Behind her makeshift stall in the Kenyan town of Eldoret, only a sheet of blue plastic on the floor strewn with bundles of spinach and kale leaves, Agneta Muhonja Ambane’s face is drawn with weariness.
The 68-year-old grandmother didn’t go home last night because she feared she might run into her landlord, who is asking for rent she can no longer afford.
She says she preferred to spend the night out in the cold in a corner of the market in the town of Rift Valley.
Ambane is a ‘Mama Mboga’ (‘Mama Vegetables’ in Swahili), a term used for the vendors that can be found in markets or roadsides throughout Kenya.
They sell small amounts of fruit, vegetables, beans or fried fish to support their families.
Ambane has been selling vegetables since she was just eight years old.
“Now life is hard, the cost of living is too high,” she sighs.
Kenya’s economy, already battered by the Covid pandemic, is now suffering from skyrocketing prices for essential goods caused by the aftermath of the war in Ukraine.
Inflation hit 8.3 percent in July, the highest in five years, and the struggle of ordinary Kenyans to make ends meet was a hot topic in Tuesday’s election.
– ‘It is not possible’ –
Having cast their votes, Eldoret’s ‘Mama Mboga’ is now hoping that Kenya’s new leader – whoever he may be – will stick to the bold promises made at the hustings.
Vice President William Ruto, who was born in a village not far from Eldoret and is one of the two frontrunners for the presidency, has described himself as a champion of “hustlers” struggling to make ends meet.
His rival Raila Odinga, the veteran opposition leader who is now backed by his longtime opponent, outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta, has also promised to improve the lot of the common Kenyan.
For Eldoret’s “mama mboga” the situation is desperate, their customers are now becoming increasingly scarce.
Ambane, who has 27 grandchildren, says her already meager income continues to shrink.
“Sometimes you only make 100 shillings (about 84 cents) in profit in a day, what do you buy with 100 shillings?” she says, arms crossed over her orange checked apron.
“Do you think it’s possible to feed my whole family with these vegetables? It’s not possible.”
She breaks off when a customer asks about the price of spinach. A few words are exchanged and the woman leaves without buying anything.
“I told her 20 shillings (17 cents). She asked for 10, but I bought it for 15!” Ambane protests.
“If we get sick, we cannot afford to go to the hospital. You either prioritize having food in your stomach or you go to the hospital.”
– sell without profit –
At the end of a nearby street, Julia Chepchirchir says she has no choice but to sell her wares at a loss.
“Since Covid came our business has gone downhill. We hope everything will be fine after the elections,” says the 40-year-old single mother, her hair wrapped in a pink scarf.
“Business is tough, we’re trying to sell but people aren’t buying, the money isn’t circulating. We sell, but without profit.
Chepchirchir, who lives with her children, aged 20, 18 and 14, says she has had to change her diet and no longer eats ugali, the Kenyan staple made from cornmeal.
“Corn flour is too expensive, I have to eat rice and potatoes.”
“I don’t eat fish or meat anymore,” adds her neighbor, 35-year-old Gladys Nyaanga Yeno.
“We only eat vegetables, but we can’t afford tomatoes because they’re too expensive. Sugar, soap, cornmeal, everything has gone up.”
“We need help from the state, we have to pay school fees, rent, even some of our children have become street children.”
More and more Kenyans are angry with the political elite for not keeping their promises to help the “mwananchi”, the grassroots citizens.
For some, this disenchantment was reflected in the relatively low turnout of about 65 percent among Kenya’s 22 million voters.
While Kenya is one of Africa’s most dynamic economies, a third of the population lives in poverty and about 80 percent of the workforce works in the informal sector.
But, Yeno says, “we have no choice but to hope.”
Ambane is darker.
“If this continues, old women like me will die from the cost of living and the stress that comes with it,” she says.
“Sometimes I even think it’s better if I die and rest. A man shouldn’t live like that. And there are so many people going through the same thing.”