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Nairobians’ enduring love for unsanitary street food

By Gloria Aradi | Published Mon, November 13th 2017 at 13:01, Updated November 13th 2017 at 13:21 GMT +3
Muthurwa Market, Nairobi

In summary

  • Accessibility and low prices lure many Nairobi dwellers to hawked dishes
  • Both the public and authorities don’t seem to think much about the consequences of the poor sanitation under which the meals are prepared and served

Every day at dawn, 26-year-old Wycliffe Mwangi leaves his home in Kwambira, Limuru, Kiambu County, and catches a bus to Nairobi city centre. He then walks a short distance to Wakulima Market, the largest market for fresh produce in Nairobi, which feeds more than half of the city’s population.

By 8am, Mwangi will have bought more than 100 watermelons and a box full of beetroots. He then sets up in front of Wakulima House, a huge county-owned facility, whose exterior oozes a stomach-churning stench. The pavements around are characterised by dirty water and layers of solid waste that squishes uncomfortably under the shoes.

Most traders have to wear gumboots. Buyers struggle to walk through the filth, taking short, slow calculated steps and holding onto anything they can find for support.

This unlikely spot is where Mwangi opts to sell his water melons from. The unending human traffic of traders, carriers and buyers makes this location in front of Wakulima House a prime selling point. Throughout the day, customers crowd over Mwangi’s tiny, haphazard blue stall, savouring the sweet, juicy watermelons going for Sh10 a slice. Occasionally, a customer pays with a note instead of coins, and Mwangi shoves his dirt-covered hands down his stained overall to fish out a wad of notes, with a cunning smile. For Mwangi, this is yet another successful day.

“I like this job,” he says, adding: “This business is everything to me. It provides for my wife and two children.” He passionately beckons the customers, emphasising that a piece of the watermelon is only Sh10.

“I married when I was only 19, so I have to work hard to provide for my family,” says Mwangi.

Asked where he gets water to clean the watermelons, he points at the nearby public washroom, which sells water at Sh50 for a 20-litre jerrican. However, no water can be seen at Mwangi’s point of sale, meaning he doesn’t wash his hands.

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The sliced watermelons colour Mwangi’s wooden structure, and when they are almost sold out, he reaches from a cart behind him and picks up another melon, which he slices and puts on the counter.

Swarm of flies

A man passes by carrying a heavy sack of potatoes. Burdened by the weight, he leans over, and the tip of the muddy sack brushes against the melons.

The sliced fruits are swarmed by flies and covered with dust, even though it is a rainy season. The movement of vehicles on the road that is about one metre away blows  some dust, which settles on the fruit.

But Mwangi’s numerous customers are not bothered as they devour the juicy, fleshy fruit. “These watermelons are very sweet,” one customer says. “I will have another slice,” he says. When he is done, he throws the skin to a piling heap.

Mwangi’s immediate surroundings, sporting rotting fruit and vegetables thrown away by the traders, speaks of a wanting waste management system.

This is a common sight in many Nairobi streets, especially in the city centre. Strikingly, unsanitary and unhygienic conditions characterise the sale and consumption of food that is hawked such as smokies, roasted maize, boiled eggs, mshikakis and chips “mwitu”.

Because of accessibility and cheaper prices, many consumers overlook the conditions under which the food is prepared and served. Many of them consume the food without washing their hands.

Mwangi admits he is not licensed to sell food, nor has he been examined by a medical officer or public health officer as is required.

No big deal

“When I am arrested by the city county officers, I just pay them and I am released. It is not a big deal, it always happens,” he says.

Regulating the sale of food on the street is hard. “We do not license food hawkers. Hawking in general is outlawed. The best we can do is caution consumers against eating street food as it may harm them,” says Jairus Musumba, the deputy director of public health, Nairobi County.

In a city where the bulk of the population comprises the working class, supervising the sale and consumption of street food may be impractical. Those who cannot afford to eat in proper food establishments rely solely on food sold by hawkers like Mwangi.

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