Beyond the streets that we know, with bars that sell cocktails for 800 shillings, above the roofs of residentials from under where microwaves hum with food ordered in through food delivery apps, past the imaginary line where status changes and the pyramid narrows into the bustling metropolis, where men and women survive by a different code, awakes a woman in a small house in Dandora. It’s this woman that I’m telling Emmanuel Jambo – photographer, raggamuffin, custodian of corny jokes – who was leaning against the doorway in our room in Lamu this past weekend. The smell of the sea drifted through the room as we lazed about, slightly hungover from last evening’s Glenfiddich (our host) party.
I was telling him about this woman because we were talking about how far a shilling can go. One shilling. And how much we take for granted. And how lucky we were to be staying where we were- The House on The Hill – a place named with a lot of irony. It was an extraordinarily extravagant house on a hill overlooking the whole of Lamu and it’s thatched rooftops, Manda Bay and its winding mangroves and the large strip of blue sea between. Both shirtless, we wondered what kind of a guy holidayed there, taking the whole three floors and three balconies and the swimming pool and all that awe inspiring view all to himself. We debated how a guy like this makes his money. We questioned the legitimacy of his happiness because we all imagine that wealthy people are so unhappy they fill that hole of unhappiness with lavish things and even if they are in places like the House On The Hill with their white linens, they stare, dead-eyed, in the distance, fighting back the rogue angels of their own loneliness.
I was telling him about what “below the poverty line” really means beyond what we know it for. How it’s easy to live in a bubble insulated from the starker realities of life that a woman like that lives. A woman who wakes up before the first cock and does chores and wakes up her children and prepares them for school and then picks up a massive bag full of underwear for men and women and leaves for work after her husband – a pastor in a local church – has left for the ministry.
“So she only sells underwear?” He asked, tying his dreadlocks.
“Yeah. She’s a hawker.” I said.
“Damn.” He says. “You should have called me when going to do the story I take pictures.”
She lives in a place called Sharp Corner in Dandora because it’s, well, a point in the road between Dandora Phase 4 and 5 where the road bends sharply. Around it – grey houses, dusty looking, rusted out corrugated roofs, naked walls, grilled windows – rise like a field of stone mushrooms. It’s a constant bustle, an energy that sparks with survival, adrenaline and sometimes peril. She walks great distances from Dandora to hawk underwear, selling them to passersby, to people idling outside kiosks, she walks in dimly lit restaurants where men sit on benches and holds them up in advertisement, she knows the right time to stop by the mjengos where sun-beaten and sinewy shirtless men with folded chapatis in their hands squint at some of those underwears and ask if they can fit a 4-year old girl? Initially she didn’t know the language to speak to these men about underwear, she had to learn it by listening and watching and relearning and knowing who is wasting her time and who can be turned into a sale. If by some rotten chance it starts raining and she’s far from her house- say a place called Saika, many kilometers away – she will not get into a matatu because that 20 shillings will eat into her profit margin of the day and her day will be a waste.
“She understands the value of the shilling more than we do. Her one shilling goes a longer way than your 100 bob.” I told him as he rummaged for a camera lens in his camera bag.
“Has she always sold underwear?” He asked twisting the lens onto the snout of the massive Canon.
“No, she used to sell soap before.” He brings the camera to his face and points its nose towards the panoramic view outside. His body creates a silhouette at the doorway. “Liquid soap.” But soap had little returns because everybody was doing it.
“She’s was in a Merry Go Round before, you know what that is?” I ask him.
“Like a group?” I hear quick series of clicks from his camera. He looks at what he’s just shot and brings the camera to his face again.
“Yeah, they started about 16 women each contributing Sh20 a day and giving one of the members the Sh320 shillings each week.”
“Twenty shillings?” he exclaimed.
“Maan!” Click, click. “That’s crazy!”
And that twenty shillings was a lot for her then, a housewife who depended on her husband. She struggled to raise the twenty shillings, the same twenty shillings that you leave in that little place in your car, dumped there as an afterthought. If you collected all the coins you throw in your car, it could have paid her contributions for a week, even two. You don’t think about twenty shillings as a thing that can change your fortune. For her, she’d find ways of juggling the money her husband left her every day (100 bob) like a circus clown on a trampoline. Later, she joined a chama called Hope A with ten other women and it’s from this chama that she has seen her first son through college and schools her two other children.
“If you saw her and she told you that she sends her kids to schools through selling underwear you’d not believe it!” I said. “Relatively she’s doing more with less.”
“That’s true.” He said.
A story is told about a distant land where a whole bunch of housewives wake up each morning and sit at the shores after they have finished their chores. Longingly they look across this massive lake, this place of dreams, unreachable, unrealistic. They have heard amazing things about that land. They heard that the women there are independent, that they make their own money. That they never have to wait for their husbands to come back home with bread. And that because of that they also make their own decisions on where their lives are going, not just bystanders prone to the fates that the universe hands them. Women who make decisions! It seemed impossible to believe. Most thought those were rumours. Nobody had been to that land. It seemed utopian, a product of wild and idle imagination.
One day a boat scraps up on their shores and a lady gathers her flowing kitenge and steps out of it gingerly. She has sunglasses on. Sunglasses! They had never seen any woman wear sunglasses, much less dress so well. They gathered around her as she removed her sunglasses and said, “Greetings my sisters. I come from the land yonder.” She pointed at the land with trees.
“What brings you here?” Mama Tata, a more boisterous one shouted from behind this throng. Mama Tata had five children and her husband worked in a quarry. The visitor said she’d heard about them, about this land and about the hardships that lived there and she wanted to change that. To change their lives. There are murmurs in the group.
“How do we know you are not a politician? You are wearing a coloured mirror on your face.” Mama Tata shot back to giggles.
“I’m not a politician. I’m here to take you guys back to that land.” The woman said. “At least those of you who want to be independent.”
“What about our husbands?” another lady asked. She’d been married for a year.
“The hell with our husbands! This is about us!” Mama Tata hollered again and everybody laughed. She had a husky voice. The lady from the boat smiled patiently.
“Is it true that women there have their own money?” someone asked.
“Yes. It’s true. They also have phones.”
“Phones that ring?!” Someone asked.
“No, phones that bark!” Mama Tata shouted back at her.
The lady from the boat told them that there would be a different boat coming next week on a Tuesday and anyone who wanted to cross over could do that. “It’s free and this is purely voluntary.” She said. The murmurs grew louder.
“There is no such thing as a free lunch, lady!” Mama Tata who now has made her way to the front of the group said, eyeing the woman’s hair. “That’s not your real hair.”
“No,” the woman said. “It’s a weave.”
“It looks shiny.” Said Mama Tata. Someone nudged her, she turned and said, “What?!”
The woman got back on her boat and left. The next tuesday a boat showed up on the shores as promised. It was a big brown boat with a massive mast written; Women Enterprise Fund/ Coca-Cola.
Only four women get on that boat. None of them being Mama Tata. The rest looked on sceptically, even worriedly. After a month the women got back with big smiles and tall tales and money in their new purses. They also have shiny hair. They opened businesses. They stopped coming to the shore to gossip about the land yonder. When the boat came the next time, a whole ton of women jumped on board and together they changed the fate of their land.
Of course this story only happened in my head when I think of the Women Enterprise Fund (WEF) and Coca-Cola initiative that have supported over 1.1 million women access interest-free loans.
But the lady up there who sells underwear is real. She’s called Nkirote Mutiga and she’s the chairlady of Hope A Self Help Group (supported by WEF) and when I think of how far a shilling can go, I think of her and her underwear business and how much she does with it.