Truly left behind…

Last week I spent 24 hours with with Susan and her 5 kids in her homestead in Kuria, Migori County. This was a chance to immerse myself in the life of someone living well below the poverty line and reflect on what it means for my own efforts to tackle poverty. Despite the potential shallowness of a privileged expat like me dropping into a poor person’s life for 24 hours in the full knowledge of returning to my nice house and comfortable life, it was an incredible experience, raising more questions than answers.

Susan, my host.

As Susan’s houseguest, I lived, ate and breathed as Susan and her family did, trying to see life through her eyes. Phone off, no back-up snacks, no water purification or filters, no mosquito net. The only thing I had different from Susan were the clothes on my back, a sleeping bag, a bar of soap, some toothpaste and a small camera.


Arriving at the compound, Susan welcomes me and shows me round her tiny compound in the middle of fields of maize and sweet potatoes. She has two mud and wood huts, each with a tin roof donated by a local community women’s group after the thatch roof was washed away in the rains last month.

Susan shows me around her compound in Migori County

In the huts there is very little: a few cooking pots and broken plastic plates, a small wooden stool, a plastic chair missing 2 of its legs, some sacking, a mosquito net, a water bucket. There is no clean water source, no toilet area or long drop. Water comes from river at the bottom of the hill and ablutions are done in the surrounding fields. Although her compound is in the middle what looks like quite a fertile area, her small plot is rocky and barren. Nothing grows here.

Nyumba mboke

We sit in her room and she tells me about her life. Susan is officially married to an older woman through ‘Nyumba Mboke.’ Nyumba Mboke literally means ‘raise the house’ in Kurya and — from what I understood — is a local custom where a woman who can’t have male children ‘marries’ another woman to have children on her behalf.

When Susan was 12 years old, her grandmother agreed to marry her to a local women who had 2 girls but no boys of her own. She lived with the family until she was 16, at which point she was given a small plot of land and told that was where she would live and — it seems — expected to have children with men who were sent her way or seemed to ‘pass through’. She sobs as she tells me how she was left to fend for herself, with no income or support, just a harsh plot of land near a river.

She has been there 10 years now, and at the age of 26, she has 6 children, including 4 boys. There are 4 different fathers although Susan doesn’t know where any of them are.

An orphan herself, she tells me about how much hope she had as young girl when it was agreed for her to be married, for a dowry of 5 cows, to the older woman. 14 years on, she wishes it was different. Life is incredibly tough and she rarely knows where the next meal is coming from. She tells me how she feels physically and mentally broken every night as she locks herself and her children in their huts.

Worst and most depressing of all was when she told me that she has and will never have anyone to look after her. She expects that her sons, when old enough, will be taken to her ‘wife’s’ household to work their fields so she will be left with her daughters who will be vulnerable to abuse, rape and early marriage. So rather than working to raise children who will look after her, she is afraid she will be alone.

All in a day

After we emerge from the hut, with both Susan and I blinking away tears, we get to work. Her 10-year old, John, latches onto me and asks me to help build a small charcoal heap with some wood he has collected and mud he’s been digging. We tend to it throughout the afternoon and evening, right until we go to bed. He tells me that he will sell the charcoal in the market so they can buy pens and paper for school. He hopes this pile of charcoal will get him 20 Shillings (14 pence). I think of my kids, of a similar age, and how they would cope.

As it gets dark, Susan prepares supper for us over a fire of dried maize cobs and twigs. She doesn't have a stove, so it is an open fire in their tiny corner of the hut, partitioned off from the sleeping area. We all cram in but the smoke is terrible and I find myself retreating periodically to breath.

Susan’s kitchen

Susan and the kids don’t even flinch from the smoke, which might explain the terrible chest rattling I hear later that night sleeping in a row with the boys, John, Samson and Joseph. We sit outside and eat from a shared plate cassava ugali and our own portions of a mucilaginous green vegetable. It turns out she can’t afford to buy vegetables; we are eating ‘mutere’, the leaves of a form of jute that grows wild, boiled earlier in the day in a small bit of water without salt, oil or onions.

John collecting ‘Mutere’, leaves from the a jute bush.

Susan never went to school and can’t read, so I read a book one of the kids brought home from school (funded by DFID through our primary education programmes) to the kids for half an hour, using the light of a burning bit of bush. None of the kids, not even the 11 year old, can read the book which is at a similar level to the book my own 6-year-old was reading to me last week. After reading to the kids we sleep: Susan and the girls in one room, me and the boys in the other. We sleep on the hard earth, once again reminding me how soft I have become. Although malaria is bad in this part of Kenya, Susan is using the net she was given in the local health centre as matting for her 3 year old daughter, Deborah.

Susan wakes me at 4 am to help make porridge. Not like any maize porridge I have had before, this is a viscous gruel, made from cassava flour and water. Half an hour later, we wake the kids and drink our breakfast under the stars, before heading down to the river to get to work. Even the kids struggle to hold it down, complaining that there isn’t any maize to roast.

