Any Kenyan has an idea of the troubles the people working in Kenya’s informal sector go through. An idea. But as always, we know nothing!
Well, the video expose above (watch it first before reading on) reminded me of just that. And also of a horrid 2013 afternoon. First, predictably, the informal traders I interact with the most are those second-hand booksellers. You can read about them here and here.
I was headed home from my regular coffee with a good friend of mine, and decided to add a new book to my small library. I am a (very slightly) superstitious fella, and any time I bought a book after meeting up with this friend, I would end up picking gems off the streets (One Game of Thrones volume and two copies of The Hobbit, so you get the gist). So, heck, there I am with the usual warm feeling after a cappuccino, good talk and lovely company; good vibes only.
As I stop by on Tom Mboya Street opposite the matatus that will take me home, it turns out the lady selling actually even has an offer: Kshs 50/- off her usual price. See, good vibes only and just like that my fare home is also sorted (in times of HELB, this actually counts, a lot). And just as I lean over to peruse her latest batch, what do you know: my jeans adopt an unusual level of tightness never felt before.
As I am dragged backwards against the unperturbed human rush hour traffic, I go (slightly) haywire.
Nimefanya nini tena. Eish, boss, naangalia tu vitabu!
Unadhani mimi ni nani? Ingia ndani!
A ridiculously fast push and shove, and WHAM! I’m thrown into the back of one of those dirty City Council pickups. Why? Because allegedly I am purchasing wares on the streets from an unlicensed vendor. But c’mon, I had been doing this for the past year or two, and the book-sellers never get harassed by City Council askaris. And even if they do, why am I, the intended purchaser, being the one roughed up and detained? What got even more on my nerves was how the allegedly “unlicensed” hawker was left seated plum behind her collection, not bothered for zilch!
Now, I knew I was in for a rougher time when I noticed who was in the ride with us (I got detained with a Somali lady who definitely had the odds against her, you can imagine). Inside the pickup, instead of kanjo askaris, are two particularly well-fed and even better-armed police men. Their purpose: scare us witless till we empty our pockets enough to be released.
You know how this story goes.
I was released, after already texting a few people in advance to know if they had any connections high up in City Hall to place a call to these numbskulls. I left that lady behind, as she brandished her UNHCR staff card at the two masses of flesh and lead in the pickup.
I went home pissed; wondering when on earth it became a crime to buy a book on the streets of Nairobi. After calming down, I realised there are guys who have it much worse. The hawkers themselves, who are exposed to an even cruder, systematic and brutish infection of what is supposed to be a body that sustains law and order.
This piece by #AfricaUncensored
reminded me of that experience, and the reality beneath it. A big shout-out to these guys though, staying on the path in the face of obvious opposition and intimidation.
That there are certain institutions in Kenya that are oh-so-rotten that we don’t even bother ourselves thinking about them. Why? Coz we are above that level; it’s another person’s problem.
The police, the City Council and the Government itself are the very well-known ones. The irony is NO-ONE is above them. If at all you feel far-removed, a not so tiny reminder is the figures on your annual tax returns. And if you don’t file them (you criminal you!), have a look at your receipts at the ATM, the petrol station, and the pricey restaurants; take note of all those levies and whatnot.
I am glad we aren’t sitting down and brooding as these things happen. There seems to be a resurgence in trying to make things right. Hopefully it is long-lived, and with substantial results, and hopefully not isolated to social media and such other enclosures of thought. But rather in the masses. A lot of things must change. But usually, we might need to be shocked into such change.