In Mathare, clean water is music, as Billian shields the Kenyan slum against COVID-19
By Christabel Ligami (Lead Writer)
As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Kenya, the government has taken strict preventive measures to contain its spread. Some of these measures include compulsory wearing of masks all the time while in public places, washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds several times a day, maintaining a distance of at least 1.5 meters from others and all businesses have to provide soap and water, or alcohol based sanitizers to their customers. Failure to adhere to these measures will result in a jail term of six months jail or a fine of $200.
However, most of these measures do not seem to include people in rural or densely populated areas.
The focus has been on the national prevention of the disease spreading in the community. The government announced the lockdown of four towns, Kilifi, Mombasa, Nairobi and Kwale, where the highest number of COVID-19 cases have been reported. President Uhuru Kenyatta on April 6 announced a 21-day ban on movement into and out of these towns with limited movement within the towns.
Kenya’s Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe following this, also announced a lock down of Mandera county in Northern Kenya for 21 days due to a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases. The lockdown was further extended for another 21 days by the President on April 25. Authorities also imposed a curfew between 5pm and 6am to help reduce the impact of these measures in some ways, announced that the cost of water would be reduced.
The challenge however is how to prevent and contain the disease from spreading in these crowded settlements where social distancing and the availability of clean water for hand washing is a challenge. Recently in Kibera, one of the biggest slums in Kenya, there was a stampede as people struggled for food given as aid, and many were injured.
According to the UN, slums are home to close to 40 percent of families in Africa. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and African leaders have raised their concerns about the potential challenge COVID-19 poses to slums and congested environments.
Some of the key challenges in slums are poor sanitation, limited access to clean water, and closely built houses. This means that measures like social distancing and frequent handwashing will be next to impossible for people in slums to observe.
World Health Organisation (WHO) Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus recently called on governments to protect their poorest communities from the spread of COVID-19. These he said include people without regular incomes who require cushioning to enable them to maintain dignity and comply with the COVID-19 public health measures.
In Mathare, a slum in Kenya, a group of young men have teamed up with Billian to ensure that people here have access to water for hand washing and general cleanliness. Billian is a nonprofit organization that works to improve the lives of children and young people in Mathare by providing safe environments, and nurtures young talents through music, education and dance all under the umbrella of the Billian Music Family Resource and Leadership Center. The organisation shifted focus to helping people during this global pandemic as they could not offer their usual services.
According to Billian Ojiwa, the founder of the organisation, they supply about 20,000 litres of water two to three times a week into erected tanks. They also stay to make sure that every household gets about 100 litres of water for free on the day of supply. They have set up hand washing points in the slums to ensure that people — both children and adults — wash their hands regularly while outside their houses. For vulnerable people like expectant mothers, those with infants and the very old, hand sanitisers are also provided.
These young men — Billian Ojiwa, Alex Otieno, and Laban Macharia, all under 35 years old, source for the water themselves from vendors in the area, and supply it for free. “It is treated water that is sold to us at a subsidised rate,” Ojiwa said.
He said the move is a precautionary measure that they have taken to help people protect themselves and reduce the risk of getting infected. “We are still somehow safe because there has been no reported case of COVID-19 in Mathare, but we know if things are left as they are, the situation will be unbearable when we start getting cases in the slum,” he said. “Our main intention is to wake up the government to take up the task of supplying water to the slums and educating slum dwellers about how to protect themselves from being infected with COVID-19.”
Ojiwa and his two partners all grew up in the slum, so he says they understand the challenges those who live here go through. “Water is rationed and sold. So, telling people to buy water and use it to wash their hands regularly is like a pipe dream,” he said.
Faith Kanini, a 35-year-old mother of three is a resident in the Mathare slum. She said the water supply from Billian and his team has really helped them in ensuring that her children wash their hands every time they return from outside play.
