NAIROBI, Kenya, Aug 16 – Nairobi on a July weekday is cold and almost frosty. Trench coats, pullovers, gloves, and scarves can be spotted up and about as city residents run around town minding their business.
Joyce Nyambura, alias Aida Nyambura, sits on a cold pavement wearing a blue hoodie that covers her braided hair, a pair of trousers and a kanga wrapped around her waist to conceal her trousers.
“As a newly converted Muslim woman, I try to cover up as much as I can,” she says.
On her lap is her almost one-year-old daughter, Margie, who is struggling to catch a nap and despite the heavy woolen clothes on her back, the shiver is evident.
Nyambura is one of the hundreds if not thousands of Nairobi’s female street beggars. She says she has come to accept the job and respects it as any other career.
“When you have a child, especially a toddler, like I do, people take pity on you. They give you money much more easily than when you are alone, especially fellow parents.”
And true to her words, two women drop Sh20 into her collecting tin as they discuss how the chilly weather is cruel to the child.
Nyambura says that those without children usually identify other women who have more than one small child and ‘hire’ them for the day.
“In the evening, the woman splits her day’s earnings in a half and pays the mother of the child.”
Women who have older children and have no one to ‘rent’ a child from are usually forced to go back to the drawing board and give birth to sustain the trade.
Her choice to become a street beggar came after she faced one too many challenges. Her mother left her abusive, alcoholic father when she was very young. Then he married a woman who did not do much to help Nyambura, forging an all-familiar step-mother daughter relationship.
“After I left home, I worked as a house help and then a hawker. But since I gave birth to my daughter and the father abandoned me, I cannot do such jobs as I do not have anyone to look after my child.”
Begging also makes Nyambura much more money than other jobs she has done in the past.
“As a house help, the much I could make was Sh3,500. A hawker’s pay, especially when you cannot afford city council fees, makes almost the same. But on the streets, in a good month, I can make up to Sh8,000.”
The money is enough for Nyambura as she and her daughter eat at a town restaurant which sells fresh leftovers at a throwaway price. She also doesn’t account for much rent as she confesses to sleeping on the streets – a cross check with her peers, however, reveal that she lives in one of the city’s slums.
Religion and street begging
I ask Nyambura about her decision to convert to Islam out of curiosity. She says that her life on the streets made her appreciate Islam more, made her understand it.
“It is also much easier to get money when you are clad in Islamic attire. Muslims are much more giving. They give money much more easily than their Christians counterparts.”
Nyambura, however, clarifies that she did not convert to Islam to make money.
More women, including a beggar whose name is Nancy confirms Nyambura’s allegations that in deed there are many women who buy hijabs, hire a child to beg on the streets. According to Nancy, Ramadhan and Fridays especially are very good for their trade. “That is the reason why the Jamia Mosque environs is crowded on Fridays with beggars.”
For Susan, Nyambura’s friend, life has also not been kind to her, forcing her to the streets after her husband abused and forbade her from working. When the relationship ended, she was left alone to care for their young son, with no job, no skill and no place to call home.
“On the streets, I am guaranteed to have food at the end of the day. I only need a hundred shillings. People will take pity on me and give me enough money to fend for myself and my child.”
We spoke to more women to get an idea of how it is like to be a female beggar in Nairobi. The story was the same. Without a supportive family, lack of meaningful jobs and not having some kind of skill, the ladies find the streets more welcoming, the beggar tag not withstanding.
“I do have big dreams for my daughter. I would want her to go to school one day and dress well. I also want her to sleep in a good place one day. But due to the current situation, those can only be dreams for now,” Nyambura says.
But despite the earnings from begging, Nyambura says they are harassed by City Council askaris who would want to get rid of them from the streets, though the county lacks a comprehensive plan to deal with street families.
“Some people are so harsh in their judgment towards us. They don’t understand why we bring our children to the streets instead of taking them to school. What they do not understand is that it would be hard to even have your child in class when they are not fed, or not clean and we can’t afford books or uniform.”
A UNICEF finding revealed that there are about 250,000 – 300,000 homeless children in Kenya in 2012; a number that is expected to have gone higher.
Data by the Consortium of Street Children (CSC) estimates that Nairobi alone could have up to 60,000 street children.
The city’s county government says it is working on rescuing and rehabilitating the children in its five centers.
But street mothers such as Nyambura say they would do whatever it takes to keep their children away from those centers.
“The centers are extremely dirty. There’s human waste all over, I wouldn’t want my child to stay there.”
In 2015, Nairobi County made headlines after it moved street children out of the central business district during a visit by US President Barack Obama.