‘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.

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“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. 

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Blog Series: Pressure in the City

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The Covid-19 pandemic and the restructuring of the global economy it has triggered have exacerbated the need to study a topic that has flown under the radar of social scientists for too long: individuals and social groups experiencing economic pressure which manifests in myriad of somatic and psychological ways. The fallout from pressure — sleeplessness, ulcers, an atmosphere of hopelessness and social mistrust, gambling, suicides, as well as a growing concern about a lack of mental health facilities in cities of the Global South — now pervades urban as well as rural environments around the world. This blog series aims at taking a fresh look at the phenomenon of economic pressure through a decisively comparative and interdisciplinary approach. We will critically interrogate the role of economic pressure in the lives of both the rich and the poor, the unemployed and the workforce, across class and continents in order to answer, among others, the following questions:

  • What meanings does economic pressure take on as it travels between different contexts?
  • How do city dwellers of diverse class, religious and gender backgrounds experience pressure in their professional and private lives? How do they accommodate, negotiate and deflect pressure?
  • Does economic pressure offer new analytical possibilities vis-à-vis other concepts used to describe similar phenomena (e.g. poverty, uncertainty, precarity etc.)?
  • What is the relation between individually perceived economic pressure and structural changes of the economy or polity?
  • What moral valuations do urban residents assign to economic pressure? What logics underpin ‘good’ and ‘bad’ forms of pressure?
  • How can inter-disciplinary methodological and/or theoretical approaches deepen our understanding of economic pressure —the forms it assumes, the actions it motivates and the effects it generates?

We welcome contributions from a wide range of scientific disciplines (political economy, anthropology, economics, sociology, development studies, gender studies, international relations, geography, etc.) as well as other professions (such as practicing psychologists, counselors, activists, bankers, sports professionals etc.). As the blog’s organizers are all Africanists, the blog will, however, have an initial focus on sub-Saharan and, especially, Eastern Africa. We are confident that this will be balanced over time.

  • Pressure in the City: Stress, Worry and Anxiety in Times of Economic Crisis. The first contribution to the series, written by Jörg Wiegratz, Catherine Dolan, Wangui Kimari and Mario Schmidt will detail the rationale of the series and provide necessary background information and context.
  • Urban Africa under Stress: Rethinking Economic Pressure in Cities. Written by the same four scholars, this post explains in more detail the objectives of our blog series intervention, and our observations regarding pressure as a social phenomenon in a capitalist city in the Global South. It introduces Nairobi as a city of pressure and critically discusses the scholarship on economic pressure. As such, it acts as an introduction to subsequent blogs on Nairobi as a city of pressure.
  • ‘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. Written by Mario Schmidt, Eric Kioko, Evelyn Atieno Owino, and Christiane Stephan. This post sheds light on the multidimensional ways in which Kenya’s political elite’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has increased economic pressure on actors living in informal and low-income settlements of Nairobi (Kibera and Pipeline). It will be followed by a second post exploring the effects of the pandemic on inhabitants of Kileleshwa, a wealthier suburb of Nairobi.
  • ‘Life On These Stones Is Very Hard’ – House Helps in Covid-19 Nairobi. Written by Eric M. Kioko, Judith K. Musa, Mario Schmidt and Christiane Stephan, this blog focuses on the economic pressure experienced by women who lost jobs as house helps following the Covid-19 pandemic and how they manoeuvre their new economic situation within Nairobi’s richer suburbs.
  • “Under pressure”: negotiating competing demands and desires in a time of precarious earnings. Written by Hannah Dawson, this post examines the social and economic pressures faced by un(der)employed young men in an informal settlement on the outskirts of Johannesburg. It highlights the multiplicity of demands on young men’s precarious incomes and the tension they experience from the simultaneous pressure to consume and improve their own lives while at the same time providing for their families and children.

Blog series editors:

Jörg Wiegratz is a Lecturer in Political Economy of Global Development at the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds, and Senior Research Associate, Department of Sociology, University of Johannesburg. j.wiegratz@leeds.ac.uk.

Catherine Dolan is Reader in Anthropology at SOAS, University of London. cd17@soas.ac.uk

Wangui Kimari is a Postdoctoral researcher at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town. kuikimari@gmail.com

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. marioatschmidt@gmail.com

Photo by cheng feng on Unsplash

Pressure in the city: stress, worry and anxiety in times of economic crisis

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By Jörg WiegratzCatherine Dolan, Wangui Kimari and Mario Schmidt

2020 may well be remembered as the year the global economy shut down. Airports have been closed, stock markets have crashed, and workers have been laid off en masse while politicians discuss if and how to reopen and restructure the economy. According to snapshot data, this economic turmoil has precipitated a global surge in anxiety, as people worry about their immediate and future financial situations. Their jobs, livelihoods and businesses, their incomes and finances, their assets and investments, their social relations and family ties, and their plans and dreams of economic progression, all seem on the brink of being fundamentally devalued. A now ubiquitous government response to COVID-19 – national lockdowns – has mandated the working class to stay home and worry about health first and livelihoods later. This dictate has pulverised the livelihoods of millions of people within a matter of days. Curfews, travel restrictions and other measures put into place to stop the spread of the virus are in the process of ravaging entire economic sectors (e.g. tourism and air travel, energy, export agriculture, personal services), undermining the prospect of growth for years to come. The hardest hit, however, are the poorest members of society: factory workers in India who left the cities and walked home to their villages in ‘an exodus not seen in decades’, Bangladeshi garment factory workers facing hunger and unexpected levels of poverty, as well as droves of US-Americans queuing for food stamps. All round is a picture of jobs lost, wages unpaid, contracts cancelled, futures foreclosed, and hunger and desperation for millions.Read More »

Urban Africa under Stress: Rethinking Economic Pressure in Cities

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By Jörg WiegratzCatherine Dolan, Wangui Kimari and Mario Schmidt

Research on economic pressure in Africa has been approached from diverse vantage points.  While economists frame ‘pressure’ as a consequence of market failures, or as a by-product of macro-economic measures such as structural adjustment reforms or technological and political change, anthropologists who zoom in on the economic pressures individuals face in their everyday lives, i.e. the lived experiences of those who are ‘under pressure’ have focused more on topics such as uncertainty and precarity. Alternatively, economic psychologists tend to naturalise pressure as an individual response to an adverse financial situation, eclipsing the varied ways pressure is intertwined with and shaped by broader societal transformations, power structures, social relations and obligations, and webs of exchange. There are currently no studies we are aware of that focus on the multi-faceted societal constitution of economic pressure in capitalist Africa, or that compare how pressure is experienced across gender, generation or socioeconomic groups.Read More »