Maureen Adisa, a community volunteer in Kibra Slum’s Soweto East area, stood with a wide grin next to a handwashing stand at a busy road intersection next to a boda boda (motorcycle taxis) parking bay.

Adisa says she is in charge of ensuring the handwashing facility has water and soap at all time. She also ensures it is not vandalized and encourages passers-by to wash their hands.

“I work with the community as a volunteer and was one of the people chosen to manage these handwashing stations. I’m happy to do this,” she says. “Getting water to refill this handwashing station daily is a challenge due to the cost.”

The handwashing stand is one of the 38 placed in various locations in Kibra slums by the WASH Alliance Kenya (WAK), with support from UNICEF through UKAID funding. It serves at least 30,000 people living in one of Africa’s largest informal settlements.

Water access in Kibra, home to more than 185,000 people according to the 2019 national census, is scarce and expensive due to control by cartels that run the water connections. The cleanliness of the water is not guaranteed as water pipes run openly next to open sewer drains and are susceptible to cuts.

WAK’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Programme aims to improve access to safe water supply in selected informal settlements through water connection and repairs, installation of handwashing stations in public spaces and distribution of the handwashing vessels and soap to vulnerable households.

The programme, in partnership with the Ministry of Health, the Nairobi Metropolitan Services, Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company and select local organizations, including Umande Trust and KWAHO, has installed facilities in Kibra, Mathare, Mukuru and Githogoro slums of Nairobi.

“The programme interventions are based on the gaps identified by the COVID-19 response under the WASH cluster in Kenya,” said Tobias Omufwoko, CEO at WASH Alliance Kenya and a member of WSSCC. “The main intervention strategies target communities, schools, health care centres and other public places like markets and water points,” he added.

Handwashing and general personal hygiene are vital in combating COVID-19 especially in informal settlements where access to water at this critical time is limited and social distancing is almost impossible due to overcrowding, according to the United Nations.

Safeguard measure put in place by the Ministry of health, including mandatory wearing of facemasks in public, handwashing and staying and work at home, are however tricky for slum dwellers who have to choose between eking out a living and protecting themselves against the deadly viral disease to follow.

Already, over 23,000 people have been infections and 370 deaths recorded across the East African nation of 47 million people, according to official statistics.

“People want to wear facemasks and wash their hands, but their economic situation has made it difficult. They would rather use their money to buy food than buy a facemask,” said Maurice Otieno, a community volunteer working with Umande Trust to install tanks in Kibra.

Community members fetch water at a tank installed by WAK in Kibra

WAK has so far installed six water tanks at selected sites in Kibra, which are connected to public supply water and serve the most vulnerable in the community including the elderly, persons living with disability, orphaned and vulnerable children and the chronically ill.

Taking a cue from the World Health Organization recommendation that regular handwashing with soap and running water is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, WAK has further donated 1,900 handwashing vessels to vulnerable households in Kibra.

Ruth Adogo, a 28-year-old mother of three who lives with her ailing 60-year-old mother and sister in a one-roomed mud-walled house in Kibra, say they are grateful that they benefitted from the handwashing vessels. However, they still face a challenge accessing water and soap for their daily use.

“Corona has made it difficult for us to afford basic things like food, water and even soap. This disease has destroyed our jobs. We are just struggling,” Adongo said.