“There is a Lot of Pressure on Me. It’s Like the Distance Between Heaven and Earth” – Landscapes of Debt, Poverty-in-People and Social Atomization in Covid-19 Nairobi

Photo: Jack Omondi Misiga

By Mario Schmidt, Eric Kioko, Evelyn Atieno Owino and Christiane Stephan

Everyday economic life in Nairobi has been transformed following the COVID-19 containment measures installed by the Kenyan government. In the immediate aftermath of Kenya’s first case reported on 13th March 2020, President Uhuru Kenyatta shut down air travel, introduced a nationwide curfew for the night hours, introduced a mask requirement, reduced passenger numbers in public transport, closed schools and institutions of higher learning and restricted social gathering. These measures set in motion transformations that span across various networks and scales of the urban. In order to analyze the effects of Kenya’s political elite’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic on urban households, we have teamed up with five Kenyan colleagues who conducted over two hundred qualitative interviews in different locales of Nairobi and Nakuru. In Nairobi, our assistants, who made sure that measures of COVID-19 containment and personal safety were respected, worked in the informal settlement Kibera, the low-income tenement settlement Pipeline (Embakasi), and Kileleshwa, home to richer Nairobians and expats. Our research assistants interviewed Nairobians from the age of twenty to over eighty years. Among the respondents were migrants and people born in Nairobi, casual, unemployed and laid-off workers, maids, housewives, Uber drivers, white collar workers, shop owners, club bouncers, artists, daycare owners, tailors who found a new job producing face masks, waiters, chefs as well as people employed by NGOs. 

In this and the next blog, we want to offer some preliminary reflections on these interviews that have been conducted in English, Kiswahili, Dholuo, Kikamba and the informal Sheng. We do not aim to offer a comprehensive analysis of a capitalist African metropolis during a pandemic. Rather, we want to provide glimpses into the everyday lives of Nairobians engaged in different forms of making ends meet. One common thread, however, crystallized quickly: Economic pressure has become almost unbearable. Many of our respondents report financial losses exceeding 50 % of their pre-Corona income. Skipping meals and sleeping hungry has become the norm and most of our interviewees mention an increase in sleeplessness, ‘deep thoughts’ or stress-related development of ulcers. Out of over two hundred respondents, only a handful reported that they have not experienced drastic changes in their economic situation. At the same time, the virus itself has left remarkably few marks in our respondents’ lives. Few report knowing infected persons or someone who has died from Covid-19. This corresponds with the official data released by the Kenyan government which, as of 18th September 2020, has reported 650 Covid-19 deaths. During a comparable time span of five months, roughly 5,000 Kenyans have died of Malaria, 14,500 from Tuberculosis and 12,500 from AIDS

“Living in Nairobi is All About Money and If You Don’t Have Money, You Live A Life of Loan” [male, 42, Pipeline1] – Landscapes of Debt and Social Distancing

Places like Kibera, home to over half a million Kenyans who live in close social as well as spatial proximity to one another, and Pipeline, one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most densely populated areas, have always been characterized by landscapes of debt, i.e. intricate and carefully balanced webs of credit and debt relations that organize social and spatial relations across networks of friends, family members and colleagues. These landscapes have massive effects on Nairobi’s material infrastructure and the ways people move and socialize with one another. Informal vendors who take mobile loans in the morning and pay them back by night with money from customers whose husbands have left them 100 Kenyan Shillings to prepare dinner; shop owners who have a balanced portfolio of customers paying cash and customers taking soft loans as well as matatu drivers and mobile money agents who maintain complex rural-urban networks of assistance with food being sent from the shores of Lake Victoria and money through mobile phones the other way. Wherever you look, debts and obligations crisscross social, spatial as well as ethnic boundaries.

