Anne Wanjiru 29 years with her daughter Abigail Njeri of one and a half years on the streets of nairobi selling pears to earn a living. on 24th April 2017 [PHOTO: DAVID GICHURU/Standard]
Quietly tucked away from the rush of human traffic on Moi Avenue sits Florida Kendi, a 22-year-old female hawker. Seated on the pavement, it is easy to miss her except for her mat and leso with handkerchiefs and face towels. Standing close to her is a small girl playing with her dress – Kendi’s one-year-old daughter.
But Kendi is not bothered by the girl, instead her eyes are darting left and right. Shortly after I introduce myself, she grabs her mat with the wares, shoves it in a backpack that has all along been carelessly draped over her shoulder. Grabbing her daughter, she melts into the crowd.
“This is our life every day,” she tells me when she returns after a few minutes referring to council askaris. This cat-and-mouse game between hawkers and the city inspectorate officers is a norm.
The county officers who often patrol the Central Business District to deal with the influx of hawkers present a threat to Kendi and other hawkers. There has been an increase of women hawking in the streets of Nairobi with their children in tow. The children are exposed to the harsh street life and vagaries of the weather.
Stephen Njenga, a businessman who sells bags at a shop on Tom Mboya Street, attests to this unsettling scenario.
“Hawa wasichana na watoto kuongezeka wameongezeka (these women with children are too many),” he says.
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Anne Wanjiru, 29, Mercy Njoki, 29, Anne Murugi, 24, Lydia Njambi, 33, Janet Wairimu, 22 and Zipporah Mueni, 30 all sell their wares at Koja Bus stop on Tom Mboya Street. They have formed a small sisterhood and support each other, even selling the other’s wares.
Kendi, who is married to a driver and is a mother of two, has taken to hawking to supplement her husband’s income. Wairimu, who was carrying her seven-month-old daughter as she sold, is also married. She describes her husband as a ‘hustler’ who sells watermelons at Marigiti.
“We both hustle and increase our chances of getting something at the end of the day,” she says.
For Wairimu, hawking is a well-mastered family trade. Her mother was a hawker and her sister sells at a spot not far from hers, helping out with the baby when Wairimu is overwhelmed with work. Wairimu, who completed high school in 2013 and moved in with her husband in December 2016, defends her choice to hawk.
“Unajua siku hizi wanaume wanapenda mwanamke anahustle (men love women to also hustle),” she says.
Mercy Kageha, 30, brings her two children to the streets with her, one aged three and the other one. When I came cross Kageha, she was huddled together with both children, selling her wares at a tiny space outside Tuskys on Tom Mboya Street. These women all agree that it is all about survival.
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“It is difficult to balance the duties of a mother and a provider,” says Kendi. In that statement she captures the challenges of every woman hawker with a child on the streets of Nairobi.
To make it as a mother hawker, one needs to be vigilant and agile, skills that come in handy when confronted by county officers. They also have to deal with threats and harassment from shop owners.
“Sometimes the shop owners call and pay council askaris to kick us out or even pour water on us,” says Njoki.
A city county officer who did not want to be named because he has no authority to speak on behalf of the council says it is difficult to deal with women hawkers especially when accompanied by their children.
“Since they have children it is very delicate and emotional,” he says.
However, sometimes he is forced to use a little force to try and rid the streets of hawkers whether they have children or not. Murugi, a single mother of two who is five months pregnant with her third child says she would be unable to cater for her children’s needs were it not for her job. She states that it is more troubling for her to run when the officers arrive now that she is pregnant, because she feels “heavy and tired” all the time.
Some of the women who have been arrested previously recounted gruesome tales at the hands of the officers. Some of them accused the officers of failing to return their goods after grabbing them, a move that sets them back financially, forcing them to start all over again.
“At times they throw us in the cells with our children,” says Wairimu.
They accuse some of the officers of extorting bribes from them. The charges lined up against them range from selling without licences, blocking pathways and making noise. For each charge, they part with Sh2,000, money they do not have.
The women say that they are fearful now more than ever, given the rising cases of violence meted out on them by council askaris and even murder of hawkers. When the officers come, they run and leave their wares. Last year in January, four city county officers were arrested and charged with the murder of a hawker.
The life experiences of these women are also eerily similar and familiar. Many revealed they were single mothers. Njambi has raised her two children alone for eight years after her husband left, one of whom is now in Standard Seven and the elder one in Form Two, a feat she attributes to her job.
Many of the women are from Kayole, Huruma and Dandora and come to town in the afternoon after completing their chores and stay until 9pm or 10pm. When they get back home tired, they still have to prepare food for their children and prepare them for school the next day.
Another worry for the women is the exorbitant prices they have to pay as fare to and from their residences. On a bad day, when she makes as low as Sh300, half of the earnings go towards her fare. On a day when business is good, she earns as much as Sh1,500.