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Pandemic Takes A Huge Toll On Kenya's Middle Class

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Kenya now, and a story on how the pandemic is threatening a symbol of progress on the African continent - the growing middle class. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports from Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HONKING)

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: The line of cars stretches for a quarter of a mile on a road leading to a fancy golf club. Dozens of people pack their cars with fruits and vegetables to sell them here. And now, the rich neighbors have called the police.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: The officers threaten them with canisters of tear gas.

HILDA KAREMI: They don't want to tell us where we should go, so what should we do?

PERALTA: Hilda Karemi used to work at a school, and like all the people here, she eventually saved enough to buy herself a car. Like a house in the United States, a car is a symbol that you've made it.

KAREMI: Some of us here were employed. They were in better employments. But because they saw that the child wants to eat, you want pay the rent, the landlord is not understanding you. He does not care.

PERALTA: The schools are closed. Her account was at zero. So she had to figure something out. In this group, there was a man who Ubered (ph) day and night. There was another woman who runs a travel agency. Daniel Mungai used to export fruits and vegetables to the Middle East, but his business evaporated when the airspace in Kenya was closed.

DANIEL MUNGAI: Never. Never. I never thought, even for one second, I'll park my vehicle here, open the boot, start selling my merchandise.

PERALTA: He says it's embarrassing. X.N. Iraki is an economist at the University of Nairobi. He says this phenomenon has shown just how tenuous being middle class in Kenya is. The research organization World Data Lab estimates that about 8 million middle-class Africans could be pushed into poverty because of the pandemic. The World Bank has warned that years of progress combating poverty will be wiped out.

Iraki takes a more positive view. He says most of the Kenyan economy is informal, so it is less affected by global trends. This, he argues, is a temporary pause of the Kenyan dream, a temporary pause on the ambition to own a car and send your kids to decent schools.

XN IRAKI: I think as soon as we go over Corona, the Kenyan dream will be back.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DRIVING)

PERALTA: Back on the streets, I meet David Gichane. Like everyone here, he's wearing a mask. He walks me to his vehicle.

DAVID GICHANE: Fruits. I have fruits. I have pineapples.

PERALTA: He pops the trunk. In addition to his pineapple, he has perfectly ripe pixie oranges, bell peppers and shiny, beautiful avocados. Selling produce isn't his dream, but he can make $5 or $10 a day, which keeps him from begging on the streets. Gichane used to work selling airline tickets, but he saved and saved enough for a down payment on this minivan. It's white and meticulously kept. He uses it to transport business people from the airport to their job sites. It has earned him a good living, let him send his kids to good schools. It's his pride, but he still owes money to the bank, and at this point, he has no idea how he'll pay for that.

GICHANE: Yeah. If this thing continues, I might sell it.

PERALTA: If he can't go back to work, he might have to sell his van.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV ON THE RADIO SONG, "TEST PILOT (CHILLY GONZALES RE-MAKE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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