Together, we shall fight

By Elizabeth Stevens
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Members of the Mukuru Youth Initiative, an Oxfam partner in Kenya, paint a mural about the importance of social distancing. Photo: Jaric Mwambela/Mukuru Youth Initiative

In Nairobi’s poor urban neighborhoods, Oxfam and our partners are providing critical aid: soap, water, cash, and messages of hope.

So far, the official COVID-19 numbers in Kenya sound small: in early April, fewer than 200 people were infected in a country of 50 million. But like a train without brakes that’s slowly cresting a hill, it’s what comes next that will take your breath away.

From the locust-plagued northern lands to the poor, crowded neighborhoods of Nairobi, extreme income inequality has left much of Kenya’s population unable to take the most basic steps to curb the spread of the disease. Cramped housing prevents social distancing, lack of money for soap and water prevents safe hygiene practices, lack of money and food makes sheltering in place nearly impossible, and lack of adequate and affordable health care clouds the future for everyone who gets sick. So, 200 will become 20,000 will become…unimaginable suffering and loss.

But Oxfam and our local partners are working hard to help communities flatten the curve of infection.

When it comes to water, we’re building on what we already know works. In the informal settlements around Nairobi, people draw water from what are known as “water ATMs”—distribution points where you can fill a container and pay for the water electronically. Rather than set up new water points, Oxfam and our local partners—the Sheepcare Community Center and the water and sewage utility itself—are making water service at the ATMs free by ensuring it’s paid for in advance.

Signs point to success already. “From the day the project began, so many people have shown up,” says Irene Gai, Oxfam water and sanitation strategist in Kenya.

Next comes soap. Here, our approach is more unusual for these communities. Rather than send in truckloads of soap, we’re working with the Mukuru Youth Initiative and the telecommunications company Safaricom to provide residents with electronic vouchers they can use to buy soap products from local shops and stalls. The upshot: families for whom soap is a luxury at times like these will be able to afford it, and their purchases will support struggling local businesses.

To help compensate for the loss of incomes while people shelter in place, we’re launching another cash program—distributing money electronically in vulnerable communities so people can afford to buy food or whatever else they need. We’ll begin with 5,600 Kenyan shillings per family (around $54, enough for two weeks’ worth of food) for 1,500 households, and scale up as our funding allows.

“As long as there’s a thriving market in place, cash programming has so many advantages over direct delivery of aid,” says Abdirizak Abdi Kontoma, Oxfam’s humanitarian program manager in Kenya. “It supports local businesses rather than undermining them by dumping free goods on the market. If the payments are electronic, they don’t attract attention so pose less of a security risk than some forms of aid distribution. And rather than deprive people of choices, cash payments put the power of decision—what to buy and from whom—into the hands of people whose sense of dignity needs a boost.”

Spreading the word about prevention—and combatting misinformation—is another top priority. We’re supporting the Mukuru Youth Initiative to paint murals, and we've linked up with the popular band Mukuru All Stars to create a video (Stay Fresh (Fight with Corona)—set in a crowded settlement and sung in Swahili and local slang—that is capturing the attention of Kenyan youth.

Local partners at the center

Building on what we know will work goes beyond water ATMs: it includes working hand in hand with local partner organizations.

“Local partners are at the center of our humanitarian work in every way,” says Gai. “They have strong relationships with local leaders, and they understand community dynamics, which means they have an essential role to play in developing programs that will work.” They help us figure out the best methodologies, she says, and they know how to ensure that everyone from community members to local leaders and traders can take ownership and pride in the projects working well. So, in all our humanitarian programs, we work closely with them from start to finish—and along the way, we look for opportunities to build on their capacity for emergency responses.

“With training from Oxfam,” says Gai, “the staff of the Mukuru Youth Initiative now know how to distribute assistance electronically, so in future they can engage with the UN or any other organization that’s transferring aid this way.”

(Read more about Oxfam’s local humanitarian leadership initiative.)

To save lives, we need solidarity

“Inequality has placed poor communities in jeopardy, but people and countries with resources to share can help us avert catastrophe,” says Matthew Cousins, Oxfam’s humanitarian director in Kenya. “What we need now more than ever is solidarity.”

The Mukuru All Stars say it best: There is hope. Don’t be scared. Together we shall fight. We shall overcome.

Oxfam is mobilizing to prevent the spread of coronavirus and to save lives in vulnerable communities around the world. Working closely with our local partner organizations, we are delivering clean water, sanitation, and public health promotion programs; supporting food security; and getting cash to many of those in greatest need. In Kenya, provided we can raise the funds we need, we will reach 500,000 people in vulnerable urban and rural areas with programs aimed at reducing transmission of the virus and easing the suffering this crisis is triggering in hard-hit areas.

You can help save lives.

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