No water, no fear as community leaders in Kenya step up to coronavirus challenge

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Few residents of Nairobi’s sprawling informal settlement Kibera have access to running water to wash hands – but most know of a deadly disease killing people in China and Europe.

The disease was slow to hit Africa, more than 30 countries now have cases of the coronavirus – Kenya has seven. Concerned residents in neighbourhoods neglected by Kenya’s corrupt government set up handwashing stations and organise teams of volunteers to educate people about the disease.

“We can’t sit pretty in our houses knowing tomorrow we may have a crisis beyond our control,” said Ed Gachuna, chief finance officer of Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), an organisation set up by Kennedy Odede, born and brought up in Kibera.

Community-led initiatives like SHOFCO’s coronavirus drive are more likely to win compliance from residents than edicts from a government noted only for its neglect – an important lesson learned from the Ebola outbreaks in West Africa in 2014 and in Congo last year.

Kibera, home to more than half a million, has little government presence bar an occasional policeman. There are no formal water connections. Residents illegally tap government lines using rubber hoses that leak into open sewers. Police cut them when they find them, said Gachuna, leaving the area waterless for days at a time.

SHOFCO runs schools, clinics and a network of drinking water points linked by aerial pipes suspended above rubbish-strewn alleys, keeping the water clean. SHOFCO’s purification plant provides Kibera residents drinking water at heavily subsidised rates – two shillings for 20 litres.

On Wednesday, crowds of volunteers – some wearing T-shirts emblazoned “Fighting Coronavirus” – gathered at SHOFCO offices, listening to a talk about symptoms and prevention before disappearing down the alleys.

A friend of a volunteer approached, hand out to greet her, but the woman recoiled dramatically, shouting “Nooooooo – coroonaaaaaavirrrrrrus!” to peals of laughter from women and appreciative cheers from children. Women put hands on their hearts instead.

Behind them, young men tied plastic drums and boxes of soap onto perilously tilting motorbikes to set up the first wave of 24 SHOFCO handwashing stations. Keeping the disease at bay is their only hope.

Many families cluster into single-room shacks; few have the space to isolate or the luxury of working from home. Few can stockpile food – most work daily jobs earning a few dollars. Markets are busy and greetings enthusiastic.

“Africans love greetings and physical contact,” explained auditor Emmanuel Olima, shaking water from his hands at a new handwashing station. “Even if you hide your hands, you might not avoid a handshake.”

Stations are staffed by volunteers like 24-year-old Judy Adhiambo, whose dimpled smile greets each passer-by as she tells them symptoms of the disease and how to prevent it. Children squeal with delight at the water and suds, adults listen.

“Rub between the fingers very well,” Adhiambo advises a young boy washing his hands with his mother.

“Asante,” the woman says quietly as they leave – thank you.