city skyline under white sky during daytime

Written by: Isabel Nuesse

The dogma of our current economy has seeped all across our world- even in the smallest of spaces. 

Living in Nairobi, the extent of this dogma cannot be ignored. It glares every worker in the face on a daily basis. 

For example, the security guard business is one of the largest employers in Kenya. Known as Ascaris – originally derived from the word ‘soldier’ – they typically work 12-hour shifts, 7-days a week, with 4 days off a month. The actual work they do consists of opening and closing gates and ‘guarding’ the property. Nearly every building, mall, home and apartment complex in Nairobi employs at least one ascari full time. With unemployment reaching nearly 30%, these guards are easily replaceable and therefore have little to no say in their working conditions or salaries. 

The typical wage of these guards is $150 a month. This is wholly unlivable in Nairobi. These low wages ensure that the ascaris live in informal housing settlements, with little to no opportunity to ‘move up’ in society. 

One of the ascaris who works in the housing complex where I live, Nellie, is a woman that I’ve befriended over the last few months. 

She invited me to her home in Kibera – one of the largest informal housing settlements in Nairobi-  one Sunday for chai. (For context, I speak Swahili and therefore am able to communicate quite easily with Nellie). She welcomed me to her single room home – housing Nellie and her four kids – and we spoke about her dreams and opportunities in life. 

Essentially, Nellie is stuck. She wakes up at 4:30am each day, walks 1.5 hours to work (because spending $0.20/ride on transit each way adds up), works 6:30am to 6:30pm, walks home- arrives at 8:00pm, cooks a quick dinner for her children and heads to sleep to do the entire routine again the following day. 

She has no life. She works. 

This is typical for many Kenyans living in Nairobi. It’s so common to work in this way it’s common for people to reference their ‘hustle’– or second job. People have single or multiple ‘side hustles’ to supplement their incomes as the city is expensive and one job is not enough. 

On one hand, this makes this city incredibly vibrant. Never have I lived somewhere where innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity are so alive. The city is truly booming. On the flip side, it creates a culture of constant work, where value is heavily placed on how busy you are. Threading through this culture is the mantra that wealth is king. 

This brings me back to Nellie and my visit to her home. Nellie, her neighbour and I were speaking of life, making ends meet and the challenges of the present day economy. I noticed that inserted into their Swahili, they started to speak of the need for ‘capital’ – not money, capital. This is the jargon, the language and narrative that is eroding its way into Kibera. The residents are taught the value of having capital – to start their enterprise – to send their kids to school, to make ends meet.  

It was this moment where I felt the pervasiveness of the economic system. Nellie and her neighbour(s) are essentially slaves to a system that entraps them. Their entire lifestyle is centered around work – in upholding the system of extraction. It’s now seeped into their language and the way they express themselves. Using the jargon of the system, to make them believe that is the solution out of the system. “If only I had access to capital.” 

While there is nothing I can do to change the ascari system in Kenya, getting to know Nellie has reaffirmed for me the desperate need for an alternative economic system. This is most urgent in spaces where the dominant extractive system is beginning to wrap its cold hands around the population.

Maybe one day we can envisage a world where the ascari system in Kenya is run on a cooperative model – where the workers make their hours. Or maybe the security guard business becomes obsolete? Maybe the word capital is replaced by words of abundance and opportunity? 

It certainly makes me feel powerless – and pushes me to continue to fight for an economic model for those that don’t have the agency to do so. 

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