In the informal settlement of Kibera, a young ‘mama fua‘ (laundry lady) earns an average of 50 shillings ($0.41) per load. A woman who is a bit older earns double that amount. Work is usually hard to come by and cannot be depended on as a regular source of income. The same job in the neighbouring middle-class Langata estate, would earn a woman between 700 – 1,000 shillings (($5.7 – 8.2). But it’s often impossible for a young teenage mother to get a job in such a neighborhood. The older mama fua women who work in the middle-class neighbourhoods guard these jobs jealously and cannot allow it. This, is what I was informed as I interviewed a few teenage mothers like Rukia, who is a mama fua.
How did Rukia, aged 18 years, end up as a mama fua?
*This story is part of a series of articles I’m doing on the issue of teenage mothers in Kenya and the reasons why they don’t return to school despite legal provisions for them to do so. Each teen mom I feature has a different and personal reason why she hasn’t returned to school. I hope you find the articles insightful. Today I share Beryl’s story. Be sure to read the other stories on Elsa, Dayana, Lavenda and Beryl. You can read the full long-version here.
When she was young, Rukia*, who scored 240 marks in her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) aspired to be a lawyer. But that dream is long gone.
A fourth born in a family of five, Rukia lives with her family in Kibera. She was in Form 1 at a private mixed day school when she became pregnant. When her pregnancy became visible at four months, she stopped going to school.
Father adbicates financial responsibilities
Now that her son is 11 months old, has she thought of resuming her studies?
“Yes I have, and I know I can return, but it’s complicated. I was in a private school where my school fee was paid by mother, who does menial jobs. I felt horrible when I got pregnant as I felt that I had let her down. Even though our father stays with us, he does not offer any financial support and says it is my mother’s duty to provide for the family,” says Rukia who was abandoned by her 22-year-old boyfriend after she informed him of her pregnancy.
Rukia says returning to school will overburden her mother as she will not only have to pay the school fees but also take care of her son and his expenses such as diapers, clothes and food.
“My mother is already overwhelmed with paying for my other siblings’ school fees, so it would be unfair of me to ask her to provide for an extra mouth yet it’s my fault that I got pregnant,” she says.
Rukia now spends her days caring for her son and searching for ‘mama fua’ (laundry jobs) that earn her little money which she says can only cater for her son’s expenses. She wishes she could get someone to pay her school fees.
Teachers’ invitation to return to class
“My teachers told me to return to school after childbirth. But if I go back, how will my mother manage all the expenses? My school fees and the additional burden of caring for my child and feeding the extra mouth? If I can get help with the school fees, then I can continue washing people’s clothes over the weekend, and the money I make can pay for my baby’s needs without burdening my mother.”
At the age of 18 years, Rukia says she doesn’t mind going back to school where she left off –in Form 1, even though she would be studying with students much younger than her.
“The only thing I would not want to do is to return to my former school. I would like a school where people don’t know my past. I think I will feel judged if I return to my former school. I’d prefer to study in a school where other girls will not gossip me. A school where teachers will not use me as an example to other students, telling them not to be like me. I wouldn’t feel comfortable learning in an environment with such an attitude from the teachers,” she says.
What are your thoughts on Rukia’s story? Do you think she will be able to return to school someday? Feel free to share your thoughts down below.
If you work in an organization that deals with teenage mothers that you’d like highlighted, reach out to me on firstname.lastname@example.org
*Name changed for purposes of protecting her identity.
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