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Mary: life of struggle

Mary is a Kikuyu single mother with three children who farms a small plot of land in Oloitokitok. She lives a subsistence existence – “You find little profit; you find food just for your stomach.” Her crops have been affected by drought and she is finding it hard to pay for her children’s secondary education.

Inadequate education, unemployment, men’s drunkenness, “corruption” of the young, vulnerability to prostitution and unplanned pregnancies contribute to a vicious cycle of poverty, she says. The “chief visible reason” is AIDS, which has affected “the people who had the strength to work”. Orphans cannot be “taken care of in the right way”.

Mary is positive about some development efforts: she has access to water, there is a hospital nearby, and church and women’s groups make a difference. Lack of education and dependence on agriculture are her main concerns: “We have just farming… We do not have any technology that we can use to expand our horizons.”

I came to Oloitokitok township when I was a small child. So I have grown up here. We came from Kiambu to rent land… Later my parents were a bit more successful and got a small place there to build, and we went on with life like that.

The state of people [here] is very low, compared to other towns. Because here we live in struggle, we live a life of struggle. We look for land, and when one farms…if there is rain, you will get a little food to eat, but it will not satisfy your needs.

We have many problems educating our children, trying to make our affairs expand… Because you find that the land we are farming is very small. You find little profit; you find food just for your stomach. But [to provide for] other needs like education, and the means to continue with life…to run a business…there is nothing.

“I pay for their learning through struggle”

In this town we have [about five] government schools… We thank the government [for free primary education] because they have uplifted our lives… However, when it comes to secondary schools we have a problem because the food [we produce], we get that food for our consumption [rather than for sale] – but the requirements for secondary school are high. They have increased to a level where the parents cannot bear the costs for their child, even though they have passed the primary school exam…

You will find that in [secondary] school, one minute the child is learning and the next minute they have been chased away. When they get to Form 3 they drop out, or they get to Form 4 [and] you find that their parent cannot afford to pay for the exam… Right now I have a child of that kind in Form 4. I have been defeated trying to pay for the exam on my own, and the teacher is telling me that the final date for payment will be the 15th…

“Sometimes I sleep hungry”

If I am unable to pay, if I don’t find someone close to me who can help me, maybe my child will miss that exam… [So] even if you have put in the effort to get your child as far as Form 3 or 4, but then they cannot continue, you will find that they cannot support themselves [afterwards]… You have been born into poverty, you have given birth to a child, and they continue in that poverty…

I am a single mother… I have three children… I have tried hard, I have done casual labour, I have gone to farms. I have gone to other places like this lodge, where I’ve been given a temporary job for a day, two days or two weeks… When I am given 1,000 shillings, I take it to their teacher and tell him to keep it. So I pay for their learning through struggle… Sometimes I sleep hungry so that I can tighten my belt and see 500 shillings going towards their schooling.

Bursaries and funding: “you will find there is nothing”

There is news of bursaries being given by the government. We hear about them from a distance, but someone you can approach to show you the way – that person we do not have.

The teachers will explain…and they will even give you the bursary form to fill in. You go to the education office and they will give you other forms to fill in and you will take them to the chief. It will be rubber-stamped… But in the end you will find there is nothing…

We have heard of things like the CDF (Constituency Development Fund); even the day before yesterday we were with our MP and he told us about things like that. But they don’t concern people like me, because I’m from upcountry (rural areas)… Maybe I do not know the [committee members]… It is not always easy for someone to announce “I have been chosen” as the head of something – they fear people’s reactions and misunderstandings.

People get together in [savings] groups in order to get certain loans. Now I do not know if these come from the church or from the government – that I do not understand. You will find that people will form groups of maybe 20 or 30, and then they get that loan. You will find somebody has expanded their farm, another has expanded their hotel business, another one has a shop…

Good developments

[But] there are various good things that have happened around Oloitokitok: things to do with the hospital; with the primary school and even secondary school. Things like water… In the ’70s we had a water problem, but this water pump has been here for several years… Water is pumped and goes up there to the District Officer’s office and then to a tank to be treated… So the water problem is not so great, apart from when the machine breaks down. You will find that some [other] areas are the ones with the problem…

