A society at crossroads thanks to the Covid-19

BY DAVID ONJILI

The last seven months have really redefined livelihoods globally.  Organizations have downsized in a bid to cut down on operational costs and families have had to adjust with reduced incomes and even job losses. 

Travel has been interrupted with many precautionary changes to safeguard the Covid-19 spread. Schools have been closed and children asked to learn online and many haven’t. 

The online learning has come with its challenges. One, for instance, needs good Internet connection, a laptop or Smartphone, items that are luxury in many of Kenya’s households that continue to grapple with lack of electricity and poor road infrastructure not to mention the choice between putting a decent meal on the table or online learning.

Had the Covid-19 not struck, Micheal Obat of Usoma Village along the shores of Lake Victoria in Kisumu County would, for instance, be sitting his final secondary school examinations. The 20 year old and second born son in a family of five had always looked forward to completing his final years of school. 

Usoma Village is situated near the Kenya Pipeline Company refinery in Kisumu. This strategic location is a melting point for trucks that come to refill before heading to land-locked destinations like Uganda, Burundi and even Congo. The village experiences extremely long queues of fuel tankers as they wait for their turn at the refinery. 

The dirty trucks need to be washed and Obat is one of the youths who is actively involved in the activity. Washing a single truck costs Sh800 on the cheaper side, tax-free. There is plenty of water in the location channeled to a washing area that they collect into tanks and use to wash the tankers.

On an ordinary day, Obat washes two fuel tankers; this earns him a tidy sum of not less than Sh1500. He lives in the village, having constructed a semi-permanent house where he also lives with his two-month pregnant ‘wife’, Pamela, 17, a primary school leaver. It’s not a rare occurrence in the area for girls, with the blessings of their parents, to drop out of school and get married to the many idling young men. 

The car washers here do not need any local government license as they are operating in makeshift structures. Very few of them use washing machines, since a long stick connected to a twig is efficient in the job. 

For the seven months of the pandemic Obat has been washing fuel tankers here, he has managed to purchase a motor cycle that he uses to run his errands and also carries passengers for a fee. 

Money is god here. Is he really prepared to return to school? Not really. He openly appears disinterested. He is only keen on sitting the examinations for the sake of the certificate. He wants to be a good example to his younger siblings by finishing school. It is clear that the grades he scores mean so little to him. Unfortunately this is the fate that awaits many school goers out of this pandemic. For the girl child, it is a totally different story and your guess is as good as mine – the lucky ones will marry off, many will be put in the family way and engage, early, on the journey of single motherhood.

The greatest irony on education and the stability of employment in the formal sector has been exposed in this pandemic. One of Obat’s teachers at Kanyamedha, employed by the Board, for instance, has had to adjust his lifestyle to put a meal on the table for his family. He has teamed up with his friend Moses, and they now work for a construction company where they specialize in painting houses, a hustle that earns him Sh300 daily and one that is almost a sixth of what his student earns in a day washing trucks.

Outside his work, Obat is a talented footballer who turns out for his local side and is in the school team where he earned his spot in first year. So, does he aspire to pursue football as a professional? Yes, but with caution. 

Admitting that he cannot commit his time and energy to an activity that brings him no financial returns despite his massive love for the game. His perspective is a sad reflection on the state of affairs for sports in the country and shows the woes many players go through. Obat admits that he knows of several players who cannot even afford a decent meal yet they play for renowned soccer clubs.

Kisumu All Stars, he laments, that is supposed to be funded by the County Government of Kisumu is poorly run. “Players have gone for eight months without pay,” he says, adding that football is not a worthy investment. 

Obat and his teacher remain close friends especially due to their shared love for football, he seems not inspired to pursue education and join formal employment. This might be because of how he sees his teacher live. The fact that he also loves life in Usoma Village makes it apparent that he may actually settle for life in the village. 

Were he to travel out of the village, he would open his eyes to more inspiring and fulfilling challenges that would expand his horizons. For now, he is a big fish in a small pond and he is enjoying the status quo.   

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