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Nyiva: cardboard homes

Nyiva is a Kamba. Brought up in Kitui in south-east Kenya by a stepmother who made her feel like “the maid of the house”, she received no education. Moving to Nairobi to do paid housework, she was cheated by her employer and ended up in Kibagare, where she lives in constant insecurity. She has six children but remains single.

She has no permanent home and the houses she constructs from old cardboard boxes are frequently demolished. Lack of sanitation and water make daily life a struggle against disease and dirt. Many people have HIV and AIDS and medical care is hard to come by.

Nyiva says that crime is rife but the police are only interested in bribes. She feels let down by MPs and says the government does not care about “poor people like us”.

I am a Kamba. I was born in Kitui, and raised there… When my mother died, we were left with a stepmother, but she was not able to protect us as she should. It became like I was the maid of the house. The other children went to school, but I was the one taking care of them…

I left there when I was a girl, when I was taken by another woman to be a maid in Nairobi… In ’83…I was taken on by a different woman who brought me to Loresho (the neighbouring wealthy suburb) to work for her. However, this woman was not good to me. I was working for 1,000 shillings but instead she was paying me 500 shillings.

After staying for a while, I came to know another woman and her daughters who were [also] from Kitui… We started living together in Kibagare in ’85. It was while living with them that I became pregnant and gave birth…

Now I have six children but I never married… So, in this community I have stayed for 14 years…and I have had all my children here.

“We are always being given notice”
The problem I have found is I don’t have a place to go when our houses are demolished. The first time they were demolished I joined a group of older women… I stayed with them, building at night, putting up houses of cardboard. During the day we would lay the cardboard on the floor…continue looking for food [and] at night put them up again…we lived [like this] for five years.

Then it was said we would be removed from there…because one woman was killed when a tree fell on her house. So we were…brought down here…and we built new places also with cardboard… But this life is hard, because after we built them they came and burnt the houses down…

Then the houses were demolished again, we [moved] for about two months, and then we were chased from there… Now I’ve been able to build a small house, although the iron roofing sheets are not new — they are just scraps… [But] all the time we are told we are on other people’s property. When I go to look for a job, I may return to find my house is still standing or I may not… We are always being given notice to move on…

We are desperate to be given homes, and we are seeing there are people different from us whom the government wants – people with money and not poor people like us. When our houses start being burned down, that is when these people are happy because we will be evicted. That is the joy of the [wealthy] people of Loresho, and that is our greatest problem.

‘Flying toilets’ spread disease

We don’t have a toilet; there is no water. When we ask for a toilet we are told we cannot dig latrines because [these are] slums… If you walk around here you will see people who have built homes where the faeces go into the river… you will find people fetching water to wash clothes and cook with, and if you look around you will find other people farming the land there…

So there is a problem with cleanliness… People use bags as ‘flying toilets’ and then they tie them up and throw them in the Kiruiru river….When a child goes to play there, they bathe and then drink the water that is carrying faeces. And if somebody else has a disease then we can contract typhoid – and other infections are many because the water is dirty…

Sometimes you will find somebody has thrown something at your door and it is faeces. If your iron roof sheets have a hole, you may find that someone has thrown their waste on top of your roof and it is pouring into your house. This place needs a pit latrine. If you are caught throwing away waste by people living by Kiruiru river you might even be beaten up, so people throw it away at night.

Connections count

I was told that the Constituency Development Fund cannot help people of the slums… It is to help those with a permanent residence, but not people like us. Like these [school] bursaries… I filled in [a request] for my child in April last year, and I have never had any response…

The one who knows you is the one who will give to you – like those chairmen [of residence associations and bursary fund committees]… they are the ones given the bursaries and then they go and give them to the people they know, and us – they sell them to us.

Since we elected [our representatives] – in 2002 – only recently did we see [the MP]. He came and said he would construct toilets for us. We asked him how he would do that when we did not have houses. He said he would start with toilets.