There is security… Down there at the DO (District Office) we have officers of the government that do a good job, so we have enough security…. Here there is peace. Truthfully, we have not been overcome by…fighting. There is no crime…

We have our big hospital here, and there are others that are being opened further in, so we get treatment, it is not so bad… The doctors are there and they serve us sufficiently… When you go there they do not put you down, they tend to your problems… It’s just that one can fail to get to hospital because of a glitch – maybe transportation fails in this time of rains, or you cannot get a vehicle that will go there…

[Here] you do find that transport becomes difficult… Like the day before yesterday it rained, and the cars that we have here cannot make it in that mud. There are rivers that come down from those hills. The water flows down on to the road [and] ruins it… someone [may have to] sleep on the road for two, three days, until they can get to Nairobi or back here. There are many things like this that happen because our road is so bad…

“The trap” of HIV and AIDS

The chief visible reason [for poverty] at this time is these diseases that have emerged.  Things like AIDS, you will find they have affected the people who had the strength to work… many people are dying.

Yesterday…a father died, the mother has died and the eldest child has followed. You will find that maybe there is a grandmother left, who is trying her best to farm, but by bad luck even she dies. Those children are left alone – they do not have anyone to help them…they have entered the trap of that disease… Those [children] would have been helped in the past…they would have been taken care of in the right way.

The main cause that explains [the spread of HIV and AIDS] is the lack of work. Because a person who has nothing to do, at times they will enter into activities of pleasure – because everyone is looking for a way to live. There is no one who would not like to live well. Everyone would like to eat, drink, sleep well, but because that state eludes them and they have nothing [else] to do, they look for another person that will show them love, and in that way they enter into the trap, they expose themselves to those diseases… Because the stomach is demanding, it has demands.

Like me, right now, I have children that are demanding things from me, and I want to drink, I want to eat. You will find that women like me will go with another, and when that man leaves my house he will spread it with another… We, among ourselves, we are finishing ourselves…

“Practices also contribute to this disease”
You will find a man right now, with some money. Maybe he has a house like this one, and because of his being human and liking things of the world, he lies to a small schoolchild, or to one who does not have a mother or a father. He takes that child and makes them live with him. You will find that maybe that man is not faithful, and that he has that condition: he will infect that child.

These days, we understand that something like careless circumcision is a dangerous business. The tools used need to be clean, they need to be stored in ideal conditions. But you will find that at times [loving parents] take their girls and say that they must be circumcised so that they can be adults, but they use tools that bring risks. You will find that the one who is doing this will use the same blade on different people…there [may be] 10 girls.

The Maasai [may have several wives], and other ethnic groups do, and those practices also contribute to this disease… If there are two or three [wives], one of them will go outside. After going outside [the family] she will bring back diseases, and after bringing them the diseases will go round the village.

Reduction of stigma

People have begun to understand, and they know that when someone is sick…they can live with others. But about three years ago, if someone had that disease, they were [considered] very frightening. They seemed like a person who…should not live with humans…a person to be very separate from.  But God has helped us. The churches…show people the ways of love.

[And] there is our government, and the people we are with, like the chiefs and the DOs (District Officers). You will find that they explain things about that disease; they show people [how important it is] to be close to those people and to show them that they are worthy [of love].

It is just bad luck if a person finds him or herself with that problem. So at this time there is equality: you do not even know who is sick and who is not…

Testing and support

I had a neighbour who had that disease – and they passed away. But in the family right now there is no one… I thank God for that…[and] I know that tomorrow I do not know what will happen in my house.

We have testing centres… You will find that someone has been sick – typhoid, malaria – and they do not recover from it… At that point you’ll find that they make the effort to go and get tested, and they know their status, and they go on well with their life.

We have one centre in Mbirikani. They are very good because they have been donated a motorbike, and you will find that they go and visit people…at home… They examine them, they look after them and they give them that medicine… And also our doctors here have discussions with those people. They keep them well, in good health…and there is a good atmosphere…

Farming: “business is down”

In the morning, when I finish getting the children ready for school, I go to the farm. Right now we are preparing our farms for the coming rains. I farm until 12.30, then I leave and get on with other things in the house…

There is the Cereals Board here… But in the last three or four years we did not have [enough] produce to take there, because the sun has been scorching the crops. For example, this maize, it has not matured, and the harvest has declined.

