As a community social worker, Teresa Wambui knows the devastating impacts of hunger and poverty. She says there’s one thing that can help everyone meet their basic needs.
“A hungry nation cannot work in order to sustain its economy.”
I am a community social worker. For more than 10 years, I have been visiting the slums outside the Nairobi suburbs. These household visits have been challenging; the heartache and suffering, palpable. Slum dwellers suffer throughout their lifetime, and the majority of people I meet there—especially youth, the elderly, the disabled—are jobless with few prospects and little education.
In order to protect, empower, and enable the livelihoods of those who are living in the slums—to have a better economy and a healthy nation—we must first eliminate poverty and hunger.
When you ask children in the slums why they don’t attend school, they’ll respond by saying, “Hunger, how do you expect a child to concentrate in school on an empty stomach?” Many of the children spend their days in the streets of nearby residential areas, searching for food from the dustbins of the middle class. These same children are at risk of child marriage, a husband sometimes seen as the only economic opportunity available to them.
Still more, the women and girls who are lucky enough to attend school avoid classes during their menstruation periods. They stay home and bleed into old clothing in private to avoid humiliation and shame. Slums should be provided with free sanitary pads.
Economic desperation can push children to drugs and violence. Once, two boys demanded a man’s cell phone. When he refused, they attacked him from behind, stabbing and killing him. A mob of residents came after the boys, seeking justice. One of the boys escaped, but the other was lynched. If only the boy had something to eat so he may not have been driven to crime. Horrific, untimely deaths would have been avoided.
Recently, I have witnessed an effective solution to address food insecurity: direct cash transfers to households in need made by NGOs, private organizations, or local governments. As the COVID-19 pandemic pushed people further into devastating poverty in the last year, international donors sustained most of the poor households in Kenya. Organizations began providing cash transfers to households in need: offering a lasting solution to support people in the slums.
I helped direct these transfers to older persons, disabled persons, orphans, those with HIV/AIDS, and destitute mothers. I helped ensure that people in the slums had proper identity cards and were registered with Safaricom Mobile numbers to be able to receive the payments. For around four months, households had income and money for basic necessities: food and hygiene products.
I’m grateful for the donors worldwide, such as USAID and World Vision, that have stepped up to support people struggling in Kenya during the pandemic. Unfortunately, the Donor COVID Cash Transfer program through GiveDirect and the World Program has ended. The beneficiaries in the slums ask me when the aid will return. During the aid period, their children never went to bed hungry.
My vision is for other countries and NGOs who work in these countries to continue to provide cash transfers directly to people in need in countries such as Kenya so that basic survival needs are met. My vision is to create a structure in my country where organizations provide at least 1,000 Kenyan shillings per week to every poor household.
Economic prospects are slim for those who dwell in the slums, and this structure would provide a needed safety net. Young mothers in the slums wash middle-class people’s clothes for a living and are paid very little because they don’t have alternative options for work. They make 200 Kenyan Shillings (about $1.85 US) per day. This is hardly enough for food, let alone other basic needs. Now, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, it is even harder for women to make an income. Those who had businesses or jobs found their employment wiped out due to the pandemic.
I have been going into the slums to offer seminars since the tribal clashes that started in 2007 and 2008. Those living in the slums were impacted greatly by this violence. When I was there, I learned that the majority of dwellers’ adolescents never attended school. They requested that I reach out to the authority on adult education on their behalf.
Without education, without income, slum dwellers wake up in the morning to no tea, to no hot water, to little to no food. Hunger is the worst enemy. Many become involved in prostitution in order to obtain food. This leads to early pregnancy, young mothers dying prematurely, others being struck by HIV/AIDS. In eastern and southern Africa in 2017, 79% of new HIV infections among 10–19-year-olds were among females, according to UNAIDS. An estimated 50 adolescent girls die every day from AIDS-related illnesses.
I remember a girl child who was nine years old. She narrated to me how her mother was a barmaid. Often she was accompanied home by different men. They lived in one room, and the partition was a simple bed sheet. The mother asked the daughter to have sex with a man, and when the daughter did and complained that the man was hurting her, the mother told the daughter to persevere so that they would have enough money for food. The daughter told me this through tears, asking to never be with her mother again.
Community social workers like me help amplify the slum dwellers’ concerns. I tell them in front of the government officials that the government office belongs to all. The officers are there to serve all without discrimination, so one should never fear.
A hungry nation cannot work in order to sustain its economy. When we ensure households can meet their basic needs, we can help them access education and pursue work opportunities. Let us talk of a world where people are fed and clothed.
If the payments were ongoing during this COVID-19 pandemic era and beyond, no children would go to bed hungry, crying to their mothers for food. My experiences in the slums have shown me that most mothers opt to sleep hungry so their kids can eat. Imagine a world where every woman and child and household in the slums of Kenya did not have to worry about food security. Where every girl can attend school and not stay home due to a lack of sanitary pads. It would be an admirable, enjoyable environment. We would be a healthy nation and world with enough food security and stable housing.
This is what direct payments can accomplish; this is why we must make this system a long-lasting solution for the vulnerable Kenyans who are known to be hard-working but lack money and resources. Let’s join hands and assist those in need, let’s ensure children cry no more, let’s be compassionate, loving, and merciful.
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