Between the lines

Nairobi: youth unemployment

The simplistic narrative of a Kenyan rags-to-riches tale reveals how the media is complicit in ignoring the human cost of bad governance

The Kosovo area of Mathare, Nairobi’s largest
informal settlement Photo: Kanyi Wyban

Last year, an investigative journalist working for Kenya’s Citizen TV reported a heartrending story. The story was about Kelvin’ Ochieng’, a young man who had ended up homeless on the rough streets of Nairobi after graduating with a first-class honours in actuarial science. The 24-year-old had scored straight As at the famous Maranda High School before proceeding to the University of Nairobi. He had managed to pay for his university studies through a government loan, as well as a Chinese scholarship. But having completed his studies, he could not afford to pay 4,000 shillings (about $40) for his graduation, and so could not attend the ceremony. Now, he lived in the Kosovo area of Mathare, one of Kenya’s largest informal settlements. A friend, Christopher Oloo, had rescued him from the streets, offering him a place in the tiny single room he already shared with three other men. Ochieng’ had applied for many jobs but to no avail, despite his excellent qualifications. Because of that, he feared going back to his rural home.

The last time he had visited, he had found his family living in absolute poverty and clinging to the belief that he, the star of the family who had made it to university, would be their salvation. He told the reporter that he had sometimes contemplated suicide. The story is not, in fact, unusual. In Kenya, many young people work hard at their studies and excel, only to find that their certificates are meaningless. At the time of the interview, Ochieng’ was just one of many other young people scrambling for casual work, for example washing cars in the CBD. Badly served by a failing system, most of the country’s young people are condemned to live in poor socioeconomic conditions. The few who do not have to struggle have access to education and jobs through family or close contacts in government. So the story raises serious questions. What about the many other Ochieng’s one never hears about? In places like Mathare, many young people without even half of his level of education have to grapple with harsh daily realities.

People like the selfless Oloo, whose altruism was mentioned only in passing in the report. His role in the story was “normal” and less interesting than the “special” case of an unemployed graduate. The journalist got some of the details of living in Mathare right: the lack of proper latrines, the heavy stench of raw sewage. But she went on to claim that Mathare is one of the most dangerous slums in Nairobi, a scary place where you have to watch your back 24/7 because of the armed gangs. She did not notice that it was, at least partly, Oloo’s act of kindness that had brought her down into “the valley”. Implicitly, the report suggested that people with first-class degrees didn’t deserve to be homeless and without an income. The insecurity and stench of Mathare were the “normal” preserve of the “less educated”. In a tweet on 21 July, 2019, Mwalimu Wandia Njoya (a scholar, social and political commentator and blogger) said that Kenya’s system compounds a kleptocracy with “education-based discrimination”. I couldn’t agree more. With or without an education, nobody deserves to be poor. Every person should be at least economically able, regardless of their education level.

But bad governance prevails, dehumanising the very people politicians are supposed to serve. This is Christopher Oloo’s story. Like me, he was born in Mathare. Just this fact means that the limits of our ambitions are almost certainly set forever. His story is my story. My story is that of hundreds of thousands of other young Kenyans. His story is representative of thousands of young Kenyans whose futures are being ruined by political corruption, which steals resources that could be used for development and, hence, job creation. I am not on the outside looking in, nor am I on the inside looking out. I’m in the dead centre, looking around. Young people, and particularly young men, are stereotyped as “dirty”, and as “criminals” who threaten public security. The police operate in the valley as if the only social issues here are drugs and weapons. Encounters with police and other officials are to be avoided at any cost. As a young man, you are a target. The cops, commonly known as wakubwas (“the big men”), are simply uniformed robbers. They can stop and search you at any time, supposedly for evidence of illegal possessions, when, actually, they’re rifling your pockets for cash.

They might sniff your fingers, to check whether you have been smoking bangi (local term for marijuana). In some cases you will be made to spit on the ground, the idea being that a habitual smoker always has a dry throat. Everything has a price. Should the smell of marijuana be confirmed, negotiations about the cost of your freedom begin at a thousand shillings. If you are nabbed with something on you, it will cost you between two and three thousand shillings more. Failure to warm the fervent palm of the mkubwa in question may result in a smack to your head. Nyinyi ndio mnatemebea bila pesa, mkisumbua watu hapa! they say. (“You are the type that goes about without money while making a nuisance of yourself.”) As a young man in Mathare, you are guilty until proven innocent. Above all, do not make the elementary blunder of claiming to know your rights. The only time you ever hear the words, Kijana, rudi hapa (“come back soon, you are welcome, young man”), or a kind tone from the cops is when you part with “a little something”. The media almost never reflect such realities of everyday life in Mathare. Young people are constructed as central to the problems of urban criminality and idleness.

