Hawa and Atieno: A Tale of Two Women

September 7, 2018 Africa , Opinion , OPINION/NEWS

Reuters/CC photo



Judy Amunga-Ndibo



Hawa takes out her expensive smartphone and quickly browses her messages as she is driven towards her morning workout at one of Nairobi’s city trendy gyms. Hawa used an app on her phone to enroll in this gym. She enjoys a daily early morning workout before going to work as a Customer Care Assistant for a Multi-national company and is guided by an expert trainer through the treadmill and other high tech machines at the gym, before using the gym facilities for a long, leisurely and hot bath. She hums an Ed Sheeran tune as she takes her bath.


Hawa, on getting to the office, is met by colleagues who have already bought snacks for the group’s morning tea. She settles into her comfortable office space and begins to plan for her day.


Hawa is the modern face of Nairobi’s urbane, upwardly mobile, professional, millennial. She earns a fairly decent monthly salary, staying with her Uncle and Auntie in one of the leafier environs of Nairobi city. Hawa has plans to go to abroad for her graduate studies and is saving towards this goal.


Across the Nairobi skyline around the same time, is another young woman in her twenties. She, like Hawa, is twenty something but their similarities end there. Atieno is her name. Atieno, a single mother, woke at 6 am to prepare her young child for nursery school in the sprawling neighbourhood of the Kibera slums. She had not slept too well as her next door neighbour in the humble shack she calls home came home after midnight, drunken and singing. He woke all the neighbours and Atieno was no exception. He sang in a loud, croaky voice, inbetween hurling insults at his wife who deserted him a few months earlier due to his deadbeat ways. This drunken man indulges in cheap liquor and provides Atieno and her fellow neighbours with a steady stream of disruptive entertainment every night.


Atieno curses him under her breath as she feels a throbbing headache, the effects of a disturbed night. She takes water from a small container next to her bed and gives her young child a sponge bath. Her one roomed shack is tightly compressed to contain all her earthly belongings, which are not much. She feeds him millet porridge without sugar, as she is unable to afford any sugar.


The baby boy yells at the fowl tasting brew but Atieno is determined to feed him at an alarming speed. She then washes her few utensils and sweeps her little home before closing it, and leaving with her child.


Atieno almost steps on a big rat that dashes across her path, which is next to a pile of an uncollected rubbish heap. The heap has been there for months. She curses yet again.


Atieno finally gets to the small humble kindergarten where her son goes to school, leaving him with his teacher. She heaves a huge sigh of relief.


She then continues to walk briskly towards the Makina market, a city council market in Kibera, populated by small scale traders, with most being tailors and artisans. She ekes out a living as a tailor and had been promised a client today so is hopeful. It has been at least 2 months since she got a good client and as the end of month approaches, she realizes she does not even have her monthly rent this month. Life has been tough since the father of her child walked out on her and went to live with another woman.


Atieno, unlike Hawa, makes no long term plans. She aims to survive the day or at the most, a month.


The recent announcement that fuel prices were going up in Kenya has been keeping Atieno up at night wondering what else will go up in price. Atieno is a deeply troubled woman who wears a permanent scowl on her face alongside deeply etched worry lines on her forehead making her look much older than her 26 years.


Hawa, meanwhile, has just completed her lavish mid-morning spread of hot chocolate, doughnuts and cookies. She enjoyed her tea over light hearted banter with her colleagues and is ready to tackle clients calling from all over the country, ordering tonnes of fertilizer. Hawa realizes that it will be a tough day but what keeps her going is that payday is only 2 days away. She has plans to join her pals from University for a camping trip and books a date with her hairdresser whom she will visit later that day after work. Hawa, also 26 years of age, is a vision of youth and loveliness, with a ready smile and easy humour.


Atieno, on the other side of the tracks, is always worried. Her promised client decided to go to another tailor in the same market sprawling with tailors from the slum community and is hoping for a surprise walk-in client to rescue her! Atieno’s hunger games are also starting to torment her, yet the reality is that she has no money for lunch.


Around 12.30 pm, Atieno receives a call of nature and dashes to the market’s communal toilet consisting of 4 latrines, no water, dirty walls smeared with fecal matter, bloodied or soiled rugs and a huge stench.


As Atieno takes her squatting position in the communal pit latrine, a steady stream of quiet tears trickle down her cheeks. She has just realized that she does not even have the 10 Kenya shilling coin that she needs to pay for this toilet which she must sadly pay for! All the frustrations of the day have become too much to bear.



The above two stories have been inspired by the real life experiences of two young ladies in Nairobi, Kenya. Who do you think represents the majority of Nairobi’s urban young women? Is it Hawa or Atieno?


If you answered yes to Atieno, then you are right. Over half of Nairobi’s youth population live in slums and informal settlements dotting various parts of the city. Those who do not live in slums find themselves living in unplanned, rough, overcrowded and shoddy housing built to exploit the urban struggling, underpaid, workforce. The challenges such young women face are aptly depicted in the poignant story of Atieno reverberating across the city.


Hawa and her well to do counterparts represent a small percentage of young women living in Nairobi. It is the face of Hawa and her upwardly mobile millennials whose statistics are quoted by our government officials at fancy meetings! This is an extremely deceptive picture of development.


Atieno’s problems bear direct nexus to poor governance, institutionalized corruption and discriminatory policies that exclude a majority of Kenya’s citizens. Politicians only acquaint themselves with the Atienos of this world to reap from their vote rich informal settlements never to return until election time!


A representative democracy which Kenya claims to be, must truly represent, include and support the rights and interests of the majority Atienos in the country.


The right to decent sanitation which includes the free use of a toilet is a basic human right protected in our Constitution under Article 43. The state is charged with giving such rights meaningful, practical, all-inclusive expression.


Fighting corruption and choosing visionary leaders with integrity and commitment to development must be a national priority for all Kenyans at all levels. Atieno’s tears must not be in vain.


As Bobbi Wine so eloquently put it, seeking the people’s vote must be accompanied by genuine concern for the people’s voice!’






Judy Amunga-Ndibo

Judy Amunga-Ndibo is a Kenyan Lawyer, Journalist and Community Development Worker for Tatua, Community based organisation, Kibera slums, having gained experience with UNHCR and the ICRC previously.

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