17 November 2011

Kenya: A Month in the Life of a Public University Lecturer

The lecturers' strike that has been going on for two weeks now has been suspended. This was after a back to work formula was reached between the ... ( Resource: Lecturers End Strike )

Mr Richard Wafula, a lecturer at Kenyatta University, peruses a book in his two-bedroom house in Nairobi's Kahawa Estate.

Lecturers are on strike and so is he. But he still has to do research jobs to supplement his monthly income as he waits for the government's response on the on-going strike.

Mr Wafula, who has taught at KU for 22 years, says his salary has always been low. And like many other lecturers in public universities, he takes extra jobs to make ends meet.

"We refer to it as 'moonlighting', that is visiting other institutions to teach as part-time lecturers. I do it once in a while, although I rarely get the time. Here, I make some money, normally paid per hour. And although it is not allowed by the institution I work for, I do it to survive because I can't make it on my small salary," says Mr Wafula, who teaches Kiswahili.

When we arrived for the interview, he was almost through with his research, ready to join fellow union members for a meeting to update the media on the state of the strike.

His first salary as a lecturer was Sh5,750 when he joined Kenyatta University in 1989 and by 2003 it had increased to Sh17,000.

It took another series of strikes in 2006 and 2007 for the government to raise lecturers' salaries to about Sh57,000.

In 2008, there was another strike and the salaries were raised to an average of Sh75,000.

"We thought we got a good deal from the government until the 2009 financial crisis. The trouble is that the government cannot increase our income unless we threaten to boycott lectures.

In mid-2009, we were promised better pay since we could hardly cope with the financial slump, but nothing has been down for the past two-and-a-half years, thus the current strike," he says.

Listening to Mr Wafula drawing up his monthly budget on how he spends his salary, one gets a picture of the financial status of an ordinary public university lecturer.

He spends Sh16,000 on rent, Sh2,000 on water bills, and about Sh6,000 on electricity.

He also spends an average of Sh1,000 a day on food for his family, which translates to about Sh30,000 a month. Mr Wafula is repaying a loan he took to build a house at his rural home.

"I have learnt to jump on a matatu and forget lunch. I own a car but I rarely use it because I find it cheaper to use a matatu. I sometimes even walk to work when things gets tough," says the father of five children.

He pays more than Sh70,000 every semester for his daughter, who is enrolled in a parallel degree programme.

Mr James Mayaka's story is much the same. He has been a public university lecturer since 1992.

He taught at Kenyatta University for a few years before he was transferred to Laikipia University College near Nyahururu.

"Many of my former students are doing pretty well in life, but my life has been the same for the past 19 years. As lecturers, we play an important role in building the nation. We train people who become successful and contribute to our country's economic development, but we have nothing to show for our hard work," says Mr Mayaka.

He lives in Nakuru and commutes to Laikipia, 60km away. He spends about Sh360 on bus fare every day and Sh200 on lunch.

This means that he spends Sh16,800 every month on transport and lunch alone. He is still paying his car loan, although he does not use the vehicle due to high fuel costs. He no longer depends on his salary.

"Every week I travel to Kampala, to teach at Makerere University. I get paid Sh700 an hour and I can make about Sh2,800 every four hours, but the problem is getting time and money.

I have to find my personal means because this is extra work. I don't think there is any public university lecturer who survives on his salary alone; they must be doing something on the side. It's hard," says Mr Mayaka, who teaches Linguistics.

According to Mr Wafula, some of his colleagues in public universities in Nairobi have had to adjust to cope with the high cost of living, renting low-cost houses to save and cut on transport costs.

"Some well-known professors have moved to semi-slums areas in Nairobi while others have sold their cars or other property to pay their debts. Some travel to their rural homes and buy farm produce like potatoes, cabbages, and maize to sell in the city. That is how they survive."

In the eyes of ordinary Kenyans, says Mr Mayaka, a university lecturer is a financially-able person.

"They think that just because I can write an essay on the troubles of the Kenyan economy or give an in-depth analysis of some literary work and impart knowledge to my students, I am a very rich man, but that is not the case."

Dr Charles Mukhwaya, the secretary general of the Universities Non-Teaching Staff Union (UNTESU), says lecturers' purchasing power has slid abysmally.

"They can no longer manage to survive. They have been left to a limp on at a level below the subsistence wage. This scenario obtains as a clique of university managers divide accumulated capital among themselves," he says.

However, in view of the government's response to the lecturers' strike, they are in for a long wait.

"I am not opposed to the lecturers' demand for a salary increment, but the strike comes at the wrong time when the government is using a lot of money to maintain security. The country is spending more than Sh200 million a day to fight the enemy," said Prime Minister Raila Odinga at a press conference.

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