Slum life in time of coronavirus

Beatrice is boarding a bus with her two children to upcountry, where she hopes they will be safe.

In Summary

• About 2.5 million slum dwellers in 200 settlements in Nairobi, 60% of city population.

• Kijiji Southlands slum residents say crowding, water scarcity and garbage are exposing them to coronavirus.

Kibera slum in Nairobi.
Kibera slum in Nairobi.

Beatrice Njoki is well-aware of the coronavirus risks but the weapons to protect her family — isolation and sanitation — are a  mirage.

A gust of wind sends a pungent smell from a heap of garbage directly into the tiny windows of the hundreds of iron sheet shacks, all built closely together most sharing a wall. Some have no windows.

Sometimes 10 people live in a single room. Most go out to work or try to find work every day. Colds and flu and cholera spread fast.

She was escorting her children to board a matatu to Murang’a when we met Njoki.

The hot red T-shirt made it easy to pick Njoki out from the small crowd gathered at the Murang’a bus station. She stood next to a cosmetic shop, holding a young boy’s hand on one hand, a bag on the other.

Behind her, stood a teenage girl dressed in jeans and a white top. Njoki kept lowering her head to hear what the boy was saying, exposing her brown coloured short hair.

“These are my two children, Charlene, my girl, is 15 and Alvin, is six,” she said placing her left hand on the boy’s head.

Njoki said she had decided to take the children home because, without a job, she would not be able to provide for them.

“Let them stay with my mother until this menace (coronavirus outbreak) leaves the country. Here they are very exposed to the risk and to be honest, I cannot manage to feed them,” she explained.

It’s the geography of an epidemic.

Life in Southlands Kijijini slums where Njoki stays with her two children has never been easy; but she told the Star nothing has ever been worse than this strange disease.

Njoki has twice lost all her belongings in unexplained fires, she has never had a stable job and all her odd jobs ended.

Sometimes she sleeps outside, holding her small baby close to her empty stomach but she says, she always knew future days would be better.

“I used to work in a pub before the government closed all the bars. Now I cannot get any job because no one is working during these times of the sickness,” she said.

“Even the families who used to call us to do their laundry are no longer calling; Either they are all at home and do it themselves, or they are keeping strangers away for fear of the coronavirus,” she said.

At Kijiji, you have to pay for everything —toilet, bathroom, water, garbage, even opportunities—yet most of us have been left without jobs,” Njoki said. “To use the toilet costs Sh10. There are at least six public toilets around here since our houses don’t have them. Most people bathe inside their rooms and then clean up. Very few houses have bathrooms and they are often shared by many people,” she said.

Njoki said she would sometimes go to Industrial Area to look for odd jobs in the companies operating there but high bus fares have made that impossible now.

“Matatus now charge Sh100 to town.  I would have to spend Sh200 to and fro, then walk to Industrial Area where work is not guaranteed,” she said.

“If you are lucky, you can get between Sh300 and Sh400 a day. If you are unlucky, you stare at the gates all day and go home poorer than when you left. That makes no financial sense and it is unsustainable,” she explained.

Njoki has absolutely no plan for survival. This helplessness, she said, is the main reason most of the people around her have put themselves at risk of contacting coronavirus, despite being aware of the dangers.

Kijiji Southlands slum residents queue to fetch water.
Kijiji Southlands slum residents queue to fetch water.

Kijiji Southlands slum is surrounded by the state-built Rubia estate, Onyonka estate, Civil Servants estate, Southland estate and privately-owned Park 1 & 2 estates. The slum is where  Phase Three of Park estate is supposed  to be built

The slum has been a centre of the conflict that has led to many fires that many clamis an arson ploy to grab the land whose ownership has been hotly contested since the 1970s.

However, today, the residents are only scared of one thing: A looming total lockdown that they all agree they are unprepared for.  How could they possible stock up on food? They don’t have the money because they don’t have work.

On Monday night, residents had to be dispersed by police after most of them poured out to complain about water scarcity, mountains of garbage and lack of food.

Njoko had just escorted her two children to board a matatu to the village in Murang’ a when we met.

She said the move was necessary so her family does not die from hunger. But if many people go country to ‘escape’, they may be carrying the virus with them.

“Coronavirus is scary. We go to bed scared of what is going to happen tomorrow, who is going to be infected. But at least we fall asleep. When you watch your children struggling to sleep on an empty stomach, when they wake you up at 4am asking if it is time to eat yet, then you cannot sleep,” she said tearfully.

The mother of two, who uses a button analogue mobile phone, thinks the decision to provide 4G internet to the population is a joke at this point.

She said most of the people at Kijiji do not have smartphones. Those who have would be reluctant to have their children use them because many try to conserve electricity during the day to reduce their bills.

“Food is what human beings need to survive, not the internet. If sleeping on a hungry stomach is a struggle, what about studying? These measures are clearly designed to protect a certain class in the society, it is not in our interest,” she said.

Njoki has been living in Kijiji since 1997. Her family moved there when she was in Standard 4 and after she got married, she continued staying there with her children.

She says she is accustomed to the difficult life in the slum but fear of the coronavirus is making the situation unbearable.

“Back then, water was not a problem. Today, things are different. On Monday, our MP Nixon Korir, after prolonged complaints, brought us a bowser of water that some people managed to get. It is survival of the fittest here,” she said.

Around the slum, there were many handwashing points fitted with a jerrican and soap to encourage the residents to maintain high standards of hygiene.  A number of those jerrycans were empty.

Kijiji chairperson Abdullahi Abdi said the county had promised to collect the garbage in the nearby field, but it never happened.

“We really need government intervention before this situation gets out of hand. Our main problem is water and garbage,” she said.

Abdi said many parents live from hand to mouth and daily leave their children to themselves as they go to look for food.

“Children are still playing outside because they are on their own when their parents go to work. They still insist on going close to the garbage in the field where they play.his puts them at great risk,” said Abdi.

A public health officer from the Health ministry fumigates City Market in Nairobi on March 19.
A public health officer from the Health ministry fumigates City Market in Nairobi on March 19.
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