| Lucy Wanjiru | Nation Media Group

‘I slept with him for Sh50 for githeri, but ended up getting pregnant’

At exactly 11 o’clock, the rough path leading to Kibra is covered in clouds of dust.

A timid, malnourished schoolgirl clutches onto her newborn as she hurries to a place she lately considers her fortress of solace.

All she wants is something to eat and stop her tummy from rumbling.

Last night she went to bed hungry and reveals she had nothing to breastfeed her little one.

“I gave birth recently. It was not part of the plan. He had promised to give me Sh50 to buy ‘githeri’. Why should I die of hunger?,” she says.

The child now raising a fellow child lives with her grandmother.

She says she was influenced by her friends, who have reportedly identified men they ‘service’ for money to buy food.

Mr Abdul Ali Hussein, 37, fondly referred to as ‘Mr Pads’ in Kibra, as he distributes free sanitary towels to women and children in the area, says the number of girls selling their bodies for food could be much higher.

“Many of them go around looking for food and men take advantage and ask for sex in return,” says the volunteer who has been doing community work in the area for 15 years.

Mr Hussein is, however, elated that a local Christian centre is feeding those who have nothing to eat as many families have lost their sources of income and cannot stay out past 8pm looking for something to eat.

“One thing about Ramadhan is praying and breaking the fast together, which is now a big challenge considering the government has not shown any interest in supporting small people like us,” he says.

Ms Yasmin Ibrahim, 52, who was born and bred in Kibra, is a single mother of seven.

Her tattered clothes are proof of just how life has been since Covid-19 started.

 “I can no longer afford a ‘mtumba’ dress as I have to look for food for my children, the eldest is in Form Three,” she tells me.

Pangs of hunger

Ms Ibrahim is one of about 1,000 people who regularly throng Mugumoini Community Centre, an initiative run by Christian Best Camps of Kenya.

The Centre was started in 2010 with a vision of empowering youth and children in the area, according to Ms Linah Wambui, the Communications Officer at the centre.  

 “This is home for me, my second family, a place where I am able to fulfill my purpose in life, a chance to help, guide and share with people without anyone judging me. With Covid-19 upon us, food shortage is a big issue around here,” the officer who walked away from the newsroom two years ago opens up.

She reveals many people with chronic illnesses and disabilities go without food.

“These people sleep hungry. Most were casuals who used to make Sh300 a day. They are now not making anything, yet their children are at home. Some are pregnant in their early teens.” 

The 28-year-old leads a team of about 10 who were busy preparing to feed the hungry.

Linah Wambui

Linah Wambui at Mugumoini Community Center.

Photo credit: Kanyiri Wahito | Nation Media Group

According to their data, at least 200 Kenyans show up daily and by the end of Kenya’s first partial lockdown, the institution had fed more than 8,000 people.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), the global agency that champions the rights of children, malnutrition  is known to cause nearly half of all deaths of children under five years globally, while chronic malnutrition leads to stunting – an irreversible condition with devastating effects, including diminished brain and physical development as well as reduced productivity.

Even though Kenya has made significant progress in reducing stunting, wasting and underweight in children, as well as increasing breastfeeding rates, food insecurity is still a major challenge especially for communities affected by recurring drought and poverty. Covid-19 has made things even more devastating. 

Poverty and lack of food results in malnutrition and higher risk of infection, according to Ms Maryanne Mwanza, a consultant dietician based in Nairobi.

She adds that if you are either overweight or underweight, it is still considered a case of malnutrition.

“Children under five are the most vulnerable as it leads to low weight and stunted growth while, in the case of expectant mothers, not getting enough nutrition to support a healthy pregnancy may lead to congenital conditions due to lack of folic acid,” she explains.

The expert cautions that any breastfeeding mother who does not have access to food might not produce enough milk for the child.

“We recommend that a child be breastfed exclusively for the first six months and in the case of Kibra, you can see they not only do not have food, but have to walk to look for it, which means the baby will not be properly breastfed or will be introduced to solid foods prematurely,” the expert adds.

More than 250,300 vulnerable children were screened in Kenya for acute malnutrition through a UNICEF outreach initiative during the 2017 drought emergency, 1.7 million new mothers counselled on exclusive breastfeeding, while iron folic acid was made available to more than 2.5 million women of reproductive age .  

Official data indicates more than 3 million children aged six to 59 months received Vitamin A supplements as well.    

