My name is Joy Waithera, and I was born in Kenya, Nairobi County in a slum called Mkuru Kwa Njenga on 17/09/1999. That is where my life began. My early childhood is not very vivid to me, all that is known is that it was very terrible, with a lot of tribulation as I was a girl. My mother had no stable job; she worked as a casua labourer washing clothes for the rich in neighbourhood prime estates like pipeline.
My mother would leave me unattended, with just some food and lock me in our small mud house thatched with iron sheeting. Mukuru Kwa Njenga is a slum situated on the eastern side of Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya. It is adjacent to Kenya’s main industrial area where 99% of all Kenya`s manufacturing processes take place.
Because of this, Mukuru is the most populated and congested slum in Kenya. This is because it provides skilled and unskilled labour to the industries. Mukuru has dingy houses built with mud and thatched with waste iron sheet or polythene. Most of the houses have standard measurements of 3m by 6m which can host up to 6 family members. There is no kitchen or toilet. To deal with a of call of nature, one has to relieve oneself in a piece of polythene sheet and dump the waste in a trench, or the Nairobi river which passes through the slum, or even on a neighbour`s door step. This kind of environment makes children’s life dangerous since there is no playing ground, the children end up playing around the same ditch where human waste and other garbage has been dumped. The smell in the slum is unimaginable which emanates from rotting garbage, human waste, industrial smoke and gas from the industrial area. Only dwellers can withstand the stench.
These hazardous environments have a negative impact on the slum dwellers’ health but no one has enough voice to air their predicaments to the national government. Clean sufficient water is like a dream to Mukuru Kwa Njenga slum dwellers. Water is sold at the outskirts where a 20 litre bucket of water costs 100kshs which most of the family would use for 3 to 4 days for all their daily use. Living in this notorious slum one would expect anything since it hosts all kind of people and crimes. These come as a result of the high level of poverty where the entire family live below 100 Kshs a day. Prostitution is rampant in the slum and the old, the young and children are involved .Children are commonly used to peddle drugs even in broad daylight for a small fee of 50 Kshs a day, since the majority of children do not have the opportunity to attend school due to lack of school fees. The area is manned by organised armed criminal gangs, who invade houses at any time of the day or night and take away anything that can be valuable or even
demand protection fee. These criminal gangs are feared even by the crime prevention unit and regular police. None of those units patrols in the area since the gangs are armed with more sophisticated weapons than the Kenyan police force. If you are born in the Mukuru slum, it is a miracle to attain the age of 35 years. Many cases of water borne and air borne disease kill most of the young children in these slum. I recall when I was young living there, I witnessed the deaths of three children who I used to play with; and no one had a clue what the cause of death was. Dugs are the second killer, and HIV related diseases like TB follow. Others are killed by thugs or fire. It is a place where only people with no options in life can dwell. When I look back and visualise the kind of life I spent in that slum my only tribute and heartfelt thanks is to Miriam, Charles and UK family for rescuing me. I would have died an immature death a long time ago had I stayed. Being in slum there were many dangers that faced my life as a girl child but due to poverty my mother had no choice. I recall one time when my mother had no money to buy food. One chill night she told me to accompany her to a street inside the slum. We went straight to one unmistakable house which looked quite different from the other houses in the area. She knocked at the house and a tough-looking man came out. They talked in low tone and he gave her something tied up in an old newspaper. As we left, he told me that we had to sell the commodity before we went back to the house otherwise we would have nothing to eat that day. I had no one I trusted like my mother. I felt very safe being with her under all circumstances. We visited several places like bars and some houses; little did I know we were selling bhang, (cannabis). We sold successfully and it was time to return the proceeds to the owner of the drugs for our pay. On our way we were attacked, beaten mercilessly where I had two cuts on my head, my mother had several cuts and lost a tooth; all our cash was stolen and we were left in pain and confused. We went into a government clinic where we received treatment and proceeded home. We did not get back to the peddler that night since he would have thought we were lying to him. To my surprise the peddler come to our house very early in the morning.
He called my mother, held her by her collar and pulled her outside; they talked for some minutes before he raised his voice and become furious. He made a clear demand for his money and threatened that there would be consequences if the money was not submitted within 12 hours. My mother explained to him what had happened and promised him to pay as soon as she got well. But the drug baron had a different motive. He told my mother that he had to take me to assist in more sales until all the money is recovered. Fortunately, my mother did not accept, and insisted that she would pay in 3 days’ time despite her injuries. Well I cannot explain how events turned out because I did not see the drug baron in our house again; I can only guess that she kept her promise. When I was five years old my mother got a bit lucky and was employed as a house help to do all the house chores which included hand-washing all the family clothes, cooking, cleaning house and washing their car among other tasks. She happened to have met this family from a referral from one of her usual casual employers who was impressed with her good work. It was a small family which was staying in a gated community maisonette, I guess the house had more than 4 bedrooms, also a kitchen, sitting room, dining room, store wash room and staff quarters. They had two children who were studying in an international school which not many Kenyans can afford. The employer was good-hearted as he allowed me to stay with my mother in his servants’ quarters. Life was not easy for me, even then though, because my mother was occupied the whole day. She never had time for me because she had to concentrate on her employer`s duties and on his children. The employer was very compassionate with her own children and very protective. I used to envy them because they were given everything they asked from their parent. They used to have medical cover, and would be taken to the best hospitals in the county. In my case, my mother used to have a plastic container containing my medicine like aspirin, piriton and antibiotics and other drugs whose names I did not know, since she could not afford either the money or the time to take me to hospital. A word father to me is a word that I read in a dictionary. I did not have a chance to see or know my father. Seeing other children with their fathers made me always ask my mother where my own was.
