When President Uhuru Kenyatta recently hinted that the Government was considering easing the ongoing containment measures against COVID-19, one man was particularly happy with the news.
He is Hannington Luvembe, a boda boda rider in Nairobi’s Kangemi area in the westerly end of the city.
You see, before 12th March 2020, Luvembe was leading a normal life. As a boda boda rider life had assumed a predictable normal routine. Waking up at 5 am every morning, Luvembe was accustomed to the usual. In the wee hours of the morning, he could join fellow citizens on the roller coaster that defines life in the city of a thousand lights.
In street parlance, Nairobi is shamba la mawe (rocky farm) where getting anything requires exceptional dosages of resilience and extraordinarily thick skin to withstand the vagaries of the hard knocks. Luvembe is a master of the city having lived here close to a decade.
A normal day usually began by dropping a few children to school before ferrying the working class to their various nation-building endeavours. A vast majority of people in the Kangemi area ply their trade in the opulent neighbourhoods of Loresho, Westlands, Lavington, Kileleshwa and the like. Others have to take the long trek to the industrial area to eke a living.
Things were so good and he even enlisted on a boda boda hailing platform to shore up his earnings. Life was good. All was well. He had plans. Good plans for his wife and two children. On a good day, he would make a cool KSh. 2,500.
On other days he wasn’t so lucky, and was comfortable parting with at least KSh. 1,000. With that he has been able to do a few things for himself. He had succeeded in acquiring his own motorcycle, having borrowed the seed cash from a benefactor and was able to repay in full.
So on all scales, his modest life was a good one. He couldn’t complain. Like all Kenyans, the news about the Coronavirus which was filtering into our news bulletins sounded very far-fetched. After all it was happening in China, some 7, 894 kilometers away. Like everybody else, the news did not cause any much alarm locally.
Then the news was home. Kenya had confirmed its first case of COVID-19. That was March 12. Since then, life has never been the same again.
On this day when I meet him on the Kangemi streets waiting for customers, it is about 3 pm. The place is called Bottom Line. On an ordinary day, he would almost be three-quarters his daily earnings. On this day, it is not. He has only ferried one customer making a paltry KSh. 50 for his trouble.
It has been that way every day from the time COVID-19 arrived in Kenya and the subsequent Government measures announced to contain the pandemic.
‘‘ Things have really been bad. I don’t know how my family will eat,’’ he tells me.
As a father, he feels the pain of a situation he has no control over, and which has exacted a heavy toll on his young family.
‘‘Sometimes, when my wife calls me in the course of the day to find out if I have gotten anything, I feel so overwhelmed when I have to say I am yet to get anything,’’ he says.
There days when he is pushed to the wall. Days when supplies run out in his house. Days when his manhood comes into sharp focus. Days he has to go out of the ordinary as a father to put a smile on the face of his children. This is the new normal for him.
Adjusting to Coronavirus Containment Measures
The dusk-dawn curfew and the restrictions in movement in the city did not make things any better for him and his colleagues in the trade. It brought in a new dimension to the boda boda operators, who now have to adjust to the new curbs. Previously, they used to cash in on people rushing home from work in the evenings or even at night. But now, many of those people don’t go to work anymore. They have either been laid off or working from home.
‘‘I now have to also go home early to beat the curfew. I fact on days when I see that there’s no hope of anything coming along, I just retire to the house to go rest with my children,’’ admits Luvembe.
In hindsight, Luvembe feels that had he known earlier, he could have taken is family to his rural village in Kakamega, to spare them the present agony. But then, the restrictions on movement into and out of the city came in quick and fast. His options were effectively sealed.
A midst all this gloom, he thanks his landlord who has had to bear with his difficult circumstances and has been quite understanding. Between January and March this year, Luvembe did not pay his rent of about KSh. 4, 500. His child was very sick during the period depleting all his earnings in hospital bills.
‘‘In April he told me that we can have a flexible payment plan so that I can clear the arrears. We agreed that every 20th of the month, I pay him KSh. 2,000 until I clear the outstanding rent. I found this a very good gesture from him,’’ he intimates.
With the dwindling clientele, Luvemebe had to deactivate the motorcycle hailing application from his phone to avoid incurring additional costs from the service provider. He now relies on his loyal customers who call him from time to time to run errands for them.
‘‘They are now the only people I fully depend on to get my daily bread. The times have become quite difficult,’’ he says.
The Coronavirus period has been some sort of a ‘‘dry season’’ for boda boda riders. Luvembe’s case represents the situation that many are currently floating it. They look into the horizon for the day the situation will normalize so they can go back to their usual lifestyles.
Statistics from the Motorcycle Assemblers Association (MAAK) shows there were about 600,000 commercial motorcycles on Kenyan roads in 2019.
As they wait for the Government’s direction on what the future holds, Luvembe and his colleagues are crossing their fingers, hoping it will be a better one. They wait for the good news with bated breath.
For him, it has been a season of wearing masks, sanitizing, observing social distance and even staying at home when situations get bad. This may not change soon.
Even if the economy is reopened and the containment measures easened, the health precautions will continue to be around for a while, until the curve is flattened and Kenya, and the world, bounce back to the ”good old days” or the ‘new normal’ as they now call it.
Luvembe will then go back to his usual routine, albeit with new realities.
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