Children

Ms Angel Katusia, a health advocate at White Ribbon Alliance, a global movement that supports  reproductive, maternal and newborn health, says in Kibra, many women are beaten by their husbands who come home and don’t find food.

“Two weeks ago we talked to 20 girls and because they do not go to school, the money our partners allocated for fees is being used to buy food and sanitary pads,” she says.

Mugumoini centre has to date served 24,000 households with a maximum of eight people in each, has a well-equipped community library that serves community members and local schools that have no access to electricity.

“Since the pandemic started, many children have been forced to sell sex just to get a meal. That is what they tell us when they come over, especially when we are doing counselling.

“Some parents have died, leaving their children orphaned while others are being raised by parents battling chronic alcoholism or ageing parents who can’t fend for them,” says Ms Wambui.

“We handle 100 to 200 kids and youths aged four to 25 years. We just try to give them a safe space to nurture their talents, especially in music and basketball, considering there are no public playgrounds in this part of the country,” Ms Wambui narrates.

She adds single mothers living with HIV/AIDS form a large number in Kibra and without proper medication and food they may not make it.

Last week, a Grade Four child who had not eaten for days went to the centre.

Ms Wambui says the boy’s mother had been too drunk to feed the lad and his five siblings.

The officer quickly rushed to the kitchen to prepare and pack food for the entire family.

As Ms Ibrahim looks for a seat after joining the large famished crowd, she still looks so stressed.

“My rent is Sh7,000. I do not know whether to buy food or pay rent, neither do I know how I will settle the debt because it has been accumulating for months and landlords don’t want to understand. All they want is payment, though I understand it is their source of livelihood and they have to survive the pandemic too.

“This is why I have come here, to beg for help,” she narrates as tears race down her sullen face.

Mugumoini, which is funded by well-wishers from the US, sometimes helps the children by settling rent areas, or talking to landlords to wait. 

Ms Ibrahim has seven mouths in her house to feed.

“The government is busy telling us to wash our hands, sanitise and use face masks, but where do we get the money to buy them if we cannot afford a meal?”

The situation has been made worse by the 8pm curfew, according to the mother of seven.

“Going to hustle while observing the curfew hours as ordered is impossible. The President should do away with it because the police are using it to beat up our children,” she says.

The children who come to seek refuge here are fed on rice twice a week, then ugali with vegetables, alternated with eggs, cabbage and cereals, after which about 400 cake and loaves are baked for them on Fridays.

For the adults, Ms Wambui says, they buy cereals in bulk and package them in two-kilogram sachets, which they give out alongside flour and cooking oil.

“We have an urban farm and so far 200 families have been trained to practise urban farming using the available spaces to ensure food security.

Ms Veronica Wanjiru Kirogo, the nutrition director at the Ministry of Health, insists their role is only to assist in resource mobilisation since health is devolved and each county should have its own response plan.

“We have already developed a national nutrition response plan informed by a food and nutrition assessment survey we conducted to determine the total number of under-five-year-old children as well as expectant mothers who are at risk of acute malnutrition and shared it with the counties,” the director explains.

She reveals the national plan factored in the Covid-19 pandemic and will cost Kenya Sh1.2 -1.9 billion, according to her projections, which she will soon submit.

“The State Department for Devolution has a facility to assist the counties on the same. We are currently in the process of giving them a distribution plan for treatment of acute malnutrition based on the response plan, “she says.

The Kibra food crisis in figures

200: At least 200 Kenyans show up daily

8,000: Institution had fed 8,000 people since the first lockdown

14: Girls as young as 14 years engaging in transactional sex for food

50: He promised her 50 shillings to buy ‘Githeri’

300: Most residents are casual labourers who used to make Sh300 a day before Covid-19 struck

Latest data (2017)

Shows more than 250,300 vulnerable children screened in Kenya for acute malnutrition.

 1.7 million new mothers counselled on exclusive breastfeeding

 Iron folic acid was made available to more than 2.5 million women of reproductive age.  

3 million children aged six to 59 months received Vitamin A supplements.

Mugumoini

Has to date served 24,000 households with a maximum of eight people in each

Plan

Covid-19 nutrition response plan will cost Kenya Sh1.2 -1.9 billion, according to MoH Nutrition director.

Compiled by Leon Lidigu, source: Unicef, MoH and interviews

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