Describing the life of my Kenyan mother-in-law

and the effort it takes to do that in a responsible way

On this website and especially in the course (link to course) I am telling people how to talk about “Africa” or the global South and how to travel responsibly. Yet, although I lived in Kenya for as long as one and a half years at a stretch, in a working class estate and on the countryside, I still struggle everyday with categorising and talking about experiences.

So in order to do as I preach, I decided to describe the lifestyle of my mother-in-law on the Kenyan countryside from the viewpoint of one of the many volunteers she has hosted at her place.

At first sight, she “lacks” many things that people from the global North take for granted. But she also owns many things which she values more than Western standards. Yet, in order to avoid romanticising poverty, I will have to incorporate the global relations that affect her life. It’s not going to be easy, but here goes:

Lacks and Deficits

Madhe, as I call her (which means Mum), lives on a fenced compound with several houses that belong to her husband, her co-wives and her sons. Until recently she lived in a grass thatched 10m2 house with clay walls, but her sons built her a bigger house with an iron sheet roof and two separate rooms. There is no electricity and no running water, but this year they dug a borehole and now they don’t have to draw water from the spring which is a five minute walk away.


Madhe is a farmer. She digs, plants, weeds and harvests food for herself, her family and visitors. If I am at home, I help her with the hoe. When she gets money from her husband or her sons, she employs day workers to help her with a particularly big piece of land or a particularly urgent job. She is dependent on the rain since there is no irrigation system in place.

To charge her phone she walks half an hour to the next small shopping centre that has electricity, or she gives it to someone. She doesn’t have a car, a TV, a fridge or electric light. She bought some solar lamps in addition to the one we gave her.

Her kitchen is a separate grass thatched house, where she mostly cooks with firewood, with the pots placed on three stones. She also has a cooker that works with sawdust, and another one that uses charcoal. But she prefers using firewood as she just picks it on the way home from the farm and because it creates the right temperatures for the meals she cooks.

madhe kitchen

Romanticising poverty

She is involved in the church choir and some women groups and table banking. In the village she is known and appreciated as a hard working woman who will always help in cooking or bringing food when there is a funeral or a fundraising. A visitor will hardly leave her place with an empty stomach. She attended courses in cooking and community health work. So she also has some knowledge in modern and traditional medicine, especially helping women to give birth. She knows which leaves help against diarrhoea and which roots are good against toothache. She knows how to give injections and apply ointments.

But most of all she values her farming. The harvest she gets takes her through the year, and she rears chicken and ducks for eggs and meat. She is very proud of and kind to her three sons.

I enjoy staying on the countryside with her. The environment and the work are like a holiday from busy life in Nairobi and much simpler (as in: less complicated or hectic) than my life in Germany.

banana harvest

Values and Experience

As I said: Madhe values the things she owns and does, and the people she interacts with. That doesn’t mean that she wouldn’t be better off if she had a car or electricity. She would see better at night and could keep the mosquitoes out, because they fear light. She could drive to the hospital if she needed to and arrive and be treated faster. Currently she would be carried by motorbike from her house and then change to a minibus taking her to the next town with a hospital.

Although she lives below the one dollar or two dollar bar per day, set by international agencies, she still has three healthy meals daily and some leftovers for visitors. She doesn’t see herself as poor because of all the food she has stored and the nice new house she has and the social support system that surrounds her. But that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t appreciate a regular income. I don’t see herself as poor either. But just because she values different things from Western standards doesn’t justify that she has no access to what other people have access to. There is still an unfair imbalance.

madhe speech

Global Relations

A rather quick online research for causes of poverty in rural Africa brings up a list of very clear reasons.

  • Climate change is one of them. Madhe depends on rain and the regularity of the seasons. Although she is not as affected as people in other areas, she can see changes that make her work harder.
  • Land grabbing is another issue. Not only Kenyans, but international companies grab tremendous pieces of land in the country and manage to present these actions as legal. They exploit the soil and the people for oil, cash crops like tea or coffee and other agricultural products.
  • Global agriculture is a very political issue, with buzzwords like food security and GMO circulating in the news. On Madhe’s level you can see the influence of seed policies and the introduction of certain fertilizers in the decreasing value and productivity of the soil and the lower resistance and availability of local seeds.
  • The spring water Madhe used to drink as a child nowadays carries diseases due to industries that are polluting the water sources, namely a sugar and a paper factory guiding their waste directly into the close-by river.
  • Since countries from the global North, including Germany, speculate with food prices, Madhe will buy additional food which she doesn’t grow on her farm for an irrationally high price. Selling surplus on the local market or to middle men will give her an amount of money that is way beyond the food’s actual value.
  • Political structures and practices that stem from colonialism still affect people on the ground in the form of tribalism, marginalisation and land distribution.
  • World economic recession, slowed down trade and unfair tariff walls by countries from the global North are other, more general factors causing poverty among the rural population in Kenya.
  • Insecurity is rising with Kenya’s involvement in wars and radical groups killing people in the country.
  • And finally, self-worth and the picture from the global North play a big role. If you are always told that you don’t have this, you don’t have that and you are factually poor, you may at some point start to believe it.

All these issues are affecting Madhe in her well-structured life on the Kenyan countryside. Poverty is nothing to be romanticised. Poverty is not inborn, inherent or natural.

Poverty is an important point of view, just like richness.

Madhe’s life, such as any individual human life, needs to be looked at from both sides.

Sources: 1,2,3,4

Do you think you could portrait the people you meet on your trip like this? Why or why not? What are your struggles? Let us know in the comments below!


We are tackling more of how to talk about lacks and deficits in our free online online course.

For now, why not evaluate your own picture about your own country and shifting the focus a bit away from your expertise of judging what is lacking and missing? Try this free worksheet with two strong questions.

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