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George: no jobs

George is a Luo from Nyanza province. Now living in Kibagare, he is 29 and still has no “real job”. He does casual work such as fetching water or charging batteries, and plays corrupt politicians at their own game, getting small ‘gifts’ of money from “councillors who are hungry [for votes]”.  He describes his life as “hard” but says he can’t really call himself poor as “there is no day I have ever slept hungry”.

Convinced that he was being promiscuous and would “bring home a disease,” his wife left him. He talks frankly about HIV among young men, who compete for the most beautiful women. He also recognises that women often sleep with men from financial need, but most “are just cheated…they get nothing”. His wife has now agreed to come back.

George complains that the gates separating Kibagare from the neighbouring rich suburb are closed at night. People are forced to take alternative unsafe routes and muggings are frequent. “Even if you are dying they will not open the gate,” he says, “…they think you have bad intentions.”

I am from Nyanza Province…Yala division. I was born in 1978… I reached primary Standard 4 and moved to Nairobi.

At the time [I moved to Nairobi], my father was working here [and] was very well known. [He] was a watchman in a school. He also drank alcohol! He was a very good-hearted man. There was nobody who would pass by that he did not offer a greeting to. As I loved him very much, I used to walk with him.

God called him in June of 1994 and people did a collection for me to be able to take his body home. Just imagine, all the way from here to the village upcountry – and it wasn’t a boss paying for it! The villagers here are the ones who contributed to my bus fare… My boss helped me [by paying] for the mortuary and the coffin.

So now I cannot live anywhere else, because it is here that my father was known, and people know me as his son…

“No real job”
When I arrived [in Nairobi] it was 1989… I had to repeat Standard 4, and continued until Standard 8, which I finished in 1993. After that I was able to join another school and life went forward – I went to a secondary school, which I finished in 1997… I had a sponsor who was an Irish Catholic priest…

When I left school I had a grade of C minus. I was unable to continue with my education… I have no one to depend on – my mother [had] separated from my father and found somebody else… When she remarried they were blessed with two other children, so I don’t really have a home there.

Life has been very hard, especially in this kijiji (Swahili for village, here meaning Kibagare) of ours… I haven’t had a real job since I left Form 4 – it’s 10 years later and I still haven’t succeeded in getting a real job. I just hope for a [reliable] job like construction work or something…

I’m forced to do any work that I find, like I help people by fetching their water. Other people who can afford to [might] send me to take their battery for charging, and then they give me something small – so that is what I do with my life…

“Now I live alone”
I have tried in life, and I have two children, and I even married their mother. I was blessed with a daughter and a son, but because of how life is, it became hard for me, so their mother had to run away from me with the children… Now…I live alone. The house is in poor condition…and it doesn’t even have a toilet.

I have to walk a long distance to go and relieve myself. Now something like a stomach problem, which has never happened to me, would definitely be very difficult… I would be forced to relieve myself in a paper bag…which is why you find something known as ‘flying toilets’ around here…

[My wife and I] were living here. Now she is working in Parklands (a Nairobi suburb) – she is a maid there… She is a Nandi and I’m a Luo, but our life together was not bad. The big problem was that she was not able to trust me… She thought I was being promiscuous… She feared that I would bring home a disease, and thus saw fit to leave because I did not have a job…

I wanted her to return, but…she was able to take the children to her maternal home. Last month I met up with her, and even tomorrow I am going to visit her – we have a matter pending.

When she left, it’s not like we fought… I had gone for a meeting of a group for Luos in Kangemi… When I am caught up with problems, they can contribute something for me until I go upcountry, or they take me to hospital and help my…family, including my wife and children…

[That day] I left her washing clothes… I returned to find that she was not here. At first I wondered which thief it could be… Even the TV had been taken. She had taken her clothes and also mine, the radio. She also took money that I had put aside for spending, the post office book. Life really changed.

