When the government of Kenya reported the very first COVID 19 case on March 12th, Rachel Mwikali knew that she and her community living in the slums of Mathare were in big trouble.
“I had been following the global news and hoping against all hope that this disease would not reach us but now here were. My worst fears were confirmed”.
As a human and women’s rights activist and community mobiliser, Rachel wasted no time. She quickly mobilized a small team of her colleagues in Mathare and got to work.
“Three things kept on ringing in my mind; One, we had no water; two, our houses are so tightly squeezed together (10 by 10 feet per house) in majority of the sprawling slums and three, the women – how will the women manage this!”.
Rachael is a re-known human rights defender and women’s rights activist respected both locally and abroad. Alongside her colleagues, she co-ordinates the Coalition for Grassroots Human Rights Defenders (CGHRD) Her work with the communities of the urban poor areas such as Mathare, Korokocho and Kariobangi have been well documented. She stands out as a proactivist who is always on the frontline of response at the break of a crisis, this and sustainably championing for the human rights of the poverty-stricken communities and by extension the rights for women and girls.
The outbreak of the COVID19 pandemic was therefore not an exception to her fighting spirit. She hails from Mathare slums and the challenge in her community was going to be greater.
“Earlier in the week, even before the government made an open declaration about the disease, we had started talking to the community about it, trying to gauge what they knew. By the time the announcement was made we knew there was no turning back, we had to move and move first”.
But the very first call of prevention against the spread of COVID19 is in itself a great deterrent to the communities living in Mathare. The first point was for people to wash their hands and then to practice social distancing; for people to stay apart from each other for a meter or two.
We are too close for comfort
“You know even today, that social distancing bit is a sad laugh for us. You see in Mathare, we are a heavily densely populated slum. All of us are too close for comfort. Poverty forces us to stick close together, literally. We have no choice! Here people live in crowds. These tiny ramshackle that we call our houses – they are mud or paper-walled rooms that are just 10 by 10 meters apart. So when a family of five or seven in sleeping in this tiny cubicle and are required to practice social distancing, this is of course impossible!”
This reality was clear even as Rachael and her colleagues ventured into the community to start sensitizing the communities. It continues being a big challenge because of the people in Mathare even though, they have started paying attention are still skeptical about the reality of the existence of COVID 19.
“At first, they dismissed us. Others told us the disease is only for the rich people who travel a lot in the airplanes and not for the poor of Mathare. Others said they know it is a plot by the government to syphoned funds in the name of fighting the disease. It was frustrating but eventually, they started to listen”.
In Mathare where the average person lives by less than two dollars a day, menial jobs and small businesses are the order of the day albeit with a myriad of challenges. The larger population of young people in the slum venture out every day to the Industrial areas and the Central business district to look for jobs on a daily basis. For most of the women, their survival is eked out of doing domestic work like washing, cooking and cleaning for neighborhood estates where conditions are slightly better. This means that the chores have to be sought on a daily basis for one to be able to earn a decent wage for the day.
Like any other slum, Mathare has a huge challenge of lack of clean flowing water. So acute is the lack of this precious commodity that communities sometimes fight over the control of designated water points. Rachael and her team knew that this was going to be a major problem when they embarked on their “washing hands” campaign mission in the slums.
“A small water gallon of 20 liters costs 20Kshs. For us to tell people to try and place handwashing points along their settlements so as to improve on hygiene was almost an impossibility. Everyone is struggling to get that same KSH20 to help them get by the day so who would want to just randomly put out water for the public?”
Determined and with the support of various non-governmental organizations and individual contributions, Rachael and her team had within a day collected about Kshs 50000 (500$), bought 300 twenty-litter water gallons and fixed with functional taps. Most of this work was actually done by artisans who volunteered to offer their support. “Those technicians who did the taps on the gallons actually did it for free, they had understood the importance of what they were doing. We were very grateful to them and we saw that our work was slowly being taken seriously”.
They then set out to distribute the water gallons to specific areas. They specifically targeted places were women were many; where there were women selling vegetables or doing menial jobs. “We knew that women as the main holders of the house-hold know exactly how to treasure the water and take care of the flow especially with people walking in and out from time to time. Also, we know that the bulk of the home where the children are and is more populated is where the women are. This way, we could slowly tackle the culture of washing hands frequently to spread it out to the whole community”.
