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Kenya is poor, just not poor enough

Many in Kenya live in poverty, yet the economy's success means it continues to service international debts. While its neighbours' payments are cancelled, some fear it will stop the country from progressing further.

In East Africa's biggest market, making poverty history lacks the glamour of Live8, as John Kamau discovered

Every morning 46-year-old Lucy Mwihaki walks through the crowded alleys of Nairobi to her wooden stall in Gikomba market, the largest second-hand clothes open-air market in East Africa.

Mwihaki doesn't know much about the G8 summit in Scotland or the campaign to wipe out Africa's debt, but recently a Catholic priest in the sprawling Dandora slums, where she lives, 12 kilometres east of Nairobi, handed her three Make Poverty History posters.

She has prominently pinned one of those in her stall. "It means we work hard and make poverty history," she says. "Even the president said that lazy people have no place here". Some of her fellow traders burst into laughter, others nod in agreement.

A single mother of three boys, she dropped out of secondary school and Mwihaki has little information on how much Kenya pays its international debtors and how it affects her life. "Hiyo ni mandeni ya serikali," she says in Swahili – "those are government's own debts".

She made her own protest against poverty at the ballot box when she voted for President Mwai Kibaki three years ago. "We voted for change but our lives have remained the same," she says. "We need better stalls in order to attract customers but where is the money?"

Kenya is making money, the economy grew by just over four per cent last year and it has been regularly paying off its foreign loans. But that is not enough to trickle down and have noticeable effect on poor people like Mwihaki. What's more in this financial year alone, Kenya has set aside 87 billion Kenya Shillings (£58 million) to service its international debts, the equivalent of the total budget for health, agriculture and roads.

But it is not among the 18 developing nations whose debts will be cancelled at next week's G8 Summit because it has 'a sustainable debt burden' – in other words, it's not quite poor enough. That decision is provoking anger in powerful circles.

"It is counterproductive to penalize countries that have been faithfully servicing their debts only to come to the rescue of people who have failed meet their international obligations," says Professor Peter Anyang Nyongo, the country's minister for national planning and economic development.

"The G8 nations are missing the point. The issue is not whether Kenya or any other African country is able to service its debts. The problem is that these countries which have been left out will not be able to meet their millennium development goal to halve extreme poverty by 2015," says Houghton Irungu, the head of Global Call to Action Against Poverty, a coalition of more than 100 NGOs across Africa.

Against this backdrop, Mwihaki's modest wish for better market stalls is unlikely to be granted and nor is the prospect of making poverty history. When the sales are good she gets at least 300 Kenya shillings a day, the equivalent of around £2, which is just enough to rent a single room in the slums and also feed her family. "Better than nothing," she says resignedly.

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07/01/2005

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