Our gardener’s wife had a baby over the weekend. I just went to visit them in hospital (so that I could pay the bill). There is a catch 22 situation here in Kenya where you have to pay costs in full in order to ‘check out’ of hospital. For those who can’t pay, the rule is; ‘you can’t leave’, so ironically the bills just keep on mounting. There are rumours of patients who owe millions of shillings in Kenyatta National Hospital and have to live there because they can never leave as there is too many backdated bills owing. What kind of a system is that?
The baby and mum in question looked bonny and well, which was a relief after I’d heard that it was quite a difficult birth. Plus the first pregnancy had ended in miscarriage not so long ago. While I was happy to help out financially, it has been an interesting opening to the year, highlighting the reality of living with this endemic gulf of means between the haves and the have nots, with not a support system in sight.
One of the hardest parts about moving to a developing country is coping with being faced by such a startling disparity of wealth, especially seen in an urban capital with sprawling slums like Nairobi. I think that there are no answers; everyone simply has to find their own balance. There are good days and not so good days. When I am feeling particularly bad, I tell myself that living in the West, comfortably removed from the harsh injustices of the developing world, is not necessarily better. My husband despairs of my need to indulge myself by watching trashy E! TV, reality series with celebs living out their lives only worrying about which shoes to wear for the next party, or when they are possibly going to fit in ‘hair and make-up’ in their busy schedule. I love it for its escapism. Anyway, I digress…. Here are some examples to illustrate the ‘disparity of wealth’ gap.
Our gardener, a young, very nice chap. Evidently he saved some money to pay for the birth hospital fees (but I guess he also must have known that 4,000/- was never going to be nearly enough) and I was very glad that he admitted his wife into a place with good doctors and care. I was aware that our gardener’s wife was pregnant again since we stepped in to help over the miscarriage too, but to be honest, neither the gardener nor I had had a real discussion over how the inevitable hospital fees were going to be tackled. I think we were both in denial. In the event we got a phone call early on Sunday morning, and so took a diversion on the way to a kids biking event (that was a nightmare – another story!),and met him on the road to throw all the cash we had in our wallets through the car window at him, promising to pay any balance later.
At hospital today, I paid said balance. I asked is his wife had anyone to help her at home, then offered some extra cash for the journey back to his house not far away.
‘1,000/- please. I think it’s best if we take a taxi.’
I felt like saying ‘sorry, you’ve cleaned me out.’
Instead I say, ‘I’ll give you 600/-.’
In the absence of a state welfare system or free medical care, and as employers, we are obviously happy to help, but it seems that the old ‘God will provide’ adage, rather than boring old forward planning, is still very much alive too. Lets face it, it turns out that very often rather than God, it’s us.
Our ex-nightwatchman paid us a visit. He’s the guy who lives in Kibera who borrowed our car for his ‘renewal of vows’ Kibera wedding recently (see numerous previous posts). We provided sodas, crisps a driver etc too. The latest is; he said he needed medicine for what had been diagnosed as early onset osteoporosis. He had managed to have hospital scans (a Swiss lady/missionary who he met in Kibera had apparently paid for these) and said that a 6 month course of pills would cure him completely – but as things stood he could barely walk around or leave his house. Again, we handed over cash.
Let me tell you, having paid out 13th month bonuses for current employees and had a lot of visitors recently, plus Christmas, school fees and a self catering week at the coast – it gets increasingly hard to part with hand-outs – but I ask you, how can you argue when you are sitting in a lovely garden, next to a pretty house, having just had a swimming pool built with a guy who lives in Kibera?!
So, having just agreed to pay for medical treatment, our ex-nightwatchan turns around and says;
‘My wife and I have been discussing something recently. We talked about how you have been helping us for very many years and decided that we would very much like you both to give us flights to England, so that maybe we can walk around with you for perhaps a week or so and look at the place.’
My husband and I nearly spat out the tea we were sipping.
I’ll be honest with you. For a moment there, I thought he was talking about giving us flights. It took a while for the message to sink in. The ex-askari repeated the question.
‘My wife and I think it would be good to visit England. We have been to Uganda and Rwanda but never England. Maybe you could take us as your guests and we could have a look around?’
My husband says; ‘he honestly thinks we are some sort of bottomless pit of giving. He hasn’t worked for us for over five years!’
Before giving him a lift to the nearest bus stage, I notice he’s asked the gardener for any old plastic containers. I give him a few more plus a packet of biscuits then ran him down the road.
Drought in Kenya
The La Nina weather phenomenon that is contributing to the heavy flooding in Australia and Brasil is conversely the cause of drought here. El Nino means rain here, La Nina can mean drought. The Kenya Red Cross are currently trying to persuade the local Government to address the drought problem officially, but they seem too busy worrying about raising ICC legal defence costs, The Hague and party politics to notice.
When it’s dry you see herds of cows right inside town, blocking roads, grazing on verges. I had once assumed that owners and herdsmen somehow drove cows here in search of pasture but recently I learned that there is more to it than this.
‘Because of the drought, cows in Eastern Province are now selling for 6,000 shillings per cow where once they were worth 100,000/-. They are selling the cows off because they cannot feed them. I have seen very many trucks full of cows coming into Nairobi, bought by businessmen who buy them cheap. They have money for feed. This is how business works during these times.’
‘We used to be able to read the seasons, the signs of rain coming, the clouds and the birds. Now it is very difficult to predict the weather. No one knows what is happening. Planters plant at the wrong time. Global warming is very dangerous for us. Things have changed so much over the past few years. We have to learn how to adapt for our children.’
Staying on the Kenya Coast.
We stayed in Watamu over New Year week. There were no teenagers between us so we stayed low key eating lots of fish. On New Year itself we had a family meal, watched fireworks from our poolside, played charades with the kids. Between that and dealing with the punchy fish dealer who had tripled his prices for high season, dodging teenagers riding on the back of landrovers or speedboats, we couldn’t help but notice that there was also a pretty serious water shortage going on.
My husband said something along the lines of:
‘Never before has it hit me so hard, that this situation over water has become really serious. Seeing plastic water containers lined up everywhere along the side of the road, watching women carrying water on their heads, it makes you realise how precious a commodity it is, that one day fresh water really is going to run out, and then what will we do?’
‘That’s cheery.’ I said.
Meanwhile, back to disparity of wealth – we had rented a house so that we could swim, take beach trips, read and relax. The rent we paid was pretty high by our standards – but conversely, we couldn’t help but notice how water containers were quickly squirreled away by the guys who worked in the house. How Faniki, the cleaner’s flip-flops had completely worn through and were stapled in place – how life in the village directly behind the house went on with a fire burning all day, women making makuti (roof coverings made from palm leaf), or washing clothes, sweeping, eating ugi. On one hand you have Flavio Briatore, on the other …. a mud hut. I wonder if he notices?