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Kenya - A day in the life of a vendor

 INSP 13 December 2019

Her dream is to own a decent home like her neighbours. For years, however, she has been chasing the wind and there is no doubt that the odds are stacked against her, but Elizabeth Ndila, a Big Issue vendor in Kenya, just won’t give up. (1751 Words) - By Njoroge Kinuthia

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Elizabeth Ndila persuades a motorist at a parking bay to buy the magazine.Photo: Benard Kimani

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Ndila receives copies of the Big Issue Kenya magazine at REM depot in Mitumba slums.Photo: Benard Kimani

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Ndila leaves Mitumba and heads to the licenced Karen pitch which is over 10 kilometres away.Photo: Benard Kimani

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Ndila looks for customers at Karen shopping centre.Photo: Benard Kimani

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No madam: Ndila receives a ‘no thank you’ gesture from a motorist. Some people do not give her a chance to explain herself.Photo: Bernard Kimani

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The Big Issue magazine is a product for all. Ndila approaches a shoe trader located in the pitch area.Photo: Benard Kimani

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Ndila positions herself at the entrance of the shopping centre.Photo: Benard Kimani

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Ndila stands outside one of the shops after making several rounds in the pitch area.Photo: Benard Kimani

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Ndila takes a break at one of the road pavements at the shopping centre.Photo: Benard Kimani

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Ndila cooking for her family in her house in the Mitumba slums.Photo: Benard Kimani

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Ndila washing clothes. Besides selling the Big Issue, she earns extra money by washing clothes for other families.Photo: Benard Kimani

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A street in the Mitumba area of Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya.Photo: Benard Kimani

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Ndila selling necklaces which she makes during her free time with a friend.Photo: Benard Kimani

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Children playing in Mitumba slums. In the background is South C estate, which is Ndila’s dream residential estate.Photo: Benard Kimani


The shanty stands forlornly between two symbols of affluence: a small airport, Wilson Airport, and a decent middle-class residential estate, South C. At the edge of the shanty, one can see aeroplanes cruising on the run-away after landing or while gearing up for take-off.

From a vantage position, the corrugated iron shacks are a far cry from their neighbourhood, an eye-sore in an otherwise modern setting. Perhaps that is why the shanty is called Mitumba, which means 'second-hand' in Kiswahili. And no doubt, Mitumba has all the hallmarks of an abode for second rate citizens; those who see and smell 'wealth', but like the biblical Lazarus, live on scraps falling off the rich man's table.

Ms Elizabeth Ndila, a vendor for Kenyan street paper, Big Issue, is one of the thousands of people who call Mitumba home. Ndila has lived in Mitumba since 2002, having moved from yet another city slum. She laments about the struggles of the poor in Nairobi's shanties. "Life's a nightmare here. We work very hard but get very little in return. Everything is expensive and costs money, even going to the toilet costs money here, you cannot go to the toilet without money," she explains.

But Ndila is no stranger to the vagaries of poverty. Life hasn't changed much for the 38-year-old since she arrived in the Kenyan Capital over a decade ago in search of a better life. She has always been on the move either working or looking for a job. Over the years, she has done menial jobs in a factory packaging tea and with families as a house-help, rarely earning more than two dollars a day.

Despite her seemingly unchanging fortunes, she has never lost hope and is sanguine that one day she will cross over the stone wall and live her dream. The stone wall divides Mitumba slums from the elegant brick -walled and tile-roofed South C estate.

"The people who live on the other side (of the wall) are just like me. Who said I cannot live there? One day, I will live there, or buy a piece of land and build a decent house too," she says with conviction.

Ndila lives in one of the shacks with her husband, Nicholas Wambua, and their two children. Her husband works as a football coach for street children with an organisation which aims to lure the kids off the streets and drugs. Like thousands others, they are squatters and do know when the owner of the land which they occupy will come calling with an eviction order.

Before then, however, Ndila hopes that life will have changed for the better. And she fully understands that crossing over the barrier wall will take more than words; only hard work will give her the financial muscle to jump over. That's why she wakes up at 5.00am every day, and after preparing breakfast for her family, departs about an hour later to engage in the often futile search for menial jobs.

Before she was recruited as a vendor for the Big Issue, Ndila would usually spend her days moving from house to house looking for families in need of someone to (hand) wash their dirty linen. This was not a sure job as there are many women eyeing the same.

Today, as a vendor, she is among the lucky few as she is assured of putting food on the table. "Every time I sell a copy of a Big Issue, I am earn Sh75 (slightly less than a dollar), half the cover price of the magazine," she reveals, a smile on her face. "I always sell, one or two copies every time I go to the field."

Her pitch is at Karen Shopping Centre, an upmarket residential area over 10 km from Mitumba. There is nowhere to sell the magazine close to Mitumba as the Big Issue management has not acquired a vendors' licence to trade in the area.

