Balancing life in the city

Balancing life in the city

We are walking in the streets of Kibera, Africa's largest slum with more than 170,000 people inhabitants. It is an endless sea of houses made of mud bricks and corrugated metal roofs. We pass several informal market areas, with vendors selling food and any household item you might need on a daily basis (such as rice, milk, butter, soap, or charcoal) in small quantities, as well as clothing and shoes.

We talk to different vendors. One of them is Esther*. She sells vegetables and fruits and in-between helping customers, she talks to us about her life.

*Esther is a fictitious character. She does not exist in real life. She is a constructed persona based on SNV’s research into the life of the urban poor. This blog is used as an example to highlight the struggles many real people in the urban context deal with on a daily basis.

Esther (37) is married and has five children. She moved to Kibera with her husband and eldest child more than 10 years ago. Her husband works as a day labourer in the construction sector and she started selling fruits and vegetables to earn money.

“I leave the house at 4 in the morning and go to the wholesales market to buy the leftover produce that the traders otherwise can’t sell anymore and I can get for good price. At 9 or 10 o’clock I arrive here, build my stall and start selling. There are many competitors and customers always negotiate on prices, so I get information about latest market rates on my mobile phone.”

“My children wake up, while I’m out.” Three of her children then go to school, but her two eldest children had to drop out. “We don’t have the money to send them. They spend their days outside in the neighbourhood and I’m afraid something might happen to them or that they get involved with one of the gangs that control the area where we live."

A woman in Kibera with her baby outside a health clinic in Kibera, © Dutch MFA

A woman in Kibera with her baby outside a health clinic in Kibera, © Dutch MFA

A young woman with her child outside a health clinic in Kibera,  © Dutch MFA

A young woman with her child outside a health clinic in Kibera, © Dutch MFA

“They are everywhere and we have to pay them rent and fees for many things. They make life a lot more expensive.” Esther says, before she continues “We pay rent to the gangs for our house, but it is not connected to the electricity, because we would not be able to afford the higher rent. Our house does not have a toilet or water, so we have to use the local community sanitation facility, but have to pay a fee. There is a local public pump, but the gangs force everyone to a pay a fee to access it for example, so it becomes one of our biggest expenses. I even have to pay them a fee to charge my phone on the corner of the street!”

“I’m always balancing our expenses, but prices and our income vary a lot. We buy everything in small quantities, briquettes for cooking, cooking oil, soap, milk. I know it would be cheaper to buy larger quantities, but we don’t have enough money for that. I use the fruits and vegetables that I don’t sell to cook dinner. The leftover food is not always safe; sometimes they are spoiled and we get sick, but it is all we can afford.” The smoke from the briquettes makes Esther cough and affects her health, “but, we can’t afford any other fuel for cooking.”

We get the impression that she faces many problems and ask her if she would not rather move back to the country-side. “Oh no,” she answers quickly “Our life is better here. Here we have access to everything we could need. Before we moved here, we would have days without food every dry season when our supplies would run out and traders would have nothing to sell. Here that never happens. Our income is also much better here. Our jobs are irregular, but at least there’s work! In the village, we could do nothing but farm. Water is expensive, but at least we don’t have to walk 2 hours every day to get it.”

“We see people around us who are doing well and my children have a chance at a better future here.” Esther tells us before we leave her. “We face many challenges here but we make it work.”