In Africa’s largest ‘slum,’ a grassroots movement is spearheading the fight against coronavirus

NAIROBI, Kenya – Children use a hand washing station provided by grassroots organization SHOFCO in the Kibera settlement.

Anwar Sadat/SHOFCO

Around four miles southwest of the center of Nairobi, residents in Africa’s largest ‘slum’ — the sprawling, densely-populated informal settlement of Kibera — are bracing for the coronavirus pandemic.

Around 60% of the Kenyan capital’s 4.4 million inhabitants live in 200 high-density informal settlements like Kibera, which account for around 6% of the city’s total land area.

African leaders, scientists and the World Health Organization have voiced concern over the potential damage the virus could inflict if allowed to spread to such areas, which are home to nearly 43% of the continent’s population.

But in Kibera, a homegrown grassroots movement is mobilizing to improve education, sanitation and healthcare provisions, while calling on governments in Kenya and beyond to prioritize, finance and adapt interventions in the continent’s poorest communities.

Coronavirus is ‘an equalizer’

Kennedy Odede, who grew up in Kibera and founded Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) in 2004, told CNBC that poor sanitation, a lack of clean water and harsh living conditions meant hand washing and social distancing were not as readily available.

The average home measures 12ft x 12ft, built with mud walls, a corrugated tin roof and a dirt or concrete floor. These usually house around eight to 10 people, mostly sleeping on the floor.

“There is a lot of malaria, there is a lot of TB. If this thing hits anywhere like this, it is going to be a fire,” Odede told CNBC via telephone from Nairobi.

SHOFCO has set up hand washing stations with clean water tanks, going door-to-door promoting awareness, engaging community and religious leaders, operating a health clinic and working with the Ministry of Health to conduct screening tests.

NAIROBI, Kenya – Health workers carry out coronavirus screening on residents in the Kibera settlement.

Kelvin Juma/SHOFCO

Odede suggested that the coronavirus was an “equalizer,” in forcing the government to acknowledge that areas like Kibera could no longer be “ignored by the system.”

“They know very well that the cooks come from the slum, the nannies come from the slum, the security guards come from the slum, so now they are looking for ideas,” he said.

Many Kibera residents, Odede explained, did not initially perceive the coronavirus to be a threat, since they had not directly seen for themselves the death and devastation it has wrought across the globe.

“It is a message for the government. Before people start feeling it by seeing death, right now they should provide those sanitation measures and make sure people have clean water, otherwise there will be no solution,” he said.

By working on the ground with organizations like SHOFCO, he hopes that the government will realize that the best preventative measure in Kibera and similar communities is engagement and provisions, not “police and guns.”

Curfew and crackdown

The Kenyan government has introduced a dusk-to-dawn curfew in a bid to curtail the spread of the virus, with just 142 cases confirmed nationwide as of Monday morning.

However, instances of police brutality have drawn ire from rights groups such as Amnesty International, and a 13-year-old boy was shot and killed by police in the Mathare area of northeastern Nairobi earlier this week. Abuse of civilians by police and military personnel has also been reported in neighboring Uganda and further afield.

Odede said a lack of planning prior to the curfew’s implementation meant businesses in the city kept workers too late to allow them time to travel home. Small buses which often carry 16 people were only taking eight due to distancing measures, which meant there were not enough vehicles and people were unable to get back to settlements.

“That for me was the system against the poor people, because those who didn’t have a car were struggling to get buses, and they were the ones being beaten and abused, while people who are rich have got their own cars, and they are senior people where they work, so it was unfair and Kenyans were really mad,” he explained.

In areas like Kibera, much of the informal economy is active in the evening. Odede told CNBC that there is a “different law” in Kibera, that people will continue trading in the street after hours in order to continue earning a living, in the absence of a financial safety net from the state.

NAIROBI, Kenya (March 2020) – A truck delivers clean water to residents in the Kibera settement as part of a campaign to improve sanitation in order to tackle the coronavirus.

SHOFCO

A host of countries in the subcontinent have implemented nationwide lockdowns in recent days, but Odede suggested that there would need to be robust planning should President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration follow suit.

“People need food, and there is no way food goes into Kibera slums, there is not even a road for the car to pass, so before they do that, they must have a plan, otherwise they are going to create an uprising. I know my community — if there is no food, they are going to go onto the streets and there is going to be violence.”

Calls for unity in East Africa

While most countries in East Africa have introduced strict measures to try and contain the virus, Tanzanian President John Magufuli has come under fire for refusing to shut down churches.

“I think the government of Tanzania doesn’t really get it. They are going to be a crisis in East Africa so we have to prepare for that,” Odede said, going on to suggest that leaders in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and elsewhere should unite to exert pressure on Magufuli’s government and coordinate a regional response.

Should the virus truly arrive in Kenya, Odede’s primary concern is that inherent inequality will dictate life or death, leading to political instability.

“In Europe, they say that age determines who shall live and who shall die. In Africa, in Kenya in particular, it is going to be who can pay for the machine that you cannot pay for, which means the poor are going to suffer. When the poor suffer, the poor will rise up.”

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