Slum Dwellers at a Nairobi Parish Living One Day at a Time amid COVID-19 Measures

An Image showing a slum in Kenya.

It is past noon on Tuesday, March 31 but Jane Mutiso, who has been ailing for the past six years is still lying in bed in a dark single-roomed hut that is made of corrugated iron sheets in Mukuru kwa Njenga, an expansive informal settlement on the fringes of Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi. Located East of the central business district, the area is served by St. Mary’s Parish under the pastoral care of the Holy Ghost Fathers, also known as the Spiritans.

Beside the bed, a little boy and girl aged between 1 and 4 try desperately to play with the ailing woman who keeps pleading with them to stay silent at the edge of the bed.

“They are my two grandchildren. I am trying to ensure that they stay with me here in the house since it is not safe for them to go and play outside with other children,” says Jane, referring to the two children.

She adds, “They are my daughter’s children. I also have a 19-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son. The five of us stay in this small room.”

Jane suffers from arthritis that has affected her legs, hands and back, leaving her bedridden and unable to fend for her family. It is her teenage daughter who became the family’s breadwinner, dropping out of school at a tender age and taking any odd job that would come her way to buy food for her ailing mother, her own children and her sibling.


On the day that ACI Africa spoke to Jane, her daughter had left the house, in search of someone who had laundry to be done or any other casual job to get enough money to buy food for the day and water to use for cooking and drinking.

“The jobs that my daughter used to get in a day are becoming difficult to get,” says Jane and adds, “Many days, she comes back home empty handed after looking around the entire day.”

According to the 40-year-old, the city’s middle-class residents who live near the informal settlement are no-longer calling for casual laborers in their homes for fear of being infected with COVID-19, the deadly virus that has claimed at least 47,000 globally.

“The people who used to call us to do laundry for them, to cook for them and to do other jobs for them for some money are no longer giving us these jobs ever since the government asked people to stay in their homes to contain the spread the coronavirus,” she says.

In a presidential address on the state of the interventions to cushion Kenyans against the economic effects of COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s President Uhuru Kenyatta on Wednesday, March 25, reiterated the need for people to adhere to social distancing, among other key directives.

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President Kenyatta also announced a daily dusk-to-dawn curfew that was implemented on Friday, March 27, barring movement of people from 7.00 p.m. to 5.00 a.m. The curfew exempts only medical professionals, health workers, and other “critical and essential service providers.”

Fr. John Munjuri, the Parish Priest of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, which is located at the heart of Mukuru kwa Njenga informal settlement, says the daily curfew works against the poor slum dwellers who, he says, depend on daily wages, sometimes taking jobs at night to fend for their families.

“All people who stay in the slums depend on casual work and live from hand to mouth, one day at a time. Some of them work as barmaids while a majority of them leave work late in the evening and walk long distances to get to their homes,” says Fr. John.

The Spiritan Priest adds, “Subjecting these people to curfews and telling them to stay in their houses to stop the spread of coronavirus is condemning them to starvation. They simply won’t survive these measures for long.”

He says it is difficult for slum dwellers to adhere to certain safety measures such as maintaining social distance, staying at home and even observing such hygiene practices as washing hands frequently when is such a precious commodity that is acquired with difficulty and use sparingly.


“Here in Mukuru kwa Njenga, people stay close to each other. There are about 20 small houses made of iron sheets in every single apartment and in each single-roomed house, there are about five people staying together. How can these five people in one room maintain social distance?” the Kenyan-born Cleric poses.

He adds, “Staying in these congested rooms all day and night also increases the risk of infection.”

According to the Kenyan born priest, about 100 people in 20 households share a public toilet which also thwarts any efforts for them to observe social distancing.

He says congestion in the slum was made worse when the Kenyan government directed all learning institutions, about three weeks ago, to close and to send learners home.

“There are so many children all packed in the slums. There is no space to breath, let alone a metre or two of social distancing. It is just difficult over here,” says Fr. John.

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The slum residents who survive on less than a dollar every day pay KES.10 (USD 0.1) for 20 litres of water, which they drink and use for cooking.