Usually, she cannot afford to pay bus fare to her pitch which ranges from Sh30 to Sh50 depending on the hour, opting to walk instead.

"Money spent on bus fare to me is wasted money. I have kids to feed," she asserts. The walk to Karen is never lonely journey. There are scores others making the 10km trek from Mitumba; construction workers, house-helps, guards and a fellow Big Issue vendor. "We chat all the way, you never notice the passage of time," she reveals.

On the way, she always restrains herself from the temptation of selling to pedestrians. She actually tried it once, and promptly fell into the hands of the local government officials as she did not have a licence to trade there. Fortunately for her, they heeded her pleas for mercy and released her.

But even at her Karen pitch, selling the Big Issue is not a piece of cake. "It's always a struggle," she says.

"Most people don't know the Big Issue and they tell me to explain what stories it has. Some people want me to give them the magazines for free, blaming the economy. Some will tell you straight on the face they don't want it. It's always frustrating," she laments. "But along the way you get some good people who understand the essence of the Big Issue and they become your faithful customers". When she is not selling the magazine Ndila sells necklaces which makes with a friend using pieces of paper and beads.

Despite her frustrations in marketing the Big Issue, Ndila hopes that the magazine will finally help her attain her dream. "I think if I continue selling this magazine, I'll get good money and a buy a good house."

And that might not be far-fetched. The management of the Big Issue,which was revived in June after a two-year hiatus, is confident that the Big Issue is on the right footing and might break even in the near future.

"We want to make the Big Issue the big thing. We want to make it a voice for the voiceless people. We want to make it a popular magazine among Kenyans," says Ms Lilian Maingi, Big Issue's editor and project manager. And if their second issue is anything to go by, the Big Issue's future is bright. The magazine leads with a story about some 5000 residents who share only one toilet in Mathare slums in Nairobi.

We aspire to go the way of South Africa (Big Issue) which comes out every week, reveals the editor of the bi-monthly magazine.

But she admits this will not be a walk in the park. Solutions will have to be sought for several sticking issues. Firstly, the printing cost in the country is too high. Currently, printing one copy of the magazine costs Sh150. The magazine sells at Sh140, with half of the amount going to the vendor. This, Maingi notes, does not make business sense. They are currently exploring cheaper printing options inside and outside the country.

Secondly, she says there is need to hire more workers. The tiny Big Issue office at Shalom House along Ngong Road in Nairobi is currently staffed by only two other people besides the editor, a social development officer, Mr Cosmas Nduva and an intern. The stories in the magazine are mostly done by stringers.

Finally she appeals to the government and Kenyans to understand and appreciate the Big Issue. The government should be supportive of the Big Issue because unlike other publications, it seeks to directly uplift the living standards of the poor and vulnerable. "The government should start thinking outside the box, it is sad that they close the doors when we go to seek for help," she says. She, for instance, says that the city authorities should allow Big Issue vendors to sell within the city centre and even consider scrapping the licence fees which she laments is too high. Kenyans, Maingi says, should support the homeless by buying the magazine.

Although there are no definitive statistics, the problem of homelessness and lack of decent housing is a major one in Kenya. According to Mr Eric Makokha, chief executive officer, Shelter Forum, an NGO which champions the right to secure, affordable and decent shelter in Kenya, homelessness is more pronounced in urban areas. However, in both rural and urban areas there is a widespread lack of quality housing with thousands of people live in inhumane conditions in leaky and rickety shacks without clean water and sanitation. The poor quality of housing, Makokha says, impacts on the health and economic productivity of the people.

The housing crisis was accentuated further by the 2008 post-election violence which besides killing over 1000 people left another 600,000 internally displaced, after their were destroyed in the violence. The government has promised that it will to resettle the IDPs by the end of this year. But with less than a month to the end of the year, only time will tell whether the pledge will be honoured.

In the capital Nairobi, according to UN-Habitat, almost half of the city's population lives in over 100 slums and squatter settlements within the city.

The government and non-governmental organisations have been struggling uplift the living standards of the people slum areas. For example, some residents of Kibera, Africa's largest informal settlement, have been resettled in some 300 apartments constructed by the government the UN-Habitat as part of the Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme (KENSUP) which was initiated in 2000.

According to the Ministry of Housing, the country needs to produce 150,000 housing units for low-income earners every year if it is tackle the biting housing crisis effectively in the near future. However, according to the National Housing Corporation, the market can only supply 30,000 units annually. Demand therefore outstrips supply leading to high prices, making decent houses unaffordable for those in the low income bracket.

While lauding the government for reducing the tax burden on the construction industry, Makokha says the government should provide more incentives to the private sector to boost the construction of homes for low income earners. Such incentives should include providing developers with serviced land which he says can help bring down the cost of houses.

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