It is hard to think about just how dramatically our world has changed. Social distancing, wearing masks and school closures – which are the norm now – were the last things on our minds when we started the school year in January. Buoyed by success in 2019 we had a great start to 2020 and were looking to more exceptional achievements in the year. In January and February, teaching and learning activities proceeded well and we were beginning to throttle up on co-curricular activities. The music club had started preparing for this year’s music festival, and the conservation club revived and extended our balcony gardens. Also, towards the end of February, we had a teachers retreat where we reflected on activities and achievements in 2019 and made plans for 2020. We were raring to go.
The situation abruptly changed on March 13 when Kenya recorded its first case of Covid19, three days later, President Kenyatta announced the immediate closure of schools. The most immediate impacts of this were the risk of loss of learning and children missing their most important meals of the day – most of our learners rely on our food program as an essential source of their nutrition. The quarantines and curfews further exacerbate the situation as it reduces the families ability to provide food for their children. As if the community was not already dealing with enough disruptions, the government forcibly evicted more than 5,000 people living on land owned by Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company. Fifteen of our families were affected by these evictions. For our community, it has been a case of when it rains, it pours.
In these uncertain times, we’re grateful for the support of our friends in the USA and Direttamente in Italy. As illustrated in this report, that support has enabled us to take measures that have helped cushion our families from the worst impacts of the pandemic.
Our Work During COVID 19 Crisis
Our work during the COVID-19 crisis has focused on keeping our students fed, learning and safe.
Keeping Our Children Fed
Many of our children rely on two meals a day they receive at the Hands of Love. As soon as the schools were closed, we started distributing food directly to families to keep the children fed. By early the end of April, we had distributed over 4,500kg (9,921 pounds) of food staples. In May, due to the health risks associated with physically distributing food, we changed tack and started giving families vouchers which they could redeem for food at a nearby store. At the time of writing this report, we have given out vouchers worth Ksh680,000 (US$6,800).
A total of HoL 130 families have so far benefited from this initiative. At the moment 95 families are each receiving vouchers worth Ksh2,400 ($24) every three weeks. Reduction in the number of families receiving aid is because some families travelled upcountry before the stoppage of movement into and out of Nairobi.
Keeping our Children Learning
We’re passionate about bringing quality education to our students, so keeping them learning while at home has been a big priority during this time of school closure.
Keeping learning going has not been easy because, unlike children in more economically stable demographics, our children do not have access to online learning. We started by creating a WhatsApp group consisting of parents and teachers. Through the group, teachers have been giving out work and engaging with parents on their children’s learning. To make the engagement more meaningful, we have split the group into four smaller ones based on grades. With the groups, we are able to reach about 45% of the children.
As well as phone calls to the families, teachers prepare worksheets which are printed and availed for pick-up at school. At the beginning of June, we also started recording daily lessons for each class in both video and audio formats. The audio formats have especially become vital because we can put them on reusable Ksh100 (US$1) SD memory cards which can play on almost all phones. More than half of our families do not have smartphones, so this is very important.
To further support home learning, we bought and distributed workbooks, pencils, crayons and notebooks.
I am very impressed by the dedication of our teachers and how rapidly they have adopted technology-mediated solutions to keep our children learning. Rather than just sending families activities to keep children busy most of the work has been well thought out and designed to engage the children and the parents in ways that do not disrupt their daily routines. We have had a unique opportunity to educate not just the students, but their families as well.
Keeping or Children Safe
Regular handwashing with soap and running water is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) as one of the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, it is difficult for most of our families to keep this dictum because they live in one-room housing without running water and toilets are shared by 15-20 households. To address this challenge, we made and distributed 60 water buckets/water dispensaries. We also gave out hand sanitizers and soap.
In partnership with Terry’s friend Amy, We have been able to distribute more than 8,000 masks to HoL families and the wider Kariobangi community. And when 15 of our families were evicted from their homes we provided four of them with shelter at the school and gave funds to all the fifteen families so that they could get alternative housing.
Additionally in May and June We have been able to distribute 250 packets of sanitary towels in partnership with Always Kenya to mothers and girls in Kariobangi.
Every difficult situation has a silver lining. The enormity of the difficulties created by COVID-19 caused individuals and organisations to band together to deal with the situation. We realised that without working together, we could not achieve the scale needed to protect our community in the best way.
By building a strong community coalition, we were able to take meaningful actions to counter the economic, social, and health impacts of COVID-19. At Hands of Love, we were very fortunate to start distributing food staples to our families as soon as the schools were closed. Slumchild Foundation and ChildSpace Organisation were able to leverage on this to get support from Team Pankaj (a charitable group by Kenyans of Indian Origin) that has seen more than 400 families in Kariobangi receive weekly food hampers. By showing that we were already doing something on the ground gave us credibility. We also were able to distribute over half the masks we got from Amy through this network. This was very impactful because HoL had the masks at a time when they were not readily available, and the community appreciated this very much. In April, when the government imposed a ban on private individuals and organisations from distributing food and non-food items directly to communities, we were able to get exemption almost immediately. Members of our coalition have been using this exemption to continue distributing food given by Team PanKaj.
Hands of Love also worked with Koch FM (a community radio station), Mwanzo Mpya Youth Group and community health volunteers to create community awareness about coronavirus.
Over the years, we have built a strong sense of community with our families, and we were able to use this network to get realtime information on what is happening in the Kariobangi community.
I am happy that HoL played a central role in Kariobangi and hopeful that the relationships we have built in this pandemic will continue to grow even after we emerge from the present crisis. Relationships that are built through hard times can be exceptionally resilient.
Conclusion & Way Forward
In his latest address to the nation on June 6th Presidents Kenyatta directed the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health to work out modalities that would allow schools and institutions of learning to work out modalities that would allow schools and other institutions of learning to reopen in September. However there are fears that the worst of the pandemic is yet to hit Kenya and we may not be ready to reopen in September.
Even if the schools reopen in September it is likely that coronavirus will still be with us and schools will have to observe strict measures to keep children safe. In this uncertain context, making decisions assuming a longer, rather than a shorter scenario. We are planning on installing at least two handwashing stations in each class and increasing our water storage capacity. At the moment we have three water storage tanks with a capacity of 4,500 litres and we are looking to double that.
We are also planning to repurpose our meeting/staff room into a classroom and temporarily partition our indoors play area into three additional classrooms. That way we will have a total of 11 classrooms and will be able to have a maximum of 16 students per class.