Today nurses are demanding their money. But their employers are saying there is no money. Teachers too are threatening to go on strike. It wouldn’t surprise if more unions, especially of government employees, downed their tools over poor pay in the course of this year.
For the economy isn’t doing well. Wages can’t keep up with the cost of life, especially increases in the prices of basic commodities.
Generally, although price increases do look marginal, often just a few shillings, cumulatively they cut a big hole in the pocket of workers who depend only on a monthly pay check.
But one wouldn’t necessarily know that the economy is struggling if they relied on the media for information. On the outward it all appears well.
There are more big cars on the road. Apartment blocks rise every morning. Global hotel brands are scrambling to set up shop in Nairobi.
COST OF LOVING
New private upper-end schools are being established all over Kenya. Private hospitals are creating more wings for the monied. It appears as if the pie is big enough.
So, why is the majority of Kenyans unable to have a decent meal? Why are nurses begging for Ksh10,000 for uniform?
Why are teachers living from hand to mouth every month? Why are the police shocked at the rent outside their ‘police lines’ huts?
Why are lecturers and doctors perpetually demanding more money every year? Is it that these workers are simply greedy as cynics or government officials argue?
No. These toilers aren’t avaricious. Not at all. It is the cost of life that they can’t keep up with.
It is ‘the great divide’ in our society, to use Joseph Stigliz’s phrase – he made it in reference to America’s economic divide – that is the source of this constant demand for more money.
Note, these workers actually demand ‘more money.’ For they have discovered that in Kenya money does sort out nearly all kinds of problems.
Some trade unions aren’t even bothered about better working conditions for their members. They just want the pay and allowances to be adjusted upwards.
Why? Because landlords increase rent every year. Public transport fares just keep rising. There is no respite in school fees, even for those who send their children to public schools.
The cost of maize flour, rice, wheat flour, meat, chicken, fish, vegetables, keep rising, whilst salaries of most Kenyans either fall – when individuals are asked to take a pay cut in order to retain jobs – or stagnate for years.
In many homes, one imagines, the family cannot afford three meals a day. Working adults have to do with a poor breakfast, no lunch, and a hardly satisfying supper, where they can afford.
It is not surprising that chips and sausages or chicken is a very popular evening meal for many young unmarried but working Kenyans.
In the poorer neighbourhoods, githeri (mixture of maize and beans) is sold in tins or plastic bags to thousands of Kenyans in the evening. Or ugali na madondo (beans). This is the kadogo economy that sustains millions of Kenyans.
For the majority lowly working or underemployed in our towns everyone has a chance to buy food, clothes, household items, literally anything that one needs to satisfy immediate needs in this minimalist economy.
Five shillings can get one a chapatti. There is githeri for two at Ksh10. A dress or a trouser at Ksh100. A book at Ksh50. A piece of bar soap or a scoop of cooking fat or a measure of sugar, for just Ksh10.
Then there are the thousands of walkers, women and men who can’t pay the fare to their workplaces.
Some walk all the way to wherever they work, or wherever they are going to seek work; others walk some distance in order to halve the fare!
In this drama of survival are teachers, nurses, clerks, drivers, police officers, office receptionists, cooks, gardeners, guards, all the men and women who are the mainstay of a ‘working Kenya’.
This is increasingly the life of urban working Kenyans. But why should we be bothered about these increasingly poorer working Kenyans?
Because there are millions of other Kenyans dependent on these ‘workers’.
We can’t talk of economic growth when a majority of Kenyans rely on the kadogo economy to survive every day, living an undignified, a life that in many ways alienates them from the rest of the society.
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]