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The frustration many narrators feel at the obstacles they encounter when they attempt to improve their circumstances is a powerful thread in these accounts. The indifference they experience from those appointed to represent their interests leaves them “voiceless”, says Martha.

Several feel that the educated are in a far stronger position to challenge vested interests. “People without education suffer violation of their rights,” says Deborah. Yet the cost of secondary education was putting it out of reach of many of the poor and this, she says makes it easier for them to be pushed aside by the rich, even in development projects: “We poor people [need] to be involved in all development projects so that the rich do not appropriate our space.”

Yet fighting for inclusion in development initiatives and decisionmaking takes time and, as Joseph points out, they are totally preoccupied by their survival each day: “We also wanted to be included in the funds for development…Yet we have our families to look after and they would go hungry if we kept on fighting to be included in such things…”.

Corruption and nepotism also put help out of reach. Martha is unable to access the school bursaries that are in theory available to help families like hers. She explains that those in charge “tell you that the funds aren’t yet available and that it is only limited, and at other times you are told that it has already been distributed. You are taken round in circles until you decide to stop asking.”

Many also feel powerless to challenge the stereotype of the poor that wealthier citizens maintain. The Kibagare narrators say that wealthy occupants of the neighbouring suburb of Loresho characterise them as lawless and thieving. George says “they are taking us as their enemies” and that any theft that takes place in Loresho is attributed to the residents of Kibagare.

Such attitudes are not just demoralising; they have economic implications too, points out Nyiva, by undermining their job opportunities. If she applies for a job, “I’m forced to lie, because if I say I’m from Kibagare they will not employ me.”

With so many obstacles in their path, it is perhaps not surprising that several narrators highlight the corrosive effect of long-term poverty. Lemaron describes how one of the greatest impediments to development is that people lose hope and come to “believe poverty is their way of life and nothing can change”.


Powerlessness 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