Monday, July 15, 2013


There is something horrific about it. A grandmother in her mid-sixties (she isn't sure when she was born, official GoK record-keeping being what it was back then) is the primary caregiver for a seven-year old boy, his mother having abandoned him with his grandmother when he was an infant. They live in a location that has seen more tribal violence over the past ten years than any other location in the Capital. Their home is a ten-feet-by-ten-feet mabati hut without running water or electricity (even the "poached" electricity available is too expensive for her to manage.) Theirs is one of three thousand or so similar "houses." It is their bedroom, sitting-room, kitchen, toilet and bathroom.

Now I want you to imagine the indignities visited on this small family. Their hovel - that is what it is - is in the middle of their location; narrow lanes from the outskirts of the location lead to their front door. The lanes - muddy, slippery footpaths, really - are steep and require deftness to navigate. The lanes pass through "hostile" territory and the grandmother and her charge are frequently the recipients of epithets, if they are lucky, or stones, when the national politics is tense. Because of her advancing age, diminishing strength and sight, it is the boy who has to carry the tools of her trade for (she sells chapatis at twenty shillings each, on the main road to the location) in addition to his school books (which are pitifully few; it is all she can afford in addition to the three-hundred shilling "fees", the school uniform and at least one meal for the boy in the evening; there is no question of a breakfast for these two). Sometimes it rains and she slips and falls. She has been fortunate - no broken bones. 

She is careful - there are no overt displays of "wealth" with her. She and the boy are in clean but tattered clothes worn in several layers. She does not have any electronic devices; not even the cheap kabambe mobiles popularized by a telecoms company. She does not own a paraffin lamp - paraffin is too expensive to be wasted on lighting. She is lucky to own two "energy-saving" wood-burning jikos; one she leaves in the custody of a watchman (for a small fee) near where she makes and sells her chapatis. The other is the principal source of heat, cooking energy and lighting in her ten-by-ten hovel.

When it comes to the small things, it is tragic. She is mother, father and grandmother to the boy. She must ensure that he is bathed, fed and clothed each day. She must sacrifice her health for his; she has not been to a doctor, leave alone a dentist, since the boy came to live with her. His medical care is becoming increasingly expensive, eating an ever larger share of her earnings because the environment in which the boy lives -exists - in has become ever more toxic. She is no forced to seek "healthcare" from unlicensed, barely-trained "pharmacists".

Do you know how the flying toilet works? Do you really? It is not as cutely quaint as you might imagine or as the slum-tourism promoters would have you believe. You need a bucket - one whose sole purpose is a bowel movement. You need spare newspapers - toilet paper is a luxury you cannot afford. You need plastic bags you have scavenged during the day. And you need the person you are sharing your hovel with to turn their back to preserve your last shred of dignity. Then you must wait for the dead darkness of the night in order to "dispose" of the "toilet" without being seen. Now imagine that while you are doing all this, you cannot be sure that, because you do not have running water, you have not contaminated the little stored water you have in your hove, or the small store of food that is preserved under your bed.

If you are not horrified by this description, then you are beyond all appeals to humanity or kindness and your further readership is unnecessary. But if you are, and you've seen what I've seen, heard what I've heard, then it is time for you to act. We cannot continue sniggering at the stories of slum tourism as if they say nothing about us as a nation or a a people. We cannot shrug our shoulders every time the men and women we sent to Parliament contrive and connive to rob us blind. We cannot turn a blind eye every time we witness the "food vendors" by the side of the road being rounded up for selling without valid permits or for being vagrants (even though the Vagrancy Act has been repealed these many years.) We cannot sit idly by while our governor goes out of his way to woo fat-cats to Nairobi for projects for the 15% who have brick-and-mortar homes with electricity, running water, paved roads, street lighting and security. The President has decided to relocate his office to the stately State House. Perhaps it has something to do with the constant, relentless stab at his conscience when he witnesses the thousands upon thousands of indignities the hundreds of thousands of the resident of this not-so-fair City continue to suffer at the hands of class of people fo whom he is their undisputed leader.

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