Kenya: The Greatest Fear for Kenyans Who Live From Hand to Mouth

The economic shutdown occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the soft underbelly of millions of Kenyans and their capacity to suck it up for a long period.

Barely two weeks into the crisis, thousands are already reeling in the pressure of the economic downturn. Casual labourers, those in the gig economy and small-scale traders are the worst hit.

President Uhuru Kenyatta announced measures to cushion Kenyans from the economic shutdown, which included a tax relief for workers earning Sh24,000 and below. But for the unemployed, it's a tempest-tossed swim in the deep sea.

So, how are Kenyans who live from hand to mouth coping with the crisis? What are their greatest fears? Would they survive a prolonged period of economic sluggishness?

Ms Grace Wangui, a washerwoman in Mwiki, Kasarani, fears for her family's survival.

WASHES CLOTHES

In a week, she washes clothes for three or four families from which she earns an average of Sh2,500. This way, she's able to supplement her husband's income. But for the last one week, Ms Wangui hasn't worked.

As a protective measure, her customers asked her not to report to work. She has been indoors all week.

"My job involves interacting with families closely. No one wants you to go to their house anymore. It's tough for me," she says. That has left her husband, a hawker, as the sole breadwinner of the family of four.

"He sells second-hand jackets, but there aren't many buyers. There are days when he doesn't make any sales. We're surviving on the savings we had before the outbreak," she offers.

Ms Wangui is a member of a chama whose weekly operations were suspended, effectively ending her other source of income. "Most of our members are casuals. With no one going to work, there's nothing to contribute. Besides, no one wants to host guests," she says.

With end of the month approaching and rent due, Ms Wangui seems unsure how to raise Sh7,000. "After we've paid rent, we'll have little to sustain us in the coming days." In the event of a total lockdown, her family would be left scrambling for survival. Her savings would be exhausted in a week.

"We hope this will end soon so we can go back to work," she says.

HAWKS GOODS

Mr Augustus Kiteng'u, who hawks household goods in Nairobi, has two tough choices: To choose between his health (and stay at home) and his family's survival.

With an unemployed wife and a family to fend for, he has had to throw caution to the wind and take to the streets with his merchandise like he has done for many years.

In the process, he has been defying the directive to stay at home. For him, staying at home is unthinkable. "I have to go out every day. It's the only means for providing for my family," he says.

While he makes an average of between Sh1,500 and Sh2000 a day, the sales have dipped to about Sh300. This means foregoing some meals. When the Nation caught up with him in Chieko, he had been wandering all day without luck.

"There have been few people on the streets lately. You could sell a single item all day. For now I'm just working to feed them. There's little to save at this time," he says.

His job may be strenuous, earning him just enough to get by, but Mr Kiteng'u would choose toiling over the nightmare of starvation any day.

"Customers have to sample the goods. You don't know whether this person is infected or not. You just hope you'll be safe," he says.

POSSIBLE INFECTION

Fearing possible infection, most people are avoiding hawkers, which has affected sales. Should there be a total lockdown, Mr Kiteng'u would have just enough for a week.

Mr Alex Njoroge, a boda-boda rider in Sunton estate, is already feeling the heat after one week of his customers working remotely. His income has taken a tumble from the daily Sh1,500 to less than Sh500. Slightly more than a week in this crisis, he has already raided his savings to keep his family going.

"My wife operates a small kiosk but we had to close it for safety. I'm now the only provider for our household," says the 25-year-old father of one.

"I withdrew some of the savings and bought essentials, such as flour, rice and cooking oil. These can take us for up to a month."

In about a month, his family would be stretched beyond their limit. "I can't afford to pay rent for two months this way. We have to go back to work as soon as possible," he offers.

The rider says there's little to do to stay safe since the nature of his business doesn't allow him to observe guidelines issued by the government. He and his fellow riders have sanitisers for their customers that they offer at Sunton bus stop.

SANITISE

"A customer may sanitise, but there are no two ways of sitting on a motorbike. To avoid contact, most people are preferring to walk for short distances," he says.

For Mr Charles Kenyanya, a casual labourer, things are getting tougher. He works at construction sites, spending nearly all his daily income on food and rent.

Without any specialised skills, he earns Sh600. "I don't have much savings. This job is unpredictable. There are times I go for a week without work. When I'm not working, we spend whatever money we had set aside. This way, saving becomes difficult," says Kenyanya.

His biggest concern is a possible lockdown and the ramifications this would have on his family. "If the construction is stopped, my family would starve. There's little hope," he says.

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