I missed the love of a father, but my mother usedto tell me that my father had travelled, and he would come one day. Time passed and I realised my mother was constantly telling me that my father would be coming home to shield me from the anguish of realising that unlike other children I do not have a father. This realization opened another wound in my heart as I later came to realise that my father walked out when I was two days old. To this date it fills me with painful unanswered questions:
– Is my father alive or dead?
– Does he exist somewhere in this world?
– Why did he leave me to suffer like this?
– What does he think of us today?
– What mistake did I make at that age for him to leave?
– If it was one of my parents’ mistakes why couldn’t they reconcile for the sake
– These and other questions linger in my mind making me feel very devastated
in my life.
Days went by and the time reached for me to join school. The school was partially sponsored by donors, so the school fee was half the cost of other schools. Although my mother was supposed to send me, she still had a problem raising the required fee. There was no playground, but just like structures in the slum the school was constructed of mud walls and old iron sheets. There weren’t many desk and chairs, some of us used to sit on the floor as we wrote or did examinations. I would listen to the teacher carefully and do my homework before I left the school. This was because at home we had no table or any chairs, only a mattress, blankets and a few utensils. At night we relied on light from the stove but when the cooking was done,we used to eat in darkness.
As the journey of growing up continued my mother lost her job as a house help, for reasons that I don’t know. We tried to relocate to the Mukuru Kwa Njenga slum since that where I was schooling and house rents were comparatively cheap, if you ignored the dangers there. Life become hard for me and my mother without her job. I started noticing different male visitors in our house on different occasions who would spend the night in our house. At first I thought my father had come back but I was wrong. They were her clients in prostitution. Sometimes my mother would leave our house after supper and return home before I left in the morning for school. I didn’t work out how much she used to earn but my assumption is that it must have been quite low because our life didn’t change; actually it deteriorated. On one occasion my mother came home in the morning crying, she was not in the mood to prepare me to go to school as she was used to do. I noticed that she had a swollen face but I had no courage to ask her what had gone wrong. She pulled me close to her and held me tight and whispered into my ears, “Sweetheart, we are leaving.” I remained silent because I knew there was something wrong as I had never witnessed my mother shedding tears. She made up her mind and decided to relocate to her grandmother’s somewhere in Meru. That day we stayed indoors without doing anything; all day my mother had a gloomy face and kept on covering her face and clicking as if she had some deep- seated regrets. We packed those few items that we actually owned: dilapidated bedding and a few utensils that fitted in a gunny bag, and left very early in the morning. As we had not paid our rent for that month we had to run away before the landlord was aware. We eventually arrived in Meru where she was looking to see if life could have a more meaningful purpose than that in Nairobi.
In fact, life proved harder in Meru than in Nairobi. In Meru a woman has no say and cannot inherit anything from her parents. For that reason, we faced a lot of resistance from my uncles and two of them approached my mother and asked her why we had come carrying all her belongings. My mother told them that life in Nairobi was excruciating without a stable income and that that was the reason she had come home to seek refuge. Immediately they took our belongings and threw them outside the gate and told her that there was no space in the family and that she would have to go back to her child`s father. They took machetes and ran after her.
My mother took to her heels and ran for dear life and left me in the hands of my grandmother, crying. My mother did not take me with her, she decided to leave me behind without caring what kind of life I might face. Meru County still upheld very traditional cultural gender roles which are unequal and oppressive towards women within the family hierarchy. Men are the decision makers and contribute very little or nothing towards the family well-being, putting more strain on their wives and children. women are supposed to provide food for their family and have some income to support the family on top of their responsibilities at home: cooking, attending to livestock, cleaning, faming, and taking care of the children. Because of these overwhelming burdens, children take the responsibility of helping mother to perform some of these duties. However, at the age of 14-15 the boy child is circumcised. This ritual, according to Meru custom, is a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. Afterwards, the boy is assumed to be a man, which means he will rarely take instructions from his mother any more or complete any chores assigned by his mother.
Therefore, the baby girl assumes the task and responsibilities previously carried out by her brother. This puts a greater workload on the girl, which in most cases leads to her dropping out from school. This in turn leads to early pregnancy or marriage as the girl gets into unfortunate relationships with young boys (men) where love is not involved. It can also lead to the girl disappearing from home to the street life. Men have a common lifestyle here; they just wake up take breakfast and proceed to the nearby town where they hang out with other men and watch the day go by. This kind of lifestyle and habit leads to boredom, which frequently ends in alcoholism. These destructive habits need financial support and men end up taking money from their wives by force which may lead to domestic violence, putting still more financial constraints on the family and further reducing the woman’s quality of life or even leading to divorce.
Cultural traditional practices can have a positive social change by changing cultural habits. During circumcision boys should be taught how to be responsible adults. That would bring up responsible family men who would be involved in bringing up a healthy family and responsible children of their own – especially boys. Since this lazy habit of Meru men is leant by young boys from their father, it is not hereditary and can easily be broken by bringing up healthy boys and giving a boy`s circumcision a better meaning, like being a responsible family man and not just a man.