Then again, people like to say, “If you don’t like the ghetto, why don’t you just leave?” But where are we to go? Mathare is all the life Oloo has known. It’s the same for me. This is home. You are attached. People raise their children here and have invested what little capital they have here in their neighbourhood. The few who are lucky enough to “make it out” of Mathare often end up in another immiserated part of the Eastlands, with the same limited basic amenities, or worse. Following a fire at our house about two years ago, I helped my mother relocate to Githurai, another low income neighbourhood in Nairobi, where I thought that she would not have to worry about the risk of fire and other ghetto hazards. Less than three months later she moved back to Kosovo, in Mathare. At first, I could not make peace with her decision. But I had to accept that she ached for a familiar environment where she knew people and could trust them, and where she had learned her survival hacks. As they say, an old broom knows the room’s corners all too well.

Soon after the report about Ochieng’ was broadcast, the Nairobi News website reported that he had received more than a dozen job offers, including one from Nairobi county government, the Kenya Red Cross and Kenya’s forestry service. Many of these companies would already have received Ochieng’’s application and CV. What made the difference for him? That report on Citizen TV. Ochieng’ was selected as a worthy story – and good luck to him on that. But I would suggest that the story should not have stopped there: it should have been understood as a case study that reflected the problems many young Kenyans face. And that should have stimulated a search for real, tangible solutions to the problem of youth unemployment. We never see sustainable solutions to young people’s issues. Most often, the solutions proposed turn out to be short-term fixes that have more to do with harvesting cheap labour through catchy words like “platform”, “stipend”, “youth inclusion” and so forth, than with creating real opportunities for young people. An example is the government programme Kazi Kwa Vijana (KKV), launched in March 2oo9, which responded to post-election violence in 2008 by campaigning to “put youth to work”.

Six months later, Kenya’s media reported the project was already failing, citing mismanagement, corruption and late payments from Treasury. The initiative failed. Anyway, the campaign offered only low-wage manual labour with no prospect of skills development. Very often, too, we see issues relating to young people being discussed in their absence at cosmetic symposiums and panel discussions. Thus, their input and perspectives are not taken into account. This strips young people of the power to determine their own futures, and brings generational conflict. I accuse our mainstream media of complicity in this. Indirectly, well intended but misguided reporting affects hundreds of thousands of lives. The media’s profit-driven mentality denies people like Oloo the opportunity to speak truth to power. Sure, there are tensions between the demands of media ownership and editorial independence, but it would appear that, to the media owners, “news” is only about increasing readership or viewership subscription. I don’t bear any ill-will against the journalist who covered Ochieng’’s story, or her news team, for their blindness to reality.

They were only doing their jobs. But there’s the problem. Media owners have enormous power to shape public discourse – but apparently very little sense of accountability. In Kenya, moreover, they are sometimes state actors who use media platforms as propaganda machines to push tribalistic agendas. Many argue that our national independence has moved the country forward. However, this claim has very little to do with the everyday dilemmas of poor Kenyans, young, old, male and female. From their perspective, the country is a rusty tramp steamer with no lifeboats for the crew. On this ship, the traditional rule that women and children go first in the event of a problem has been turned on its head: now, they are the first to sink or swim. To many young people today, Kenya is a country that sets you up for failure. It often looks as if it is the intention that we should perish, one way or the other, sooner or later. In Mathare, young people are putting aside imposed social differences of religion, tribe and education to organise and empower themselves. This includes initiatives such as registering a youth group so as to be able to operate a car wash, getting into the boda boda (motorcycle transport) business and ventures in urban farming (see article in Africa in Fact 46, the Youth edition).

For them, this is the only way forward to economic liberation. In this way, we are rebelling against the status quo, which says that we should be patient and wait for opportunities to be thrown our way. In Mathare, young people are working to create a future for themselves, because it is clear that our government is not going to do so.

Kanyi Wyban is a young writer and musician based in Mathare – Nairobi, Kenya. He is the founder of Heroes of Mathare, a storytelling project aimed at telling beautiful narratives by celebrating heroes from a community otherwise branded a “slum”. He is also coordinator of the Mathare Green Movement, an ecological justice campaign aimed at reclaiming the humanity of Mathare by planting trees and making it green.

