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No pay, insults and running errands: The rough life of an intern in Kenya

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Doctors take part in a protest on Uhuru Highway, Nairobi, on March 22, 2024. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

When Ms Ann Maina was an intern at a state institution, she always felt like a zombie every morning she reported for work.

Thoughts of having to wake up and report to the office every morning drained her, she says. As a novice, everything about the corporate world was foreign to her.

Ms Maina was armed only with ambition to learn. In vain did she wait to be assigned duties by senior staff. They mostly gave her trivial jobs and sent her on errands. Ms Maina’s assigned supervisor, she says, was never bothered with her progress.

Her enthusiasm and passion waned with time. Being at a parastatal, Ms Maina was looking forward to a monthly stipend to help cover travel costs, lunch and other basics.

The only payment she got was the never-ending supply of hot water from the office dispenser, “which I used to make strong tea at lunch hour”.

She says her internship was characterised by reprimands. For the period Ms Maina was an intern, she never got a chance to shadow the more experienced colleagues and learn what a Human Resources (HR) officer in such an entity did.

“It was frustrating three months of internship,” she says, adding that she did not learn anything meaningful.

The experience was different for Mr Ally Gakweli who landed a paid internship. The work place was “fantastic” and the supervisors were great.

“The only hiccup was that the pay could delay on some occasions,” he says.

After being hired, however, Gakweli’s continued receiving what he was paid as an intern.

Whatever the workplace lacked in finance, it made up for in the healthy work culture, Mr Gakweli told the Sunday Nation.

Things were not rosy for 24-year-old Irene Ngulamu, a radio producer. She had two internships, both unpaid, before landing a job.

Irene Ngulamu

Irene Ngulamu.

Photo credit: Pool

“I learnt to be an all-round journalist, from producing to reporting broadcast news,” she says.

“Even without stipend, the experience was great. I learnt many things we were not taught in college. It is through these experiences that I cemented my journalism,” Ms Ngulamu explains.

She says intenship is tough and requires one to make a lot of sacrifice.

“Only God made me pull through. I had nothing figured out. Eventually, the sacrifice paid off,” she says.

Ms Juliana Wambua applied for and got internship in the finance department of a top company in Nairobi. The accounting and finance graduate left the firm even after her unpaid internship contract was extended by three months.

“Payment used to be in form of ‘thank you’ and copious amounts of water. The company never even offered tea. I only requested for some little money to cater for my fare to and from the office, but was rebuked,” she says.

“When the internship period elapsed, the contract was extended by 12 weeks. I turned it down. I raised the payment matter with the management and they promised to look into it. They never did.”

Interns in government institutions face many problems. One of the reasons of the ongoing strike by doctors in public hospitals is the welfare of interns.

Medical interns are the backbone of the healthcare system. They bridge the staff shortage gap, are on call for 24 hours and provide about 70 per cent of services at public hospitals.

Their remuneration and terms of services have been cited as one of the reasons for the doctors’ strike, now in its 26th day.

Internship is mandatory for anyone training to be a medical doctor. One cannot get a practising licence without having been an intern.

The interns do most of the work assigned to the licensed doctors, but only under close supervision.

The government proposes that medical and pharmacy interns be paid Sh47,000 to Sh70,000 an month, an offer rejected by the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Dentists and Pharmacists Union (KMPDU).

The union wants the amount raised to Sh206,000.

Shirley Ogalo, a 24-year-old medical intern, was the third best candidate in the 2016 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination in the country.

The former Lugulu Girls High School student dreamt of being an air hostess, but her mother and teachers thought she would make a brilliant doctor.

After about a year of attending the Equity Leaders Programme for students, Ms Ogalo joined the University of Nairobi for a Bachelor’s degree in Dental Surgery.

Shirley Aoko.

Shirley Aoko. Billy Ogada | Nation Media Group

Photo credit: Billy Ogada | Nation Media Group

The course was tough, but Ms Ogalo made it. She is angry with the government because “I have to go to the streets to demand what rightfully belongs to me”.

“It is disheartening and sad. The government knows what needs to happen. I don’t know what I will be doing a year from now. Where did the idea of doing away with payment for interns come from? We are grown-ups and need to stop depending on our parents for upkeep. They pay is important as we are always busy, sometimes with classes and examinations. There is no time for side hustles.”

For Levis Jilani, 25, a communication specialist, his paid internship yielded into a job upon the elapse of the three-month of internship.

The experience was nice, he says. Jilani’s daily tasks included photography, social media management, videography, video editing, writing articles and learning more of fundraising aspects for NGOs.

“As an intern, I was paid a monthly stipend which motivated me to concentrate on the daily tasks given,” Jilani says.

His is a testament that payment, however little, can make a lot of difference in an intern’s life.

“The intern should be disciplined, patient, self-driven, teachable and creative …that will create a good chance of being retained or being seconded for jobs,” Jilani advises.

There is a thin line between internship – a structured programme offered by companies to provide hands-on experience to students or recent graduates – and attachment, which typically refers to a short-term work experience, often unpaid, aimed at exposing individuals to practical aspects of a field.

The Federation of Employers of Kenya (FKE’s) does not hold a database on the number of interns in the country, FKE president Jacqueline Mugo told the Sunday Nation.

But the broader argument has become why a stipend or monetary payment is crucial for an intern, especially in the current challenging economic landscape, Lillian Ngala – the HR Director at Diamond Trust Bank (DTB) – argues.

Interns, she says, dedicate their time, energy and often own resources to contribute to the growth of the companies they are attached to.

Valid point

That can’t be rewarded by leaving them to foot the bills for commuting, meals and even appropriate attire.

“There’s no way an unpaid intern struggling to make ends meet can serve your customers properly. As the interns are working, they are worried about their next meal or how to get back home,” she says.

“When interns are undervalued, ethical dilemmas can arise. Financial strain can make even the most experienced among us cut corners or compromise on integrity. This is not the kind of culture we want to foster.”

While Ms Ngala admits that businesses are feeling the economic pinch, she advises employers to “treat our interns with the compassion and fairness they deserve”.

“We owe it to tomorrow’s leaders, innovators and change-makers to do better. We must ensure the bare minimum is not just met but exceeded. By compensating interns fairly, we are not just investing in their future; we are investing in our now,” Ms Ngala says.

Geoffrey Kim, a civil and structural engineer lamented on X (formerly Twitter) on March 20: “You look at the KMPDU standing up for medics and saying Sh70,000 is a ‘no’ and wonder whether the Engineers Board of Kenya (EBK) is aware that graduate engineers earn Sh20,000 as interns …and they are expected to remit Sh4,000 in membership fee.”

While he raises a valid point on the welfare and remuneration of interns, Kim misses a vital point. The EBK is a regulatory agency while KMPDU is a union. It is highly unlikely that the EBK can front a spirited fight for the welfare of its members.

Additional reporting by Lydia Mwachiru