It’s never easy being a mother and Gloria knows that now. There’s no time to relax when there’s no man around any more, no family income and no respite from two naturally demanding young children.
She’s had to grow up fast but Gloria never complains, and every morning her first thoughts are for the welfare of Aggrey Amwanda (3) and 20-month-old Musungu.
The nurses at the local health centre, who are well used to dealing with abandoned single mums, think she’s exceptional and they’re not wrong — because little Gloria is only six years old.
Yes, that mature young ‘woman’ those two toddlers depend on is actually their (not much older) sister, who has been an astonishingly effective surrogate since the trio’s biological mother left to have another baby seven months ago — and never returned.
Perhaps she used the opportunity to escape the children’s drunken, abusive and now absent father and start a new life elsewhere; Gloria doesn’t, and may never, know the real reason for their abandonment.
What she does know is that every morning she must take her young brother and even younger sister to the health centre where, along with many others, they are given enough food to ward off impending starvation.
This is the harsh reality of life in Nairobi’s Mathare slum, a dirty secret you certainly won’t find listed in any glossy Kenyan tourist brochure — but where some 800,000 lost souls somehow carve out an existence in a squalid, over-run, disease-ridden, rat-infested open sewer.
Not something you think the government could turn a blind eye to but the Kenyan state manages to do precisely that, making no input whatsoever into schools, roads, hospitals, sanitation or water.
Technically of course the slums are illegal squatter camps, but even so it’s an awful lot of dirt to sweep under a dull, grey, sprawling, corrugated tin carpet. After all, it’s believed that more than half of the capital’s estimated four million citizens live in slums like Mathare and Kibera, which has the dubious distinction of being the largest in Africa.
It’s hard to believe, witnessing this widespread desolation, that Kenya is often regarded, financially at least, as one of the foremost jewels in Africa’s crown.
But there’s nothing new about slum life in this part of the world, and these areas are so embedded in the local culture they have their own village communities, indoor and outdoor shops, churches, pubs, hair salons, schools — and even the odd so-called ‘hotel’. One run-down, two-storey hovel calling itself ‘the Beverly Hills’, proving that a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour still exists amid the chronic poverty.
And that’s important when the average ‘house’ is the size of garden shed, has mud floors and is bereft of electricity and running water but not a rental fee — yes, there are landlords here too; the real ‘slumdog millionaires’. They command up to £50 a month for the ‘privilege’ of living in places like Mathare.
That may not sound like much, but in many cases it can take up half of your monthly wage — if you’re indeed lucky enough to have a job in the first place. You’re probably a vegetarian too — though not by choice. This place is the epitome of gut-churning, heart-wrenching poverty, where the most popular form of toilet is a plastic bag.
You could of course blithely argue that this is the way it has always been, that for these inhabitants it’s a case of what you never have, you never miss. You’d be wrong, though. Because, if you thought the global economic downturn has bitten hard on the United States and Europe, you should try speaking to the beleaguered people of Mathare.
It has never been worse here. The violent post-election riots of late 2007 had a debilitating effect on the local economy, as did the successive and ongoing droughts in this part of east Africa. The cost of even basic foodstuffs such as maize, bread, flour, salt and milk has tripled or even quadrupled. When a typical wage is something like £1.25 a day, that’s bound to hurt. And it does. For many families, one basic daily meal is the norm.
Add to that the worldwide credit crunch, and the risk of death by starvation in these teeming, squalid camps is perilously high and all-too prevalent.
So too are the incidences of polygamy, child prostitution, muggings, of HIV and TB — and of vigilantism, police corruption, alcoholism, drug-taking, solvent abuse, depression and suicide.
James Njuguna, who is Concern Worldwide’s HIV/Aids advisor in Kenya, says he has noticed a marked increase in the number of people whose confidence, self-esteem and inert sense of pride — yes, these things do matter, even in slums — has taken a huge battering over the last few years.
“People want to be able to provide for their families; it really is no different here than anywhere else,” he said.
“When they can’t do that, it can lead to drug abuse, depression and, at worse, the taking of their own lives.”
I caught up with James in the nearby Korogocho slum, which is small by Nairobi standards — a mere 149,000 people. Mind you, that population is crammed into an area taking up only 1.5 square miles.
