbers, are these individuals part of chamas (Informal cooperatives)? How can they deal with undercutting from a business perspective? Questions that I hope to answer by the end of my stay.

I meet Ramadhani (27 years), Issah (28years) and Willy (27 years), three young men who sell shoes next to the Congo terminal. I introduce myself and tell them that I’m a youth on an inquisitive journey to understand better youth issues. They agree to spare some time to share their life stories and insight with me. For such a forthright approach, it came as a surprise as to how welcoming they were. Willy stuffs a ‘gunia’ (sack) with paper bags for me to sit on.

I get to learn that the three of them have lived in Kawangware for an average of 10 years. Ramadhani begins and tells me that he is a proud father of three girls and loving husband to what he deems the luckiest girl in the world. He is a devoted Muslim and believer in humanity. He tells me that he is happiest when he sees his friends flourish in their businesses and happy; a philosophy that he lives by.

Issah tells me that reality tells him he’s a hustler but his heart and mind tell him he is an artist. I then ask him on when he last painted to which he informs me approximately three months ago. He wishes that he could have more avenues to showcase his work because then, he will be living in a better neighbourhood. “My work is great!” he muses.

As for Willy he is a very quiet young man and nods in agreement to his friends’ sentiments without directly responding to anything I ask. I throw him off guard and ask him to talk to me as if it were Uhuru Kenyatta, the president of Kenya seated right next to him in the middle of the street on a ‘gunia’. The young man beams and chuckles. “Well in that case,” he says, “I would definitely ask you for some money, and not in the sense that you think.” “For a long time coming we have wanted to expand this business and to sell shoes in other spots but capital is limiting.” “I would also ask you to make it more accessible for us to get credit; I have no land, I have no property, what I do have is my able hands and mind to do business.”

I inquire on the various projects and funds that have been set up by government to facilitate with this to which he laughs. “Even those have their owners,” he says. Willy explains that even with well intended government facilitation, there is inadequate transparency; only a select few have access to these funds let alone information on them.

They tell me that they are grateful to Allah each day because it is him who has enabled them to never sleep hungry. Ramadhani tells me that even with 100 Kenya Shillings his girls sleep on a full stomach and are happy. I thank them for their time and proceed on…

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