Lucy strokes the head of one of her two shiny children and hustles them out of the rough wooden door with their school books. She’s wearing a perfectly fitting skirt of blue and yellow African cloth and a yellow T shirt stamped with the words ‘Unga Revolution’. She’s young and she looks determined. ‘Now, see, we skip mealtimes, from three to two to one. You can buy less amount of food. Instead of buying a two-kilo packet of unga (maize meal), because the money is not enough, you buy a quarter or a half, depending on size of the family. In 2007, before the post-election violence, maize was 50 shillings a kilo and now it’s 120 shillings. I earn about 300 shillings a day, mostly, and from that I buy food, pay rent, pay school fees. We are coping up because shop keepers, you see, they have the kadogo economy, a small economy where you can get these few vegetables for five shillings, the package is so-o small… you can get sugar, a spoonful at one or two shillings. Vegetables you buy two leaves, old ones, for five shillings. Meat, sometimes, chicken heads and feet, you put a lot of water and make a soup, twenty shillings.’
In Mathare Valley, the slum where Lucy lives in Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi, the population density is 170,000 in a square kilometre. She moves with confidence along one of the main thoroughfares, a handmade road built out of decades of sedimented plastic bags and sewage. It’s all patched rusty corrugated iron and narrow alleys with washing lines strung between, the main drag lined with kiosks and roadside food stalls, crisscrossed by open drains, people gazing, people drinking, people heckling, ‘careful’ she says, people arguing, people sitting. Every so often an open space, ‘what’s this?’ It burned last year. The landlord wanted the people out. Here, a gang wanted to get rid of someone.
In 2010 Lucy mobilised people from Mathare to join demonstrations for the Unga Revolution – a series of events that mixed working and middle classes in marches to Nairobi’s city centre protesting about food prices. It is part of a growing movement called Bunge la Wananchi, the people’s parliament. Today she’s up at parliament again. Inflated plastic pigs are being tossed between protesters on the steps of the august house – “MPigs! MPigs!” the demonstrators shout – they’re referring to Kenya’s 349 members of parliament who have voted themselves a wage of 852,000 Kenya Shillings a month – and that’s before adding the 469,000 monthly stipend for travel – bringing their claim to over 1.3 million shillings or some £10,000 per month. Lucy and her mother sell vegetables, and earn about £60 a month. She’s alive, but she’s furious. ‘To pay their greedy wages the politicians will put food and fuel taxes up again’, she spits.
Now the steps of parliament are slick with pigs’ blood from the Dagoretti slaughterhouse. The plastic pigs are being butchered and strings of sausages tumble out onto the ruby steps. The blood is coating people’s hands and clothes, the smell is rank, the media delighted. People are throwing one shilling coins into the red sludge – here’s money for you! The scene is on the edge of crazy. It’s what you have to do to get noticed.
The MPs appear to have backed down, and gone for a settlement of only 520,000 shilling per month and a 5 million annual grant for transport, but, on closer inspection, journalists from the Standard newspaper find allowances and concessions that take the figure right back to over 1.3 million.
At the Unga Revolution in June 2010, a few thousand occupied the street between parliament and the office of the prime minister in a noisy demonstration that stopped traffic for the whole day. Late in the day, the protestors extracted a promise of a price reduction from the Prime Minister. When weeks went by and nothing happened, another noisy march on the city a month later produced some subsidised maize meal. It was in the shops for three days.
As global food prices spike and then continue to rise inexorably, Kenya’s Revenue Authority seeks ever more efficient and comprehensive taxation. Basic food prices in Kenya have almost doubled in five years. Despite appeals, value added tax of 16% on maize meal, milk, bread and other basic foods look likely to be implemented this summer. Michael Otieno of the National Taxpayers Association, a lobby group operating out of a residential house in middle class Kilimani, bombards the government and press with data. Every Kenyan will pay 16 shillings a day in tax on Unga maize meal alone, he points out. But, the Treasury has its sights on revenue of 11 billion shillings (£82 million). Another big chunk of government income comes from levies on fuel, forcing prices of food yet higher.
Mathare’s local debate on the causes of food price hikes is sophisticated, but global price volatility doesn’t come into the conversation all that much – the issue here is the obscene inequality between the rich and the poor. Mathare’s vegetable sellers, sex workers, butchers, laundry women and unemployed display an informed understanding of the potentially controllable elements of the political economy. Sharing a newspaper around sheet by sheet, or listening to the radio at Mathare’s jobless corner where the drinking dens spill their customers out onto the main street, Mathare’s citizens follow the latest hair-raising developments. The strategic grain reserve is collapsing under dodgy contracts, prices swell with fake shortages and hoarding, and fat contractors are getting import subsidies for domestic grain shipped from the port at Mombasa for a mile out to sea and back into the country again. The scandals multiply. Today at jobless corner they’re listening to news from parliament – will the new budget bring food prices and fuel prices down?
‘If things don’t shift somewhere’, says Lucy, ‘we’ve no more meals to cut, no way to reduce the size of the pile of shredded cabbage we sell for 5 shillings, no more magnets we can stick to the bottom of our weighing scales.’ ‘We’ll have to shut up shop’, said the chicken-feet seller man joining the conversation with a mix of gloom and fine and ironic gales of laughter.
Kenya doesn’t have a working policy on food prices, but it may be forced to get one, and quick. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, there are nearly 1.5 million people living in slums in Nairobi, that’s almost half the city’s population. Another 1.4 million are classified as low income. Almost everyone on a low income is scrabbling for poor quality food, rent, fees for overcrowded schools, in short, struggling for a normal life. There is almost no one in Mathare who cannot come up with a fairly accurate version of Article 43 of the new constitution, which promises every Kenyan a right to food. But Kenya has, as yet, no policy to cut the rising suffering of the millions on parlous incomes who live in its burgeoning cities. The poor are getting angry and the rich appear to be taking very little notice.
Patta Scott-Villiers is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.
Previous blog posts by Patta Scott-Villiers