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Nairobians who fled during Covid-19 city exodus find solace in the village

By Vivienne Nunis, BBC News | December 28th 2021 | 4 min read

If the coronavirus pandemic had not happened, it is likely Jack Onyango would still be living alone, working in Nairobi and sending money back to his wife and children in his rural home.

Like so many Kenyans, he moved to the capital city as a young man, believing that was where economic opportunities lay.

But life in the capital was not easy. Onyango could only afford to travel home to see his family in Kisumu once a year.

He would go at Christmas time paying Sh2,000 for the bus journey - and he was also expected to bring goods with him, such as sugar.

When the virus struck last year, the government introduced tough lockdown restrictions and like many others, Onyango found himself with no work.

While governments in other parts of the world paid partial salaries to those who lost their jobs during the pandemic, in Kenya there was no such support.

“There was nowhere to get money to pay rent and to feed my young family,” he says.

Seeing no way of staying in the city, he decided to move to the village last July.

“I was worried but I gambled,” Onyango says. “At home, there was no rent, there was no electricity bill or water bills, as compared to Nairobi where everything was money-oriented.”

He started farming tomatoes and greens such as cabbage and nightshade on 1.5 acres of land that once belonged to his grandfather.

He sold the produce to neighbours and vendors, who would take it to the local market.

With birds chirping loudly in the background as he speaks to me on the phone, he tells me the unexpected move has turned out for the best.

“The money I’m getting from what I’m doing now is much more compared to what I used to get for working in Nairobi.

“My eldest daughter is 16 years old. I used to see them once a year. In fact, corona has been a blessing to me.”

World Neighbors, an international development charity, says Onyango’s experience is part of a wider reverse migration trend, triggered by the pandemic.

“Covid-19 caught everybody by surprise,” says Chris Macoloo, the Africa region director.

“Most of the people were laid off and, because they live from hand to mouth, they couldn’t feed themselves, they couldn’t pay rent and they couldn’t send money to their families.

“So quite a number migrated from cities back to their rural areas.”

He says the countryside offered a lifeline for many.

“In Africa, we are children of two worlds. We have one leg in the city and another one in the countryside. It helped because if we didn’t have that, they would have really been in serious trouble.”

Nearly 750,000 jobs were lost across Kenya in 2020, according to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS).

A recent KNBS report said various sectors of the economy were adversely affected by Covid containment measures, and total employment, excluding small-scale farming and pastoral activities, contracted by 4.1% to 17.4 million.

Geoffrey Barasa is another Nairobian who left life in the city behind. The 46-year-old used to hold down two jobs in the city.

He was employed as a casual worker doing odd jobs in industrial area and he also ran a small business buying chicken parts and selling them at a profit in his local shop.

He moved to the city as a young man after college, saying “it was (a matter of) pride to work in the city then”.

Barasa got married and lived in Nairobi with his wife and four children,.

But when the first Covid-19 cases were reported in the country, everything fell apart. He lost his casual job and he was forced to shut down his chicken business.

“At that moment, there was no movement of people so I didn’t have enough customers to buy my goods. I was forced to close the shop and come back to the village,” says Barasa.

“That time was very difficult for me.”

In September last year, he decided to move his family to his rural village in Busia where he began farming pumpkin, millet, tomatoes and kale - and he now sells the produce to the local community. Today, he is rearing pigs and chickens too.

“At first I was so worried how I was going to spend life at home, but now I’m comfortable. I am well off compared to when I was in Nairobi. I’m very happy back at home in the village.”

Barasa says he would urge others who returned home during the pandemic to make it a permanent move: “I cannot advise them to go back to the city.”

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