Call for Kenya’s hawkers to be treated with dignity

The dark clouds threaten a downpour. Already, light showers have started, and people in the streets of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, are hurrying to their destinations to avoid getting soaked.

But Margaret Wangui, her two-year-old daughter strapped tightly to her back, is not running away from the rains. She is fleeing the city council askaris (guards) who are cracking down on hawkers.

The 35-year-old single mother of two has been playing hide and seek with the askaris since she arrived in the city at 1pm to sell fruit. Five hours later, she has yet to make a sale because of the heavy presence of the guards, who arrest hawkers caught selling wares in the main streets.

Hawking within the central business district is prohibited, but has continued nonetheless — with bribes known to make askaris look in the other direction.

”I begin my work at 1pm., but spend so much time evading the askaris [that] by the time I settle to work, it is late in the evening. This means that I have to stay on until nine or ten in the night to sell my fruit — that is, if it has not fallen in the process of fleeing from the askaris,” she says.

Those caught are handled roughly, whether they are men or women, young or old. The askaris bundle the hawkers into city-council trucks; they are then taken to the cells, to await court appearances. In addition, their wares are permanently confiscated.

Wangui says she has been the victim of mistreatment on several occasions, including last December.

”They caught me and roughed me up. They hit me seriously, not caring that I was carrying my child on my back. They hurt me and the baby in the process,” she says, showing the scars on one of her arms that she says was hurt in the incident.

Wangui and her baby stayed in a cell for several days, after which she was charged with hawking without a licence, obstructing pavements and littering the city.

Her difficulties are representative of those facing thousands of other hawkers in Nairobi.

”Brutality of the city-council askaris has become the order of the day,” says Benson Ng’ang’a, secretary general of the Hawkers and Vendors’ Federation.

”We know we are not supposed to be hawking on the roads [and] pavements. [But] if arrested, let the hawkers be taken to court in dignity. There is no need for the officers to employ force.”

Four hawkers are said to have died since last year in skirmishes between the traders and askaris. Close to 10, Ng’ang’a notes, have been severely injured and hospitalised — some with wounds from gunshots fired by council officials.

However, authorities point an accusing finger at hawkers.

”Our own officers have been maimed by hawkers even when they are not on duty. This month alone there are about 20 officers who we have spent money on, treating them for being attacked by hawkers,” says Hillary Wambugu, director of the city inspectorate at the Nairobi City Council.

”We do not go to fight them; we are restraining ourselves as much as possible. It is those hawkers who have decided to go against existing laws and regulations that we are trying to arrest.”

Wambugu also claims that some of those who pose as hawkers are criminals — another reason why their presence within central Nairobi is undesirable.

There have been efforts by the government over the past years to relocate the informal traders, to address crime and decongest streets. In the process they have been allocated back lanes and other markets some distance from the city centre.

These initiatives proved largely unsuccessful, however. ”Hawking is about clients. These are hard to find in the back lanes or at the markets out of the city centre, because very few people visit these areas,” says Ng’ang’a. The result: hawkers have returned to the main streets.

Ng’ang’a believes that with proper planning, hawkers can co-exist with other activities in the city. Donor money given to boost small and medium enterprises (SMEs) can be used to construct permanent structures for hawkers, he says. Earlier this year, the World Bank reportedly gave a grant of $160-million to support SMEs, including activities for hawkers.

According to the Kenya National Federation of Jua Kali Associations, hawkers comprise more than half of workers in the informal sector — considered an important part of the Kenyan economy. (”Jua Kali” means ”informal businesses”).

Given that many rely on hawking for their livelihood, human rights activists are calling for the revision of legislation surrounding hawkers, describing the existing laws as archaic.

”There is need to review city by-laws, which were passed by colonial masters. They cannot address the issue of hawkers now: the situation has changed,” said David Malombe, of the Kenya Human Rights Commission.

Musikari Kombo, Minister for Local Government, appears to have taken note. Last month, he announced that certain by-laws would be revisited.

With workers’ rights scheduled to come under the spotlight on May 1, International Labour Day, such revisions cannot come a moment too soon for Kenyan hawkers. — Sapa-IPS

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Joyce Mulama
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