One of the biggest impressions I’ve had in Kenya is the staggering amount of poverty and the massive income inequality here.  All the cities I have been to are filled with people who are clearly unemployed or underemployed.  Official unemployment figures are 40%, but I’ve heard numbers as high as 75%.  I’ve been to plenty of other countries that have massive poverty problems, but I’ve found the poverty issue here to be different for a number of reasons.   I’ve had a chance to see the lives of foreigners and white Kenyans who live in the upper few percent as well as dozens of people from the slums of Nairobi and poor rural areas. The main question that I have found myself asking is how an economy with such vast poverty and immense income inequality can also be fair and working toward the improvement of everyone’s lives. More importantly, how can someone coming from a country with vastly a different economy treat people here in a way that is both reasonable and fair. This is a harder question to answer than you might expect.

Working in the slums around Nairobi has been an interesting and fairly enlightening experience.   The people I’ve met there don’t seem to fit easily into any broad generalization that we might take away from what little we can read in the western media.  Even the writings of Nicholas Kristof, who is one of my journalism heroes, creates an fairly simplistic impression of this vast world of economic insecurity.  The slums around Nairobi are vast, some of the biggest in the world, and the people who live in them cover a vast range of backgrounds and are here for a variety of reasons.

A couple of posts back I wrote about Fred Owino who I met in Mathare.  Fred was part of a youth gang and was involved in the riots that broke out after the 2007 elections. Shortly after the riots he went through an Alternatives to Violence Program workshop (AVP), which gave him a certificate that he was able to present to the police and have his name cleared.  Now he works with the Alternative to Violence Program training other people in the slums about how to deal with problems without resorting to violence.  Fred is articulate and passionate.  He is a barber, and he is actively involved in a church. Fred was part of one of the largest gangs in Kenya. The gangs here are not all what you would imagine. The largest gangs police the slums, because the police don’t. To be a gang member you must have a job, so these are not people who sit around drinking all day. This is not to say that the gangs are saints – I am sure they are not, but the situation here is not what you would guess from the outside.

Last week I went to another slum called Kasabuhi. It is a relatively small slum compared to Kibera and Mathare. Fred arranged for me to meet a large group of people who he has brought into AVP.  All of them talked about their experiences during the post-election violence and something about their backgrounds. One story I heard over and over was of people who had small businesses and lost everything to looting and fire during the riots. Many of these people had taken out small bank loans for their businesses, and now four years after the riots they are still struggling to repay loans for businesses which no longer exist. They don’t have their businesses to earn money from and repay the bank, and they cannot get loans to start new businesses.  It is a vicious cycle of poverty.

Also last week I met another guy from the slums in a capoeira group that I’ve started training with in Nairobi. He is from Mombasa, and he moved to Nairobi to escape a bad life, and he admits that he has been involved in drugs and crime.  He has gotten himself out of that cycle and he attributes it largely to the capoeira training he started getting from a local teacher who teaches capoeira in the slums. Now he helps teach other kids in the slums and he has dreams of becoming a capoeira teacher and starting a school himself.  I played capoeira with this guy in class, but I got a chance to talk a bit more with him when I accidentally ran into him at a concert at the German Goethe institute – a cross cultural arts institute sponsored by the German government.  It was very esoteric – not the type of event where I would expect to run into someone from the slums. Again, these slums are big places with complex communities that defy the expectations I had come with.

These men and their lives paint a complex picture of low end of the economic spectrum here in Kenya. When you start meeting people here, you realize that these large communities cannot be easily delineated with a single brush stroke.  I could write pages about them.

Right now I am sitting in a lovely house on the beach in Mombasa writing this on a laptop computer.  The sun is shining, the waves are rolling gently against the sand, and inside the house the paid servant is cleaning up the living room. It is lovely. It is the house of a friend of someone I met here in Mombasa, a couple who live like most other foreigners in Kenya.  However embedded in this scene is another side of the issues of poverty and income inequality. Here in Kenya, where so many people are unemployed and there is no social safety net, normal wages can be pitifully low. Everyone above a certain income, which includes almost all foreigners and certainly all politicians here employ guards to watch their house and people to clean and often cook for them.  A typical wage for guard or house servant is 5000 Kenyan shillings a month, which is about $50.  Most of the foreigners I’ve met consider this impossibly low and pay their employees twice that – still only $100 per month. Typically most workers also only have off one day a month, and again most foreigners give their employees one to two days off a week.

Five thousand shillings a month,  160 shillings per day, is abject poverty. It is not enough money to pay for food and housing let alone school fees and medical costs. In Nairobi to get across town and back on a matatu, the cheapest form of public transportation, is 80 shillings – half of a day’s pay.

Why are wages so low?  People here are desperate.  Many parts of Kenya are over-populated, meaning that there are too many people for the land to support.  This is obviously true in the southwest where people crowd the fertile land intensely and regularly kill family members in disputes of land inheritance.  It is also clearly true in the arid north, where the population is sparse but the land is clearly over-grazed.  Desperate people will work for whatever they can get, and if someone is unwilling to work for 5000 shillings a month, there is always someone else to take their place.  It is easy to understand the economics of this situation, but it is hard to understand the morality of it.  It is an issue I have been struggling with since I arrived.

Can economics and morality be separated?  It doesn’t feel to me that they can.  Next time I’ll write more about my own interaction with the economy and what I’ve run up against in dealing with these issues.