“Blood is thicker than water”

So I decided to report “the theft”. I went and reported it at the nearest police station. They asked if I knew where my wife had gone. I said I had an idea, and we went there together. But she was clever – she took the things to a friend’s house and not to where she was staying. When…we questioned her she completely denied everything…

When she did that, the police wanted to take her – just to scare her – to the police post to spend two or three days there so that they could make her confess. But you know, blood is thicker than water, and so I told the police that there was no point in doing that. If she refused to confess, it was OK – God would help me recover.

Saving for a reconciliation

I did not expect [this to happen]. I relied on her – even for cooking – it was she who did the cooking. I cannot even cook ugali (maize meal porridge, staple food) – when I try to cook it, it’s terrible! Now, I eat food in a local hotel, and in the café the food is practically inedible. It lacks vitamins…and who knows if the conditions are clean?

When I spoke with her recently she said she was prepared to return, so I was collecting money to go and get her – which is what I’m searching for every day. Like now – because this year is an election year, and we are targeting councillors who are hungry [for votes] – when we know somebody is running for councillor, we have a ‘business’ as a group.

We find that man and tell him “Mzee (respectful term for older man), you know we are behind you and we have votes and ID cards – it is only you [we support].” And you know sweet words seduce the snake out from its hole… When we go [like this] he will not leave us without [giving us] something…

But remember that our vote is a secret. Furthermore, once we cast our vote, we are no more use [to them]. So we…will judge somebody on their actions. There is no point [in voting for] somebody who is lying… [who] after five years is found not to have done any development…

“There are no jobs”

In Kibagare there are many problems. Poverty develops because there are no jobs – that is a big factor, because it affects every family in this village of ours… You know that people must live together, but you can find that somebody has been lucky enough to get a job, and then their boss has another opening and will ask that person to find somebody to fill that position. [But] instead of the person coming here to find someone [from those] they are living among, they get somebody they are related to…

There is hatred among us as residents of this village, in that there is no peace, and that is another factor that is bringing poverty to [Kibagare]. Also…if you look at the living standards here, the condition is not good at all. You see that we even lack water. In terms of sanitation there is nothing.

Lack of money is [also] contributing to many bad things, like the taking of drugs [which] has become a problem here… Drugs are used a lot, and many are harmful. But it depends on how you use them. Bhang (marijuana) is not so bad…

[The problem with] alcohol is very serious, in that it is not always the normal type, [it can be] the kind which harms people (strong, illegal home brew, often laced with industrial alcohol). I have never seen it, but I hear that one cup is added to 5 litres of water, and if you drink it you can become drunk and even die. Like just recently, a friend drank it before it was diluted. That guy got diarrhoea [so severely] he went to hospital… Ever since then he has drunk regular alcohol.

To be honest, I do not use intoxicating drugs. I drink alcohol but I don’t drink traditional brews…even if it has been said that beer helps with digestion [laughs]. Now I have declared my life will be the way I want it to be. It’s not like I drink until I can’t control myself.

The first time I drank, I was in Form 3, in a secondary boarding school. We were on half-term and some of my friends were from rich families… They are the ones who bought me alcohol. In Kibagare…going to town to enjoy themselves is unlikely [among young people] because their income is really low.

“There is too much promiscuity”
AIDS is a dangerous disease and people should protect themselves. In the first place, it has no cure… [And] we have a mentality which is: if I am seeing a certain girl and she is good and beautiful and she is of a rival neighbourhood, even if she has [the disease], every young man will try to go with her. It’s bad…

This disease catches my friends a lot, especially the young men. Because, for example, if a guy sees I have gone with you, he will try too and you will agree. So it comes about that the girl has gone with everybody.

So that is the main problem we have in this village… there is too much promiscuity! Another thing is the lack of money. I can afford to be a father, I have income and I have a wife, but there is that greed – even I can’t tell you where it comes from! If I want to make a girl happy, I must show her money, I will have to spend money so that we can sleep together, and this is a hard thing.

