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November 4, 2007

Deaf and dumb hawkers of Nairobi

From: Standard - Nairobi,Kenya - Nov 4, 2007

By Morton Saulo

It is in the dead of the night and the streets of Nairobi are alive with all manner of businesses both legal and illegal. Entertainment lovers of all shades and sizes, and night hawkers take over the brightly lit streets.

Men and women gyrate to the rhythm of the loud deafening sounds from the many entertainment joints as scantily dressed twilight girls shove one another for a prospective client’s attention. If only to wile the night away.

In a drunken stupor, the young and the young at heart stream out of the joints, some are heading home while others are just changing entertainment spots in search of the elusive ultimate pleasure.

In the midst of all this and in a world of their own are the deaf and dumb hawkers of Nairobi fighting for a surviving chance. They are strategically positioned in all the city’s main streets, where they display their wares hoping to catch the eyes of the night clientele.

Among them is Mr Daniel Gikunyi, 21. Deaf and dumb, he has perfect eyesight that he uses to read the lips of the person he is communicating with. He understands simple mathematics and knows what sells best no matter what time of the night.

Call it determination coupled with business acumen, desire, or maybe perseverance but it is the usual routine that most Kenyans living below the poverty line have to go through, day in and day out.

Meeting him for the first time one can easily mistake his silence for rudeness. Yet with a little patience and understanding the silence is replaced with animated gestures and smiles.

Dressed in a tough heavy jean trouser, a sweater and a heavy jacket, he endures the cold that is characteristic of Nairobi at this time of the year. His inability to compete effectively during daytime with the other hawkers, forced him to shift his operations to the less competitive hours of the night.

Gikunyi, who hails from Gatundu South in Central Province, now lives in Satellite Estate with his friends. Born in a poor family of five he is no stranger to hardship.

As many others are dead asleep, with stomachs full and well tucked in their cosy beds and others enjoy loud music and alcohol from entertainment joints along Moi Avenue, he braves the chilly night waiting to serve them.

In readiness he puts up his small make shift stall. Made of tattered flattened boxes and old paint tins that serve as a buttress to his goods, he readies himself for business, all the while hoping and praying that this night will be different from the others, in a positive way.

In his small ‘shop’ he deals in telephone calling cards from the two major mobile telephone providers, condoms, cigarettes, sweets, chewing gum and other items. The only difference between him and the daytime hawkers is that his wares are slightly higher priced and his stall is always well stocked.

He also acts as a guide for those too drunk to get to their cars for a moderate fee.

"It a tough and competitive world but we have to make ends meet," he quips through an interpreter.

Interact with all kinds of people

Polite and jolly, the Form Three dropout who communicates in sign language and lip reading effectively, handles customers from all walks of life. Says he: "I interact with drunkards, muggers, prostitutes, school children, the lost and policemen in the course of my duty and I have to serve them well since its them that I make my money from."

He says poverty back home brought him to the city.

On arrival life became unbearable. He terms the first days in Nairobi as tough. "I struggled to get myself some sort of income," he says adding that those who could speak segregated him because of his disability. But he was determined to have a business of his own.

Gikunyi is not the only disabled hawker this night.

Stationed less than 15m apart are his four friends. Each one of them has positioned himself at the entrance of a major entertainment spot. Over time, they have become hardened to the nightlife and guard their turf jealously. No hawker can venture into the area near Kenya Cinema, for it is their zone of operation.

On weekdays, when business is slow, they move on to different streets. In case one does not have a commodity that a customer requires, he will always guide you to his colleague.

"We assist one another for it is the only way to make it here," he says adding that they make between Sh500 to Sh1,200 depending on the day of the week.

"Weekends are the best days as sales are very high," he says with a smile.

Over time, customers have accepted Gikunyi and his friends. Mr Martin Thuo, a customer and a friend, says he has known them for over two years and sometimes helps them to sell. "I assist them sell their wares or protect them against unscrupulous customers," he says.

Night world and its tribulations

But the night world has its own tribulations. Hawkers face much harassment from some clients and City Council askaris. "They harass us and confiscate our goods ordering us to vacate the streets," he says adding that some even ask for bribes before allowing them to operate.

Gikunyi says some revellers are very crafty, with some trying to con them because of their disability. He recalls how a drunkard claimed he had handed him a Sh500 note yet it was Sh100. "I will never forget that day. If it were not for my friends and other revellers, the drunkard could have conned me," he says.

"Many people think we do not know simple mathematics but I have proved them wrong," he says with a chuckle.

With plans by the City Council being at an advanced stage to build more markets in Nairobi, they too are demanding for a special place to be reserved for them.

"Due to our inability to hear and speak, we appeal to the Government to allocate us a special area in markets," he says.

He says they cannot compete for stalls effectively with other hawkers because of discrimination. "I have been sent packing from different locations owing to my disability. I have been manhandled and my goods even confiscated," he says.

Gikunyi and his friends are not the only ones fighting for fair treatment by society. Recently, disabled hawkers camped outside one media house demanding to be allocated space within the city centre.

Disabled persons were allocated space at Ngara open-air market but they declined, saying it is inaccessible to most of their customers.

Gikunyi and his friends hope that one day they will be successful businessmen to the chagrin of those who frustrate their efforts.

© MMVI . The Standard Group