[When] you don’t get enough produce to take it to the Cereals Board…we sell among ourselves. For example…those [Maasai] that rear animals, they will sell their livestock and come to me, and I will sell them the maize or beans that I have… They get their food that way because they do not farm…

Right now, business [is] down. We sell beans or maize for a very low price… Sometimes you find that you sell 20 sacks of beans, or 10, but you still cannot meet the needs that you have…you just go round and round [trying to make ends meet], with the sacks that you have sold.

You are supposed to get food for your children, get school fees for your children, and you need other things to progress, but you find that you are just going round in a circle… If we had people that took pity on us, at least they would uplift us a bit – and they could teach us other ways of [earning] income.

“First you listen to the cry of the stomach”

We do not have the foundations that will enable us do many things. We have just farming – all our hopes are there…[but] actually there are many things that we could do apart from agriculture. But now we are [stuck] in the same place because…farming is what we depend on [and] it cannot support us.

Like right now, [pests] have entered the plants and eaten them and you cannot sell them. You will just cook them at home because that is where you have needs…You have something else that you want to do but you cannot sell the beans to cater for those needs. First you listen to the cry of the stomach before you listen to the cries of other things…

We do not have a lot of technology because our town is still small and because those people that have been educated here are few…if [only] there were teacher training schools or other things… We stay in the same place because we do not have any technology that we can use to expand our horizons…our lives are bound by agriculture.

Poverty: “you cannot leave it behind”
In general there is no group that is not affected [by poverty] but women are more affected… Maybe you have a husband, when he does his odd jobs and gets 100 shillings – we all do some casual labour here – you [could] get flour from it, a quarter kilo of sugar, cooking fat…

But the burden to buy soap and everything else for the children to eat remains with the woman.  You will find that…he goes to drink alcohol and when he comes back home he has nothing. He starts attacking the woman, maybe with words. If the father had held on to his 100 shillings, and the mother holds on to hers, they would have bought enough food even for the next day… [But] now you will find that both are stuck in poverty…

[And] maybe, sometimes, if the child sees that the parent cannot support them and get them to college, they start drinking. You will find that the child has been corrupted and becomes someone else – the girl enters into prostitution and you will find that poverty continues to affect her…

Even [if] you were lucky enough to study until Form 4, there is no money to take you to college or somewhere else to learn something, so you become involved with other things.  Now if a girl stays like that she may bring home a child to add to the situation, and the next year another one, and the boy is a drunk…

So now you see – poverty, my sister, you cannot leave it behind, you remain there – we go round and round.

Supportive groups

Here you will find that someone has a [disabled] child…but they cannot help them. Many times these children just stay at home. But we thank God there is a Catholic church that is here. They…have certain projects where they take disabled children and live with them, and they help to feed them, educate them – those that can do some [work], they are helped to do so…

There are several women’s groups… There is one woman that is ‘Miss Development’ in this town, and she is concerned with many women’s issues… And then in the church, there are groups that the pastor explains things to, and many times he calls someone in from far away to come and talk…

Women have things that they can sit down and discuss; when they take them to the men, the men agree with them, so we have that support. [Women] are involved these days – we can see that God is changing things.

Education is a force for change
The parents that we had then did not know about education. But now they have opened up to education…and they have started to see it as ideal, even for the girls. You find today that girls are the ones that are working, even as secretaries – you find them in the office. And in that way, maybe we can say that in the coming years, maybe there will be other changes…

In our parents’ time there was poverty, but the type of life that people were living in general was not as hard as it now. I remember that in the ’70s, secondary school was 400 or 500 shillings a term and now we are paying thousands. You hear that a parent should have 30,000 shillings, and that is just for one term!

I thank the government because they have helped primary school children enter without any payment… [But] we would ask, if it were possible, that they should help us pay secondary school fees just a bit. If we are uplifted a bit, and we can reach the level where we can support ourselves, and our children can go somewhere like a college, or technical school… that child later will become a good person…

I pray to God to help our government to have the drive to help those who are down, so at least they rise to a level that is not shameful. Some people have nowhere to sleep, no food, they live by begging… I thank God I have health…[and] have not slept hungry these days that have passed.

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.


Mary: life of struggle is produced as part 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