By Laura Otieno
Kisumu, Kenya – When Victor Didi saw the increasing number of deaths that were reported rising from the COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya, he sensed that something had to give. With the first COVID-19 case having been reported in Kenya in March 2020, panic and fear had gripped a section of the population due to the uncertainty of the new respiratory virus.
By early April, the government of Kenya imposed a partial lockdown, restricting movement from certain areas, as well as a dusk to dawn curfew, as additional measures to curb the spread of the virus.
The merry ambience that usually hung around Dunga beach in Kisumu, at the shores of Lake Victoria had been slowly thinning. Less people were coming to the popular tourist beach, hotels and entertainment joints remained under lock and key. Beneath the destitution, economic hardships and mental strife were brewing.
Victor Didi, was among the natives of Dunga beach who often strolled at the beach. “I would meet fishermen who had just come from the shore, some of them were frustrated because the main fish market had been closed and they had nowhere to sell their fish, everybody was struggling”. The social capital had also been depleted. “We used to be scared to even talk, you would meet a friend who maybe came from Nairobi, and at that time, we did not know much about the virus, you would only wave at a long-time friend from a distance, it was difficult”.
Didi however says, that he found some calm at the beach, without the usual hustle and bustle of local and international tourists, who had come to marvel the beauty of one of Africa’s great lakes. During the pandemic, an infamous covid related burial hit the headlines in Kenya. A 59-year-old man was buried in Siaya county, where his coffin wrapped in a foil of polythene bags was disposed in a grave. His family members were barely allowed time to view the body or even convene for the vigils associated with funerals in Nyanza according to the custom of the communities there.
At that time, the ministry of health had indicated that bodies of those that succumbed to the COVID19 were highly contagious, and as such, only certified health practitioners had authorization to handle and dispose such bodies.
“That was the turning point for me, it hit me so hard, I remember I could not sleep for days on end, wondering what that family must be going through. It is not easy”. It is then that Victor Didi became more intentional with his visits to the beach. “A friend of mine who owns a boat suggested that we ride out to the lake, I did not even know it then, but the therapeutic feel of the boat ride, and talking to a peer lifted my spirits. I was relieved after the ride”.
In April 2020, an idea was born: Boat ride na stories, was the name of the project that would take shape almost two years later. “At that time, we could not do much, there were lockdowns, people were supposed to maintain social distancing, I could not pull of my idea at that time without breaking the law but I knew I had to share my experience, the therapy I got by just taking a boat ride”.
By August 2020, the cases in Kenya had dropped, the curve was flattening, with an average positivity rate of less than 10%. Didi sent out the first invite for Boat ride na Stories through his mutual groups on Whatsapp. “The first session majorly had older people, men mostly, who are in the conservation space. A lot of people know me for environmental conservation so when the flier went out, only those who operate in the same space showed up”
Having had a false start, Boat ride na Stories rested for almost one year. In December 2021,
Didi was ready to rock the boat again, this time starting from experience. “I was using my strength to champion for mental health awareness, I realized the need for environmental conservation is just as critical as mental health”.
On a bright Saturday morning, as the breeze hit the shores of Dunga, 15 people drifted in a semi-automatic wooden boat, united by their common goal of environmental conservation and bound by Didi’s call to take care of their mental well-being. “At that time, even I got to realize that things like climate change have a direct impact to mental health, we had someone who was helping survivors of gender-based violence with an economic project of making biogas out of waste, and this was contributing to better livelihoods by giving survivors a new chance at life, breaking free from their abusers”
In the Bluemind study, propagated by marine biologist Dr. Wallace Nichols, proximity to water increases the levels of “feel good” hormones, as the levels of hormones considered to cause stress drop. The study says that once relaxed, the human brain can focus better, connect to oneself, to the natural world, and be able to steward life.
Kisumu County executive committee member for health Dr. Gregory Ganda says that there has been a deliberate effort by residents to mainstream their mental wellness. “We do not have a robust data base and that is something that we are working to establish but you can see from the trends we register from our community health workers; more and more people are starting to open up to talk about what they struggle with, and for that it is a step”.
Dr. Ganda says that a total of 280 community health workers in Kisumu have undergone training on counselling and offer such services as the grassroots as the county and the country at large still invests in the primary healthcare system. “At the end of the day we want the Universal Health Coverage program (UHC) to not only take care of the medical aspect but also mental wellness, a healthy society means holistic engagement and that is our target”.
This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Laura Otieno and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union or those of Mobile Journalism Africa.