Where residents consider hand washing a luxury

Tuesday, October 13th, 2020 00:00 |
Emily Korir persuades a visitor to wash his hands. She is among the few people in the area who have set up hand washing points. Photo/PD/Margaret Wambui

Margaret Wambui

Emily Korir, 35, a teacher born and raised in East Pokot understands too well the predicament her community faces when it comes to accessing clean water to fight Covid-19 pandemic.

 She is lucky because she can afford to buy water for her family’s daily use. Although the pandemic control rules prescribe frequent hand washing as a possible solution to curbing the disease’s spread, this isn’t a feasible  option  for most residents of East Pokot. 

The pastoralists perennially face extreme water shortages and households rarely have access to clean running water for basic hand washing.

Most of them have limited or no access to sanitisers or soap, with the health infrastructure crippled from years of underinvestment.

Emily, a mother of three heard about the deadly effects of Covid-19 over the radio, but reality hit  closer home when she learnt of the death of a former colleague. This necessitated the installation of a hand washing station at her home. 

What worries her most is that her neighbours are not using the water to wash their hands, but rather for a more urgent need- quenching thirst.

According to Emily, East Pokot residents view the regular hand washing as a waste of a precious commodity and most of them are not willing to follow the basic rule simply because they can’t afford it or don’t appreciate the need to keep their hands clean.

“Many people here are not aware of the virus. Little has been done to sensitise the community about it.

And even those who know about it, are living in denial that they cannot be infected with the virus because of their superstitions,’’ she said.

Emily, a primary school teacher in a nearby private school now fears she may not even afford to buy water because she has not received her salary since May 2020.

Although she is hopeful that the reopening of schools could ease her struggles, she is not sure the school where she works will reopen.

She  is considering relocating temporarily to her brother’s home. 

“I have no other choice. My children and I will die of hunger over here,” she said. 

It is not only failure to access water and soap that is a challenge to the pastoralist communities.

High-risk zone

The dawn-to-dusk curfew has affected the ability of pastoralists to move their livestock at night in search of pasture or markets.

Pastoralists travel over long distances, and this requires movement during both day and at night.

This curtailed movement reduces pastoralists’ income from livestock, further reducing household incomes.

With no cash to go to the shops, some pastoralists are only eating blood, meat and milk- the only available food. 

Social distancing has contributed to the disrupting trade in livestock. People no longer gather to buy or sell livestock.

The government has closed down livestock markets across the country because they are considered high-risk zones for the spread of the virus. 

According to Kenya Markets Trust, livestock accounts for 12 per cent of Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

At a national scale, Kenya sells approximately 500,000 heads of small stock per month valued at Sh2.527 billion ($US25 million).

Peter Loritong, Tiaty Ward Representative, said 80 per cent of East Pokot residents depend on animals for survival.

“When pastoralists can no longer sell their animals, they have no money for use even during this difficult times, which further threatens their livelihoods,” Peter said. 

Caught between a rock and a hard place, Pokot residents have decided to overlook containment measures.

They claim that if they continue observing these restrictions, their livelihoods will be destroyed completely. Some have found new ways of selling their livestock through illegal markets.

Toduso Lokenjug, a pastoralist in East Pokot, makes his living by buying and selling goats. Over the last seven months, his business has taken a beating .

“We have nothing to fear. I believe there’s no Corona, and if it’s really there, I won’t let my children die of hunger. I will continue with my normal duties,” he said. 

The public measures of wearing face masks and regularly sanitising are disregarded in the market. 

Grave consequences

“The Pokot community or pastoralists at large are usually left out of national matters.

These people are not aware of the dangers of the virus and nobody, not even the county government is helping them understand.

Sensitisation has been left majorly for the few NGOs operating here,” said Kevin Leparkery, a social worker at Hifadhi Africa Organisation.

From the semi-arid areas of East Pokot to the capitals of the most developed countries, Covid-19, has threatened global economies and has affected everyone.

It is evident that any outbreak amongst the poor rural communities like the East Pokot, will be hard to contain and will cause grave consequences. 

To improve access to Covid-19 prevention methods, the Kenya Human Rights Commission is now calling on the government to translate the guidelines into local languages. 

For pastoralists like Toduso, the global measures to contain the virus are affecting them negatively, much more than the pandemic itself.

Majority of the East Pokot Community cannot afford the essentials and unless they are more informed about the virus and the safety measures, this pandemic will only distort their livelihoods. 

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