“At first when the government said we should wash our hands and sanitize no one gave attention to that because where do you get money to buy water for handwashing, for drinking and buy food too? Water here is sold at 1 cent dollar for 20 litres. This is a lot of money for me at the end of the week if I was to buy the water for house use and washing hands,” she said.
Kanini said that now if her kids forget to wash their hands inside the house they will do so while outdoors because they now have the hand washing points around the community.
“At first we thought this was a disease for rich people because they get it while travelling in the plane but now we have heard about people in other areas getting it and the numbers keep on increasing, so we have started taking these precautions seriously,” she said.
Billian said prevention methods like hand washing are being adopted by most people but many are starting to struggle because they can’t go to work, feed their families.
According to Ojiwa, they have now teamed up with other organisations like 7th Memorial Park, FootPrints for Change, Crime Sio Poa, Kenya Unite to give food vouchers to the people in the slum especially the vulnerable ones.
“What we realised is people are not going to work and its becoming hard for them to survive and soon it will be worse. While we were out talking to them about coronavirus you could see they were expecting more — food,” he said, adding that the organization gives $5 vouchers to each household that have been identified by the Community Health Volunteers (CHV).
“These CHVs have already worked with the people and so it’s easy for them to help us plan and budget for our donations. The voucher enables them to purchase cooking oil, maize flour, sugar and soap from specific shops in each village,” he said.
The shops where the residents get the food, he said have been marked as A or B to make it easy for them to identify and when they go there with the voucher, they are not asked many questions.
67-year old Agnes Mukonyo says before the pandemic she relied on her grandson and granddaughter to buy her food but since the lockdown announced by the government, they have been out of work because they are blue-collar workers. “We all just stay at home. My granddaughter washes clothes for people and makes money from her daily job but now she says those jobs are not there,” she said.
Agnes said the food voucher has really helped her and her family because they now can eat something at least at the end of the day. “We also have no problem with water because these same people deliver it for us and now we have something to eat. I was starting to get stressed because I didn’t know how else I could get food. I hope this disease will disappear and the lockdown will end soon,” she said.
Apart from the partnership Billian Foundation has with other organisations, Billian says he fundraises from his friends in the diaspora. “As we meet these people in the slum and distribute water and food we are also talking to them about coronavirus and the preventive measures they need to observe,” he noted. “We have so much misinformation out there about coronavirus and we try as much as possible to simplify what we know and explain it to them.”
He said the Foundation has distributed food to 2600 households, and also ventured into making masks. They produce about 200 masks per day and so far have produced 5000 masks and distributed them. The foundation is likely to partner with the United Nations to produce more masks and distribute to the other slums. The food vouchers are given every Saturday and water is delivered twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, in every village in the slum.
“We hope that the government or political leaders will take over and continue supporting people in the slum so that they are not affected as such,” Billian said.
As important and timely as the work that Billian and his friends are doing is, they clearly cannot reach everyone in the community with food and water. “We rely on fundraising and well-wishers and so we are not sure how long this will last. How to sustain this going forward is our biggest challenge. We hope that government officials can partner with us to make water supply more sustainable to people living in the slums,” he said, adding that they are engaging the county officials to support the movement or take charge.
Samuel Nyandemo, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi says prevention measures for COVID-19 in the Kenyan slums including washing of the hands social distancing, wearing of masks can only be observed if the government can address the challenges in the slums like water shortages, unemployment.
“Not everyone can be able to adhere to this because they rely on daily wages and they cannot stay at home without food, buy water and masks,” said Prof Nyandemo.
The government he said needs to design policy interventions relevant to the people in the slums to address simple but important things like water shortages, overcrowding. The campaign on the COVID-19 prevention should be refocused to target the low slum dwellers and how they can access social protection rather than general prevention measures targeting everyone in the country.
Still, for now families like those of Faith and Agnes have a fighting chance against being infected by the coronavirus because of the provisions of water and food that Billian and his team of friends have made. To them and their neighbours in the Mathare slum, the sound of running clean water at a time like this, is like music.