Deborah, 3 years old, still drinking her cassava porridge later in the morning

At the river, we start digging sand from the river bed and piling it up on the banks. It’s hard work and endless, as the river seems to refill with sand as fast as we dig. John isn’t at school today as he was chased away yesterday because he didn’t have the exam fees. The other three have gone to see if they can get away with it. So, John, Susan and I — with 3 year old Deborah playing in the sand on her own — dig sand as the sun comes up. My hands and limbs, accustomed to light duties and office work, start to feel the pace pretty quickly. Susan, on the other hand, puts me to shame; as we dig for the next 3 hours, she barely pauses.

Susan, extracting sand from the river. A days work might get 250 Kenyan Shillings (£1.85) if she is lucky.

The aim is to have two large piles (I estimate around 6 tonnes) by the end of the day. If she gets that much, she can — assuming the local sand merchant comes by — sell it to him for about 250 Shillings (£1.85).

John, aged 10, on top of our sand pile; we need to double this in size and build another.

We have planned to go to the local village centre to join a women’s group meeting, where Susan is being welcomed as a new member. The group, formed to tackle genital cutting, have also started to take on helping the most vulnerable in the community and have reached out to Susan. Susan is keen to go but is embarrassed that she has no soap to wash with. Luckily, this is one of the things I’ve brought. So after John and I have washed in men’s section of the river, Susan takes the soap to the women’s section and does the same. When we depart, we leave John and Deborah at home alone, a ten-year-old in charge of a three-year-old.

Matilda tells the group about how she rescued 3 girls from genital cutting last week and the challenges this entails

At the community meeting, the women tell me that, despite being illegal in Kenya, genital cutting is still commonplace. And for those who are worried about the police, they simply travel the hour’s walk to Tanzania, where genital cutting is not against the law.

As the meeting ends, it is time to say our farewells. We have a four hour journey to Kisumu airport and we hear there are political rallies along the way. With 5000 Shillings (£37) burning a hole in my pocket (my organizers firmly tell me not to hand over any cash), I am deeply conscious that I could pay the school fees for the next year, there and then, and make a difference. It takes everything I have to restrain myself and hand over a small gift from my family to say thank you and wish her luck.

Susan’s life hasn’t changed a bit. I feel mine might have as I return home to my life of privilege and plenty.

It makes me wonder.

Does Susan’s situation make a mockery of the ‘Leave No-one Behind’ agenda of the Global Goals? Susan is so definitely left behind in an area of relative prosperity. I have visited hundreds of projects over the years, and usually there is some sense of hope, of how things have improved or will do. Here I found none: Susan is locked in absolute poverty with little hope of breaking free.

Is our approach to UK Aid in Kenya right? We are gradually moving DFID focus to the northern and coastal counties. And there are good reasons. The northern/ coastal counties are the poorest, most vulnerable and most insecure regions. Yet, with poverty as deep as this in Migori County on the southern-most border of Kenya, what more do we need to do to make sure people are genuinely not left behind?

How have Susan and her family been missed by the Government of Kenya’s (progressive) social safety net programmes? The Government’s Orphans and Vulnerable Children's (OVC) initiative, supported by DFID and the World Bank, is designed to provide cash directly to the families of the most poor and vulnerable. So why has this not reached Susan?

How do we speed up development processes? In the comfort of donor corridors, we talk about how our work will build the capability of county governments so they can meet the needs of their populations. Sitting in Susan’s house, it feels far too slow. Unless she gets a ‘bump’ soon, she will remain locked in dire poverty and her children — especially her girls — will be at risk themselves, trapped into another generation of poverty. Even refugees, themselves living in terrible situations, know where and when their next meal is coming, that their kids will go to school and have reasonable healthcare.

How do we approach development through the eyes of people like Susan? When we talk of development, we often focus on helping the government deliver services to poor people, making sure there are health services, schools, and water. But people like Susan can’t even get to them, even if they are physically close. What more can we do more from the individual upwards rather than the service down. We’d see the deep socio-cultural barriers more clearly — like the practice of Nyumba Mboke — and how it holds families like Susan’s back even if there are reasonable services available.

How do we make people like Susan matter more to governments and donors? As Kenya grows, we — like many other donors — are starting to talk about transition. About how middle income countries need different things: more access to expertise and knowledge and less resources to deliver services. Is this still right when we see people like Susan living in such crushing circumstances?

These are difficult questions about the role of the state and how donors can help most effectively, with no easy answers. I am glad I spent time with Susan. It makes me even more determined to make sure we think through these kinds of issues as we design and implement the next generation of DFID Inclusive Societies programmes.

Many thanks to ActionAid International for arranging this visit and to Susan for welcoming me into her home and sharing what little she had for a day.