Agnes Musyoka, 67, stays with her six grandchildren and a husband who has been paralyzed for 10 years. She told ACI Africa that she struggles to get water to drink and did not care about washing hands.

“When I have money, I buy enough water to even do laundry. But there are days like today, when I lack 10 shillings to buy water to drink,” she says, adding, “I know the importance of washing hands because the government has announced it to us in the media. But for us, water is sometimes a luxury.”

Before businesses started shutting down in Nairobi and a daily curfew, Mrs. Musyoka says she made KES.100 (US$1.00) on a good day from selling bananas.

“I don’t sell bananas anymore. I used to get the bananas from other people that have since closed business. Now I just stay in the house and depend on Fr. John Munjuri’s people who bring us food,” the elderly woman says.

Fr. John has been running a feeding program for the most vulnerable slum dwellers under the auspices of St. Vincent de Paul Group at the parish since 2015.

The group that has identified the neediest cases within Mukuru kwa Njenga and three other surrounding slums distributes food that is collected from all the six parish centers of St. Mary’s Catholic Parish every Sunday.

But the group has been experiencing a decline in the offertory since people stopped going to Church for fear of being infected with the virus.

“People at St. Mary’s Parish stopped going to Church even before the government prohibited social gathering. The other Sunday, those who tried to attend Mass at one of the outstations were chased away by the police. And last Sunday, we didn’t have any offertory collection,” Fr. John says, adding, “We still have very little in our reserve and that’s what we have been distributing to the group members.”

The Spiritan cleric continues, “We don’t know how long we shall keep doing this (giving food to the poor). There is very little remaining and last week, we only gave each family two packets of maize flour, which can only sustain them for two days.”

A majority of the people supported by the St. Vincent de Paul group are infected with HIV and cannot take their medication on an empty stomach, according to Fr. John.

“There are about 28 people who come for food every Friday and 20 of them are HIV positive,” he says, expressing concerns about the impact of undernutrition in the lives of persons living with HIV and AIDs.

According to Maryknoll Fr. Richard Bauer, however, “the vast majority of HIV positive persons in Kenya are now on the new anti-retroviral medicine combination that can be take on a full or empty stomach.”

Fr. Bauer told ACI Africa that “the dietary restrictions are now almost over except for a very small percentage of patients.”

Fr. John expresses another concern with regard to the slum dwellers under his pastoral care. The Kenyan government, he says, has shifted its focus away from chronic diseases in the fight against COVID-19, a situation that Fr. John says has put people with HIV in the slums at the risk of battling opportunistic infections for lack of medication and care at the hospitals.

Veronica Nthenya is one of the volunteers at St. Vincent de Paul who distributes food to beneficiaries of the group who are bedridden. With the increasing infections of coronavirus in the East African country, Veronica foresees a situation where the sick in the slums will be left to their own devices.

“Today and yesterday, my colleagues and I have distributed food to 15 slum residents because they couldn’t come to pick it from the Church premises,” Veronica tells ACI Africa in an interview Tuesday, March 31.

She adds, “We visit the sick without any form of protective gear yet they have very low immunity. We don’t have gloves, masks, we can’t even afford to buy sanitizers. If this situation persists, we might be forced to stop visiting these people in their homes. And I doubt if they will survive without food.”

The St. Vincent de Paul community volunteer appeals to the Kenyan government to supply community health workers with protective gear, a call that Fr. John reiterates, saying, “As the government seeks to support the poor in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, let it consider, in a special way, the most vulnerable groups in the slums.”

He adds, “We call on our government leaders to set up water tanks and taps in strategic places within the slums where everybody can wash hands. Let them also use all means possible to ensure that these people get food supplies so that they don’t starve.”

The Kenyan Priest says that plans are underway to set up collection points within the slums where well-wishers can drop food items that can be distributed to the vulnerable slum residents.

Agnes Aineah is a Kenyan journalist with a background in digital and newspaper reporting. She holds a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism from the Aga Khan University, Graduate School of Media and Communications and a Bachelor's Degree in Linguistics, Media and Communications from Kenya's Moi University. Agnes currently serves as a journalist for ACI Africa.