Urban life

Nairobi’s dividing river

In our new column “Nowadays”, correspondents from developing countries report about daily life in their nations. Jedida Oneko gives an account of how local flooding makes life harder for householdhelpers.

By Jedida Oneko

When Emma Oricho crosses the Mbagathi River each morning to work, it is like crossing the river between the rich and the poor of Kenya. She lives in a ten square foot home made of corrugated sheets which she shares with her husband and nine year old daughter. She and many others cross the river from their shanty town to work as domestic workers, gardeners and watchmen in the homes of the wealthy in Karen, one of Nairobi’s plushest suburbs.

“I wake up before five, wash the dishes, clean the house and wash my daughter’s other school uniform before I make breakfast and get her ready for school”, Emma says. She then leaves at 6.00 a.m. for the 45 minute walk with her daughter to school. From there, she walks on and is ready to work at 8.00 a.m.

From April to June, her daily journey was even longer because of flooding. The river had swollen and she and many others had to walk further back and upstream to cross the river safely.

“We could not see the river bank or the rocks we usually step on to get across,” she says. “The first morning we found the river flooded, we watched a man give up nearly halfway through with the water higher than his shoulder and the water current too strong.”

The hapless man had tied his clothes in a plastic bag and thrown them to the opposite river bank, in hopes of having dry clothes once he was on the other side. Emma and her friends were running late for work and did not wait to see the man’s fate.

She was late for work that morning, and so were many others. “One of my friends was fired that morning,” she says. “Her boss told her that there are enough poor Africans who are willing to replace her.”

Emma also has a son. He is older than his sister and lives in the village with his aunt and uncle. “It is cheaper for him to go to school there,” she explains. The government introduced free primary education in Kenya in 2005, but parents must cover additional costs such as uniform, school lunch, security fees and so forth. These things are more expensive in Nairobi.

“In fact, even getting him a place in school here (Nairobi) would cost 10,000 shillings for admission,” she says. That sum is worth a little more than € 90. “I also had to have a desk made for him by a school selected carpenter for 2,700 shillings. The extra costs in the village are 3,000 shillings in total.”

Although Emma earns considerably more than other domestic workers, she struggles to cope with her monthly 12,000 shillings. Her husband is unemployed, so she has to pay for everything as well as send money to the village to support her son and her sister’s family. Her daughter was also diagnosed with sickle cell anaemia, so she also bears an extra medical burden.

On asking her whether she has hopes for a better economy and easier life with a new government in the upcoming elections scheduled for 2013, she sneers. Unflinchingly she says: “My employer is my government.”

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