It is early Monday morning on Nairobi’s Moi Avenue where we meet casually dressed men in their 20s, 30s and 40s around Tembo Co-operative House and Rahimtula Trust Building.
Some are standing in groups of three, five or eight, while others are sitting on an old bench bantering. Some of them are holding their tools of trade, including paint brushes and saws, in their hands.
One of them, who identifies himself as John, tells us that the group comprises professionals in different construction-related fields: Painters, carpenters, architects, spray painters, electricians, fridge repairers, sign writers, masons, casual labourers and welders.
They are part of Chama Cha Mafundi (CCM), an organisation of building and construction sector “professionals” founded in 1972 by P L Okello Ogundo, a former mason.
“I came up with the idea of forming this organisation after seeing the need to organise fundis to have a pool of manpower and unity in terms of sourcing for casual jobs in the city,” says the 62-year-old bespectacled man.
You will mostly find them idling in front of shops in the course of the day. The organisation was registered in 1999 under the Ministry of Youth Affairs, and so far has 320 active members within Nairobi County.
Born in Seme, Kisumu County, Okello studied masonry at Maseno Polytechnic and later went to Kampala, Uganda. He worked as a foreman in the 1950s with a white contractor who was the most famous and biggest contractor and painter in the entire East African region.
“I worked with him for nine years and returned to Kenya and started an independent painting and general repair works,” recalls Okello, who is usually found seated on an old plastic chair between the two buildings. He later enrolled at Catholic University but due to strikes, he dropped out in third year.
Okello says CCM trains willing street boys and school leavers without any training to be independent, resourceful and earn a living in the right way.
“We also train college graduates who have tarmacked for years without finding a job. We train them in various skills in the construction industry,” he says.
They later to go to the Ministry of Works in Industrial Area where they register for exams in different grades. Some of them are lucky and get employed by big companies.
A good example is John Oduor, 29, a father of four, who is a Class Eight graduate. We meet him sitting on the bench waiting for clients. He joined CCM in 2004 after tarmacking for two years and has had an opportunity to work in Mogadishu, Somalia, as a painter for six months.
As we are chatting, a client comes by and Oduor is among those selected to go to work on a site. We decide to follow him to know how his day is like.
The site is in Karen and the job involves painting a three-bedroom house for a white tenant. Ten of them work on it and within five hours, the job is done and they are paid.
“This is how I spend my week days, sometimes I get a job, sometimes I don’t because they rarely come. And when I miss, I just go back to Tembo House and continue to wait for an opportunity. If I completely fail to get anything, I go home hoping that tomorrow will be different,” says Oduor, beaming with joy
“I would rather hustle than sit in the house yet I have a family to feed, children to educate and rent to pay,” Oduor, who lives in a single room in Dandora, says, adding that sometimes, he walks to town to look for a job.
Such is the life of the city’s hustling contractors who congregate every morning in town to wait for work that sometimes never comes. The uncertainty in finding work does not deter them since they have families which expect them to put food on the table.
Interested clients go to them at their “base” on Moi Avenue where they sign contracts for the work at hand. They are paid Sh1,000 for a full day’s work that runs from 8am to 4pm. A contract lasting one week to two months will cost a client between Sh40,000 and Sh50,000.
Maurice Otieno, the Chairman of CCM, says so far, they have trained 400 people who are currently working in different counties, including Migori, Busia and Eldoret.
“The advantage of reporting to the non-existent office is that it links you up with clients who come to ask for our services,” says Otieno.
The organisation has a well-organised leadership structure comprising the chairman, secretary and youths’ officer (new post) who vet the new youths joining the organisation.
Michael Opondo, a father of five, who doubles up as an artisan, painter and sign writer, says the requirements include not being drunk and self-discipline.
A new member is required to come with a tool used in the field he is conversant with or qualified in. It is also proof of seriousness. They register with Sh200.
According to the secretary, George Obara, 42, a professional carpenter of grade three and now a full construction engineer, the organisation is giving jobless people a chance to earn a decent living and avoid getting into crime.
The organisation has also given members an opportunity to save. Every member has to remit Sh500, which caters for emergencies like accidents at place of work, funeral expenses of loved ones or school fees for a member’s family.
The organisation also helps the contractors to negotiate and to avoid being exploited by crafty clients.
Otieno says that they not only offer manpower but also hire out tools of work, including ladders, scaffolding, spray machine and drills.
Obara wants the Government to consider giving them tenders. He says: “What pains us is that when well-connected people win tenders, they come to us and take our members and later pay them peanuts. This only impoverishes us.”
Obara says clients sometimes misuse them by asking for a quotation, for instance, but later give the job to another contractor.
“This is why many of us will continue to be casual labourers without getting rich since the tender winners and contractors manipulate us.”
The organisation is grateful to companies like Crown Paints and Dura Coat for their support through training of their members and offering them free aprons and tools of trade, among other things.
Some of the challenges they face include harassment by city askaris, whom they claim normally demand bribes in order to let them sit at their usual meeting point on Moi Avenue.
Obara also says work is low when schools open because parents, who are their main clients, concentrate on paying school fees. Work is also low before budget reading because investors withhold cash for construction projects to see how the budget would affect the sector