Nairobi, a city abuzz with development and a hub for prominent multinationals for the African continent. It has always been a cosmopolitan city housing various nationalities and cultures, but with recent foreign investments, it has taken the cosmo culture to a new level. And yet, despite all the advancement, new malls and supermarkets thronging the city, there are certain things that have stayed as they were a quarter of a century ago. A prominent example of this is presence of “Mama Mboga”. She is a lady who delivers vegetables to your doorstep. In the wee hours of morning, when the vegetable markets open, its common to see ladies laden with ‘khapooes’ (wide base sisal baskets) on their heads heading towards the residential complexes spread across the city.
Meet one such mama mboga Lilian Njeri, who has what it takes to be self-employed, no matter how much physical labour it entails. She is a short statured lady with a beautiful smile and a kind countenance. I request her to sit with me for a cup to tea and describe to me how a day in her professional life is. She kindly agrees but refrains from giving her photograph for the article to which I reluctantly say okay . My hesitation of not knowing Swahili is easily put to rest because Lilian has a good command over english.
Being a Kikuyu (the tribe she and the Kenya’s current President belong to), having her own business comes naturally. ” One has to work, that is what life is about”, she says in a matter of fact manner. Born in 1956 in Kabete which is on the outskirts of Nairobi, she grew up among nine siblings. Despite being born into a large family with meagre financial resources, she went on to complete Form 4 which is equivalent to grade ten. She being a bright student began a secretarial course but could not finish it due to lack of finances. Her career began as a teacher in a school where she worked for good eleven years. She gave birth to her three kids while in this profession but raised them as a single mother. She then chose to quit the job and start her own business of a butchery and an adjacent eating joint.
‘From a teacher to a meat shop owner is a drastic change, why did you choose that?’ I ask. She answers, ‘a job is a job and is good enough for a certain period, it cannot be the end for me. Self-employment is what gives the power in your own hand and that is what I was looking for. I enjoyed being a teacher but it never gave me the freedom of what I wanted to do, so I quit, and started a butchery business.’ Unfortunately, a countrywide disease in the animals, led her to close down her business. But that did not deter her from being self-employed, she chose to sell vegetables instead and became a mama mboga.
Her usual day starts at 4 am, half an hour later she is out of the house heading towards the city’s vegetable market. She then buys the vegetables which are the bestsellers or the orders that have been placed by different households. On an average, she carries a load of about 50 kgs in the khapooes which are hung from her head with a strap. The buying and bargaining goes upto 8 am and that’s when she takes a ‘matatu’ (the local transport of mini vans), towards the residential areas. She walks about 5-6 kms and climbs the stairs of the buildings everyday with the load on her head.
‘Does this take a toll on your back?’, I ask and she proudly tells me that she has never had any health problems except for an ache in her ankle sometimes.
Where does all this labour take her financially? She says she makes a profit of about Kshs 600-700 ( around $8) a day. But she does not take this profit home, instead she gives it to the union on a daily basis, which is like a mini bank, who give her a lump sum at the end of the month. A bigger amount of cash in her hand helps her to plan her finances better.
” We do face a lot of problems”, says she with a sombre face. One of them is posed by the Nairobi city council who can sometimes on a drive take away all their merchandise leaving them stranded without any money or goods in their hand. The other is when the customers buy on credit and dont pay on time. But in those times, she says all the mama mbogas help each other and face the situation together and in such times the union helps them to recover their goods and helps them financially for that period.
About being competitive in their trade, she says, ‘no one is competitive, rather we help each other and we never come in one another’s way. We all understand the trade very well, and we all know there is enough work for everyone’.
‘What about customers? are there any sections of people which you tend to avoid?’, I ask.
‘No, I have never discriminated when it comes to customers. I try to build a relationship with my customers and they do the same with me. If I am good to them, they are good to me. I believe in meeting everyone with a smile and it takes me very far in my relationship with them. I have to create a PR (public relation), that is the whole basis of my profession’.
Lilian’s two daughters are happily married and one of them is an estate agent, and her son is a plumber. With her own kids settled and not requiring her support, she is now raising her deceased sister’s two teenage boys. On asking when will she retire from this profession she says she will keep on going till her physical strength allows.
Though any kind of physical work is always associated with men, the mama mbogas of Nairobi are a beautiful example of the otherwise. Their daily routine of being on their feet with a heavy luggage on their heads does break the stereotypical mind set which associates the physical strength to men. Women like Lilian offer convenience to the households for their daily vegetable needs. More than that, a mama mboga is a customised solution for vegetable needs procuring the vegetables and fruits as demanded by a household, fresh from the market. With the onset of hoards of mobile companies, a mama mboga is now only a phone call away and she is at your service every day of the week if need be.
No matter how much the city changes, people like Lilian add flavour to the culture of the city and inspire the society at large to associate dignity to every work undertaken and reflect the pride of being a self-employed woman.