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A perspective on responding to floods and cholera in western Kenya during the time of COVID-19

A perspective on responding to floods and cholera in western Kenya during the time of COVID-19

May 29, 20

Weeks of heavy rains in Western Kenya have caused death, displacement, flooding and landslides. More than 233,000 people have been affected and over 116,000 displaced from their homes. The heavy rainfall has increased the risk of disease outbreaks and hampered efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Many displaced peoples are living in temporary camps, where more than 70% do not have adequate access to clean water.

The Kenyan Ministry of Health has already reported a cholera outbreak in parts of the northeastern region. The LifeStraw Kenya team has been working tirelessly to respond to the crisis. Despite flooding, closed roads, destroyed bridges, the team has been able to distribute a total of 54 LifeStraw Community filters to 22 different locations where displaced families are sheltering.

Dan Olubero, LifeStraw’s Area Coordinator, reports on his experiences from the front lines.

Just arrived home a few minutes ago, barely beating the government set 7pm COVID-19 curfew, tired as can be, having driven a round trip journey of over 240km (roughly 150 miles). I get to sit down and think about what a day it has been.

Today, my team (Laban, David and I), in partnership with the Anglican Development Society (ADS Western) were distributing LifeStraw Community water filters to the flood-stricken lake region of Western, Kenya. The residents in this area have been displaced from their homes in the last several weeks, not forgetting the already stressful condition that the COVID-19 pandemic has put us all into.

So, we arrive at Bubango Primary School (which has a displaced population of around 320), accompanying the truck which had all the LifeStraw Community filters we intended to donate. But this is not the usual atmosphere that we are driving into!

Extreme flooding in Western Kenya leaves thousands displaced

There are no happy school children running around the compound, no curious little faces, no “how are you’s” and high fives ready to be patted.

Nor were there organized filter tables under the shade somewhere, nor a happy school head teacher rushing to invite us into their offices for a cup of tea.

There was no happy singing and dancing practice in some hidden corridor that we are accustomed to.

For those of us who have been to LifeStraw’s school Give Back Campaigns, this was no usual crowd.

Instead, we met clothes hung all the way from the school fence to the playground, and just a few toddlers hanging around their parents, as if almost asking why they could not go home.

We could see some ladies who had seemingly decided to make a few coins for their families by cooking and selling foodstuffs strewn in the main school entrance.

The older men were huddled in a separate corner under a tree, seemingly conversing sadly about the situation that was their current home.

Though it was almost lunch time, there was an unusual number of people just sitting in the verandahs and corridors lost in thoughts and gazes out into the distance.

This was not our normal crowd.

I quickly signaled my colleagues Laban and David, who were also observing how stuff was. We decided that we would give our best to these families, at least give them a reason to smile.

Meanwhile, the committee chairman, tasked with arranging the whole group, did his thing and assembled them to order.

After a few niceties and salutations, we said why we were at the school, recognized the condition in which they were, acknowledged that indeed some of them had lost practically everything they had, forcing them to come to this camp.

We quickly familiarized ourselves with the crowd, talking about LifeStraw Family filters that we had given in the past, and that LifeStraw as an organization has always been there for them for the last 10 years, and are committed to it still.

Having brought them in, we brought out the filters that we meant to install, and for some reason, the crowd started being a little more active! Before long, David was engaging them in questions and responses about safe water and the importance of the filter to them in such times.

It was particularly interesting to discover that when we told them that the LifeStraw filters had been used in other disasters before all around the world (Mexico, South Sudan, Haiti, Mozambique), it sort of made them realize that they were not alone in this current mess.

It empowered them to pay more attention, ask questions and engage us as we went on to complete the presentation.

The Ministry of Health had provided chlorine solution to help in preparing drinking water, but apparently most of the flood victims here totally abhorred it due to the strong smell of the chlorine in the water. So, it quite impressed them to know that they no longer had to use chlorine solution to make their water safe.

By the time we were finishing our work in this school, thankfully the ‘tide’ had changed; there were a few more smiles in the crowd, a school child helped us demonstrate how to fetch water from the LifeStraw, some young men presented to us were trained on how to clean and maintain the filters, and we received a vote of thanks and a hearty clap from the crowd as we left!

Cheers to LifeStraw for putting a smile on someone today!

Note: LifeStraw local staff are sheltering in place and working from home. All are on full pay regardless of field work. Response to this disaster is done on a voluntary basis and we are working hard to ensure proper safety protocols and adequate PPE is available to all staff.