I was startled by a loud knock on my door at 5 a.m. on Saturday morning. I wondered who it could be, as I cautiously opened the door to see who it was. There stood a young woman, probably around 24 years of age, with a baby strapped to her back. She looked exhausted and her feet were very dusty.
Her eyes shifted towards the ground apologetically and she smiled nervously. I smiled back and greeted her in Kiswahili, “Habari yako?” She hesitated to answer back, then said in broken Swahili that she was looking for a job…any job. I could tell from the way she talked that she was not from one of the tribes in my area, but instead hailed from a far-away community.
“I can wash clothes well, iron them and clean dishes, for 500 Kenya Shillings,” she feebly added. This amount, she further explained, would enable her to pay rent for her daily bed space; buy essentials like food, fuel for lighting the stove; and nappies for her baby.
As much as I did not have much work to be done in my small bedsitter, I did feel sympathetic towards her struggle and could not turn her away. I invited her in and told her she could help me wash my dishes, since I had not managed to clean up yet.
Meanwhile, I offered to take the baby off her back and place her on my bed. I then asked her about herself. “My name is Wanjira and this is my Njeri,” she explicated, while pointing towards her yawning infant.
During our chat, I got to find out that she had trained to be an administrative assistant, in a Secretarial College but had no luck finding work. So, to survive and support her baby, she started going from household to household, offering to wash people’s clothes and houses.
I inquired about what she would have preferred to be doing, if she had a choice. Her eyes lit up and she stopped doing the dishes to describe to me the dream she had for herself. “I want to have my own market stall and sell ladies’ shoes,” she said, smiling from ear to ear.
She further disclosed to me that a year ago she had saved enough to pay for a small business license and to put up a simple, wooden stall in her home area. Then tragedy struck! A neighbour’s wooden shack caught fire one night, and it quickly spread through all the homesteads. And among the houses that were razed to the ground was Wanjira’s.
Apart from all her belongings and the baby’s things, she lost all the money that she had been storing, in a tiny bag, hidden under her mattress. “Thirty-five thousand Shillings gone,” she lamented, shaking her head, in sadness. A few tears welled up in her eyes before she put her guard up again and finished washing the dishes in silence. Then she asked if I had a floor rug so she could clean the place for me and I told her there was no need for that. I then got out a 500 Shilling note for her and wished her well.
“Thank you so much my sister. May God bless you,” she warmly said, as she put baby Njeri back on her back. I watched as Wanjira walked out and went on to knock on the next door. I could not help but wonder if her life would be different today if she had not lost her savings in that fire. I pondered on how much better the situation would have been if she could afford to save her money in a bank account or insure her things against fire. But ther reality of the matter was, she and others like her cannot afford such ‘luxuries.’