• Corona ended Matuga's teaching career at a private school in Trans Nzoia county
• She decided to go back to Eldoret town and eke out a living as a shoe shiner
Rising unemployment following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has dimmed the future of job seekers countrywide.
But rather than moan about it, Berly Matuga, 25, has rolled up her sleeves and gotten her hands dirty in the shoe shine business.
You will see her smiling face in Eldoret town as you pass by Zion Mall building opposite the refurbished Uasin Gishu District Hospital.
Matuga, who has a year-old baby girl, was teaching at a private secondary school in Kitale, Trans Nzoia county, when the government closed all learning institutes.
It was only two years since she'd graduated from Moi University, where she did Education, majoring in English and Literature. After her dream career was cut short, she had to find an alternative means of living.
“I went back to Eldoret town and took up shoe shining to eke out a living,” Matuga said.
Her husband, whom she'd schooled with at Moi University, repairs watches in town to supplement their income.
No one believed in Matuga when she started out. Even her peers wondered why she'd ventured into a male-dominated field.
She says just like any other business, the first month was very challenging to her. Male customers doubted her ability and skills to do a good job based on her gender.
Some customers openly rejected her and instead demanded to be served by her male counterparts. But she vowed not to give up on her new trade.
Matuga kept a smile on her face and gave her customers a warm welcome to her stall. Slowly but surely, she won them over and even became their favourite.
“On a single day, I can attend to more than 40 customers, and on a good day, I make Sh700," Matuga said.
"Initially, male customers did not trust that I could do a good job. But with time, they started flocking my tent on learning that I was equal to the task like my male counterparts."
At her workplace, Matuga's colleagues, who are all male, describe her as good-hearted, humorous and hardworking.
Ishmael Mwambu said, “When she joined us, we were just workmates but as time went by, she turned into one of our good friends, and we have been helping her where necessary in terms of tools of the trade.”
Mwambu added that since she is a woman, most men prefer to have their shoes brushed by her.
Matuga does not mind as it helps her put food on the table, which was an uphill task when she lost her job.
"I contemplated going back home in the village in Siaya. Staying in town without a job was stressing and I had to take any job that would come by to provide food for my baby," Matuga said.
She used to earn Sh12,000 as a teacher, but was left jobless for two months after schools were closed.
"This forced me to return to Eldoret to put up with a friend who is also a shoe shiner and was also a student at Moi University," she said.
"She advised me to join her in shoe shining. I was adamant at first and thought, 'What would people say about me?'
She decided to give it a try because staying at home the whole day was not easy. She had bills and a child to feed and "when you are in need, friends tend to keep off because they perceive you as a burden".
Her day starts at 8am until 5pm in the evening. At first she had no idea of which shoe polish to apply to what type of shoes, but her male colleagues taught her.
"Unlike women, men are easy to work with and at times they even share polish when I have less money to buy my own," she smiles as she removes a rag to wipe her client's shoes.
She has established her own clients, who regularly come to have their shoes cleaned by her.
"I remember the day I messed up my client when I applied cream wrongly. He was offended but I apologised and he understood," Matuga said.
When it rains during the day, she and her colleagues are forced to close work and take shelter until the rains end.
During weekends, the demand is low and she can go home with only Sh200. At times she is tempted not to come to work.
Matuga hails from Suba Mfangano highlands from a family of three. She is the firstborn. Her father died in 2006, and her mother has been their source of strength.
The mother is a nurse in Suba and worked single handedly to ensure her children pursue their education. "My brother is currently in Kenya Methodist University and is in 2nd year, while my younger sister is in Form 4 at Nyamira Girls," Matuga said.
"All along my mother has encouraged us and taught us Christian values, to always carry ourselves well."
The government has been giving conflicting messages on the reopening of schools. Most recently, the Education ministry directed teachers to report back, only for President Uhuru Kenyatta to announce schools will remain closed.
But since Matuga's was a private school, she says she will continue with shoe shining.