Irene is 24 years old, a single mother to a two year old girl. She lost her job in 2012, and has moved house at least four times since. Unable to find work, she is living in a friends bedroom in a shared house, borrowing food from neighbours.
“You should meet Irene,” Marc and Teresa had said. “You have very similar stories.”
The woman who greets us at the side of the road is around five feet tall, very slightly built, with a big smile and a gentle manner. “Karibu, welcome!” she greets, clasping my hands.
“Asante sana. I am Jack.
“Asante sana Jack, I am Irene. Welcome, welcome.”
We sat on a ripped – if immaculate – sofa, wedged between the wall and the double bed. In the corner was a fan, and a tiny dressing table, on which sat cotton buds, and a bottle of Nice n Lovely body lotion. Three plastic mugs and four bowls completed the set of Irene’s scarce possessions. There are wrought iron bars and a single curtain on the window.
“She tried to put the extractor fan on, but there is no electricity”, Mark, who was translating, explained.
Princess, her daughter, peered at us with large black eyes and a closely shaved head, bunching up her pink satin Dora The Explorer dress and chuckling every time we said her name.
“I cooked for you”, Irene grinned, bashfully. “It is not much.”
The ‘not much’ was tiny fried fish – dagaa – served with stewed greens and ugali.
“You know how to make ugali?” her companion, Gloria, asked. I shook my head no, and they laughed, hard. It’s on my to do list, I love it. They laugh again.
Irene and Gloria sit on the floor, knees hugged to their chests, to eat dinner. “It is customary for a woman to sit down,” Marc tells us. I think of joining them, but there is no room in the 2’x2′ patch of thin carpet currently playing host to two grown women, Princess, and the pans and dishes.
She has been living in this room for a month. “My friend used to live here. I am not sure when she is coming back. She has gone to Rwanda for work, I am not sure what kind.”
The tiny television, couch and dresser belong to the absent friend. In Tanzania, it is common that tenants will pay the rent on their room a year in advance.
“When my friend got the opportunity to go to Rwanda, the landlord would not return the five months rent that had already been paid, so the friend lets me stay.
When she comes back in April, I will have to look for a new room, but find the years rent in advance.”
It is a system grossly skewed in favour of the landlord. I ask how much a room like this would be to rent. “45 thousand shillings.” A quick calculation shows that Irene would need half a million shillings to move into a new place. I think back to Maria, who sells fish at around 1000 shillings profit each. Rent in advance for a year would mean selling 5,000 fish.
Fish is not Irene’s business, however. She wants to be a business woman. Not the flash City types I associate the term with back home, but a self-employed street trader, selling at the side of the road. “I would like to sell charcoal, or food like rice. Most people, even in a city like this, are cooking on charcoal.”
“If I can get help from someone to start a business, I would buy the charcoal and a frame (a crude shelter by the side of the road).”
“You have to try your own business, put some money aside, and try to buy your own place. You cannot wait for the government to help you. It is up to us, we have to do something.”
She is ambitious, but sensible. She knows what she needs.
“It can be possible if you get the things you need to start. It’s better doing that kind of business as a woman with a child. You can take your child to work on your back. If you work for someone else you cannot do that.”
“If you are working then you don’t know when you can lose your job, but with your own business you can keep on trying.”
“I was working at a restaurant in 2012, and the land was sold, so the restaurant closed. We were told to go home, as there were no jobs any more.
“When I lost the job I was staying with friends, they helped me with staying, living, for food.”
“It felt bad. I was not comfortable because I was not helping to give them money, or to buy something.”
She lives an insecure, transient lifestyle, living wherever she can, with her two year old daughter and few belongings in tow, at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords, poorly conditioned properties, and opportunist thieves.
“In one house, there was a problem with flooding. The water would come up this high” – she gestures to the bed – “so when the rent finished, I left.”
“I still had some money saved from my work, so I rented another room. But the person I paid the money to was not actually the owner of the house.”
“When the owner found us there, he broke down all of the doors and put all the things outside.” She glances around the scarce bedroom and adds quietly; “I was out somewhere, and when I came back I found all of my things were outside. I lost a lot of my things.”
Work is difficult to come by, especially as a young woman with a baby. Rights for workers are seemingly non-existent, and exploitation of desperation and vulnerability is rife.
“I was working in a restaurant for a bit, but the boss was not paying me. He was gambling his money and not paying the workers. I left the work because I was paying bus fares to get to work and back, and not earning any money. I tried carrying on for a bit, hoping something was going to happen.”
“I got a new job at a well known restaurant in the peninsula – when Barack Obama visited, his daughters ate there. They use that in advertising a lot. The boss said I must sleep with him to get my pay.” (Irene politely used the term ‘to be in love with’ – eventually admitting that it meant providing sexual favours). “I can’t do that. If that is what he is doing with all of the girls that work there, I could get AIDS, or get sick. I decided it was better to be at home than to do that.”
I ask about the male employees. Surely they don’t have to provide sexual favours to the boss? She shakes her head. “The men who work there have to give the manager one or two months of pay, to get the job.”
“I have made applications, given people my CV, but do not get any response. I am asking for work but do not get any response.”
Irene is bright, astute, and wise beyond her years. She finished school at 17, unusually in Tanzania, where many girls do not receive an education, and many more do not continue after primary school. She lost both of her parents while she was at school, and was unable to continue attending.
“When I was at school, I wanted to be an air hostess. I saw them on the television, they look like they were happy, very beautiful, and had a good life, and I wanted to be like them.”
Princess grins at me, holding her red tatty teddy bear in her back, imitating the women who wear their children in papooses, with their heads peering around the sides of their mothers.
I ask where her daughters father is. She quietly replies that he ran away.
“In Tanzania there is a legal requirement for men to pay maintenance for their children. In practise is does not happen. The men run away, they rape you… Some will kill the woman, some will take the child away rather than pay support for it.” She looks at me. “Where is your child’s father?”
I explain that we are not together. “Pole, pole”, she mutters, apologising for me. I shake my head; he is supportive, and sees his son regularly. “He is a good man,” I say. She nods and smiles at this, and I pass her a photograph of Small Boy. “Ah, he is handsome!” she says. I blush, and agree. I think so too.
“If a woman is pregnant, and the man runs away, the woman will often find another man to take her in. It is easier,” she says, darkly. I tell her that there is no other man for me and my son, but don’t explain. I suspect there isn’t “another man” for Irene either, but I do not pry.
“Sometimes there is no food. You can borrow salt and sugar from people but it’s hard for people to give you money. If you are borrowing, also, there is an expectation that you will return those things. If you are not able to ever return that assistance, it gets a bit difficult, an they stop helping.”
“You can go to friends to cook together and bring something to contribute, like the maize flour or the vegetables, but when you do not have anything to contribute, it is difficult.”
I ask her about the economy, boasting 8% growth year on year, but a rise in levels of poverty. She gives me a knowing look. “Tanzania is a rich country, but the wealth of the country is not for ordinary people.”
“At the end of the month, when you are working, the money you have is enough to pay your debt at the shop and money for bus fare. You just carry on.”
As we say goodbye, I spot a large sack of charcoal, taller than either of us, in the yard. She pats it. “I just need a few of these, and a table and a roof. And then I can put it into smaller bags and sell it.” she smiles, and hugs me goodbye. I will keep in touch – maybe Irene will get her lucky break. God knows she deserves it more than I did. I will keep in touch – knowing with a heavy heart that there are hundreds, thousands more women with similar stories to tell across Tanzania. I kiss her goodbye, squeeze her, and hope to god that she realises her humble dream.