James was busy helping locals benefit from Concern Worldwide’s mobile phone-based money transfer service, an effective system that delivers vital funds via SIM cards. If they can get their hands on an old mobile phone, the needy can take them to the nearest M-Pesa (‘M’ for ‘mobile; ‘pesa’ is Swahili for ‘money’) centre where they can pick up 1500 Kenyan shillings (around 15 euro) every month for eight months. Ultimately, between Concern and other agencies, it is estimated some 20,000 people will benefit.
On this particular day, in Korogocho’s Redeemed Gospel Church, nearly 600 people from the slum’s nine villages are registering for the scheme. It is a painfully slow process; some cannot read and write, others have never even handled a mobile phone. But even so they sat there for hours; patient, dignified.
One beneficiary of the scheme is Grace Anjuru (38), who has five children aged between 19 and three and what she described as an ‘abnormal’ husband at home. Presumably he has a disability and can no longer work to maintain the family’s one-room hut.
“This will help me with food and rent — and to get some soap because I intend washing other people’s clothes for some extra money,” she said.
“At present my children get only one meal a day — a breakfast of orange and maize.”
It’s no surprise that malnutrition is rife among the children of the slums, which of course vitalises the work of local health centres such as Bakara in Mathare, where I had the pleasure of meeting the remarkable young Gloria.
According to Rose Omia, director of Bakara, the problem is not borne out of ignorance.
“Parents here know what to feed their children, but they just don’t have it to give,” she said.
“Here, it’s a question of price, not availability, and those prices have shot up due to the post-election violence, when so much food was destroyed, and the droughts. Young children are being given green vegetables and maize flour; there’s no real nutrition in that.”
It’s not hard to spot a malnourished child; lighter hair colour, swollen abdomen — but the simplest test is the MUAC (middle upper arm circumference) coloured measuring tape. If a child’s arm is in the red zone and is 11.5cm or less, he or she is admitted for immediate treatment.
At present, there are 71 children at Bakara requiring emergency attention.
Concern Worldwide’s input here is the provision of Plumpy’nut, a fortified peanut butter stuffed with vegetable oils, powdered milk, sugar, vitamins and minerals which requires no cooking nor added water and is eaten straight from its foil packet. Such a product would undoubtedly be banned in obesity hotspots such as the UK and United States but here it is, literally, a life-saver.
The effect on a baby’s weight is dramatic, a marked improvement is usually noticed within days and, normally, the child will be out of danger in a fortnight — and needing only a sachet a day to stay that way.
Invented by French scientist Andre Briend a decade ago, Plumpy’nut, which costs around 85p per packet, has revolutionised the emergency treatment of malnourished infants around the world; previously their plight would require fresh milk, vitamin supplements and, more often than not, time and labour-intensive drip feeding.
These days Bakara Health Centre, which started off a decade ago looking after the needs of 80 children, is now feeding 500 of them every week. Open 363 days a year, its first floor resonates to a chorus of crying babies being comforted by often very young mothers.
“Some are them are victims of abuse,” said Rose. “They have no money; perhaps they are forced by circumstances to move in with someone inappropriate and invariably they get pregnant.”
You suspect Gloria’s now estranged mother may have been one of those girls. Incidentally, the young surrogate parent has now made contact with an aunt on her father’s side, 50-year-old spiritualist Felicia Ayuma.
“I’m glad Gloria and the young ones are improving,” she told me. “I felt really bad about what happened to them and I had to do something about it. At night, when the slum is illuminated by candles, lamps and the occasional electric light bulb, Gloria, Aggrey Amwanda and Musungu settle down on a cold, hard floor beneath the single bed that fits into Felicia’s 6ft by 6ft shack. Felicia’s daughter sleeps on the sofa; her own little girl shares the grandmother’s bed.
The nights in Mathare are safer during dry spells. Muggers often utilise the fierce wall of sound from torrential rain pelting off thousands of tin roofs; that way no-one can hear their victims scream.
Felicia’s home has rosary beads and a lighted candle on the table and posters of Arsenal, Barcelona and Jesus Christ on the walls.
“The football teams are for my son; the Lord is there for the rest of us,” she said.
John Laverty travelled to Kenya as a guest of Concern Worldwide (UK). Local office 47 Frederick Street, Belfast BT1 2LW. Tel: 9033 1100. www.concern.net . Special thanks to Karen Gallagher