Young Kenyans in yellow neon vests and with masks and rubber bones stand up to their calves in the smelly, gray muck that runs in a stream between the corrugated iron caves of the Kibera slum. They use metal rakes and spades to scoop plastic bottles, broken shoes and human faeces from the open sewer. “It’s incredibly dirty work,” says 33-year-old Abdul Aziz, who fears the unsanitary work will make him contract a water-borne illness such as cholera. “But it’s better than being unemployed and hungry at home,” says the father of two, who lost his job as a private driver due to the corona crisis.
The crisis caused at least 300,000 Kenyans to lose their jobs, the Kenyan Bureau of Statistics calculated in May. The actual figure is probably a lot higher. More than 80 percent of workers in Kenya – where the official unemployment rate before the crisis was 12.4 percent – are active in the informal economy.
Safari parks and lodges are empty due to tourists staying away, many businesses are going bankrupt and bars are closed due to curfews and alcohol bans. To prevent even bigger problems such as crime and looting, the government recently launched a large-scale employment project to provide work nationwide to more than 200,000 Kenyans under the age of 35. It puts 55,000 young people to work in the capital Nairobi.
Aziz, who lives in Kibera, is happy with the project, although he thinks the salary of 3.5 euros per day is low. The Kenyan, who earned about 13 euros a day as a driver, has to pay off all kinds of debts with friends and shops that he has accumulated since his dismissal in April in order to be able to buy food with half his current salary. He hardly has any money left for rent and food. As a result, his family only eats one meal a day.
“This pandemic has ruined our lives,” said 23-year-old Sharon Sakase, who lives with her mother, three younger sisters, brother and her own two children in a corrugated iron room measuring several square meters in East Africa’s largest slum. The single mother received a scholarship from the church with which she did a catering education. However, it has been at a standstill for five months due to the corona crisis. She also worked as a pedicurist in a beauty salon, but customers stay away for fear of the pandemic.
‘This dirty job is incredibly tough’, Sakase agrees, while behind her colleagues scream because near a notorious ‘flying toilet’ in Kibera splashes into the open sewer: a plastic bag in which a resident – due to a chronic shortage of toilets – has his needs. done, after which he buttons it and throws it as far in the air as possible. “Still, I am happy with this work,” the young mother says with a chuckle. “Now I earn a little bit of money to buy food for myself and my family.” She has been the sole breadwinner of the eight-member family since her mother lost her job as a housekeeper due to the corona crisis.
After the first corona infection in Kenya was identified, the government immediately took rigorous measures to contain the pandemic. The weak health system in the East African country of about 50 million inhabitants would not be able to carry a wave comparable to that in Europe. A curfew was soon imposed, the corona hearths of Nairobi and the coastal region were sealed off for three months, the international airport was closed for five months, and everyone has to work from home as much as possible, which is obviously impossible for many.
All educational institutions have also been closed for five months and the government has announced that primary and secondary schools will even be closed until January 2021. In public areas it is mandatory to wear a mouth mask and it has been forbidden to drink alcohol in restaurants for a week.
There is not a single company in Kenya that has not been affected by the corona crisis. For example, the flower sector – the third largest in the world – collapsed.
“There is no company in Kenya that has not been affected by the corona crisis,” says economist Kwame Owino. The director of an economic think tank in Kenya agrees that the measures were necessary, but adds that they have serious consequences for the economy. ‘For example, the Kenyan flower sector (the third largest in the world, ed.) Collapsed because hardly any flowers were bought in Europe and international air traffic was paralyzed.’
Due to the corona crisis, 17 percent say they no longer have enough money for food, 37 percent say they can no longer pay the rent and only 47 percent still have some form of regular income, according to a poll by the research firm FSD Kenya.
The Kenyan government took various stimulus measures. Sales and income taxes were reduced and Kenyans with wages below 190 euros per month do not have to pay any income tax at all. However, those who work in the informal sector do not pay any tax and therefore have little benefit from those measures, except that products in official supermarkets may have become slightly cheaper. ‘Many medium-sized and small companies have gone bankrupt, resulting in a huge number of people losing their jobs. These tax benefits were of little use to those, ‘Owino notes.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) gave Kenya $ 731 million (€ 617 million) in emergency aid to deal with the corona crisis. Owino argues, however, that the Kenyan government is failing to use public money quickly and effectively for the corona crisis due to other major payment obligations and corruption. ‘For example, civil servants’ salaries must first be paid, just like the interest on the sky-high debts.’ Kenya’s national debt has risen to nearly EUR 47 billion or 62 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), for which the East African country received an official warning from the World Bank last year.
“Although many people previously thought that this pandemic would be short-lived, we are also beginning to realize in Kenya that the chance of this is getting smaller,” says Owino. Many young people who are clearing the open sewers in Kibera through the government project are seriously concerned about their future. “Everyone in Kibera is desperately looking for work,” says 25-year-old Jack Omonoi, who graduated as a web designer two years ago.
Because he couldn’t find work, he worked several days a month for an event agency for which he set up exhibitions. But due to the corona crisis, all events have been canceled for the time being, he became unemployed and he also applied for the employment project out of sheer desperation. ‘Friends saw me go to college and expected me to get a good job. Now they see me shoveling poop out of an open sewer, ‘he says, staring at the ground despondently. This situation is insanely frustrating. And nobody knows how long it will take. ‘