NAIROBI, Kenya April 30 – Despite the dangers posed by COVID-19, victims of human trafficking remain exposed as social-distancing, staying at home, washing hands or wearing masks is next to impossible.
Amid the highly contagious virus, they wander from street to street begging for alms yet with limited proximity to hygienic practices.
It has been more than a month now since Kenya reported the first case of coronavirus.
But the virus has spread fast with 384 cases, 126 recoveries and 15 deaths by April 29.
Fears are rife that lack of adequate testing could escalate community infections, despite tight measures aimed at breaking the cycle.
Kenya is implementing a dusk to dawn curfew, with cessation of movement declared in Nairobi, Mandera and coastal counties of Mombasa, Kwale and Kilifi.
Capital FM News embarked on a mission to check on the plight of beggars living with disabilities amid the coronavirus pandemic.
A spot check revealed that most of the beggars were still on major streets in Nairobi despite the stay-at-home and social distancing orders.
It is a hot Tuesday afternoon.
Most streets in Nairobi and its outskirts are unusually deserted, with most people donning masks.
But it is business as usual for beggars stationed at strategic places.
Under the scorching sun, along a street near Kariobangi in Nairobi, 21-year-old Baraka is leaning on a pole to support his back. He lifts his begging cup and rattles the few coins inside to catch the attention of passersby.
He does not have a mask on neither a sanitizer nor soap or water.
Crippled since birth, Baraka drags himself using the support of his hands. On good days he hires a wheelchair at Sh150 and pays someone to push him. But due to the harsh economic times worsened by coronavirus, he dragged himself to the begging point.
“My older brother brought me to Kenya in February this year. We came by bus,” he explains.
It is baffling that Baraka who is of age came to Kenya without any travel or identification documents. But this is only a tip of the iceberg. Upon his arrival, he was allocated a room which he shares with three other Tanzanians also living with disabilities and working as beggars.
“At the end of every week, each one of us pays our boss between Sh200 and Sh300.”
Baraka only knows that his boss works at a market. He does not know his name. He only sees him at the end of every week when he shows up to collect the Sh300.
The room they share goes for Sh4, 000 per month.
Every morning apart from Sundays, the four head to different areas to beg and return to the same room.
A report by East Africa Monitor indicates that Kenya is ‘one of Africa’s top destinations for beggars’ and points fingers at cartels that turn the beggars into money-making assets. According to the report, “victims are picked up by a cartel that overlooks their movements and pockets most of the money they’re able to collect.”
The report states that the human trafficking web operating in Kenya preys on beggars with visual, mental and physical disabilities from neighboring countries which include the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, Somalia, Burundi as well as within the country.
Most of them arrive in Kenya on promises of eking a living through government sponsored programmes and special jobs which do not exist for illegal immigrants like them.
Korogocho Slum which neighbors Kariobangi is home to about 200,000 people crammed together in only 1.5 square kilometers.
A stroll along a major street traversing the slum revealed a bizarre phenomenon.
It is only few minutes after 5.00am. This is when the dusk-to-dawn state curfew imposed in efforts to contain coronavirus breaks. But a few metres from the street, stands a four-storey building. The noise of wheelchairs being folded or unfolded at the wee hours of the morning grabs my attention.
The staircase is a beehive of activities as people with different disabilities limp, crawl or drag themselves while others are carried. Outside the flat is a pickup point.
Some beggars are assisted onto wheelchairs, others onto waiting motorbikes while others drag themselves to a nearby bus stop.
Children and adults all with different forms of disabilities stream through the same exit. Only a handful have masks on. None of them is carrying any hand washing material.
They continue streaming from the flat from 5.00am to about 7.00am and head to various locations.
It is difficult to approach their premises leave alone talk to them even when they are on the streets.
They are heavily guarded.
At some point we had to run for safety after their ‘managers’ suspected our presence and started rallying for an attack.
“When you see a person begging there is always another person, mainly young adults, hovering around them. They are the ones guarding to ensure that the beggars do not reveal their identity to curious passersby and they also keep the money,” the East Africa Monitor observed in its report.
On returning to Korogocho the following day, at a different building, I met Rafiki (not his real name) a Tanzanian who arrived in Kenya five years ago. He has just returned from Kayole where he spent his day begging for money.
“I usually sanitize my hands and the coins. But for paper money, I leave it to God because I cannot wash it,” Rafiki says.
Rafiki who has permanent disability drags himself since he cannot walk. He says he came to Kenya through a friend who he is unwilling to disclose.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the beggars would collect as much as Sh3, 000 per day but now this has dwindled to below Sh1, 000 a day.
Capital FM News found piles of wheelchairs stashed in two rooms in Korogocho due to ‘low business’ for the begging community. Most of the beggars cannot raise enough to hire a wheelchair for Sh150 a day.
But this has not deterred their ‘bosses’ from demanding money from them despite the risk of contracting COVID-19.
By 5.00pm, the beggars start heading back to their rooms right in time before the curfew.
Exhausted, dirty and exposed, they return to their tiny rooms where they are stashed in fours or fives with most pairing on one bed.
Though they were out interacting with different people and handling cash amid the pandemic, a bath is next to impossible as water is a rare and expensive commodity. The Kenyan government strongly advocates for cash-less transactions due to the high risk of infections from contaminated cash.
This leaves them exposed as they cannot adhere to the minimum hygiene measures of handwashing with soap.
As each day goes by, they live hoping they didn’t catch the virus, but left with no other choice, the struggle to eke a living and pay their masters continues.