From “Jua Kali” to Toiling in the Mud by Richmond Atta-Ankomah

Submitted by DPP on Thursday, January 31, 2013 - 14:56

From “Jua Kali” to Toiling in the Mud: The Plight of Informal Woodworkers in Gikomba Market

By my own judgment, the picture below is one of the most informative pictures I have taken throughout my six-month fieldwork in Kenya. A careful look at it nearly tells an entire story about the hassle suffered by informal sector operators in Gikomba market which is just a stone’s throw from Nairobi’s city center. However, for the sake of emphasis, and more importantly, for my readers who may not be familiar with this market, I will not withhold describing my impression of the picture.

There was a downpour in Nairobi the night before I took this picture.  So, the sun shied away in the early hours of the next morning. Had it not been for the rains, the effects of the scorching sun would have started quite early. Even with the rains, the sun was fully out by the early afternoon when this picture was taken. As you can see, the uppermost section of the middle part of the picture shows a very bright sky with the radiant sunlight causing a mirage of smoke at the entrances of the wooden sheds. Thus, the rain only offered a little respite to the informal sector operators in this area from the scorch of the sun which they have to endure daily in an effort to eke out a living. If Heaven does not grace them with rains in the preceding night, they toil under the hot sun throughout the ensuing day, hence, the informal sector in Kenya being referred to as “Jua Kali”, a Kiswahili expression which literally means ‘hot sun’.

But does the temporal relief from the hot sun come at no cost? Just a cursory look at the picture provides “a big no” answer to this question. With little rains, the dusty but major access road to the workshops of the carpenters turns into a mud trap. Vehicles can hardly ply this road and the popular two-wheel trucks which depend on muscular energy become albatrosses for their owners/pushers. Again, as you can see in the picture a two-wheel truck is virtually stuck in the mud. Being frustrated and looking despondent, the pusher sat down on his truck and gazed seriously, but at nothing. One could easily determine that his deepest wish is for Heaven to give a lot of sunshine so the mud may dry quickly.  The muddy road does not only affect the work of the truck pushers, but also the carpenters since they rely mostly on these trucks for carting materials to their workshops and transporting their products to customers