Figure 1: Interior Street of Pipeline, Embakasi

Photo: Mario Schmidt

Our interviews give unsettling testimony of how the measures put into place to fight the spread of the Coronavirus have destabilized these landscapes of debt. The political response to the Corona pandemic led to an economic shock. Because of this shock, carefully orchestrated economic relations have been brought to their limits. People no longer know where to find money to pay back a loan or debt. As a consequence of this general attack on carefully balanced systems of economic entrustment, we furthermore observe changes in social relations and new formations of sociality that we summarize under the slogan of an increasing social atomization leading to an overburdening of the nuclear family

The example of a 27-year old woman living in Pipeline who felt coerced to conceal from her husband that she assists a friend with some food lays bare an atmosphere of mistrust in which helping someone risks being interpreted as a threat by someone else. Giving to someone has become stealing from a third person: “I have to steal so that I can help her” (female, 27, Pipeline). Other respondents contemplated ‘killing themselves and their loved ones’ such as a mother of seven in her thirties living in Kibera. She used to work as a casual laborer in the house of a government official in nearby Langata but lost her job. Her husband, also recently unemployed and regularly drinking chang’aa (illegally brewed alcohol), started physical fights with her which lead our respondent to think about buying poison to kill herself and her children in order to let the stress and pressure disappear. A 36-year old father of two who lost his job in a tourist company saw no other solution to escape his debt collectors than faking his death: 

The people from the app called me, and I refused to pick the phone. I then gave the phone to my friend […] [He] told the person on the phone that I’m at the city mortuary so that they could stop calling me […] so he told the guy to also help in contributing money towards my funeral arrangements […]. From then, they have never called me.”

(Male, 36, P2.)

Mobile loan apps such as Zenka, Branch, Tala, M-Shwari, and Safaricom’s recently introduced continuous overdraft service Fuliza are increasing pressure on debt defaulters. At the same time, new credit requests are blocked as one of our respondents who works for a digital banking service company and restructures loans confirmed. Our respondent’s attempt to continue living a peaceful and humane life by pretending to be dead epitomizes one of our blog’s main observations. Carefully established and maintained social relations with neighbors, family members, and colleagues as well as more spontaneous forms of sociality have disappeared or crumbled in the wake of the measures put into place to curb the spread of Covid-19. This development is aptly summarized in the words of another interviewee who had already sold his furniture and most personal belongings. He remained with his bed and a single suitcase that he kept packed in order to move out quickly if he were to be thrown out by his landlord. For him, sociality itself was no longer within reach. In his eyes, the whole world had turned against him: “I feel like the whole world is just against me, […] everybody is just an enemy” (24, male, P3). 

Figure 2: Street in Pipeline during the evening hours

Photo: Mario Schmidt.

The Corona pandemic’s political reaction has transformed wealth-in-people, i.e. the ability to gain and benefit from large and deep social networks into what we tentatively call poverty-in-people. Nairobians are forced to invent and enact practices of ‘social distancing’ that are not medically induced. They switch off their phones to avoid being called by debt collectors or friends and relatives asking for money; they walk around in the neighborhood instead of going home to avoid conflict with their spouses or other family members; they lock themselves in their houses to cry; they contemplate suicide; they send their children to the rural area; they no longer knock on their neighbors’ doors as they expect the neighbors to expect that they want money; they carefully choose new routes every day to avoid being spotted by a shop owner who wants them to pay back a soft loan; they put on masks so that creditors do not recognize them on the streets. While we are aware that not all these strategies are new, we want to emphasize the scale at which they take place. The increase in practices of avoiding social contacts to ward off economic claims has multiple effects, out of which we want to highlight one in the next section: an increase in gender-based violence and changing gender roles.

“A Lot of Women are Screaming at Night” [male, 40-50, Kibera1] – Gender-Based Violence and Ambiguous Arrangements of Care 

The practices of social distancing mentioned in the last section lead to an over-burdening of the social unit living together under one roof which often consists of the nuclear family, i.e. husband, wife, and children who have been sent home from school since the beginning of the pandemic. Especially in Pipeline, the nuclear family, being squeezed into less than ten or fifteen square meters, has become the main functioning social unit under constant danger to be dissolved by impatient landlords who threaten to cut off electricity, lock tenants out of their house and auction off their goods. This tragic emergence of the nuclear family intensifies conflicts and generates new but ambiguously viewed relations of care. Images of the husband as “provider” are destabilized and lead to increased gender-based violence and mounting pressure on both partners to find money. At the same time, some of the men who have been laid off report that they have more time to spend with their children. While most enjoy this, some also voice shame, such as a 35-year old man whose employee had stopped paying him in March. He felt that friends would start to look down upon him because he spends most of his time indoors with his daughter. Such an emasculating gaze is frequently projected by husbands onto their wives as shown by a respondent who reported to have felt ‘forced’ to slap his wife: 

