By Leaf Arbuthnot
Covid-19 may have originated in Wuhan but few countries have been untouched by the virus since it began to spread at the start of the year. Now, cases are rising in Kenya, where 25 people so far have tested positive.
The prospect of the disease getting a foothold is of particular concern to Victor Odhiambo, One Young World Ambassador and founder of the Garden of Hope Foundation.
Odhiambo, 30, was raised in Kibera, east Africa’s biggest slum, where up to 200,000 Kenyans live in shanties. His charity generates economic and social opportunities for women, girls and young people living in slums and rural communities. In 2018 Odhiambo attended the One Young World Summit in The Hague, and says it left a lasting impact. “I’ve been emboldened to take steps to support my own country after seeing Ambassadors take action around the world,” he tells me over Skype.
For a while, Odhiambo admits with a grin, Kenyans dismissed the threat of coronavirus as merely “a Western issue”. Then covid-19 began to infect people in the region. Now, he and other Kenyans are “very worried” about what could unfold. In a bid to halt, or at least to slow, the spread of the disease in Kibera, where Odhiambo’s parents still live, he is raising funds for 50 hand washing stations to be set up in the slum.
"Each one costs $50 to make and is built by local people," he says. "It's made up of a 50-litre water tank and a metal stand containing liquid soap. Water and soap are refilled every hour by volunteers."
Water for the hand-washing stations comes from local vendors and the county council, while soap is sourced from local shops or supermarkets. "We were worried that people might steal the equipment," he says, "but they are actually taking care of it."
Slums like Kibera lack the infrastructure that makes it easy for its residents to stay clean. “Informal settlements are characterised by overcrowding and poor sanitation facilities,” Odhiambo explains. “The sewage and drainage systems are not very good. People do not have clean running water and many cannot afford soap.” Many live in cramped conditions; indeed Odhiambo's own home when he was growing up consisted of one room which slept seven people. There is a very real danger that coronavirus could rip through the settlement with impunity, unless steps are taken to suppress its spread.
If Odhiambo successfully raises the funds for the project, he will place the 50 hand-washing stations in parts of the slum where people traditionally congregate. Volunteers, many of them local trainee doctors, will be on hand to top up the water and soap supplies, and show residents WHO-standard hand-washing techniques. And they will also inform residents about how to practise social distancing. It will be no small challenge, Odhiambo points out, because “the informal settlement is very social. You get out of the house, you greet your neighbour, you shake hands, you hug. Everyone walks everywhere.” He is concerned that a Kenya-wide lockdown could be economically ruinous for slum residents, most of whom have few savings and do shift work. Odhiambo’s mother, for instance, launders wedding outfits, but could see her income vanish if mass gatherings are banned.
While in some parts of the world, coronavirus gloom is settling in, Odhiambo is still refreshingly upbeat. He continues to draw energy and inspiration from the “community of One Young World Ambassadors” that he connected with in 2018. “The Hague was all about action,” he says, smiling. “It wasn’t just about young people sitting around talking about their dreams. It was about what people are actually doing to change things. That really motivates me.”