The Politics of Mikokoteni, Wheelbarrow’s and Takataka

By Japheth Oluoch Ogola

Mr. Aol (not his real name) and now in his early 20s was a very bright boy during his primary school days in one of the informal schools in Korogocho.  He was my neighbor in Kisumu Ndogo  village and I saw him growing very fast as if he was in a hurry to start a career and support his parents who were struggling to provide for him and his other siblings. His father was a part-time watchman who was on and off work while his mother was a famous mama mboga (grocery seller) whose meagre earnings could only enable her to assure the children of a daily meal but not investment for their future. Mr.Aol passed his final primary education examinations very well but his parents could afford secondary education school fees. He therefore ‘finished’ school in standard eight as we used to say in the rural areas. When one ‘finished’ school in my village, boys and girls automatically became adults irrespective of their ages. Girls were expected to either get married (often to men double their ages) or come to Nairobi to look for jobs as house girls where their parents hoped they would get a richer man to marry them and uplift their families out of poverty. Boys were to get jobs as herdsmen or move too Nairobi to get mjengo (construction) jobs. Most of these boys and girls ended up in one of the several urban slums in Nairobi where they joined thousands of their age mates born and brought up in abject poverty to compete for the few available unskilled jobs.

Many young people in Korogocho like in other urban slums acquired mikokoteni (wooden carts) which they used to carry luggage for their customers who were mainly mama mboga and a few baba mboga buying groceries from the famous soko mjinga in Korogocho. Most of the mikokoteni operators started their careers by carrying heavy loads on their bare backs as they saved to buy mikokotenis. Those who did not use the mikokotenis for carrying groceries from the market used them to carry garbage from households at a fee and dumping them either at the infamous Dandora dumpsite, along the Nairobi river distributaries or at the ‘sewage’. Sewages were several temporary mini-dumpsites a group of households created to dump their garbage and use as ‘toilets’ since most of the shanties lacked toilets and the fewer available ones were charging an average of sh 5 which was far beyond the reach most residents. ‘The sewage’ also became a popular destination for illegally aborted foetuses. Occasionally, a few lucky ones would be found alive and rescued from the jaws of marauding wild dogs who frequented the ‘sewage’. A number of youths formed environment self-help groups through the support of churches and NGOs who were active in the slums those days. Most of the support was provided in-kind through donation of wheelbarrows, mikokotemis, rakes and other environment tools. To date, a number of youth-led organizations provide similar support and therefore it is not the latest innovation by the political class.

It was therefore no accident that when it dawned on Mr. Aol that he had no chance of either joining high school or a vocational training centre, he chose the mikokoteni path. A well-built boy, it was not difficult for him to carry mizigo (luggage) on his own back before he could buy his own mkokoteni, quite an achievement at that time.  Everyday Mr. Aol came home, tired and looking older than his young age. Mr. Aol would have insisted that his parents take him to secondary school or he could have resorted to petty crimes as many children in his situation did in the slums. Mr. Aol didn’t want to stress his parents. Most of us in the slums always avoided stressing our parents. Whenever we were told there was no food, we would carry our empty stomachs to our various versions of beds without complaining. Whenever we were told we had ‘finished’ school, we usually ‘finished’ school and joined the unskilled labour market. I did it too when in form three before I ‘unfinished’ school and sat for my final secondary education as a private candidate. The rest is history.

It is the story of people like Mr. Aol who make it difficult for me to support the hustler vs dynasty debate. I believe that it is divisive and polarizing as it is an insult to people like Mr. Aol who could be respected professionals today if they had a chance to further their education and build more competitive skills. Those who ride on the hustler narrative to mobilize the poor into unquestioning voting machines argue that it is a political formation that is modelled for the poorest of our societies symbolized by mikokotenis and wheelbarrows. Those who don’t support mikokoteni and wheelbarrow’s are branded as dynasties who should not ascend to positions of political leadership because their fathers and perhaps their mothers were once upon a time in politics. Don’t mind that most of the architects of the mikokoteni and wheelbarrow’s are millionaires and billionaires, some of whose sources of wealth have been questioned and/or investigated. This team is coalescing around the Deputy President Dr. William Ruto and are currently being linked to the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) a party whose symbol is a wheelbarrow. 

Responding to the mikokotenis and wheelbarrow’s narrative, Orange Democratic Movement (ODM)   leader Mr. Raila Odinga now refers to it as taka taka (garbage). ODM Director of Communications, in a recent tweet also referred to taka taka word which seems to be gaining prominence as a counter narrative to mikokoteni and wheelbarrow narrative. I submit that both the proponents of mikokoteni/ wheelbarrow’s and takataka’s are wrong. I believe that the mikokotenis and wheelbarrows can be transformed into dignified tools of economic prosperity through technological value addition. Young people like Mr. Aol should be supported to save and grow their businesses into SMEs which can provide opportunities for other young people. It should not matter how the poor start earning their livelihoods but how we support them to increase their income levels and improve their conditions of work. Equally, it is wrong to refer to someone’s source of income as taka taka even if their main raw material is taka taka such as those working at the Dandora dumpsite. We should promote the spirit of taka ni pato (waste is income) which is a term that has been used prominently by environmentalists who support waste reduction, reuse and recycling (3Rs).  Kenyans deserve respect from both sides of the political divide but this can only happen when we the people stop worshiping politicians but gain the courage to stop them from dividing us and taking our goodwill for a ride.

The writer is a Finance, governance and management consultant in Kenya. He may be reached on or

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