A woman said she would campaign for us. We asked her, did she really want us to vote her back into her job when she is not defending our interests? When our homes were demolished [and we needed her help], her phone just said ‘mobile subscriber cannot be reached’… Only now is she resurfacing.

Joblessness encourages theft

Another problem [here] is that there are many girls who don’t have homes…so sometimes you come home in the evening and find many of them on the road. They have to look for something to eat, so the girls have to take the money off those they meet…and some of these girls are educated.

As for the boys, they stay here just basking in the sun – some of them have had an education and some lacked the school fees. When they are found [hanging about], they are called thieves, but most of them are not thieves. How can my son stay in the house all day?

When people were caught [hawking] on the streets in town, and were detained – those people were only supporting themselves. They don’t have another source of income. Stealing will increase [now that hawking is banned], because if someone sits there for two or three days, and then they see someone passing by, they will take from that person.

We have no security here… Police go to Loresho – they [pick up] the young people who are found there. When they come here, they visit the houses where alcohol is brewed so that they can get something [from them] – it’s not security. Even if they find people fighting each other, they will only want to go to the house where the beer is made or the house with marijuana, so that they can arrest those people and then release them after receiving bribes.

“Young girls are cheated and raped”
We used to have [rape here], but we women and elders got together and went to the people who sell alcohol and warned them not to sell to women at night or to young girls… Women walking at night, they are caught and taken by force…

Young girls of 15, 13, 16 are being raped, and their lives are ruined by men of 40 and 30 years. They are cheated and raped, and after Standard 8 (last year of primary school) many of them stay here and live the same life as their mothers. When they see their mothers can’t buy them a uniform and theirs is torn, and yet at their college there are students with new uniforms, they get discouraged and leave school.

“Discover what you can do for yourself”

The girls who live here…a girl of 12 knows a lot, because of [the need for] money and the place where she is living, which is not good. Because they have grown up with problems and have not gone to school, the child is easily cheated with 20 shillings. Because of hunger…that is why they know too many things…

Each person should seek their daily bread with their own hands. Put aside [getting] money from a man alone, and discover what you can do for yourself. It’s better that a child misses school [than for that] child to go and land in a bad situation because of needing money.

If you get a loan – and you, a woman, are raising yourself and the child – when that child finishes primary school, you take him on to secondary and then to college. Then won’t he get a job? You will never find that child begging, and they will be able to rely on themselves.

Sickness destroys families

Diseases are widespread… There are many [with HIV and AIDS], I won’t lie to you. But let’s just say that those who are infected cannot or will not reveal themselves. Plus we don’t have a hospital… The place we have [in Kibagare] is run by missionaries, and they charge money. But anyway, it’s not for everyone, it’s for the children who go to private boarding schools… others just suffer. They don’t have the money so they must just keep going…

In this area, there is a sick woman. She has stayed in her house for a very long time; she cannot go out… Recently people made contributions and took her to St Mary’s where she was treated. Then she came back, but she is not capable [of much]. We do not know how she was brought back. She is probably dying…

She has a son who has completed Form 4 (secondary school). This boy has not yet got a college place because when his mother became sick there was nobody to help him. She also has a daughter in Form 3. People of the kijiji (Swahili for village, here meaning Kibagare) joined forces and requested that the school allow her to continue studying while we consider what to do.

She also has smaller children who don’t know what to do… Now their mother will leave them with problems, and they don’t even have a [permanent] home. If we had permanent homes, she would leave it for them to rent and they would at least get something.

“Are we really human beings?”
We normally do a small collection to take [sick people] to hospital. But you cannot pass [at night] because of the gate in and out of Kibagare closing… When you get there, the askaris (security guards) tell you they cannot allow you to pass…so you just return with your sick one because you cannot take them to hospital that way.

Just the other day, a lady gave birth to twins there at the gate… That kind of treatment is why we are asking ourselves, are we really human beings?

