Often when we think of digging our teeth into some delicious fruit or making our favorite stew, we know just where to go- the local vegetable vendors. Here, we get fresh tomatoes, juicy oranges, our leafy greens and just about every condiment needed for our culinary experiments. After purchasing our goods, we head back to our homes oblivious of the mama mboga’s plight. She feeds us. She ensures we have our daily intake of the much-needed nutrients. She even cleans and cuts our vegetables making food preparation easier for us. Every Kenyan estate is dotted with the makeshift roadside shelters, otherwise known as vibanda, where we buy our fruits and vegetables.
And every day the local fruit and vegetable vendor, typically known as mama mboga, braves the cold at wee hours of the morning to catch the first matatu to the market. She picks the best farm produce for sale. Through a tedious process that involves hiring an extra hand at the market and cumbersome matatu transport with her kiondo and sacks of produce, she arrives at her kibanda. It is only after displaying her wares that she can wait patiently by the roadside for her customers. These rarely recognized entrepreneurs are unspoken heroes who have intricate stories to tell. They are up before the sun rises and only rest when the sun sets.
Meet Jane Njeri, a fruit and vegetable vendor based in Langa Langa estate, Nakuru. She is a dark, short-statured lady with a warm countenance. On a typical day, you will find her seated on a bench at her kibanda. She greets every day with a smile despite the tough life she has had to endure.
I request her to tell me more about her story. She reluctantly agrees but refrains from giving her picture for the article. She smiles shyly and says that she does want to appear on ‘the media.’ I manage to convince her to allow me to take a photo of her kibanda. She agrees to this and serves me a succulent mango as she tells me about her profession.
Born in the 1960s, Njeri grew up with ten siblings. She was raised in the hilly Murang’a areas where she proceeded with her education. She admits that she did not do very well in primary school and opted to drop out of high school to work.
“Trouble started when I delivered my fourth baby girl. He couldn’t take it. His family pressured him to get a son.”
“See, I did not do too well in school. I figured I could do more outside than be in school repeating class after class. Of course, I know better now and urge my children to do their very best,” she says. A customer comes and requests some tomatoes. She hurriedly serves him and returns to continue with her story.
“I met my husband when I was very young. I was not yet an adult, but we were in love, and I chose to get married. He was a primary school teacher based in Murang’a town. We went ahead to get children. Trouble started when I delivered my fourth baby girl. He couldn’t take it. His family pressured him to get a son. I couldn’t give him an heir. It made us drift apart. He would drink and return home only to hurl insults at me and beat me up.”
She pauses and takes a deep breath. Seemingly troubled by the painful memories, she asks for a moment and busies herself with rearranging her vegetables. I comment about the weather and how good it has been. It has rained for some months now. The long drought is over, and food is plenty. She has big leafy kales and spinach. Things have been better.
After a few minutes, she continues, “I left him one morning. I couldn’t take it anymore. He was a terrible drunk, and my children were scared of him. I was also afraid of him. One day, I packed all our clothes and left. I went home for a while then got a job as a cleaner in Nakuru. I had to leave my four girls with my mother to take up the new job. It was not so bad, but the pay was little. I could only afford a small two-roomed house. With a new home, I went back home for my children. I reckoned the schools here were better and I wanted to take care of them. Girls always need their mother.”
Starting her business
“When my children were little, my mother would send lots of food from the village. She would ensure I had a ton of bananas, cabbages, potatoes, and beans. She would even grind maize at the local posho mill and send some maize flour for the children and me. I often had way too much and would trade some for essentials like salt and oil. One day, it occurred to me that I could open a business. I only had to ask for excess vegetables from the village and sell them when I got off work. I did not quit my job in case this failed, and I ended up with nothing.” She chuckles after saying this.
“I only quit when I realized that I made more money with my new business. I got a kibanda close to home and would get food from the market or back home. I was keen on the kind of goods I bought. Most people go for the cheap, often stale, vegetables so they can make more profit. I prefer to source my produce from the farms when they are plenty or go to the market early when goods are cheap. You cannot compromise on quality. Your customer will note this and run away from you.”
She also cautions against poor hygiene practices. “Some vendors use dirty water to clean vegetables. They get it from dubious sources, and this is why there are so many illnesses. I get my water every day in jerrycans,” she adds as she points to two black jerry cans by her stand. “I do not want any of my customers getting ill.”
“It is tough. Being a single parent with little money and four mouths to feed. But it can be done. No one should give up. I have toiled hard for my children, and they appreciate me for it. You see I only had a small kibanda; now it is much bigger. I don’t need to be working now but I am still strong, and I can’t depend on my daughters for everything. Also, I still need to provide for the youngest. I enjoy getting my own hard-earned money. It is not plenty, but it is enough. I have managed to get a bigger house with this job.”
Njeri speaks fondly of her children. Her face lights up when she mentions them. I ask her what their names are. The oldest, she says, is Waceke. She runs her own business in town. She is married with two children. The second born is Wanja whose patriotism saw it that she joined the army. She is away on training. The third is Njoki who is in her last year at a local campus taking a degree in Commerce while the last, Muthoni, just joined the university where she is pursuing a degree in Economics.
I ask what challenges she faces in her job. She shakes her head and says, “Being a woman is tough enough. We have to go to the market early and deal with rude traders and matatu touts. Touts do not want to load their vehicles with our goods. The county government also harasses us a lot. We also have trouble finding clean water daily. In a five meter radius, we are five of us selling the same goods. The competition is fierce. One has to sell their vegetables favorably and extend services like cutting and cleaning to attract customers. You also have to buy fresh produce; otherwise, your customers will disappear.”
After the story, I am convinced that the writer who said, “No one works harder, longer, to produce so much, for so many, with so little like the African woman” was absolutely right. Njeri is the true embodiment of a hardworking African woman. She toils hard to fend for her family, and her children’s success is the only thing that maintains her smile in this harsh world. It is women like Njeri who tell the African story of hard work, diligence and resilience.