Challenging the patriarchy

Mama Rahma: profile of an African feminist

Child bride at 13 and a victim of female genital mutilation, Kenyan activist Rahma Wako liberated herself to become a powerful advocate of women’s rights

Mama Rahma Wako Photo: supplied

Despite holding up half the sky, African women have for a long time existed within a society that does not allow them to simply be themselves, and prevents them from taking part in important discussions, even when they are affected by them. According to Kenyan Rahma Wako, African women are, more often than not, expected to conform to oppressive controls and are thus condemned to silence. Widely known as Mama Rahma, Wako, who lives in Kiamaiko, Mathare, an informal settlement in Nairobi’s Eastlands, has established a reputation as a powerful advocate of women’s rights. Her efforts have won both national and international acclaim, including a Mathare Heroes Award and in 2017 a Human Rights Defender of the Year award from the embassy of the Netherlands in Kenya. Walking through Kiamaiko, one passes myriad small businesses, mostly selling street food.

There is a cacophony of noise and smells. Also noticeable are signs of a flourishing Islamic culture and lifestyle. From the languages spoken, it’s clear most of the population consists of people from pastoralist communities such as the Borana and Burji from northern Kenya and Ethiopia. The district is known for its goat’s meat markets and you pass slaughterhouses everywhere. Mama Rahma says her younger years were filled with joy and positive energy. When her parents moved to Mathare she was six years old and had the whole world before her. But she found that she was among thousands of other young Muslim girls denied access to school. “It wasn’t until a Christian missionary, who was known as Father Glory, came to Kiamaiko and took us in, that young girls like me here were able to access sufficient food, clothes and shoes, as well as a basic education,” she says.

“I was beginning to have dreams of a future. I wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up.” Wanting to be a lawyer, she now feels, probably stemmed from the urge to stand up for her friends when the need arose. But her father felt that books would be of no benefit to a girl child and would probably give her a “hard head” and lead her to disrespect men. He was a staunch traditionalist who later forced her to leave school, believing that she would be “swallowed up” by Father Glory’s beliefs. Her father didn’t want her becoming like one of the “spoiled Christian girls”, who he detested. She was barely 13 when she was suddenly married off to a 50-year-old man. “I do not remember feeling more betrayed in my life,” she says. That week she had noticed that the family home was unusually busy, with family members arriving from far and wide.

Some kind of ceremony was being prepared, but neither Mama Rahma nor her siblings had any idea what it was about. As children, they were not allowed to poke their noses into older people’s business. Then her parents sat her down for a quick pep talk. They had brought her new clothes for some reason, she did not understand why. Her father and some of her uncles kept holding two fingers up to her face, as if making the peace sign, and asking her to choose a finger; one represented a blessing and the other a curse, they said. “Guess which I picked.” She was to become the bride of a man who had been married three times already, and with whose children she had played. Since they were in the city, the guests did not bring cows and goats as gifts. Instead, they paid her father “a lot of money”, which was seen as a dowry. “I was being sold and it was not my place to say no.”

Rahma felt that her newly found passion for school and her hopes of being a lawyer were being taken away from her. “My whole world was caving in,” she says. “I am not sure how capable I was then of falling in love or knowing what love felt like, but I can still remember literally feeling that my dreams were being snatched away from me.” Worse still, she knew that no one would rescue her. Not even her mother was able to object. The view was that girls were old enough to marry at 12, and that they should be sold into marriage at that age “before the world could corrupt their morals”. Her duty was simply to understand this and accept her new duties as a wife. A woman should be seen, not heard. Father Glory’s stories about Jesus the saviour receded into the distance. Soon she was pregnant, and gave birth to twins. But her mother-in-law took them away from her, saying she was too young to raise children.

“Again, I struggled to fathom what this all meant,” Mama Rahma says. “My husband beat me every day. He beat me and demanded babies, but I never got to be with my children. After every delivery, my mother-in-law would come and take the babies, and my husband would continue with the beatings and the demands.” Sometimes it crosses her mind that her life would have been different if she had chosen to be “the meek, obediently cooperative wife who was unconditionally in love with a monster,” as she put it. “The one thing most people never “The one thing most people never saw beyond my husband’s masculinity was how readily he would flaunt it any chance he got, how ruthlessly he would beat me, and how deeply he scarred me both within and without.” She bears the scars of old knife wounds on her head, arms and thighs from the daily assaults that were inflicted on her.