You cannot pass the gate once it gets to 8pm. Those coming [back home] from the market have to go right round, along that dangerous road; because only if you have money [to bribe the watchmen] at night, will the gates be opened for you…

Even children are not allowed to pass through there. There are some who go to another school on that side of the gate, but it is still closed then, so they have to go all the way round even though it’s early morning and the other route is so long.

“They don’t like us because we are poor”
The residents of Loresho say that we are thieves… They say they are being disturbed all the time by thieves, and that those thieves come from here. When we look at ourselves there is nobody [here] who owns a car… Where can we get a car to go and steal with? Because we are poor, they say that thieves come from here in Kibagare, but…how can you go to steal from there on foot?

We don’t have a problem with them, but they don’t like us because we are poor. When going to their area…I’ll be asked many questions about where I’m coming from and where I am going to. If I go to look for work, I will be asked where I come from, and I’m forced to lie, because if I say I’m from Kibagare they will not employ me.

Small loans can make a difference

I sell vegetables, peanuts and so on. I have opened a kiosk where I sell sukuma (kale), tomatoes, sugar, even if it is only half a kilo. I have to wake up at 5am: I also sell milk, and I have to be awake at that time so that the person going to work is able to buy it from me and get a little sugar, and prepare their children to go to school. By 6am, children are meant to be ready to go to school.

When they are ready, that is when I close up, and go to the market… If you go to the market late you cannot buy anything there, so you must leave early and return early… When I return…by 8am, I open up [again] and continue working.

It is hard. If I sell enough today and I make a profit, I eat, and with what remains I [buy] more things. My children need clothes and shoes because they are in school… I would like capital to expand my business. If I have some profit which remains [after meeting daily needs], I will put it away to help me – so that, for example, if my child does the exams and goes to secondary school, I will be able to pay for it.

There is no place where you can be given a loan and then refuse to repay! If I borrow some money and repay it well, then I will be given a bigger loan [next time], so that I may even be able to buy my children some land.

“I would love to learn”
One girl is in Standard 8. I sent another daughter to a college to learn tailoring, and she finished. Another child completed Standard 8 and was to go on to secondary school this year, but I lacked the money. Another one is in Form 3 [in secondary school], but one son is at home, he is unable to continue – he has a small room where he lives with another person. There is another child who also finished Standard 8, but I did not have money for secondary school so I told him to repeat it and maybe this year I will have money…

I have never [gone to school]. One is taken to school by one’s parents… My mother died when I was eight, she became sick and was not taken to hospital… I would love to learn, but when would I go to school? When I go to a meeting, when I see people can write and I don’t know how to, I feel like crying.

The importance of independence
I gave birth to six children but I don’t [see] their fathers… I had my first daughter when I was 15 years old, my son at 18, but their fathers are not the same… I felt that I did not want to be married, because I don’t have parents and if I was suffering in my husband’s house, I would not have a place to run away to… If I am married, and then I am beaten up, I have nowhere to go.

I used to use these [birth control] drugs, but I became sick and as I did not want treatment I became afraid of using them… The doctor told me to stop using them because they were giving me [high blood] pressure. I told them to give me the [contraceptive implant]. The doctor evaluated me and said it was not possible… For now I’m not using anything… I would not like another child but by bad luck I might have one.

“We women are the ones with problems”
The life of a man is good but that of a woman is hard. When I [become pregnant] the man goes his own way, but I am left with the child… A man will leave and forget. When you tell him you’re expecting, he says “we are together” – but all of a sudden you find he has gone. So, we women are the ones with problems, our lives are like that.

Help is [targeted at women] because [they work hard]…if a man had a small kiosk like this one of mine, he would have already brought it down. Many men are drunks, and if you give him a loan he will use it for alcohol and not think about whether there is anything left for the children. So, many projects are aimed at women — that’s why men are not being advocated for.

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.


Nyiva: cardboard homes 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