Unemployed and unwanted, Kenya’s youth in deep crisis

Wednesday January 30 2013

Africans still view children as assets that are expected to give back to those who invested in them. Therefore, on a psychological level, the unemployed try to mirror the expectations put on them by the society and will lie about their status in order to fit in with the ideal. Photo/FILE

Africans still view children as assets that are expected to give back to those who invested in them. Therefore, on a psychological level, the unemployed try to mirror the expectations put on them by the society and will lie about their status in order to fit in with the ideal. Photo/FILE NATION

By PETER ODUOR [email protected]

Samwel Kang’ethe says he is a father of five, but his friends put the number of his children at two, maximum. He says he used to work at a hotel before he lost his job; his friends say he has never landed a steady job since he came to the city from Murang’a.

He says he is okay. He isn’t. Not by the way he has been shivering under the noon sun. He says the cigarettes he has been smoking cost him Sh5 a stick. They cost him Sh3 a piece.

Wan, in his early 30s but looking like he is going on to 50, he is a phantom of his age. He has been in and out of employment, is beaten and will stay beaten. An old young man, he claims to have once been without a job for eight years.

At the time, he tried to stay in Nairobi but found the going too difficult and decided to move back to the countryside. There, he started abusing anything that can be abused, and the effects are catching up with him.

Lying under a garbage truck at Adams Arcade, Nairobi, he says his family is fine, that he provides for them. And maybe he does, now he has a steady flow of income collecting garbage.

But there is a part of him that is dead and chillingly phlegmatic. It would be no surprise to learn that he never visits his home.

In a bid to help people like Kang’ethe, the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (then called Ministry of State for Youth Affairs) formulated and published the Youth Employment Marshall Plan in May 2009.

In it, it announced that youth unemployment was “a time bomb that calls for urgent action”. Three years later, Youth Agenda Kenya recommended that the government declares “youth unemployment a national disaster”.

A disaster it is. When Jacob Omolo wrote his Labour Market and Policy Interventions paper in 1978, the unemployment rate in Kenya then stood at 6.7 per cent. Twenty years later in 1998, the figure had risen to 25.1 per cent.

Quick interventions when President Mwai Kibaki took over lowered that to 12.7 per cent by 2006, but, by 2012, it shot to 40 per cent, probably abetted by the economic recession at the turn of the decade.

Unemployment disrupts life and leaves it’s victims basking in disgrace. After a long period of absentee paychecks and diminished savings, a deterioration of the individual begins at the sociological and psychological levels.

These two may be silent, but they are worse than the economic outcomes of unemployment.

The case scenarios are identical everywhere. Young men go to school, finish and expect to join the job market and make a difference through their work.

Employment gives individuals the chance to meet  their obligations and the expectations of the society by achieving developmental tasks like marriage, settling down, owning property and so on.

Without a job, the individual finds out how unforgiving the society can be to the unprepared. Take the example of Johnson, who graduated from the University of Nairobi two years ago. 

He stands alone today, having held only one contractual job that lasted seven months. A wry and sad smile plays on his lips as he talks of how he has fallen out with everyone in his family and has only one person to call a friend.

“I was just burdensome to them,” he says. “ At first they were friendly, but the longer I stayed without a job, the more things changed. They would not let me stay at their houses. Some would even offer fare so that I could go back home.”

In a family setting, the men become assumptive; the wives get cold and the children suffer.

James Kariuki, a sociology lecturer at the University of Nairobi, says unemployment is viewed as a sign of failure by our, society and the society rejects those that cannot meet the expectations put on them.

However, Kariuki says Johnson’s isolation may be of his own making. “Most of the unemployed have identity problems. A career (earning) helps you position yourself. Without it, you become rudderless. You get bitter, frustrated, depressed and embarrassed about your position. The outcome is to push others away or to stay away from them,” says Kariuki.

The shame, the embarrassment and sense of failure will stop them from seeking help from the society. If help is offered without their request, they will turn it down. They prefer to keep to themselves and in most cases leave home or move to another town. In fact, instead of talking about their situation, they’d rather lie about it.

Dr Kimani Chege, a pyschologist at Daystar University, believes that, at a sociological level, the stress, anxiety and depression shown by the unemployed youth are as a result of pressure brought about by societal expectations.

Africans still view children as assets that are expected to give back to those who invested in them. Therefore, on a psychological level, the unemployed try to mirror the expectations put on them by the society and will lie about their status in order to fit in with the ideal.

On the spiritual level, unemployment breeds young people who are tired of praying. When these people fail to get jobs, they develop spiritual apathy. They blame God for it and rebel against Him and the Church, hence the many ‘I don’t believe in God’ sentiments. 

In cases where these youth choose to stop believing in God, they adopt alternative entities to believe in. This, however, is a road that quickly leads to substance abuse.

A drug and substance abuse addiction recovery center based in Nairobi covertly answered some queries on the correlation between their patients and unemployment related situations. According to the Center, 20 per cent of their patients give job loss as both the cause and effect of their overindulgence, and 30 per cent of their patients are unemployed.

 Asked what they feared most once they left the center, being unemployable topped the list of fears. This same group admitted to using mood-altering chemicals as a way of coping with their situation.

Youth Agenda Kenya CEO Susan Kariuki looks at the problem as “a graduate challenge”. A young man is taught to get good grades, but not what to do with the grades, she says.  

On the other hand, Patrick Gudda of Narok University worries that the Youth Enterprise Fund that he co-pioneered lacks sustainability. But to him the dependency created by unemployment among the youth is the major problem.

“Responsibility is placed on the wrong areas when a young person is unemployed,”  he says.

A World Bank senior economist, Gabriel Demombynes,  points at the economic issues within companies that may contribute to low intake of employees: high electricity costs and frequent power cuts, high transportation costs, and corruption.

“For corruption, we estimate that, if private companies could redirect all the money they use to pay bribes to instead pay salaries, they would hire 250,000 more people,” he says.

Politicians, predictably, are promising miracles. The Coalition for Reforms and Democracy alliance (CORD) promises more jobs, entrepreneurship trainings for the youth, business grants and loans for them to expand the businesses.

This policy, apparently, is only possible under a CORD government. Well, get a mirror. An agenda of job creation and provision of grants are also promised by the Jubilee alliance.

But what of the unemployed?

Seven men sit under a tree that also doubles up as a mkokoteni stage. On the table is a thin, green-and-yellow checkered board with sixty four squares. There is a writing on the board; ‘touch and play’, it instructs.  And so the game begins.

They are in Ngong’ market. Their shoes torn and badly mended or double-soled brown-black. The man playing red at the end has a puffy face, the kind that, if you pinch, the flesh stays heaped in a small mountain for a minute or so.

His shirt lacks the collar, well; it used to exist before it got worn out and left threads of fabric in its place. He makes his moves, gets to the Kings row and crowns one of his Men.

They play for hours. On intervals, they leave and come back with a banana or mandazi or kangumu. They play, they laugh, a sad laughter which they give when asked about the game. “You pay Sh40 to be a life member or Sh10 for a round of game,” he offers.

This is the acceptance stage. The last stage.  No more struggle or seeking employment. No more denials and lying about it. Gone, too, is any trace of hope. They have learnt to live without and have submitted to their position in life.

Their position being that of a non-entity in the society. Not at all surprising since your introduction as an adult normally takes the form of “who” (your name) and “what” (your career or occupation).

They have acknowledged their grief, though the grief is not visible...