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Alice: sleeping hungry

Alice: 'We live in worry all the time.'

Disabled and suffering from TB, 35-year-old Alice, a Kikuyu who lives in Kibagare is forced to beg for a living. Survival is a real struggle. She had only four years of schooling and married young but her marriage was “a life of fighting” and didn’t last.

An accident with a cooking stove left her with severely burnt hands. Just as she was starting to recover she contracted TB: “My work came to an end.” She can’t afford to buy water, medicine, or the fruit and vegetables she has been told to eat to get over her illness.

Alice talks of the lack of sanitation and health care, of joblessness, drugs, rape, prostitution and theft. “Everyone is afraid of each other,” she says and the politicians only come “when they want us to elect them – when the elections come to an end, then we are forgotten completely!”

I was born here in this community and I am now 35 years old. I went to school until Standard 4, and then my father could no longer pay the fees… After that I lived by looking for casual labour here and there, until I saw that it was good for me to get married.

We got married when I was still young…We lived a life of fighting, quarrelling all the time, until I decided to leave him. I stayed with my husband for six years but we were not able to have any children, not even one. …His family did not like me because I had no children. I decided to go back home – I left him.

“I sleep hungry”

Afterwards I found some casual labour in agriculture. I worked for a short while and then we lost our jobs. I found another job, in KANU youth (youth wing of Kenya African National Union). I worked there for a while, and again the employment came to an end. [So] I started doing [other] small jobs here and there, [such as] growing flowers… When I was getting lots of small jobs was when my dad was looking for work for me – he was working in agriculture – but later my dad died from an illness.

To tell you the truth, I began going round begging for food at people’s houses after my dad died. This was because I had been burnt, as you can see. Now I have no strength in my body, I do not have a permanent place to live and I don’t have the ability to look after myself. Those I would have depended on for help are my sisters, and [two of them] have also passed away.

One sister left behind four children and the other three… My mother is ill from time to time. Of my brothers and sisters [who are still alive] — none have a job. There is only one sister who is married, and we cannot all depend on her.

Right now [a friend of my mother’s] has helped me with a house, but now she is getting upset because I am unable to pay for it. When I am feeling a little bit better I go to Loresho (neighbouring wealthy suburb) and beg from different houses. Sometimes I meet good Samaritans who help me with maybe 10 shillings, which I use to buy food. Other times I sleep hungry.

“Work came to an end”

To tell you the truth, I was very pretty, I was not born with any disability, it was a stove that blew up and burnt me when I was cooking my lunch. It was about 1pm… [crying]… When I was burnt, I lost consciousness and found myself in hospital in a lot of pain. In hospital I spent a lot of time having blood and fluid [transfusions]. I was not burnt everywhere on my body, but the parts that did get burnt are the ones that do the important work, like my hands — see? I do not have strength in my neck any more; I cannot carry water…

My sister, I have many problems. Sometimes my whole body swells up, but I cannot go to hospital, and I do not have money for the medicine the doctor tells me to buy, so diseases plague me very much.

Before, I used to do small jobs — washing clothes, planting grass, farming people’s vegetable gardens. And when I got paid I’d give myself my daily bread. When I felt a little bit better I left the hospital and I was able to start some work, selling small goods for 10 shillings a time. I had a little strength then, but after a while I began to suffer from TB. I was treated again…for months… Then my legs swelled up again because of the injections. My work came to an end.

“Sometimes problems overwhelm me”

After I was discharged [from hospital], a friend of my mother’s saw that [I had] many problems – that is why she helped me with that small house to sleep in. Even after that [support] I still have many problems, because I need…to eat the food that the doctor prescribed, but I cannot get it…

My mother has no money to feed me – she cannot even buy the medicine for me… I have been instructed by the doctor to eat fruit like oranges, pawpaw, pineapple and different types of vegetable [coughing]. I have not eaten even one of these a day… Truthfully the sickness is getting worse, because I do not have enough food.

A big problem is now the swelling of my legs and my aching ribs – for three weeks I have been in excessive pain [coughing]… If a small hospital was built for poor people like me, I would have already taken medicine, and I would have been able to give you the full story without disturbing you like this [with my coughing]… The hospital is near Kangemi, and without having money, going there is useless, because those doctors prescribe medicine but you have to go and buy it…

[And] where will I get the money even to buy water for washing? One container costs 2 shillings, and even if I buy it, finding someone to carry it for me is hard because even they require money – about 5 shillings just for carrying it for me. This water is from a tap near here – some people poked a hole in the piped water supply so that they could sell the water. The only other water is in the ditches leading from that river, which carries refuse from the rich people [in Loresho]… That is why I lack even one drop of water to drink. Sometimes problems overwhelm me.

