One mother's struggle for survival in a Nairobi slum

Posted: 7 January 2003

Author: Rasna Warah

Author Info: Rasna Warah was,until recently, Editor of Habitat Debate, a publication of Habitat division of the UN Environment Programme. The latest issue of Habitat Debate, from which this article is taken, is devoted to Women Friendly Cities. See Habitat Debate

Kenya's capital city, Nairobi, hosts some of the most dense, unsanitary and insecure slums in the world. And women play a key role in attempts to improve things. Here, Rasna Warah tells the story of one woman's struggle to meet her family's needs in the Kibera slum settlement in Nairobi.

Slum dwellers constitute the majority of Nairobi's people: an estimated 60 per cent of the city's population of roughly 2.5 million live in such informal settlements.

Life there is not easy by any standards. As many as 1200 people live in one square hectare, mostly in mud and stick shacks no bigger than 10X10 feet.

Provision of basic services is extremely scant or non-existent. Hundreds of people can end up sharing one toilet. A recent enumeration exercise in a Nairobi slum showed that the toilet to person ratio was 1:500. Nairobi slumBuying water is a daily activity among slum women.© Justo N.CasalThe lack of water and sanitation has a significant impact on the quality of women's lives. Slum women spend a large part of their lives fetching or looking for water. Also, unlike men, they cannot use open spaces to relieve themselves, so the lack of toilet facilities is an enormous disadvantage.

Escaping a bad marriage

Take the case of Mberita Katela, who arrived in Kibera, Nairobi's largest slum, from the impoverished Kitui Muingi district in 1980. Mberita left home, she says, to escape a bad marriage and to earn a living in the city.

For the past 22 years, Mberita has lived and worked in Kibera's notorious Laini Saba section, the densest and poorest part of the slum, which houses approximately 35,000 people. She earns her living as a hawker, selling sukumawika (in Swahili, literally translated as "pushing the week"), a leafy green vegetable that is also the staple diet of Kenyans, and cigarettes to residents in Laini Saba.

Her average income per day is KShs. 50 (US$ 0.70) or KShs. 1500 (US$ 21) per month. The money is barely enough to feed her daughter and two grandchildren, who live with her in her tiny 10X12 feet shack.

Mberita's house, for which she pays KShs. 500 (US$ 6) per month, is frugal, even by slum standards. Inside, there are two beds, separated by curtains, a small table, and four stools. These are her worldly possessions.

Her daughter, who is in her late teens, sleeps on one of the beds with her two children, while Mberita sleeps on the other. Mberita's five other children, who are all adults, do not live with her.

Her son, who is married with two children, lives in Kitui Maingi. But he is not doing very well. Every year, Mberita sends him Kshs. 700 (US$ 9) so he can pay school fees for his children.

An early start

Mberita's day begins at 5 a.m. when she takes the matatu (public minibus) to the market, where she buys her daily supply of sukumawiki. Almost half her monthly income (Kshs. 25 (US $ 0.30) goes towards paying transport costs to and from the market.

At 7.30 a.m, she returns home to cook a breakfast of tea and porridge for her grandchildren, neither of whom attend school. At 8 a.m., she is open for business. She sets up her sukumawiki stall near her house and waits for customers.

In the afternoon, Mberita leaves her daughter in charge of the stall and returns home to clean the house and wash clothes. But it is not so easy. Everyday, she has to walk about 300 metres to the water tank installed by Maji na Ufanisi, a local NGO, where she buys water for Kshs. 2 for a 20-litre jerrican.

There is no water tap in or near her house, nor is there any electricity. And although the pit latrine that Mberita and her family use is only a few steps outside her front door, it is shared by about 100 people. The stench of raw sewage not only permeates her house, but the entire neighbourhood.

At 5 p.m., when a large proportion of Kibera's working residents return home, Mberita begins her cigarette-selling rounds outside the pubs and restaurants in the vicinity. Then, at around 7.30 pm, she returns home to prepare supper.

Joining a community project

Recently, Mberita added another activity to her day: as a member of the Water Committee of Ushirika na Usafi, a Laini Saba community cooperative supported by Maji na Ufanisi, she now spends some of her mornings attending Committee meetings.

Mberita is part of a self-sustaining cooperative that sells water to Laini Saba residents, and uses the profits to start other community projects. When I met Mberita in her shack, her only wish was to leave the slum and live on a plot of land she can call her own.

Mberita hopes that the cooperative will one day save enough funds for a piece of land outside Nairobi, where she and other members will live.