Have you ever taken a ride on a mkokoteni? It’s the most thrilling adventure on earth.
My mum had a stall in Ngara market. She’d wake up early every day and get the older siblings up and ready. My dad, too, would be up banging away on his typewriter, At exactly 5:30 am on most days, save for weekends she’d be out of the door heading to Gikomba Market, which was about 20 minutes walk from our house. She’d buy as many supplies, as she needed, for her stall in Ngara Market. She would also buy a shirt here, a trouser there, and a skirt over there, for her precious children. She would then have her packages rolled neatly or stacked in a gunia. Then she would get a guy to carry them to Aunt Monica’s kibanda café right next to St. John’s Church, Pumwani. Because she also bought house groceries when needed, she would carry those to the house herself. Usually, she would bring in hot mandazi’s or freshly baked hot bread.
She would be at the house at exactly 6:30 am and then make sure we are good to go to school. She would do a final check on books and bags, pens, uniforms, anything needed for school, and of course, find out if I had given the teachers any reason to summon her. At exactly 7, we were out. She would be in the house until about 9 am to make sure everything was sorted before she left the house. It had to be 9 am, mostly, or nothing later than 9:30 am.
Robba was one of the coolest guys I knew growing up. Robba was my mother’s movement guy. A cargo and courier expert. He initially had to hire an available mkokoteni, which he would use for his work. Until my dad had a brand new cart made for him.
Most mkokotenis, I would later find out, were owned by people who were not even pullers themselves. Getting one was on a first come first serve basis. You had to go in early, and with cash at hand. Whether you got any business or not, that was up to you. The mkokoteni had to be back with the owner before he fell asleep. If anything happened to the mkokoteni: a puncture, broken rims, accidents, you were liable. If city council askaris pounced on you and either broke it, impounded it or arrested you, it was on you. If your customers’ luggage went missing, you’d have to answer for it. The owners didn’t care, just bring the mkokoteni back, and go deal with your problems.
My mother loved Robba because she could count on him. As she left the house for Ngara Market at 9:00 am, Robba had already left his house in Biafra, Nairobi, and headed down to City Stadium to hire his mkokoteni for the day. He needed to be very early there because it was a daily hire and it was on a first come first serve basis. By 9 am he needed to have left Aunt Monica’s kiosk. The agreement between my mum and Aunt Monica’s was that Robba could always have a cup of tea, and mandazi or chapo. Later now he would just have Chapo Ndondo straight, which he loved. Mostly it meant he had slept with little or nothing in his stomach. Or he had drunk chang’aa early in the morning already, and tea was not favourable, then.
After breakfast, Robba would load my mum’s cargo and head straight to Ngara. And nothing would go missing. He would hurry up also so that he could go and get other business from his valued clients or anyone available. Pulling a mkokoteni is a fully manual job. It is terrible on knees and joints, as well as giving you fatigue. It also demanded you know the fast routes and the back routes, as well as trying to stay on the right side of the law.
One day he got into trouble with Kanjo for not being able to pay market fees, and they impounded his mkokoteni. He was fined some Ksh. 1,500.00, which he did not have then. He had to hustle for three days to be able to get the mkokoteni back. Meanwhile, the owner charged him the 500 daily fee. He was distraught. He made a deal with one of his friends, to pick my mum’s luggage and deliver it, and he could keep part of the cash.
Then his troubles began. For the handcart pullers, who do not have their own mkokotenis, life can be daunting. You are almost extremely vulnerable to drugs, alcohol, hunger and poverty.
Nanyuki Self Help Group did well to realize this damning circle that the handcart pullers in the Nanyuki Old Market experienced. Especially so because they realized that the handcart pullers were more vulnerable because of living on the streets.
They sought out to help the handcart pullers and the street children in general. Because of dependence on drugs and alcohol, more than 60% of the market cart labourers and street kids are prone to taking part in criminal activities in order to sustain the habit. This was the life of Robba, after the Kanjo incident. He slumped into drugs and alcohol. He missed the occasional pick-ups for my mum. Soon it became a concern and she sought an alternative cart puller since she could not trace Robba.
Nanyuki Self Help Group decided to offer programs like counselling and mentorship to the handcart pullers. But they could only do so much. They needed a much more sustainable way to follow through the counselling and mentorship.
Gladys and Edward who lead the self-help group applied for the Safaricom Ndoto Zetu Wish Fulfilment. And help came.
Safaricom offered the community Ksh. 100,000 with which they bought 5 market carts to support the 50 members. The carts will bring in an estimated income of 200- 500/= per cart on peak days (Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday) equating it to over to 300,000 annually.
This will alleviate income stress and provide a great opportunity to have a better-focused mentorship, and drug and alcohol programs for the community.
One day Robba showed up at my mother’s stall in Ngara to ask for money for food. When my mother found out what was up, she asked my dad to talk to a welder relative, Onyango in Kariobangi to fix Robba his own mkokoteni, which would be paid off in installments. It took about a week to get it but when it came out, yooo. It was dope. That day I got a ride and it was the first of many times I rode on that mkokoteni. It was such a thrilling ride. And Robba was so good at it. His friends already used to call him Shaka Mehta.
The brand new mkokoteni was painted blue. It had freshly worn out tyres and some grey rims. At the bottom back, instead of the usual old tyres breaking system, he fastened a whole spread of thick rubber layering. He rolled ‘bladda’ from burst tyre tubes all the way on the front for good firm gripping whatever the weather condition. And then to crown it all, at the back, he had two yellow and red reflectors. Then the bottom mudguard rubber was written ‘AIR CONDITION WORKING. DON’T OPEN WINDOWS.’
That Mkokoteni saved Robba’s life. In a few months, he was able to pay it off. Then he asked Onyango to fix him another. It got him off the streets and he joined a Sacco in Gikomba where they paid a daily deposit of Ksh. 50 as savings. Meaningful and dignifying work got him off drugs and alcohol. it also gave him hope for life. In a short time, they were able to buy a large parcel of land in Ruai where he now lives with his family. He met his wife in the Sacco.
He is still as jovial as the first day he got the cart.
That is the hope the mkokoteni pullers of Nanyuki’s Old Market can cling on to, with their brand new mkokoteni. Thanks to the Safaricom Ndoto Zetu Wish Fulfilment.
Paul Otieno is a Creative Director and Storyteller in Creative Writing, Photography and Film. He and his partner, have 3 girls, a 4-year-old and her two years old twin sisters. He says he is the Father of the Dragons. You can find him on all social media platforms as @Paushinski or find him on his blog, www.paushinski.co.ke