I love going into the field because it’s always a new learning experience. Lately, I’ve been stuck in the office doing a report on microcredit so I was really happy when the Executive Director told me early this week that he had another project in mind for me. Basically, I’ll be helping document the “success stories” of a few health-related initiatives, like for instance, how community outreach workers convince families about the importance of hand washing, the installation of basins in households that have limited access to water, or the successful exit of a once-malnourished child from the nutrition clinic. I was put in contact with a man named Yunus, the community outreach project officer who I thought was a woman because his name is pronounced exactly like Eunice, and he decided to take a “seeing is believing” approach in explaining to me what their field workers actually do.
So, on Thursday morning, we set off to go to the Kibera village of Gatwekera, where the railway line literally runs parallel to the busiest “street”. I would imagine the sound of a train regularly passing through your village to be a major annoyance for those people, but they didn’t seem to mind.
As we walked deeper into the village, Yunus was explaining to me how the water collection points operate and how Kibera residents basically depend on water cartels—collection points that don’t belong to the cartel are coincidentally “not in service”. That explains why every morning, I see men filling up or carrying handcarts full of jerrycans of water. It’ll cost 20 shillings for someone to bring a jerrycan to you but if you collect it yourself, it’s 5 or 10. Sounds cheap for us but these people actually pay more for water than some of their neighbours who get water pumped directly to their house. Really odd how that works. You know you’re in a residential area when the alleys start becoming smaller and the open sewage starts getting worse. At one point, the smell of human excreta was overwhelming. Yunus told me that the sewage waste gets its distinctive green colour from people brewing illegal alcohol called changaa. These changaa dens are well-hidden because they’re illegal and the owners bribe policemen to turn a blind eye. This stuff is cheap and extremely addictive. Its name literally means “kill me quick” because of methanol poisoning from additives used to speed up the brewing process. Yunus explained to me how it consumes people’s lives, and all they can think about is getting drunk. Imagine the first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning not being what you will eat for breakfast or going to work, but how much changaa you can buy today. If you see drunken men stumbling in the middle of the street during the day, chances are they’re an addict.
We followed the outreach workers as they went from home to home educating mothers on sanitation, hygiene and cervical cancer/HIV. They explained to the women the importance of regularly cleaning the sewage in front of their house also measured the MUAC in children under five to quickly screen for any signs of malnutrition. The living conditions would shock the normal person. These shacks are built using a wooden frame and reinforced with dried mud. I suppose with the climate, there is no need for insulation. The roof is made from tin sheets to keep the mud dry in case of rain. For the sheets to perform this function, they need to stick out a little in order the catch most of the raindrops. Unfortunately, they stick out at head-level so it’s not uncommon to cut yourself on the sharp edges, risking tetanus. Another hazard is getting electrocuted from touching the sheets if there are exposed wires providing illicit electricity to the households.
Since I got invited into most of the homes I visited, I also got to see the inside. Most are no bigger than 50 square-feet, which is probably the size of a normal bedroom. There is usually a curtain dividing the “bedroom” from the “living room”, but some are more spacious and have actual rooms separated by doors. None of the homes we visited had kitchens and I was told that those who are lucky enough to have some space in the entryway can buy a small charcoal cooker.
Just next to the railroad tracks is a huge facility that stands out so distinctively due to its size. I asked Yunus what it was and he told me it was called the Human Needs Project. He told that they have a very deep well that can provide clean water to local residents and it was started by an American who visited Kibera. He managed to get us both a complete tour of the place and we found out that they do much more than just water, although that was only the initial vision! The HNP deserves a post of its own because I was so impressed by what they do yet I still have some reservations about the realistic accessibility of their services.
Until next time!