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Kenya market: Buying and selling isn’t just commerce but a daily struggle for survival


MAY 31 – JUNE 14, 1995

Kenya market: Buying and selling isn’t just commerce but a daily struggle for survival

Problems of waste disposal and hygiene linger as vendors try environmentally sound practices


NAIROBI, Kenya-United Nation agencies and even economists call it the “informal sector” but for millions of men, women and children, especially in the developing countries, it is called “survival.” And TO! Market in Nairobi is the perfect example of this  phenomena.

From a distance, the market looks like a giant, open air fete but on closer contact it is a myriad of small, hastily put together, ramshackle tables and gunny bags laid on theground, displaying old clothes, dried fish, lentils, fruit, vegetables and pot and pans. All around there- is garbage, and for the thousands who come here everyday, from distant villages, there are no toilets or even water. Water has to be carried in old plastic containers from a neighboring slum.

Yet, thousands of jobless Kenyans come here everyday to sell whatever they can and earn

the few shillings that will decide what, if anything, their children will eat that night.

Mildred Mkandhi, from Earth Care Africa, knows these people. She tried to help them. “In

September last year, during the clean up Nairobi drive, EarthCare Africa cleaned up this site.  The community was very helpful, they wanted to do it on a permanent basis but there were no funds,” she said. “We even made a proposal and called it “Cleaning  the Environment is  everyone’s Business,” and all we needed was $12,000 to get it started and to mobilize people to continue.

“We wanted to teach the vendors different ways of  disposing of waste, and making compost, so they could earn some money. We were even prepared to assist themwith temporary toilets

that can be filled up and new ones built,” said Mkandla. “We wanted, through theater, smallbookletsand video, to teach them how they could make their environment more hygienic.”

Mkandlais the program officer for the gender and sustainability unit of EarthCare Africa, which is a policy and environmental monitoring institute. Its major goal is poverty elimination and sustainable development. It undertakes projects and programs that will help women and the poor through education.

With Unep funding, EarthCare has developed an educational module for city communities

which focuses on water and sanitation, pollution, waste disposal, energy, drug abuse and urban farming.

TOI market is a remarkable place. The people look happy.

Trade, even in its most elemental forms, seems to flourish. It captures the essence of human endeavor against great odds, and throws those well thought out economic policies by people in glass houses to the winds. Because these are not statistics; these are real people who tell their story simply and from the heart, as they live it.

Margaret Njeri is 45 years old, married and has four children. Her husband is a driver in the Kiambu district where the family lives. She came to look for work in Nairobi and ended up selling cereal in the market. Her stall consists of a sheet spread on the uneven, dirty ground, with small bags of different varieties of lentils.

It is a one hour bus drive from her home and costs 17 shillings (about 50 cents). “On good days I  make about 100 shillings,” she says, “ I  wish I could have a permanent  stall  and cleaner area to sell my produce.

But Njeri has another life as well.  She is the chairperson of the Amani dance group.  “Every Thursday our group dances at Commercially centers.  We also dance for events and festivals.  Our culture is important to us,” she said.

Despite the fact that Njeri grew up poor on a farm that hardly made any money, and is still striving to make ends meet, she shows a resilience that many in Africa have, a drive to give their life more meaning.

Mkandla said, “This is the only way they can earn an honest day’s living and they are proud of it.  They strive and struggle and carry their wares back and forth everyday in peasant-powered barrows called ‘mkokoteni’ which is made up of left over pieces of iron rods and wheels.

Her face is lined and she looks tired, as she lays out the dried fish on a makeshift table.  She is Jennifer Otambo, a poor peasant woman from the Kisumu province, and her story is one that is familiar to many women.  She had a little land but when her husband died, her brother-in-law took it.  Now she lives in a slum in Nairobi, and comes to TOI market to sell fish Otambo has four children and only one has a job and helps the family.  If she is lucky she may earn 20 shillings.

This is the wonder of TOI market.  There seem to be more vendors than buyers.  Perhaps, when the sun goes down and people are packing up to leave, they buy what they need from each other.

By the side of a road, near the edge of the vast field of vendors Thomas Kimeu, a cobbler, sits next to a pile of old tires and makes sandals out of them.  His wife and three children live with his father, who has a small farm in Machakos.

“We needed an extra income so I started this business three years ago, “he said proudly.

“I can make three pairs of sandals from one small tire and I sell a pair for anything between 50 shillings and 100 shillings depending on the style,” Kimeu explained.

Mkandla, who has been trying to help these people, said, “Our interest is in people’s survival strategies under these harsh economic conditions and we are committed to finding ways to empower them to have better lives.”