- Ava Cargan
COVID in Kibera - The "Death Square" and Recovery
After COVID-19 was first reported as a pandemic in March 2020, there was widespread panic throughout the globe, but specifically in Africa. The terror was so great that many began to confess their sins in fear of death, while others tried to escape completely. Many anticipated the worst possible outcome for Africa compared to other countries; African countries were then labeled as a “time bomb” due to their weaker health systems. A resident of Kibera, Beatrice Anyango said, “We cannot wait staring at death. The virus that causes the COVID 19 disease spreads because of poor hygiene and congestion. Kibera is a good example without meandering.” There were many people who left the over 250,000 person slum to flee to the countryside for more protection from the virus.
When the first case of COVID was confirmed in Kenya, the residents in Kibera were shocked. The confirmed COVID case was from Ongata-Rongai estate, not far from Kibera. At this point in the pandemic, the residents in Kibera were cautioned to stop labor in the neighborhoods. Many residents resisted because the neighborhood labor was their livelihood. Manys only source of income is from running a small-scale business or doing household chores. However, when the government began to enforce any passenger and their contacts to a 14-day quarantine upon arrival, the situation changed. Kibera was soon labeled as a “death square” due to its dense population and the seriousness of the pandemic became emphasized to Kiberan residents. Then, the Kibera community took it upon themselves to implement the advice from the government and the Ministry of Health to keep them and their families as safe as possible.
The community-driven initiatives to provide water, sanitation, and more awareness in Kibera helped protect vulnerable residents. These initiatives are being led by various community leaders who have been mobilizing resources through private organizations. Kibera Town Centre (KTC) is an organization that is known for its human needs services. It has been providing free clean drinking water, sanitation services, public sensitization for COVID-19 in settlements and handwashing stations. According to Byrones Khainga, who is the KTC Technical Manager, the facility serves about 800 to 1,000 people per day. Mostly children use hand-washing taps, while adults use showers. Khainga says, “Apart from these free provisions, we sensitize residents through a public address system which reaches many people. We communicate in almost all local dialects found within Kibera to ensure nobody is left behind in Covid-19 information. We are educating people on the nine steps of proper handwashing, thus scrubbing using soap and running water for at least 20 seconds and regularly after every 20 minutes. We teach them how to wear masks and their importance, reasons for social distancing, which pose a challenge here but we are trying.”
According to a resident in Kibera, Florence Awino, “if washing hands with soap and running water would keep the virus away and save lives, then anybody would try to do it effectively.” Jane Atieno is more than 500 residents hired by Shofco (Shining Hope for Communities) where she has been working since March. Atieno has admitted that despite the widespread job loss, for her, the pandemic was a blessing. Currently, she earns Ksh 300 (equivalent to $2.80) per day, which is enough for her to be able to pay her bills. Awino talks about Shofco, “We are getting free and clean water daily brought to us by water boozers or tankers. Nowadays we can wash hands everywhere, as the stations are all over the place.”
In the streets of Kibera, there are graphic posters and graffiti to remind all that COVID is still present. In addition to this, all entry points and public places in Kibera have at least one hand-washing station; Kibera now has over 250 stations. Young creative men use graffiti writings and drawings with artistic expression of people wearing masks, washing their hands, and social distancing. These convey messages about COVID 19 that even those who are illiterate can understand. Kibera artist Stephen Nzela says, “We are using our talents to impart information to residents on Covid-19. These graffiti relate to both being literate and illiterate on dangers of the virus.” Kennedy Odede, the CEO of Shofco says, “We also have a motorbike with loudspeakers patrolling in the slum to help create awareness on measures against the virus, “The motorbike is fitted with speakers and pre-recorded voice education on Covid-19. So, the rider’s work is to ride slowly to ensure the message is conveyed.” Odede says, “We are also running door-to-door campaigns to raise awareness, distribute hand sanitizers, bleach, and homemade soap while combating rumors and misinformation about Covid-19.”
Because Kibera is one of the most vulnerable communities in Kenya, residents have taken their initiatives seriously to make them into a new normal. Kibera’s residents have adopted a new form of greeting, the elbow hump, as many consider it safer than the handshake. Residents in Kibera are sewing and selling facemasks, others are also distributing free facemasks to the poor. Kenyans had seen the “alarm bells” around the globe. In Kibera and other places, communities have taken matters into their own hands. The residents of Kibera are incredibly passionate and they continue to devise ranges of community service against the COVID 19 pandemic. Even in the most fearful times, when these communities come together, there is hope.
Owino, Henry. “Into Their Own Hands: Kibera, Kenya’s Largest Slum, Tames COVID-19.” Pulitzer Center, 7 July 2020, pulitzercenter.org/stories/their-own-hands-kibera-kenyas-largest-slum-tames-covid-19. Accessed 8 Sept. 2021.