“When I come back to the house, let’s say, I don’t come with meat in over a week now that’s a problem […] because she asks me what kind of a man am I who can’t provide for his family […] so that one also gives me psychological stress because even with the vegetables I provide daily I think she should understand that times are hard. […] I slapped her but not in front of the kids, I waited for the kids to go play and had to remind her that the house she is living in I’m the one paying the rent […] and she doesn’t know what I have to go through to let her reside with me in that house […] so it was just a reminder that I’m frustrated.” 

(Male, 35, P4.)

In other interviews, we came across reports of an increase in arguments, physical fights, and suspicion of infidelity. One of our respondents, e.g., had sent his wife and daughters to the rural area in order to ease the financial pressure in the city only to thereby increase his psychological stress. His wife being in the rural area triggered fears about other men taking advantage of the situation: 

“Relations at home have changed because since my wife went home in July I don’t have hopes of getting the fare to follow her there […] and if you don’t go to your place know that the neighbor does and can buy flour there […]. These motorbike people are just nearby with money, and if they lie to your wife, you can get a disease that is not yours.”

Male, 42, P1.

Practices that aim to reduce the economic pressure have had fundamental effects on wider social relations and have changed arrangements down to the nuclear family. Reducing social contacts to a minimum to avoid debt collection or ward off new demands has introduced new pressure on intimate relations between spouses and parents and children.

Will the Pressure Ever End?

At the end of our interviews, we asked respondents how they picture their lives after Corona. In contrast to their assessment of the present, which was almost uniformly negative, many respondents looked with hope into the future while a few considered the pandemic as an incident changing their lives forever. A 31-year old electrical engineer who had come to Nairobi with hopes of a better life, e.g., told us about his plans to return to his rural home, thereby giving an example of what Dauti Kahura has called “the exodus”: 

“In my life, I have made a decision that if the pandemic ends or if the lockdown ends, I think it will be better if I go back home because with this unpaid leave getting back to work will not be easy […]. I have lost hope, once lockdown is over, I will have to go back home and rest before coming back […]”

(Male, 31, P5)

Others see opportunities emerging after the Corona pandemic or interpret the pandemic as a teaching lesson that enforced their belief in the need to be self-employed and independent: “What corona has taught us is that you should have your own business […], you should have your own where you get income even if its 50 bob per day” (male, 28, P6). Some also voiced hope that the pandemic will trigger lasting changes in the educational and health sector: 

“If you see the educational department. They must increase their number of classes in schools, the desk they are supposed to add to enable them to keep the one meter social distance; meaning they will have to employ many teachers. And also now when you go to the health sector. You hear from the news they are trying to add some beds, some machines. It will be a greater change. […] Kenya is supposed to learn that we are supposed to make our health facilities the best one so that anyone can be treated everywhere”

(Male, 20-30, K2)

Even those who were optimistic that life would return to what people were used to before Corona expect a long and arduous journey: “We have lost a lot […] so it will be very difficult to recover what we have lost” (male, 28, P7). For the majority, economic pressure is expected to be around for long. They have already accepted that financial struggle, debts, and shifting social relations will have long-lasting effects no matter when the pandemic ends.

Mario Schmidt is Postdoctoral researcher at Collaborative Research Centre “Future Rural Africa” and a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School for the Humanities, University of Cologne. He tweets at @MarioShmidt.

Eric M. Kioko is a lecturer at the Department of Environmental Studies and Community Development, Kenyatta University, Kenya. 

Evelyne A. Owino is a research consultant with National Crime Research Center with a M.A. in International Relations from the United States International University of Africa, Nairobi.  

Christiane Stephan is a postdoctoral researcher in human geography at the Department of Geography at University Bonn, Germany.

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