‘Life On These Stones Is Very Hard’ – House Helps in Covid-19 Nairobi

Photo: Eric Kioko, August 2020.

By Mario SchmidtChristiane Stephan, Kawikya Judith Musa and Eric M. Kioko 

Panic! Rush! Empty sacks! Women running! Big cars passing by! Boom! All women stare at the same spot on the road: a car passing by. Within seconds, many of them rush towards it. One who was selling roasted maize, water and a few more goods leaves her place of work opposite the road and runs towards the vehicle as well. Panic and competition are in the air. Within a few minutes, the women come back, discouragement and lack of morale palpable in their bodies and faces. “What happened?”, one of those left seated asks. “The driver didn’t think we were this many, so he closed the car´s door and left!”

This scene gives insight into dynamic moments taking place along the roadsides of Nairobi’s affluent suburbs since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. It displays the intensified competition characterizing the job market for informal house helps looking for work and financial or material assistance. Suburbs like Kileleshwa or Kilimani present an unusual picture to those accustomed to see African cities through photographs of slums and shantytowns. Yet, here we have elegant residential areas mushroomed in leafy environments, roads with pedestrian walkways for cycling and jogging, cosmopolitan coffee joints, posh malls, and police patrols.

Nairobi’s Affluent West. Photo: Eric Kioko, August 2020

Squeezed within these neighbourhoods, around street corners and road junctions waits the “other” of Nairobi’s affluent neighbourhoods: people selling boiled eggs, sausages, small 2 kiosks offering biscuits, vegetables and sodas, open-air food joints, and car wash points. These businesses allow the well-off inhabitants of Nairobi’s West to obtain services and goods at their doorstep. At the same time, the stalls’ owners also sell goods and food to construction workers, commuters and, occasionally, one of the women who are the protagonists of our vignette. The latter are gathered in ethnically organized groups of five to twenty and between the ages of twenty and sixty. According to their own reports, their number has kept increasing since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. From early morning to late evening, they seem to idle around along the roads without being engaged in any productive work.

Women ‘idling’ around. Photo: Judith K. Musa, August 2020

This, however, proves to be a premature assessment. Many of them have developed skills of “demanding their share” in what Ferguson called “survivalist improvisatory labor”. Knowing how to occupy which road junction and being able to identify and win over a “boss” that helps with some money, food or even offering temporary employment are skills needed even more urgently during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Through a combination of remote and on-site ethnography, we have collaborated to gain insight into the everyday realities of these “roadside women”. Ethnographic observations and interviews by Judith Kamwikya Musa have allowed us to exchange preliminary ideas about socio-economic transformations in Covid-19 Nairobi. Our data is neither backed up by long ethnographic engagement with these women nor can we provide quantitative data on their ‘true’ numbers or former employment situation. Our goal is more modest. We want to illustrate the highly volatile “atmospheres of pressure” that have become prevalent along the roadsides of Nairobi’s affluent suburbs.

House Helps On The Street – Employers’ Fears And The End Of Economic Relationships 

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the livelihoods of many of these women, who almost exclusively migrated to Nairobi from Western Kenya and Machakos and now live in Kibera, Kawangware or other informal settlements, depended on being house helps in richer homes. Their wages allowed them to pay rent, food and school fees for their children. However, most working arrangements were terminated by employers between March and April 2019, when Covid-19 infection rates started to increase in Kenya. Many employers feared that their house helps would transmit the virus to them, thereby exacerbating stereotypes about unhygienic and irresponsible ‘slum dweller’:

When Corona came […] I was told I will be called […] you cannot stay at home and you have children who want to eat […] I decided to look for a casual job as I wait for the call even if it is washing dishes […] even if I am given at least 200 shillings, I buy flour […] That is how we wake up early and come here […] since March, I have not gotten any job opportunity.

Female, mid-40s, Kileleshwa

The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent containment measures have, as for many other Nairobians and house helps elsewhere, produced painful times for the women. Socio-economic relations with former employers which have always been precarious and often exploitative can no longer be characterized as reliable. Most importantly, relations have been impersonalized. On the roadside, house helps and “bosses” no longer meet as social and economic actors who know each other personally. Rather, they now interact as, to a certain extent, personally unknown members of different socio-economic classes who are further unsettled by the potential risks of getting infected with Covid-19.

The roadside women are more and more dependent on what Bornstein has called “the fleeting impulse to give to immediate others in distress” epitomized in a 100 Kenyan Shillings banknote handed over from one stranger to the other through an open car window. Economic precariousness, pandemic anxieties and the capitalist class dynamics of Nairobi intersect and make women’s economic future even more unpredictable. Depending on how a day on the roadside unfolds, atmospheres change quickly. From fights and beatings to generous sharing, from shared and painful hunger to light-hearted gossiping.

