Vera (45) lives in an informal settlement in Mombasa. Usually it is just her at home these days. During the Kenya Financial Diaries project she lived with her two daughters and for a time with her boyfriend (a police officer with a wife upcountry) and later her sister. One of her daughters, Sally, was always out late, drinking, and getting into trouble. This was constantly giving her headaches. Vera used to tell us that it was this stress that drove her to drink. By 2015, she had sent this elder daughter to live with her parents who she felt could manage her better. Sally got pregnant and had a baby there at her grandparents’ home.
When we called her last week as part of our effort to understand how Financial Diaries respondents are coping with coronavirus, Vera announced that she had stopped drinking.
“I didn’t realise how serious my drinking problem had become until 2016, when I developed high blood pressure and even got paralysed on one side. My parents took me in at home in Kitale, and I stayed there for a year and a half while I got sober. When I came back to Mombasa in 2018, I started a new chapter in my life.”
When Vera got back to Mombasa, she found that it was easier to get work. Casual work was more consistent, and people would even call to let them know when work was available and not. She felt more open to new kinds of work, like washing clothes, when she couldn’t get jobs working in the local godowns. Her health improved dramatically. “Now I think more clearly and face life more focused and with a better vision of what I want out of life.”
When she had been drinking heavily, her younger daughter, Nelly, went to live with her paternal grandfather. “I was so scared,” Vera recalls, “Nelly had never lived with anyone else.” Now she looks back with tremendous gratitude. Nelly’s grandfather sent her daughter to a very good boarding school in Bungoma, where she flourished. Now she is studying sociology and economics at Egerton University. “I am so proud of her. I never expected her to come this far in fact she has changed my status in the community as people respect me a lot.”
Vera’s main income now is from packing tea in a local godown. She still has work, but coronavirus restrictions have reduced her pay. She used to work six days per week, but now each person only gets 2-3 shifts per week. Working around the curfew, they have cut back from three shifts per say to two, either starting at 6am or 6pm. They get overtime for the long shifts, but with the reduction in working days, she is still not doing as well as before. Also, if she works the day shift, she really has to hustle to get home before the 7pm curfew. Often she cannot afford to take a matatu, especially now that they have hiked their fares.
With her income down, she has reduced what she sends to her parents. “I used to send my parents 200 to 500 shillings a week but now a week can pass without me sending them anything, or I send them 100 shillings which is nothing.” She also had to sell her gas cylinder to get money for Nelly to travel home from university. She no longer has to send Nelly pocket money, but she gives her a little bit of cash still to buy sanitary pads and airtime.
She is worried about what might come next for them. She knows with her underlying blood pressure problems she could be particularly vulnerable to the virus. She is also worried that if the factory closes or further cuts her shifts, she will not have many other places to turn. M-Shwari is not available for her. She took a Ksh 4,000 loan in November that she couldn’t repay. Her debt of Ksh 5,387 is still waiting there, and meanwhile she is blacklisted. While one of her merry-go-round chamas is still going on M-Pesa, the chama where she could normally borrow has stopped meeting to make loan decisions. She misses seeing her friends in the group.
But most of all, she misses church. Her spiritual life was very important to her when she was getting sober and starting over. Now, that support is gone. “It is really affecting me spiritually,” she says. For about 6% of our respondents, not being able to attend religious services is the most severe impact of the coronavirus on their lives right now. For many, religious community is where they find strength in difficult times, and as the economic pressures mount, for now, they have to face them alone.
Julie Zollmann is a Senior Consulting Associate at BFA Global.
Nekesa Lilyan Wekesa is a Project Manager at Digital Divide Data.
This is part of a series of rapidly-produced blogs on how low-income Kenyans are coping with the changes in their lives induced by the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). This research was implemented in partnership between BFA Global and FSD Kenya. Read more about the Kenya Financial Diaries project here. We will continue checking in with Diaries participants throughout the crisis. For the latest news and insights from this work, follow @FSDKe and @BFAGlobal on Twitter, as well as hashtags #Covid19DiariesKenya and #KomeshaCorona.