Two women were sitting under a shade that was constructed out of old rugs held up by four small sticks. They were selling green vegetables. When you enter the markets of Kakuma, the women selling vegetables are in all corners because this is the only business in the camp that doesn’t require much capital. Approaching them, I decided to buy some kale from them for 50 ksh. The kale was still very green and fresh from the garden. It was already evening and the street was very buzzy. People were up and down since this was the time many were coming back from work and entering shops to buy what they would prepare at their homes. It was a bit cold that day, and not windy like some days.
One of these two women asked if I was a nearby resident and I said yes but I saw doubt in her face and I asked why? She said that she had never seen me coming to buy vegetables and I told her that I usually come back late from work and that’s why I don’t buy vegetables on a daily basis. I grabbed the opportunity to ask both of these women why they were selling from the streets and not in the shops.
I know you and I are very eager to know why they didn’t own shops to sell their vegetables but are instead in the streets. This was my chance and I wouldn’t let it out of my hands. I saw the stone that was just at the corner and sat. It was still very early in the evening. The sun had not yet set and since the camp was very hot, the sun set very late. Even until 7:00 the place was still very bright. They told me their names, but to protect their identities, here, I use their initials. Here is what they said.
MA: When I left South Sudan, I never thought that I could ever sell vegetables in the streets but then I saw things were not working out well for my family and my children who lacked basic needs. Other women from Burundi, Congo and even Kenyans were doing business and so I also decided to try my luck and yes here I am now. First I thought maybe they lacked money in order to open a shop, so I rented a small shop and started selling different kinds of vegetables. But during that time, we could only buy from very far. It took two days for those goods to reach us in the camp, and I could spend a lot of money. On top of that I had to pay rent. I worked for only two months in that shop and closed because I wasn’t getting any profit. I stopped and just stayed home until 2017, when people in Kakuma started farming and we started to buy vegetables from within, which gave me the courage to restart the business again. But this time around I decided to follow other women and sold from the streets. I couldn’t repeat the mistake that I made by renting a shop.
When she was narrating her story, I admired her. She was a very tall, slim, dark woman. Every time she talked, her white teeth were so amazing and her soft voice was very clear and audible. She moved her hands up and down while explaining. This made me love her so much but at the same time, I felt pity.
The second woman was just nodding every now and then, agreeing to what her colleague shared. She was also looking gorgeous and was a very clean woman although she was in an open area full of dust. She had long dark hair that was hanging behind her back. Her eyes shined and she had this bright face. I kept smiling from the time they began elaborating their stories to the end because I was so proud of them.
I felt pity and at the same time disappointed about how the host country’s government handles the issues of roads. When my family of 10 people came to the camp in 2005, traveling from Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya, it took us 24 hours by bus. The roads were in such bad shape that when we reached the camp, we couldn’t sit straight. Our legs were swollen due to the long distance and the bad road. In the bus people who sat at the back were complaining because the road was so rough, rocky, bumpy and the bumps threw them on and off the seats. One of the women in the last seat was vomiting non stop because the road was so bad, but the drivers did nothing.
My thoughts were interrupted by another seller who also said something, but because I was lost in my own thoughts, I asked her what she had said and she repeated.
People were still moving up and down buying different commodities. Many shops were still open and there was a lot of noise coming from the motorcyclists since the curfew in the camp for motorcycles is at 6:30 for refugees but the Kenyans can work all night. There was a lot of dust on the road. Remember, these women sell along the streets. But I didn’t lose focus.
FN: So, how much does someone need to start a vegetable business?
MA: For me it didn’t require much. I only began with 500 ksh because I only sell Murere (which is a Sudanese name for a type of slippery vegetable). From the garden, it’s the most planted and since the majority of the nationalities eat it, the business booms. Since I began selling vegetables that we buy here in the camp, I have earned good money and I even save. We have a women’s group where we always save 50 ksh per day and from this money I am able to pay school fees for my children and also change to a balanced diet for my family, unlike before.
AS: I am also part of that group and it has helped a lot of women in the camp, even the Kenyan. Before I started selling here in the camp, I was in the streets of the host in town selling there before the host people realized the benefit of selling vegetables and then they started. Due to conflict I had to move back to the camp and thus that was when I joined the group. I started with 1000 ksh because as you can see I sell different vegetables and thus combining them together requires more money, too.
After listening to all this and seeing how happy they were talking while smiling, I just knew how much they loved what they were doing and valued their work. Sitting under that heat, noise and storm, could I have managed? I asked myself this question and yet I had no answer.
Since customers had started coming in numbers, I had to stop there so that I wouldn’t interrupt their business and yet I wasn’t going to pay them. I had to watch them for a while smiling back and helping serve the customers. Putting the vegetables in the wrapping paper. I then left since it was getting late and a lot of customers had come.
But while I was walking back home, I asked myself how are people really farming in this semi-arid area and where are they getting water for watering the vegetables? Should I go to the garden and see it for myself? I had no answer to that question. Because my mind was still occupied with many thoughts, I was concentrating on my movement and I had not realized that I had even passed our main gate going into other people’s communities. The road had started becoming too narrow and when I bumped into someone, that’s where I realized that I had gone in the wrong direction. I laughed at myself and turned back, and I headed home with kale in hand.
When I reached home I was still in a dilemma and realized that even though I have stayed in the camp for more than 17 years, I still didn’t know a lot of things happening in some areas of the camp. My mum asked why I was late and I shared with her everything that I had just discovered and she just laughed at me and asked if I really stayed in the camp or was I only here physically but not psychologically: everyone knows where the farms are, and she thought that I did too.
I was further confused because I also realized that I was in the camp but also at the same time, I was not there.
Hey, what do you think about our next part? Shall we go for the Gardens to know all about the planting and the farming procedure?
I would be more than happy to receive any comments from you about what we should do next. Just click on my name above and choose ” send a fan letter to….” Which will open an email addressed directly to me.
24 December, 2022