Water and soap are a rare commodity. Rachael used her networks to try and reach the Nairobi County government to compel them to frequently send trucks of water into Mathare. It has been an uphill task because the whole city was in essence trying to fight the spread of the disease in one way or another. So once in a while they get some saving grace to have trucks of water brought into the area but often, they have to mobilize funds to actually purchase the commodity.
A “dangerous” cultural blessing?
Additionally, Rachael and her team continue to mobilize whatever food aid they can get to distribute to the most vulnerable and desperate of residents around Mathare. It is here that Rachael says she has faced another unexpected social-cultural challenge that needs to be taken into consideration amongst African cultures.
“You see when you visit the old people and you give them donations. They are grateful and culturally many of our old people will want to bless you. They do this either by touching your forehead and whispering words of blessings or by briefly spitting on your forehead. So there! Spittle is involved – the very main thing which is a transmission alert in the spread of COVID19! It becomes quiet awkward and difficult to hesitate to bow for blessings from an old person or even to “wipe away” the blessing. I am still agonizing over how to handle this issue because I know it is indeed a reality that must be addressed”.
Rachael’s concerns are real. In most cultures, it will be considered disrespectful or snobbish to “refuse blessings” from elders. It will even be viewed as a mockery to attempt to shake hands with elders while gloved or to quickly wash or sanitize. Socially, this is considered as a disregard for the old.
The act of spitting on one’s forehead by the old is actually a higher regard of blessings bestowed by the old to the young. This experience by Rachael and her team therefore brings out the realities of an African social-cultural concern that needs to be addressed amidst the processes of fighting COVID 19.
Still, Rachael and her team are forging on to safe-guard their communities regardless of the little resources they have. A lot still needs to be done. “There are days when we have no water and people really scramble on how to maintain hygiene. This really worries me. We however keep urging the community not to relent. We tell them our responsibility over managing the spread of this disease is what will ultimately keep us alive”.
Almost two months since the government publicly announced the presence of COVID19 in Kenya, Rachael is still fighting and pushing for her people to avoid the scourge of the pandemic. On a daily basis, she is moving from Community to community urging people to wear masks and to keep washing their hands.
“Women will die from the rising domestic violence!”
In some of her visits, Rachael encounters the challenges in the slums especially facing women and girls as cases of domestic violence escalate during curfews and lock-downs. “It is getting out of hand, the cases we are getting are too many. Women are battered daily in their homes because of the lock-down and the curfew that begins at 7 pm till dawn. It means men in their frustrations are forced to be indoors and cannot go out drinking or socializing like they are used to. The lock downs also mean jobs are scares and so people are frustrated that there is no money to fend for their families. Because of this many men are venting out their frustration on women their wives and girlfriends. What is even more despairing is the fact that the police are seemingly becoming less helpful on this. They tell us they are busy trying to make sure there is law and order within the COVID19 pandemic and domestic violence cases are not a priority. They say couples should solve their issues privately as this is a private matter. This is very frustrating and our fear is that many women will die because of this negligence”.
As the efforts against the COVID 19 pandemic intensifies in Kenya, Rachael and her team have been actively participating in food distribution to many hunger stricken families. The situation is growing desperate by the day and if nothing is urgently done, then things will be tragic.
“People are hungry families are going for more than three days without food. What we need is food bank. A central unit in Mathare where non-perishable foods can be collected and stored. This way we can devise a mechanism of how to distribute the most vulnerable. They are the very old who live alone, the people living with disabilities especially the women, the pregnant and lactating mothers, those who are suffering from HIV-Aids, Cancer and other incurable diseases are extremely vulnerable. Additionally, when you think of Mathare, you must think of the homeless families and street families, many of them ultimately trace their way back here. It is therefore a ticking time-bomb if those communities are not taken care of”.
Despite the many challenges, Rachael is hopeful that soon Kenya will win the war over COVIDb19 without recording many casualties. In the Mathare slums where she resides, she is determined not to relent until her community is safe from the pandemic. “We wither many storms as people from the slums. This one too we must defeat it”.
Written by Mildred Ngesa, Head of Communications at FEMNET.