How resistance led Joho to change tack

After outburst failed to convince Old Town residents to take up mass testing, trusted civil society groups were brought on board

In Summary

• Poor locals bristled at being berated while quarantine costs hovered over them

Politician Suleiman Shahbal, Governor Hassan Joho and Kemnac chair Sheikh Juma Ngao at Joho's office
TAKE IT SERIOUSLY Politician Suleiman Shahbal, Governor Hassan Joho and Kemnac chair Sheikh Juma Ngao at Joho's office

After Governor Hassan Joho’s rebuke of Old Town residents, mass testing commenced, but the turnout was very poor. By end of day one, only 53 residents had been tested in an area that has over 28,000 residents.

By then, the area had accounted for over 15 positive cases in the county, which had an alarming record of 108 cases by then. Health officials who camped at the area could at times end up testing less than five people per day.

The first case in Old Town was in April, when a renowned Islamic scholar and popular herbalist Sheriff Mwinyi Karama, 90, died after he contracted the disease from a Covid-19 patient he was allegedly treating.


The dilemma facing the health workers was tracing the patient, who according to family and neighbours, left no contacts. Within those weeks, Mombasa had conducted 3,000 tests and recorded 18 recoveries.

County commissioner Gilbert Kitiyo said Old Town was an epicentre of Covid-19 in the county, amid a warning that the virus could kill up to 1,000 residents.

“With its population of 28,000 residents, Old Town has become a high-risk area and people from other areas should not enter,” Kitiyo said, a few days before the restriction of movement was declared.

The residents lived in constant fear over the bills they would accrue once they are sent on quarantine.

By June 29, Old Town had 271 people registered for mass targeted testing, with KPA leading with 1,079 workers, according to updates released by Kitiyo.  

Mvita MP Abdulswamad Nassir sponsored a motion to quash the quarantine charges imposed by the government in the National Assembly. The motion was passed.

Muslim for Human Rights had also at the same time moved to court, seeking to compel the government to pay quarantine charges for patients, noting that many had lost their sources of income and could not afford to pay.


“Stigmatisation is real, but residents need to understand that the numbers are worrying and go for tests. If found positive, the government should foot the bill." Khalifa said.


While a war of words ruled the atmosphere in Old Town, with soaring infections and deaths being the order of the day, someone needed to act, and act fast.

Behind the scenes, the county emergency response team, led by Joho and Kitiyo, engaged Haki Africa and Red Cross to take the lead in community response, after there was consensus that the two organisations enjoyed general acceptance.

The meeting deliberations were made after the first cessation of movement was announced affecting Mombasa, Kilifi, Kwale counties and Nairobi metropolitan area.

With Red Cross managing the food distribution under the Mombasa county emergency and household relief and nutritional programME, Old Town residents were among the first batch of the 50,000-plus households to get the rations.

The county government had set a target of 227,000 vulnerable households that would benefit from the support.

“Lack of information had initially contributed to the resistance, with the residents feeling that the government numbers are cooked up. The government also had the responsibility to protect patients’ privacy, so it was more of a balancing act,” said Haki Africa executive director Hussein Khalid.

With their intervention, the numbers of those turning out for testing was raised significantly.

“We had tuktuks going through Old Town with the occupants talking to residents. It was up to a few weeks ago that they believed the virus did not exist, or even if it was there, it was highly exaggerated by the government,” Khalid said.

The organisation also engaged the youth as carriers of information. They were given capital to sell groceries and fish in Old town while creating awareness on Covid-19 prevention. Wherever they went, they would ask their customers if they had been tested and inform them more about the disease.

“We have used over Sh400,000 to support 32 youth groups. The relation is to try to reduce the stigma, while at the same time support them financially," Khalid said.

From a paltry number of one or two people per day for voluntary mass testing, the figures rose to about 20 people or more per day.

Edited by T Jalio