It is 5.30am. I am on Manyanja Road, which runs from Kayole estate in Nairobi to Donholm roundabout. A few people trudge on purposely towards the roundabout. One of them is a man I will walk with for the next one hour.
The moment I spotted him, I knew he was the one. His demeanor betrayed his vocation. A man who works for nothing but survival.
He wears an old maroon flappy shirt which drapes to his knees. He has heavy safety boots on his feet which, I suspect, combine with heavy thoughts on his head to slow his movement.
About 15 minutes later he is at a matatu terminus at the roundabout. He slows down, debating whether to take a matatu or continue on foot. An inviting sing-song of “twenty tao” (Sh20 bus fare to the city centre) makes this one of the easiest economic choices.
At these ungodly hours you just need to hop into the damn matatu and affordably and safely get to work. But he continues on foot.
Why can’t he take such an irresistible offer – the lowest bus fare from exorbitant matatus, which normally won’t hesitate to squeeze as much as they can from a commuter?
When I approached him, I got the answer. His name is Esau Shiundu, and he could not afford to “waste” a shilling on bus fare.
Shiundu is among millions of Kenyans being forced by the high cost of living to choose between one necessity and another – in his case, rent and security.
I ask him why he is not taking a matatu. “Sasa nilipe rent ama nilipe matatu (should I pay rent or bus fare)?” he retorts back as we take the side-walk of Jogoo Road.
I would soon learn that if he paid Sh20 and Sh40 as bus fare to and from work – which works out to about Sh1,440 in a month, he would not be able to pay his monthly rent of Sh3,500. He works six days a week, from 8am to 5pm.
He had already walked for over eight kilometres from his home in Kayole, and would be walking for another eight. He says he is going to work, but in real sense, he is going to look for one at a milling company in Industrial Area. Despite having worked there for the last six months, he is going to be recruited afresh as a porter.
And as soon as he left the gates of the miller, he would be out of job. This is the main reason he has to be super-frugal. He does not enjoy the luxury that comes with certainty.
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He is paid for working hard. The more sacks of maize he carries, the more cash in his pocket (they are paid at the end of the day). But he rarely earns over Sh400 in a day. In lean times like when we spoke on the phone two days later, he receives as little as Sh150. On average, he is paid Sh300 – less than what some spend daily on two bottles of beer after what they say is a hard day’s work.
Shiundu’s income at the end of the month amounts to around Sh7,200. Each day, he has to religiously put aside Sh200 for his monthly rent of Sh3,500 for a single-room in an area known as Masimba in Kayole.
“If I earn Sh200, then I will put aside Sh100 and another Sh100 will go to food,” he says.
“There is a time last year when I starved myself for three days so that I could settle my rent arrears. Luckily, work was good in those days,” he says, adding that he used to get Sh450 per day.
After paying rent, Shiundu is left with Sh3,700. His electricity bill is a flat rate of Sh300 (illegal connection?). At work, he takes two mandazis and tea for lunch at a cost of Sh30. He thus spends Sh720 on this gruesome meal. He has not yet bought a TV set and won’t be doing so soon.
Food and water will gobble up Sh2,980 he is left with. He buys water at Sh20 for 20 litres. He rarely buys new clothes for him or his wife. They can go for three months without tasting beef.
“When you do such work as ours, you have to get used to eating cheap things. Now, why would you eat beef and you even don’t know if the work will be there tomorrow?” he said.
“For a man, you have to work hard, you cannot give up. It also depends on how you were brought up”. He insists he is strong, but fatigue is written all over his face. He keeps squinting, as though he has been exposed to bright light.
In his rural home in Luanda, Kakamega, he was born and schooled up to Standard Eight, two of his younger brothers who are still in school look up to him. There is also his father and uncle who know they have a son working in Nairobi.
No pay rise
When I ask whether his wages have ever been raised, he shakes his head. “You know we are not employees, so we cannot agitate for a pay rise,” he says.
Words such as NHIF, NSSF and labour union are Greek to him. His hope is that life could get better, but he is not really complaining. There is no bitterness in his voice, he even affords a smile. He takes the hard life he lives like a punishment he deserves.
We reach where he works a few minutes to 6am. I notice two trucks outside the company.
“I will sit here and take a rest until around 8am when we will be called. I have been here longer, so he will just take my ID,” he says, as he leans on the wall – a position he will occupy for the next two hours as he waits for the gates to open.