Strikes in Kenya: Wanjiku is Watching

Published on 3rd April 2018

Trade unionism and strikes played a key role in the migration of industries from Europe and North America to South East Asia as the huge costs spent on workers and effect of strikes affected firm earnings and profits. To hit back, governments, investors and academics forged attempted solutions that included weakening trade unions and migrating industries. This led to the collapse of the fordist factory production system and erosion of workers’ welfare benefits. Today, America is struggling with the aftermath of policies that were initiated to counter the effects of trade unionism.

In Kenya, 2017 and 2018 will be remembered as the year of strikes. Doctors, nurses and university lecturers went on long strikes demanding better pay. They sang, danced on streets and withdrew all their services. Hospitals were deserted and universities were closed.  The clash between the health, academic and political elite was reduced to who would blink first. In most circumstances however,  the elite category with power and capital took the day.

Lecturers, doctors, teachers and nurses are lucky to have jobs in Kenya. They are also some of the most educated . In a country where majority of the people fall in the wanjiku category which includes peasants, traders artisans, patoralists and fisherfolk who sweat and labour everyday in precarious environment,  one wonders what wanjiku thinks about the strikes.  

 As a lecturer,  I write this piece with a heavy heart. I have been an object of ridicule when my neighbour who while giving me a ride to work very early in the morning asked me whether I was still empowering people. Here I was, going to empower people, but being given a ride by a self-employed person. It was like, why don’t I heal myself first? I pondered at my thirty years of working in the University and questioned what I have been doing all this time, with no material wealth to show.

A self-employed health professional, who happens to be my neighbour, asked me after noting  that I worked late into the night reading or marking essays: “Why tire yourself? Why spend on electricity and internet while you have plenty of it in the university?” 

These two cases should make me angry enough to be in the frontline of the strike. But my situation is complicated by the fact that in a family of ten, I am one of the four siblings who has a job. So how do I explain to my six jobless siblings that I am on strike?

Whenever I am boarding a bus at Engen Petrol station, one tout always speaks to me in English while inviting me to board the bus. I always wonder why he is courteous, how much he knows about me or why he does not call me mukuru while ushering me to board the bus.

In the previous strike, I rubbed my fellow colleagues the wrong way when I wrote about my position on the strike and why I wanted to return the money.

While it is legitimate to go on strike, we should see the bigger picture and align ourselves with movements that call for more justice and responsibility before we receive the curse of wanjiku.

Wanjiku does not see the difference between the government and the striking teachers, doctors, nurses and lecturers. We are part of the privileged few in the country with options. The trader at Githurai has no option but take her child to the public hospital. The matatu tout has no option but to go the public hospital after an accident. The pastoral herder will also take his children to a public hospital or school.  They know that their children will never make it to university because they will not pass the national examination. They know how each of us behaves in our places of work. Since our CVs are on the Website, interested parties know who has recently published and who has not. They even know how many hours we sit in our offices. They even know there is no cutting edge problem solving research taking place in our universities.  Wanjiku knows that individuals in formal employment do not do their work.

Wanjiku  took her son and daughter to university hoping that they would learn, graduate and transform family but this dream has been pushed ahead due to the disruption of the academic year. 

During the Doctor’s strike, I joined a pilgrim group dominated by wanjiku at the Resurrection Garden.  I overheard one woman make a very desperate prayer to God.

“O God!”, she said, “Our women and children are dying. God, please soften the heart of the doctors and the government so that they can come into agreement. The doctors have the skills and government has the money. Their tag of war should not injure a third party.”

We should devise a more conciliatory method to solve our salaries’ problem amicably without injuring a third party. Unless we do that, we shall soon suffer from wanjiku’s curse. One day, wanjiku will be angry, invade our institutions and render ‘ work’ impossible. God forbid!  Let us build bridges.

By Dr Mary Kinyanjui,

Institute of Development Studies, The University of Nairobi.


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