Christabel Ligami

Linda Adongo, 28 years, was born in Mathare slum and is now raising her two children in the slum despite the challenges of water shortage and congestions.

“This has been my home for the last 28 years and my two children will grow up here,” said Ms Adongo.

But now with Covid – 19 pandemic that seems not to be ending, Mathare residents just like in any other slums have been feeling the effects of water shortages and congestion.

Luckily for Ms Adongo, she has been benefitting from free water delivered near her house every three times a week by the Billian foundation.

“It is the first time in my life I have access to free water. There is no way that we could have afforded buying water for hand wash especially for the kids who are constantly outside playing,” she said.

“At first when the government announced that everyone should wash their hands and sanitize, no one took it seriously until the curfew and lockdown were introduced. We then realized that the Covid – 19 is serious.”

Luckily, she said the Billian foundation immediately stepped in to help. Water points have been installed in the slum where the households are allowed to draw water for their use and wash hands.

“Now as the children play outside they have water points everywhere where they wash their hands. This has really helped. We also get free water every three days in a week which has saved us money because we buy water every day for use at $1 cent for 20 litres,” she said.

Billian is a nonprofit organization that works to improve the lives of children and young people in Mathare by providing safe environments, and nurtures young talents through music, education and dance all under the umbrella of the Billian Music Family Resource and Leadership Center.

Since March when the Covid – 19 pandemic started the organization shifted focus to helping people during this global pandemic as they could not offer their usual services.

Each week about 20,000 litres of water is supplied two to three times into erected tanks. Every household gets about 100 litres of water for free on the day of supply.

Food distribution to Mathare slum residents by the Billian foundation to mitigate the effects of Covid -19

Billian Ojiwa the founder and Chief Executive officer for the organization grew up in Mathare and so he understand the challenges those who live here go through.

According to Billian even though the government was insisting on hand washing, sanitization and social distancing as preventive measures for Covid– 19 spread, it was going to be a challenge in the slum. Now with free water hand washing measures are being adopted by most people. However many are starting to struggle because they can’t go to work, feed their families.

“Life in the slum is a hustle. Priority is to look for food and pay for your housing. Buying a mask and hand washing/sanitizing for them is a luxury even though they know they have to protect themselves and it is important,” he said.

Apart from water distribution in Mathare, the Billian foundation has also set up a center where women make the face masks and distribute them to the residents in the slum. This is a way of also empowering the women.

“We also give food vouchers worth $5 to every household that the people use to purchase the main foods like cooking oil, sugar, maize flour and soap,” said Billian adding that majority of the people in the slum are casual laborers and so most of them lost their jobs following the Covid -19 outbreak.

The foundation uses the Community Health Volunteers (CHV) who are also residents in the slum to identify these households, distribute the food vouchers, masks and also control the water distribution.

It works in partnership with other organisations like 7th Memorial Park, FootPrints for Change, Crime Sio Poa, Kenya Unite ones.

The Billian foundation is also working in partnership with his friends in the diaspora who grew up in the slum for fund raising.

Slum residents including the old line up for food vouchers.

Magret Wanjiru, 69 years, said before the Covid -19 outbreak she relied on her son who worked with a construction firm for food and housing but since the son lost his job in April following the Covid – 19 outbreak, it was difficult for her to survive.

“It is a good thing that now I am getting food every week to sustain me otherwise it was becoming difficult,” said Margret.

The foundation has been able to reach over 3,000 households and produces at least 200 masks every day to distribute to the people.

“We hope that we shall be able to reach more people if the government comes in to support us and also if we can partner with other organizations, because we only rely on well-wishers and fund raising, which is not sustainable,” says Billian.

He says the move – (distribution of water, masks and food vouchers) is a precautionary measure to help people protect themselves and reduce the risk of getting infected.

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Kenya, the government has taken strict preventive measures to contain its spread. Some of these measures include compulsory wearing of masks all the time while in public places, washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds several times a day, maintaining a distance of at least 1.5 meters from others and all businesses have to provide soap and water, or alcohol based sanitizers to their customers. Failure to adhere to these measures will result in a jail term of six months jail or a fine of $200.

On October 16, Kenya reported 43,143 COVID-19 cases, 805 deaths and 31,508 recoveries.

In an effort to control the spread of COVID-19 cases, the slums face a bigger challenge of poor sanitation, limited access to clean water, and congestion of closely built houses. This means that measures like social distancing and frequent hand washing will be next to impossible for people in slums to observe.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) warns that low income settlements like Mathare will become crucial battlegrounds if COVID-19 spreads further in sub-Saharan Africa, where 55% of the population live in urban areas. The abject poverty among the inhabitants leave them with the dilemmas of whether to buy food or sanitizers to keep hands clean. The former always wins. With insecure property rights, low-quality housing, limited basic services, and poor sanitation, these informal settlements aggregate risk factors that accelerate the spread of infection.

“The abject poverty among the inhabitants leave them with dilemmas on whether to buy food or buy sanitizers to keep hands safe. The former always wins. With insecure property rights, low-quality housing, limited basic services, and poor sanitation, these informal settlements aggregate risk factors that accelerate the spread of infection,” says WHO.

According to a 2019 World, Bank working policy report, 41 per cent of Nairobi’s population lives in informal settlements meaning about 1.8 million of the city’s 4.4 million population according to 2019 census.

The report also says that 43 per cent of Nairobi’s population is considered poor. These densely populated areas lack household water and sanitation, have overcrowded public transport and limited access to formal healthcare facilities and lack basic services.

The United Nations Development Programme policy brief on Socioeconomic impact of Covid 19 on low income settlement indicate that urban poor in informal settlements are facing enormous strain from the virus as social distancing, self-isolation and even hand washing are impossible luxuries, since they have to make the unenviable choice between catching and spreading the disease or the certainty of hunger.

This work was produced as a result of a grant provided by the Africa- China Reporting Project at the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand. The opinions expressed and conclusions drawn are the author’s own and do not represent those of the project.