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Covid-19: With curfew, life on the streets is more difficult

Wednesday June 10 2020
FAMILIES

A police officer orders street people to move from Tubman Road in Nairobi on June 2 during curfew hours. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By BRIAN WASUNA
By EVANS HABIL

It is just past 8.30pm on a cold Tuesday night and a group of nearly 30 women are tucking their children to sleep along Nairobi’s Tubman road. Most of them have not eaten the whole day.

All they want is to get through the night and hope that they will get something to fill their empty, rumbling bellies tomorrow.

One of the women, who identifies herself as Mama Amina, tells the Nation how some police officers harass them in the dead of night and order them to go away, forcing them to break the curfew.

TROUBLES

As she recounts the troubles most street families go through during curfew hours, a Toyota Probox that is seemingly undergoing a paint job pulls over in front of us.

A light-skinned man in light blue jeans and a navy blue overcoat steps out and, suddenly, all the women go quiet. In a split second, Mama Amina has also vanished.

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The man introduces himself as a police officer and demands to know what we are doing outside past 7pm. He does not identify himself.

On the streets, he is known as Mwas, but some senior police sources later told us he was known only as Kamandere.

“Where is that lady who was standing here?” he barks, referring to Mama Amina. When he spots her lying down about five metres away, Mr Kamandere charges at her with a whip.

When he hears our camera click, turns on us furiously and tries to grab the camera. A scuffle ensues and we are only rescued by a senior police officer who happens to be on his way to Nation Centre.

ATTACKED

Eventually Mr Kamandere gets his way, as the women slowly make their way to the Globe roundabout, where they will have to spend the night, fearing that they might be attacked by the gangs that claim the area as their territory.

This is the lot of homeless women, who usually stick around Tubman Road, as well as Biashara, and Kimathi streets. Mama Amina, we later learn, has got used to Mr Kamandere’s harassment.

A senior officer at Central Police Station told us that Mr Kamandere is under investigation for alleged rape, adding that a homeless woman filed the report.

Women and children typically spend the night in the area Mwas and other officers from Central patrol, while men move to the fringes of the central business district, like the General Post Office, the Machakos Country Bus terminus and Kirinyaga Road.

A three-day tour of the city by day and night by the Nation has revealed tales of police harassment, embezzlement of donations meant for street families and dreadful experiences homeless people suffer.

Sleeping hungry is common to many, especially since the government imposed a 7pm curfew and a partial economic shutdown that has made money scarce.

BIGGER PROBLEMS

“We have bigger problems than the coronavirus,” says Mama Amina.

While there are well-wishers who donate food, clothes and other essentials for the homeless, these women rarely benefit.

Last Sunday, they went to the Chief’s office in Ngara, where there was a consignment of food, clothung and blankets for them. “After we took some photos with the chief’s officers and the donors, we were ordered to leave and got nothing, so we came back here empty-handed,” Mama Amina narrated.

Women and children typically spend the night around the box area that Mwas and a squad of other officers from central police station patrol.

Men on the other hand mostly spend their nights around the fringes of the Central Business District like the General Post Office, the Machakos Country Bus terminus and along Kirinyaga road.

Along Eastleigh North River Road, just a stone’s throw away from Tubman road, 23-year-old Faith Kawira likes to isolate herself from crowds. She has two children aged 11 and 12.

Born in Meru, her mother abandoned her at a tender age and she has mostly been on the streets since.

At the age of 10, Faith traveled to Nairobi in the hope of securing a job as a house help in Ruaka. But this did not last long as she got a boyfriend and moved in with him in Eastleigh after getting pregnant.

It was not long after her son’s birth that the couple was expecting a second born child, a girl.

THREE MONTHS OLD

After her daughter turned three months old, her boyfriend abandoned the family. Unable keep up with the rent, Faith and her children found themselves homeless.

Sometimes she ekes out a living by selling fruits at the Khoja roundabout, and at times resorts to begging passersby for assistance.

Faith insists that she is desperate for a job, and would prefer such assistance over money. She currently rents a bedsitter in Banana, which the building owner often locks as a result of late payment.

Her two children study at Moi Avenue Primary School, and after dropping them off she takes to the streets to try her luck in either securing a job or maybe some handouts that will ensure the young ones do not sleep hungry.

Shop owners in and around Popman House know Kawira and her children well.

“God cannot let my children sleep hungry. Mostly shop owners in Popman House and its environs will ask my children if they have eaten, and then offer them food. At times I will go hungry but that’s fine as long as my children have eaten. Some people have been kind to give us masks.”

“Government says we should dispose masks after wearing them for at most a day. But we cannot afford such items. If I throw away this one it could be another two days before a well-wisher gives me a replacement,” she says.

Across town at the Machakos Country Bus terminus, five men are also trying to get as cozy as they possibly can after an unsuccessful day of hunting for porter jobs.

Down here, things are slightly different. Police officers have no problem with the homeless laying their heads to sleep. As long as they stay put in one location and do not move around.

Just before President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration stopped movement in and out of Nairobi, 16 year-old Elias arrived in the capitol from Kitale.

DIVORCED

His parents divorced earlier this year. Disowned by both parents, Elias knocked at his grandfather’s door but was turned away there as well. With the little money he had left, he made his way to Nairobi and has been on the streets since.

“Today I managed to get Sh20 after assisting a lady to carry her goods to the Githurai stage from Gikomba market. That was mid-morning. I ate githeri because the only other food you can get for that cost is either some little githeri or one chapati,” Elias said.

“The police patrolling this side of town have been kind. As long as you stay in one place and don’t make noise they will have no issue with you. We don’t get masks very often but sometimes we ask hawkers to just help us. Some of them do. We are able to keep social distance. As you can see we sleep far apart,” Elias says.

Despite having some warm clothing and blankets, the cold still bites hard. It’s even harder with the uncertainty of getting a single meal throughout the next day.

It has come with positives and negatives. For instance, the City Hall officers no longer bother us because, previously,- they would arrest and assault us. But now we are at the mercy of some police officers. At times they come and chase us out of here in the middle of the night,” Mama Amina says.

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