Matthew has been a hustler for as long as he can remember. He did well in primary school and wanted to go on to a good secondary school. But, his mother at home was paralyzed and couldn’t work. His father, he says, “Is just a farmer, you know. He doesn’t take this issue of school seriously.” Matthew went to the church asking for help and managed to secure support to go to a good school, where his peers had their eyes on university. But he missed the cutoff for public university by two points.
Refusing to give up, he made the most of an opportunity to study at a college. He rented a one room place in Mathare with his brother. Eventually, his girlfriend, Martha, moved in as well. By the time that we met the family, Matthew and Martha had a child, and they cared for an abandoned neighbor child as well, all in this tiny room with just two plastic chairs and a couple of foam mattresses. There had been a fire a few months before the study began, and the family had lost all of their belongings. Matthew bought some new things, a bed for KSh 7,000, the two plastic chairs for KSh 500 each. Though he told us in the beginning, “In this house, we don’t just sell household things like that,” when we asked whether some of their assets might be sold to get money. But, over the course of the year, we watched as he pawned the bed to pay his son’s hospital bill, then each of the chairs, first when the family was desperate for food, then later to pay a debt. At one point, he pawned his own shoes to get KSh 500 quickly. He sold his phone for KSh 2,000 and bought another for KSh 800 to free up some cash to campaign for student government.
Now I have a job. Though it’s not well paying, I’m able to meet my daily expenses comfortably.
The family hardly spent anything on clothes, though the ones they had were no longer in good shape. To them, clothes were a luxury. “When people know who I am, then I might start spending money on clothes,” Matthew said. Similarly, he told us that at his age a “balanced diet” and treatment for his ulcers were not a priority. For now, he had to stay focused on the most important things: basic food, rent, and school fees. These were temporary sacrifices, and he had big dreams for himself.
To keep the family afloat and to pay his college fees, Matthew did all kinds of jobs. When possible, he would take on construction jobs. He hated the hard work considering himself a “fragile” person. Plus, this work often was done during the day, when he would have to miss classes. Through a connection at church, he also did an “online business,” where students from around the world would pay him to write research papers on their behalf. In a day, he would research the topic, write the paper, and be paid based on the page length. This was good business at first, though the pay went down over time, and it sometimes took long to receive the funds. He also occasionally worked for a small company that made wedding cards and posters, helping them with design on the computer and special software, like Photoshop. But this, too, was irregular. When he secured a place in student government, he started getting a little extra cash for sitting allowances. He had high hopes to also benefit from “tips.” Again, it was just a phase, he told us, and himself.
His brother Samwell considered himself a freelance journalist, but during the study, he did construction casual work, only contributing minimally to the household needs and instead drinking most of his pay. Martha worked as a househelp for a family in Eastleigh from 7am-3pm Monday to Thursday earning KSh 200 per day. Midway through the study, she got a job packaging tissues in a local factory. It wasn’t every day, either, but when she worked, she earned KSh 425 per day. Her money was used for most of the daily food needs, like vegetables. The brothers didn’t ask her for anything more, even though they often struggled just to buy the main staple foods and pay rent. Things got tense when they couldn’t make payments against the KSh 9,000 debt they had with the shopkeeper. Eventually, Matthew was forced to surrender his phone. They wouldn’t be allowed to take anything more on credit until half the debt was paid.
School fees were a whole additional burden. Matthew was to pay KSh 66,000-70,000 per year for 4 years, and he didn’t see any way he would be able to earn that money through work. Many times he was in arrears, but would sneak back into classes, hoping to find the money he needed before exams began. He was constantly looking for help, through well-wishers and the Community Development Fund (CDF) upcountry who would send cheques to him to deposit into the school’s account.
Over time, we learned that Martha was part of that story.
“I also befriended a lady whose family was a bit rich. I tried to figure it out to pursue my education; I had to rely on her so that the family could sponsor me partially, because I knew the brother had some reliable income…It’s true that the lady was in love with me, I can’t deny that. Even me I was a bit in love, but not so much.”
Though they had a child together, by the end of the study, he had sent her to live with his mother upcountry. He missed the extra income in the house, but had become ashamed of his decision to start a life with her:
“It’s a shame for a learned man like me to have a wife below my education level…I have learned that it is not good to marry at a tender age. You will have a burden because, you know, now where I am, there are some more beautiful girls. So, you know, it’s as if you did a mistake by marrying a long time ago, and now I am crying, ‘I wish I knew.’”
When we visited in the Update, he was dating someone new. In fact, everything seemed new. He finished his studies and was quickly hired by a tour company, fitting with his studies in tourism. But, when they transferred him to Watamu, he resigned. Two months before we saw him, he was given a job at Nairobi Java House. He was now earning KSh 23,500 per month. There was no more “begging or depending on handouts from family and friends.” Now, it was his family calling from upcountry asking for help, especially for school fees for his younger siblings. He said this was more than he could handle. It was also tough to plan for all the needs back home. He was sending Martha just KSh 500 per month for the upkeep of the child. He said it should be enough since she was staying with his mother, and there was plenty of food at the farm.
Straining has not been much as it used to be earlier on and no begging or depending on handouts from family and friends
He’s opened a new bank account, something he felt he had no use for before. Early in the Diaries, he complained that banks made unnecessary deductions and lacked transparency, telling us, “They are not minding about customers, but on how to get money for the banks.” Before when he had extra money, he preferred to put it on M-PESA, where he could conveniently deposit as little as KSh 50. Mostly, this new bank account was a place to receive his salary, but he was also saving. He wanted to open his own tour company, so he could stop being “enslaved” by employers. He had also started using M-Shwari. Now that he was earning more regularly, he felt this was a better way to borrow than the shylocks that ended up with so many of his assets.
His brother Samwell also found his feet. At the end of the Diaries, he was hit by a car on the University of Nairobi campus. He stayed in the hospital for a long time recovering from a broken pelvis. The driver of the vehicle disappeared, so the family was left with a bill of KSh 75,000 to cover. The University paid KSh 20,000. The rest was covered by Samwell and Matthew’s welfare group. For years, the two had faithfully contributed KSh 1,000 whenever there was a need among the 200 members of the group. So, when they faced this enormous bill, they were covered. For Samwell, the accident was also a wake-up call. He reduced his drinking and went back to school, studying media. He was able to get a loan from the government’s Higher Education Loan Board (HELB) to cover about 60% of his fees and now expects that he’ll be able to make it to graduation without too much sacrifice.