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Poverty is defined by Joseph as “the situation where a person lacks the basic necessities that any human being ought to have”. Living in Kibagare, where even basic sanitation is absent, seems to fit his definition, yet several narrators believe life there is preferable to being in rural Kenya. Mercy, for example, says things are worse for her family in the country, where “money can scarcely be found at all”. It is better in Nairobi, she says, “where you can at least wash clothes for somebody and make some money”.

Although all narrators struggle to find enough money to meet their daily needs, they do not see ‘the poor’ as a homogenous group but are aware of and sensitive to different degrees of poverty. In Oloikotikok, Helen says life is hardest for those without land. Deborah believes that widows and orphans are the most disadvantaged. George, like many, says that women are poorer than men – “you can see them agreeing to sleep with somebody for just a little money”.

Indeed, George says he shouldn’t really call himself poor as: “I have my sight, my mouth, and hands to work with”. He states: “The method to deal with poverty is to educate people that poverty is not a disability as long as one is physically able.” Yet Lemaron, who has been disabled by polio, believes the worst off are the “mentally ill” and those who have simply “lost hope of getting out of poverty”. “I don’t feel like I am the poorest, since every day I am fighting poverty and encouraging myself to get out of it.”

The testimonies do show that any mental or physical disability generally brings further impoverishment. Lemaron is clearly unusual: his determination not to be held back by his weakened legs led him to defy convention and forge a livelihood as a hairdresser. His story contrasts with that of Alice, whose hands were badly burned, forcing her to give up work and survive by begging.

Pastoralists are disadvantaged too. Martha, speaking about Oloitokikok, says “…out of a hundred people only one is rich… the Kikuyus who live nearby are rich and they own big businesses… But the rest live by the grace of God. For the Maasai cattle are the source of wealth… Once the cattle die of disease, you remain poor.” Elias believes population growth has been a key factor in impoverishment of the Maasai: the land in the ’60s and ’70s could support the smaller numbers of people and livestock, he recalls, and life was “just about eating and sleeping”.

Corruption among political representatives and entrenched vested interests undermine people’s efforts to escape poverty on a daily basis. Joseph says the rich “despise” them and think of them as “thugs”. Yet, narrators say, the criminality of the rich – land-grabbing, for example – goes unpunished.


Poverty is a key theme of the Living with poverty: Kenya oral testimony project.


Alice: sleeping hungry

Deborah: widows have rights

Elias: cultural change

George: no jobs

Helen: poverty of war

Joseph: keeping optimistic

Lemaron: challenging discrimination

Martha: battling corruption

Mary: life of struggle

Mercy: completely forgotten

Nyiva: cardboard homes

Peter: search for work

Key themes






Self-help initiatives

Sanitation and health

Political representation


Crime and unrest



Homelessness and insecurity

Pastoralism and agriculture