• When coronavirus was reported in the country, her first concern was how to shield the vulnerable from the disease.
• She started an online campaign to educate the community on basic hygiene and taught elders how to make soap, masks
When the first case of Covid-19 was first reported in the country, everyone was thinking of how to stay safe from the coronavirus.
As the government laid down plans to stem the spread of the coronavirus, initial efforts were put on populations in major towns.
In Kaloleni subcounty, a rural area in Kilifi county, life went on without any fear of the virus.
People congregated in funerals, oblivious of the dangers posed. This was further propagated by the social nature of the Mijikenda people.
It is through such challenges that a local administrator decided to take the bull by its horns, educating the community to shun their normal way of life due to the coronavirus.
It was a tall order because the administrator is a woman. Mijikendas ‘do not’ take orders or advice from women.
Seeing the tough fight ahead, Juliet Mapenzi, the assistant chief of Mbalamweni sublocation in Kayafungo location, decided to put youths in the loop through social media.
The administrator stepped in to fill the gap politicians have left.
“I am still in the youth bracket so I activated my networks through social media, and we started an online campaign to educate the community on basic hygiene and how to stay safe from the virus,” Mapenzi said.
"When the campaign gained momentum, I brought onboard my village elders and Nyumba Kumi ambassadors, whose duty was to make sure government directives are being implemented.
"I used the elders because their approach is always tailored to the behaviours of the community. They do it in a humane way."
SOAP, MASK UNAFFORDABLE
Mbalamweni has 12 villages with 2,530 households. The elders went from household to household to make sure handwashing equipment is available.
They also advised the community not to meet in large groups.
“We educated people on how to improvise handwashing equipment and the response was awesome. The biggest challenge was soap. Every time we ask people to wash hands with soap, they said they have no money to buy soap. Purchasing a face mask is even harder for the residents here,” she said.
Through the Mbalamweni Village Elders Association, the "digital chief", as she is commonly referred to, started teaching the village elders and Nyumba Kumi ambassadors how to make liquid soap.
“I talked to the deputy county commissioner, who was very supportive. We bought the chemicals and started making the soap. We made several litres, which we distributed to the most vulnerable members of the community for free," Mapenzi said.
"Our target was widows, the elderly and people living with disabilities. We also made face masks for free distribution to the most at-risk members of the community and the vulnerable.”
The village elders also started a project to produce the soap and sell at a cheaper price.
In the area, a 500ml bottle goes for Sh50, but the elders are selling the same quantity at Sh30.
SWIMMING IN POVERTY
Happy Sidi, 19, from Kidzini village, who benefitted from the initiative, explained how challenging it is for people living with disabilities to observe the Covid-19 directives by the government.
Sidi, who uses a wheelchair, said she has to wash hands every time she moves around.
She expressed fears that people living with disabilities could be hit hard by the virus as they are more than often neglected.
“I use a wheelchair and whenever I wheel myself to a different place, I must wash hands as the place I use to wheel myself sometimes touches the ground," she said.
"Where do I get such an amount of soap to wash my hands? Before getting the support, I used to wash my hands with just water or sometimes I used ash then rinsed with water.”
At Kibao Kiche, we met Asha Kaingu, a widow who is living at the mercy of a well-wisher after she was chased from her matrimonial home when her husband died 10 years ago.
Kaingu expressed fears her family could be wiped by the coronavirus as even getting basic things like food is a challenge.
Kaingu lives in a makeshift house and sleeps on a mat with four of her seven children.
“We cannot maintain social distancing in my house because we have no space and I cannot send my children away. I use water from the water pan to wash hands but getting soap is not easy," she said.
"When I am lucky to get menial jobs, then I have to make a choice between buying food and buying soap. When I received the support from the chief, it came as a relief to me.”
Sidi Kithuku, 76, from Panga Yambo, also received the support. Kithuku is a widow who fends for five grandchildren. She survives on the government’s cash transfer fund.
The granny has never had a face mask and washing hands with soap is also a challenge due to lack of money.
Mapenzi says when coronavirus was reported in the country, her first concern was how to shield the vulnerable from the disease.
“The coronavirus could have devastating effects on the rural population. This is what made me come up with this initiative," Mapenzi said.
"Mbalamweni sublocation swims in poverty, and with the challenges brought about by Covid-19 pandemic, things are thicker.”
The support has so far reached 50 households.
“I also try to give them some food support but I have very little resources. Mbalamweni is open to well-wishers who are ready to support the community. The community is poor,” Mapenzi said.