Poverty kills
The house that I sleep in is causing me to become sicker because it has many holes – you see? …It’s cold! Cold! Because of the cold in our houses my brother’s child died – just like that – that was last year. Again, in January this year (2007), my youngest brother’s son died… These are the problems that we have in our kijiji (Swahili for village, here meaning Kibagare) – death all the time…

I live by myself because the house that my mother lives in is very small. Only two beds fit in it – my mother’s, and the other one is for my brother’s child… She does not live near me, but we are [both in Kibagare]. Near me there is the woman who is my mother’s friend, and she is the one who has helped me many times.

Here everyone understands my poverty, it is just that they are suffering too – they have a lot of compassion. In the past the Catholic Church was helping me, but they stopped… If I could find someone to pay for a house and give me enough food I would be fine.

Disease has many causes

Here in the village there are very many problems. One cannot even breathe clean air because people are accustomed to leaving faeces everywhere. There is no compost pit to dispose of dirty water and trash… we do not have toilets at all! We had several that were built by KNH (Kenyatta National Hospital). When they got spoilt, they were demolished, so there is dirt everywhere and…disease. Honestly, many people die in this kijiji…because of the filth. When it rains our houses flood…

Prostitution is also rampant. Girls give birth when they are very young, and they are forced to drop out of school early and to enter the business of prostitution. Because of prostitution, sexually transmitted diseases have spread and damaged us a lot – there is a lot of AIDS.

This poverty, the sickness, they overwhelm me. If we could get help, the diseases would reduce. We have lived with problems our whole lives here [coughing]. I do not know if there is the means to build us better houses and enough toilets.

“Everyone is afraid of each other”

Those gates are not for security, they are there to separate us from the rich people of Loresho. When it gets to 8pm no one is supposed to pass through there. If you are late you will have to sleep outside – [even] if you have someone ill with you, you are forced to wait outside until the morning.

The rich of Loresho and the people of Kibagare have had many disagreements because of those gates, but we have not yet found a solution. I do not know when we will find one. We would ask our government [to] advocate on our behalf so we can find a place to pass through the barrier. Those rich people blame us all the time. They assume that we are thieves when honestly it is just that we have many problems. And if there are thieves, they steal from each other here in the village.

The state of security here is very bad because everyone is afraid of each other, even their own children. Young people use drugs and they rape their children and even their mothers. If you have a daughter, you are forced as the mother to go everywhere with her when she is not in school, because you cannot even trust her own father. Illegal brews like chang’aa (powerful home-brewed alcohol) are used very much.

Change is hard without employment

This situation is very scary, especially for someone like myself, who doesn’t have strength and is sick… Parents have also suffered from theft a lot. You will find that a young man who has smoked marijuana will not differentiate between his mother and someone else. He will snatch her bag and when he gets home, he’ll find that it was his mother’s…

From time to time [the police] patrol the area. [But] when they leave, because the perpetrators are just here in this community, the crimes just continue. The problem is that local boys commit these crimes and their parents hide it. [And] honestly, even if they want to change it is hard, because they don’t have any work to do. Maybe if the government found them work, then they would truly change.

“We live in worry all the time”
Honestly, I don’t know if our government understands that there are people living in this community because [if they did] they would have come to see us. We only see them when they want us to elect them – when the elections come to an end, then we are forgotten completely! Problems like lack of water, and houses – they would have built us houses [if they had really understood].

With the situation we’re in now, we do not want fairy tales, we want quick results. If we don’t get them, there will be a time when you will come looking for me and you’ll not find me or anyone else. Give this kijiji (Swahili for village, here meaning Kibagare) a few years – you will not find even one person alive if we continue to live in these conditions.

There are church organisations that have been helping children with education and food – those children who have been given sponsors. People who do not have children are not given any help… It is the same for orphans in secondary school – I would like to get some help, together with those orphaned children. Because my mother is old and she does not have the ability to pay school fees [for her orphaned grandchildren].

Please advocate for us – ask the government to look for a proper place for us to live so that we can build good houses. Because all the time we are told that the homes we have now will be demolished, and so we live in worry all the time.

This interview has been specially edited for the web and cut down by more than half. Some re-ordering has taken place: square brackets indicate ‘inserted’ text for clarification; round brackets are translations / interpretations; and dots indicate cuts in the text. The primary aim has been to remain true to the spirit of the interview, while losing questions, repetition, and confusing or overlapping sections.

Project

Alice: sleeping hungry is produced as part of the Living with poverty: Kenya oral testimony project.

Testimonies

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

Introduction

Employment

Education

Powerlessness

Development

Self-help initiatives

Sanitation and health

Political representation

Gender

Crime and unrest

HIV and AIDS

Water

Homelessness and insecurity

Pastoralism and agriculture

Poverty