Rich-poor relations
The people of Loresho (the neighbouring rich suburb) are of a very high class and high standards, and we are of low standards. When you come [into Kibagare] you see those gates. So you see, they are taking us as their enemies. Whatever happens in there – let’s say a theft occurs – they will think it’s done by the people of this village. …

The gate is a boundary. To cross over to the other side one must give a good excuse, like you’re going to report something at the police post. Without that you will not be allowed to pass. And when standing at someone’s gate to see them, you will be asked very many questions. If there are more than two of you, you will be escorted to the gate of the house you are going to… The people of our side and theirs don’t get along.

Normally, they close the gate at 8pm sharp, irrespective of who you may be. Even if you are dying they will not open the gate – they think you have bad intentions towards the tycoons of Loresho.

Theft and poor security

One must get home safely [at night], so we prefer the road to Kibagare through the gate. It has street lights and there are watchmen who provide security – you know that someone cannot attack you, because the [watchmen] would come out to see what is going on. So the gate route is safe.

But on the other road, it’s unsafe… Just imagine, you’re returning from a job with an Indian or on a construction site – and young people have to make themselves happy, so maybe you go to drink a little – but all the while you’ve kept some [of your pay] aside. Then you meet somebody [on the road] there and they steal it from you…

I have heard about [watchmen asking for bribes], but it has never happened to me. I have stayed here for some time and the watchmen know me. They say the time is wrong and they cannot allow me to pass into Kibagare – but because they know me, they don’t want to steal from me. They want me to use my head. So I see that I know this person and it’s no use my bribing them… I just go and sleep in Kangemi. I hear they ask for 20 shillings [from others].

The security [here] is really bad. I remember in December last year there were a lot of robberies, even during the day… Because those boys responsible are from here, and even their mothers are from here, there is nobody who can defend you… In December, because the robberies had increased, the people of this area combined forces and arrested [three people]. Now they are in prison. One confessed and was sentenced to four years; two denied it and are still on remand.

“Women are poorer”

Poverty is when somebody has no forwards or backwards – a person who does not know what they will eat today, or where they will get their income. They have no future and no past.

I may call myself poor [but] I may not understand what others understand by being poor… What makes me say I am poor is the way I am living here right now. But there is no day I have ever slept hungry, so I would put myself in that category very half-heartedly… God has helped me: I have my sight, my mouth, and hands to work with, so it’s not so good to call myself poor…

Women are poorer [than men], because you can see them agreeing to sleep with somebody for just a little money. Just imagine, for 20 shillings a woman will sleep with someone and they don’t know their [HIV] status or how their life is, they don’t know where they were born, they don’t know where they were raised, they don’t know if he is a killer. And most women are just cheated, and after sleeping with them they get nothing. That’s why [I say] mostly it’s women who are affected by poverty…

“If I get a job my life will change”
For now, I feel like the poverty is slowly decreasing. You know, this village was demolished in 1990…and the houses were rebuilt using cartons and cardboard. But now the road has been made nicely, there is water, and toilets are available, even though they are very few. So that is how, in comparison with before, poverty has reduced.

The method to deal with poverty is to educate people that poverty is not a disability as long as one is physically able. As long as one has physical ability, everyone as a human being can find [a better life] if they seek it – as long as they can find a job to help themselves… If I find a job I can do it. I am sure I will benefit because I will live with my family [again]. If I get a job my life will change…

I liked geography, history and civics [at school] but subjects like chemistry were too hard for me. That’s why I got a C minus; that was what brought me down… I was hoping to be a doctor because doctors are paid well, and when I was in primary school I was good at science and agriculture. But in secondary school I found that [science] was hard… [Now] my age does not allow [me to return to school]… It would be better to go to college and learn certain [technical] work…so when a job comes up I can take it.

My daughter is three years old and she has not yet started school, while my son will turn one on April 13th… I cannot say that I have planned their future, but by God’s grace – because it is God who gives – if I am able to get a job [it will be OK]… even now I have already kept some money aside for their future. And if [their mother] comes back to me, I don’t see their future being so bad.

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

George: no jobs 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