In one village in Nyamira County, which is 350km west of capital Nairobi, young boys and girls walk up a steep footpath carrying stacks of bricks on their heads.
For some, their loads are the same height as their bodies; chests rise and fall with the exertion; all in pursuit for the elusive pay.
Despite their tender age (ranging between seven and 16), they are determined to make some money.
A brick weighs not less than 1.5kg and some of the children carry up to 18 pieces. A brick goes for between Sh9 and Sh14, depending on its size and quality.
Depending on the distance from the kiln to the road, they will be paid between 50 cents and a shilling for every brick they carry.
Brick-making is one of the major economic activities undertaken in this area. It attracts both sexes across different ages.
“Adult men usually make and burn the bricks while children and women do the initial transportation to the road. This is important because at the road, it is easier for potential buyers to see them,” Evans Onyancha, a resident says.
The building materials, mainly made of black cotton soil, are sought after by buyers from as far as Nakuru, Kisumu and Kisii.
To attract buyers, the bricks have to be transported to a motorable road where they can be loaded easily onto a vehicle for subsequent transportation to construction sites.
“This may appear to be child labour to a stranger but for us, this is part of day to day life especially during this time of Coronavirus pandemic,” says Denis Abuga, a parent.
“Children cannot sit at home and wait to be fed. They have to get out and assist parents secure the next meal and other family needs.”
Abuga’s view is shared by several other parents who have to work harder to feed their children in the harsh economic times occasioned by the virus.
“When children are at home, they eat more. In my house, I am spending more money on food than anything else,” says Maria Nyakoe, a parent.
Ms Nyakoe says that although she does not advocate for children to undertake menial jobs for pay, parents who have been financially pushed to the wall have no choice.
“To some families like mine, we will starve if we don’t do this work. In fact, if you don’t wake up early, you will find it done by other people,” she says.
Studies in the backburner
With schools closed and the 2020 education calendar wasted, many children especially in upcountry villages could be doing little that is relevant to their studies.
Already, experts have warned that when the virus curve is flattened, teachers should be ready to work extra hard to get learners back on track when schools reopen, tentatively in January 2021.
“There will be great learning loss and we need to take cognizance of this when schools reopen,” said Dr Sara Ruot, the chairperson of the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD).
Those who will be the worst hit, the KICD official said, will be school beginners. Those in Grade Four, Form One and First Year students at colleges and universities will equally be affected.
Dr Ruto said in Nairobi that it would be a mistake if policy makers and teachers fail to assess the learners to determine how much will have been lost by the time classes resume.
Parents interviewed in Nyamira are equally apprehensive of what the future holds for their children.
“I am not sure if the virus will flatten soon and I better teach my children other ways of surviving. Doing these menial jobs will not kill them,” says Esther Barare, a parent.
“We live a day at a time. Children cannot study on empty stomachs and they have to work to get the food,” Nyakoe, a mother of six says.
Ugali is the stable food for many here, but with diminishing land sizes and reduced productivity, the maize harvest is barely enough.
Presently, a 2kg tin of maize goes for an average of Sh100 and this can only be consumed in a single meal by a family of six members.
To raise the Sh100, the family members have to combine forces on a bad day when few brick-makers have little work to be done.
“The early bird catches the worm, literally. You have to wake up early, secure the work and do it fast to be paid. You should also remember that the owner will contract as many people as he wishes so that the work is finished quickly,” Abuga says.
However, apart from assisting their parents with work, children should be given time to play and study, says Abuga.
Nyamira County Chief Officer of Health Dr Jack Magara says that although engaging children in activities like carrying bricks does not have any documented impact on their health, it affects their anticipated growth within the confines of the law.
“It may not have a direct impact on their health but it deprives them time to play and study. In an ideal situation devoid of poverty, they should be reading because education can guarantee them a chance to prepare for a better future,” says Dr Magara.
Idleness, moral decay and failure on the parenting front have been blamed for rising cases of teenage pregnancies and other juvenile delinquency issues in the country, as some children engage in scary activities that may have irreversible impact on their lives.
Data published by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) in 2019 showed that the country has made strides in the protection of children in Kenya, with most metropolitan counties reporting less than six per cent child employment rates.
“The government greatly increased the number of labour inspectors,” said the report, which added that child labour is often in the form of sexual exploitation. “Children also engage in agriculture,” added the report as quoted by The Business Daily on March 10, 2020.
Positive movement towards eradicating child labour incidents was largely attributed to free education for all and the 100 per cent transition to secondary schools policy.
These are gains that could be reversed, given that all children have not been in school for the last four months and will stay at home until January 2021.
According to the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, engaging children in activities that bring money in return, for instance selling groundnuts, is illegal.
“The lack of decent work opportunities for adults often results in families turning to their children to maximise on family labour to earn a living,” says Dr Khadijah Kassachoon in an article published on the ministry’s website.
The Employment Act 2007 prohibits employing a child below 13 years in any form of undertaking but allows those between 13 and 16 to do light work. However, it does not specify what entails light work.