“If You See An Old Woman Coming To Find Peace By Sitting By The Road, You Know Things Are Bad” (Female, late 30s, Kilimani) – Competition And Solidarity

Before Covid-19, the roadside was a space of social and economic safety for temporarily laid off or newly arrived house helps. Increasing economic pressure and pandemic anxieties of Nairobi’s middle-class, however, have turned the roadside into the main site of socio-economic activity for more and more women. In their scramble for jobs and material support from well-wishers and employers, women have turned the roadside into an ambivalent space of pressure and relief, inclusion and exclusion, competition and solidarity: 

[Woman 1] We are many groups here, some live in Kibera and others in Kawangware. Everyone knows everyone else’s face so they chase you away for a while so that you get used to the new life by the road. We have strategic points here where you cannot sit when you are a stranger. [Woman 2] They ensure a new person doesn’t get anything when an old person [one who has been there for a longer time] has been here. [Woman 1] Here, where we are sitting, we are the ones who accommodate new people because if you’re lucky you will get, [Woman 3] and if not, you will come here for a whole week and go back home with nothing. [Woman 1] If you feel this place is a loss sitting, you just leave […].”

Group interview, 27th August 2020; 4 women.

The increasing number of house helps does not only decrease the available share for each woman and intensify hierarchies between newcomers and women who have been there for some time. It also scares potential well-wishers as shown by our vignette in which the women did not receive anything due to their number. Well-wishers fear bodies who potentially carry the Coronavirus. They try to avoid contact by commanding women to queue with distance, by telling them to remain seated so that they bring them the share cautiously or, less often, by deciding to give to one woman with the advice to share.

It is crucial to note that competition and solidarity do not exclude but rather seem to complement each other as strategies for navigating pressure. This can be understood considering the social composition of the roadside women. Organized into sub-groups of roughly six to eight women they share the same ethnicity and often know each other from the places where they live. These sub-groups share gossip, give emotional comfort and their members sometimes share money with one another. Collectively keeping a secret about their real situation when going to the richer suburbs day by day, furthermore contributes to a feeling of complicity: 

I tell my children I have gone to work […] if I tell them I go to sit somewhere in the sun the whole day, they will be stressed […] when I go back home with little flour, I tell them that I got a job […] I don’t take porridge as they take, I tell them I will take strong tea where I am going and probably, I don’t even have a single cent.

Female, late 30s, Kilimani

Practices of sharing money or food given by a well-wisher appear to be governed by different rules organized around the acceptance of “luck” as the main principle guiding who gets a share of the roadside’s “limited good”. Generally, the women should subdivide financial or material assistance received among all women that were present when the transaction happened. The distribution is enforced by social pressure, the hectic atmosphere of all women rushing towards the well-wisher or the place where the transaction happened and the threat of violence.

Due to the high number of women, however, food as well as money can only be subdivided reasonably until further dividing equals giving out nothing. In most cases, the majority of women therefore do not get anything. The “limited goods” available on the roadside put pressure on the groups to not accept further members and the women are aware that the situation needs to change soon. Some, e.g., already report about what could be called a charity fatigue:

With the extended period of Covid-19, the well-wishers have reduced in numbers. When Corona began in March and April, you could see two in a week but these days [August], it can even take two weeks without anything.

Female, late-40s; Lavington.

While the house helps stand out from the neighbourhood´s residents in several ways, there is one aspect we want to highlight. Unlike the well-wishers and “bosses”, the roadside woman seems to undermine the dictate of “social distancing”. She strengthens social ties that have not been cut and attempts to create new bonds with women who share her struggle. It would be dangerous to stereotype her as a Covid-19 heroine that survives the pandemic’s precarious conditions. We do not know how her story continues, but it will most probably involve further navigating socio-economic landscapes of ambiguity: facing emotions of fear, hope, desperation and affection, performing practices of care, competition and calculation, invoking well-wishers, God and luck.     

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.

Christiane Stephan is a postdoctoral researcher in human geography at the Department of Geography at University Bonn, Germany. She tweets at @ChrisSteph9.

Kawikya Judith Musa is a community development practitioner and first degree finalist at the Department of Environmental Studies (Community Development), Kenyatta University, Nairobi.

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

This research was funded under the Argelander Grant scheme by Rheinische Friedrich Wilhelms-University Bonn in the project “Contending with COVID-19 shock in selected African countries: Micro-level evidence from Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Namibia” managed by Christiane Stephan and Emmanuel Rukundo.

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