At midday everyday, Elizabeth Wavinya from Kandisi in Ongata Rongai, her sister and three cousins walk from their home to a community centre across the street where they’re offered lunch. For weeks now, this has been their routine.
A mother of two, Wavinya, 25, is uneducated and unemployed. She and her baby live with her elderly mother, who sells mandazi to fend for them. The lunch offered at Don Orione Community Training Centre is the only certain meal for this young woman, and many families like hers in this village in Kajiado County. Without it, many are the days they’d go to bed hungry.
The World Food Programme (WFP) says that the Covid-19 pandemic has put 265 million people at the risk of acute hunger globally. These people are mostly in 55 low and middle-income countries in the Middle East and Africa, including Kenya.
According to the WFP report released in April, 130 million people across the world face starvation and malnutrition this year. This was even before the Covid-19 outbreak that threatens livelihoods and trading networks that most people rely on for survival.
As the coronavirus continues its global devastation, vulnerable communities find themselves on the receiving end of socioeconomic distress. Times couldn’t be harder for poor families, children’s facilities, homes for the elderly and community centres that survive on aid.
Closure of businesses, lost income and slowed economic activity that came with the lockdown has meant only one thing to these communities: drastically reduced economic opportunities and relief supplies.
As everybody fights for survival, community facilities that provide care to residents have at times been relegated to the periphery, to survive by the skin of their teeth. With their existence now under threat, their ability to continue serving communities hangs in the balance.
Not so for Don Orione Community Training Centre, where Wavinya’s family have their lunch every day. On ordinary days, this school is home to more than 60 children with intellectual disabilities (ID).
Established in 2015, Don Orione cares for autistic and dyslexic children and youth, and those with Down’s syndrome, and mental health problems, among other cognitive challenges. The centre operates with the support of a Catholic mission and donors.
But since Covid-19 struck, this facility has been not only a beacon of hope, but also a source of food for hundreds of vulnerable families in Kandisi.
At the start of the current crisis, most organisations panicked as they stared straight into the threat of dwindling fortunes and uncertainty. Mr Richard Magana, the project manager for this initiative, says that for this centre, the uncertainty and chaos brought about by the pandemic was an opportunity to go out of the way to restore hope that was fast dissipating among the area residents.
“Most of the locals here don’t have a stable income. The majority either work as casual labourers or are jobless. Covid-19 highlighted their vulnerability. An immediate intervention was required,” Magana told DN2.
Some of the interventions, he added, included foodstuff donations and a lunch programme for the community and buying medical equipment and supplies for Ole Kasasi dispensary.
“The original idea was to provide relief food, but we soon realised that the community health centre acutely needed supplies and specialised equipment to fight the pandemic. We had to integrate this in the programme as well,” he said.
For an aid-dependent institution, the project’s success hinged upon donors’ positive response. “We reached out to our supporters locally and abroad. Thankfully, they supported our proposal and gave us enough money to get the initiative off the ground,” he said.
The relief package includes maize flour, cooking oil, rice and a sanitation pack. So far, the centre has fed more than 3,000 families, and continues to provide lunch to hundreds of others daily.
“Getting another meal after this lunch is usually very difficult,” Wavinya says. “My baby and I would starve without this support.”
The government may have set aside Sh250 million for weekly cash disbursements to vulnerable families, but many say they’re yet to benefit from the programme.
In May, as part of the economic stimulus plan, the government also allocated Sh10 billion for employing 200,000 young men and women across the country to work under the National Hygiene Programme as a containment measure against Covid-19.
Under this programme, the youth would benefit from employment opportunities created in various sectors of the economy such as infrastructure, health and agriculture. This way, the government hoped to cushion them from the effects of the pandemic that has cost livelihoods for millions of Kenyans.
Two months since President Kenyatta announced the start of these programmes, neither Wavinya nor anyone in her circle has received money or an opportunity to work in a state project.
Wavinya, however, hopes that she will soon be lucky enough to secure a chance to work and earn some money. For now, she, like thousands across the country, survival has been pegged on relief from well-wishers.
Besides food donations, Don Orione has sponsored a community awareness programme on Covid-19 prevention and management. This partnership with the local administration and other volunteers has so far reached 15,000 people in Rongai.
‘‘We’ve been able to educate the community on health and safety protocols recommended by the Ministry of Health. We’ve also distributed awareness material and supplied masks and sanitisers to residents,’’ Magana adds.
But the lunch programme has made the greatest impact in the community, the organisers say. For several weeks now, the lunch hour at the centre has been abuzz. Even with schools on extended holiday, the centre hasn’t stopped running. If anything, it has been even more vibrant than before Covid-19 struck.
Owing to the high number of needy cases, the centre serves lunch in three cohorts from noon to 2pm. During our visit, we found dozens of families, children and the elderly, gathered for lunch. On this day, rice and bean stew were on the menu.
“With most vegetables in season, the centre ensures that the offerings constitute a balanced diet,” Magana says.
To feed 200 people every week, the centre spends more than Sh40,000. This is supplemented with vegetables that the centre grows on its lush farm. The food crops on the farm also make up part of its revenue stream. Vendors buy vegetables from them to sell in Rongai and other surrounding areas. The farm though has largely been closed during this time to increase food options and to minimise the risk of infection.
Other than the staff at the centre, 25 people volunteer in the programme. These are male seminarians of Divine Providence, a congregation of Catholics from Ngong Parish who are studying for priesthood.
Serving meals at Orione is a well-coordinated affair. From the arrival time, families are taken through multilevel safety and hygiene protocols, starting from the main gate throughout their stay at the institution.
‘‘We take their temperature and record it. We refer those with abnormally high temperature to the health centre. To get into the compound, all visitors have to sanitise their hands,’’ he says.
Inside the facility, the sitting arrangement is such that individuals take chairs spaced for up to two metres to prevent contact with one another. Interactions are also limited.
‘‘Instead of picking their own food, our team of volunteers serve them. They fetch food from our makeshift serving area and take it to them,’’ Magana explains.
‘‘We’re strict on how they interact within the facility. We didn’t want to provide aid only to become a breeding ground for the virus. All safety measures have to be observed without fail,’’ the manager notes.
After eating, the families leave in a single file as the next batch comes in.
When the initiative started, the budget was only enough for five weeks. The organisers had to look for more money to sustain the programme as the numbers of helpless families multiplied.
Meanwhile, as the pandemic escalates and confirmed cases in the country continue to steadily rise, families are pushed to the brink of starvation. Minimal economic activity may have resumed, but thousands of families are still struggling to put food on the table.
For Magana, every day brings with it more numbers, added pressure and heightened anxiety. He and his team have to continue providing for the hundreds of families at their doorstep. It’s not lost on him that the near future is foggy.
“We’ll soon exhaust the resources we have,” he reveals, lost in thought. Should the resources run out, and sure they will, where will the families go? This is a question that unsettles him.
He says: “We expect more doors to open and more donors to come on board.”
Until then, the project’s continuity is uncertain.
If Magana had his wish, the feeding programme would transcend the coronavirus. If Wavinya and other families were asked, this lunch offering wouldn’t be disrupted. But to keep it running, resources are critical. For now, though, the future remains in the donors’ hands.