She would run away, but he would come looking for her. “I could tell how it was going to end. I knew that script all too well. The trauma was overwhelming.” When they took away her second set of twins she felt she could no longer accept the maltreatment. She decided to speak up for herself and took her abusive husband to court, asking to be given her children. But for doing this, she was treated as an outcast by her family. “Father Glory’s messiah must have arrived during this period,” she comments. “He had been very late but at least I won the case and was reunited with my kids.” Nothing else mattered. Demanding to be divorced immediately, she was on her own. Her parents disowned her, as did her sisters. She had betrayed the ways of her people, she was told, and she was despicable. She had brought misfortune to her family. When she died, no one would bury her.

To support herself and her children, she began making and selling Chang’aa, a local illicit spirit distilled from grains. Moreover, the activity was completely unheard of, given her religious background. Meanwhile, people kept assuring her that she would be unable to raise her children without a man in her life. “I was determined to prove them wrong,” she says, “all of them! Finally, I had become (a kind of) lawyer, as I wished as a little girl. I was standing up for myself against the whole world, and feeling more alive than I had ever been before.” When she began her new life as an independent woman she felt that it was time to declare her opinions about the treatment of women. She was all too aware that other women in Kiamaiko were vulnerable and might end up in the same situation in which she had found herself. She had been subjected to genital mutilation and was disgusted that so many girls in the district were still put through it.

She was also aware that other women were subjected to domestic violence. “I was done with self-pity and felt the urgent need to talk about many difficult, important issues, but I wasn’t sure I would do it well. I needed to keep my family and community with me, yet addressing ‘controversial’ topics made that difficult, if not impossible.” Her aim now was to help as many people as possible while angering as few as possible. Her great fear was that she might end up helping a few and angering many. Nevertheless, she felt that even if the latter happened, starting conversations about these topics would be worthwhile. People would get over their anger. If they didn’t, they would only think less of her. But their displeasure would be a small price to pay if she helped even a few.

Mama Rahma and four friends went on to found a local community women’s parliament, called Bunge La Wamama Mashinani, (Grassroots Women’s Parliament), which identified patriarchal power as a fundamental source of injustice and inequality, and called for a deconstruction of gendered power relations. “To my surprise, many women joined the movement,” she says. “We were about 300 women from across the nine villages of Kiamaiko, aiming to challenge the system of sexist oppression, which is deeply entrenched in many societies and into which we had all been born.” Everyone who joined had been witness to the devastation inflicted on girls, but there had never been a safe space where they could speak out. Bunge La Wamama Mashinani became a sanctuary that allowed them to protest against all discrimination against women in Kiamaiko, which included behaviours related to sex, gender, class and ethnicity.

Members of the women’s parliament encountered violence and stigmatisation, but they continued to stimulate conversations around abuse and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Over time, cases of both became less common in the community. Now, Mama Rahma visits local schools to mentor young girls and teach them alternative values. She tells her school audience that practices such as child marriage, wife beating and FGM are not “okay”, even when tradition and religion sanction them. Rahma’s message is that submitting to such practices is a choice and that they should always demand to be heard if they don’t want to undergo them. She is particularly opposed to FGM. Recently, she says, a young girl in Kiamaiko died undergoing FGM. She was operated on by an old woman who could not see very well. “People said the poor girl’s death was due to fate. God had decided, and her day had come.

Can you imagine the blood-sucking nonsense?” In recent years, Mama Rahma has found that the community that rejected her for supposed heresy has begun to accept her as an internal influence – partly because of the recognition she has received from outside it, she feels. “I fought hard for values I believed in and I helped bring important discussions back home,” she says. “If anything, that has made me stronger.” Now she is a member of a male-dominated elders’ council in her village – the first woman allowed to participate. She sees her inclusion as an example of humanity’s potential to change. Meanwhile, the man she divorced all those years ago has never gone to the local Kadhi courts – part of a system of subordinate Islamic courts with authority over family, inheritance and succession – to accept the documents associated with their divorce, and still claims that she is his wife.

“His clan, the Dhigalu, still holds my clan, the Warjidha, accountable and indebted for the dowry paid for my early marriage,” she says. “They insist on calling me their ‘cow’. I don’t know what to make of that. I surely don’t.”

Kanyi Wyban is a young writer and musician based in Nairobi. He is the founder of Heroes of Mathare, a storytelling project aimed at telling beautiful narratives and celebrating heroes from the community otherwise branded a “slum”. He is also coordinator of the Mathare Green Movement, an ecological justice campaign aimed at reclaiming the humanity of Mathare by planting trees and making it green