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COVID-19: Catch 22 situation in the informal settlements

As cases of coronavirus continue to rise, the government has been urging citizens to take the directives issued seriously to ease the fight against the pandemic. However, it has been business as usual in some areas, especially the informal settlements, where people find themselves in dilemma. It is not out of their choice, for instance, that they have failed to observe social distancing properly. Staying at home is impossible and observing the curfew has affected them in ways that threaten their lives. Mobile journalism Africa held a conversation with two individuals who have been at the forefront mobilizing funds to facilitate food donations to people in Kibera and Mathare.

Asha Jaffar, is a freelance journalist and social activist based in Kibera. She was among the first people to initiate a food drive.

Billian Ojiwa is the founder of Billian Music Foundation and has been helping with provision of water and food donations in Mathare. The two spoke to the situation as it is on the ground.

Social distancing is a privilege

According to Asha Jaffar, nothing much has changed except for the massive loss of jobs which has resulted in lack of food. To most people in Kibera, some of the government directives are impossible to adhere to.

“Social distancing is a privilege that those who live in the informal settlements cannot afford,” she remarked.

These are people who have to be on the lookout for jobs and they live close to one another.

“You cannot tell people who share amenities to keep a social distance. It is even worse when you ask someone who has no running water to wash their hands regularly,” Billian lamented.

Curfew observation

While Billian noted that residents of Mathare have tried to observe the curfew as much as they can, it is still a challenge.

“A good number of residents work in Industrial area and because of the fare, some opt to walk. Definitely they cannot always arrive home in time,” he explained.

Asha pointed out that the curfew has threatened the livelihood of many.

“Seven in the evening is the time when business begins flourishing and then they cannot stay outside to sell. It is sad because those who sell foodstuffs depend on it to fend for their families,” she said.

The situation therefore has forced many to even comment that they would rather die of coronavirus and not hunger.  


Even with the food drives the two are part of, it is impossible to feed everyone. They have to look for the most vulnerable.  

Billian started with water which was distributed using trucks. The project which he initiated with his own savings has since metamorphosed into mobilizing funds for the provision of food.

“We have partnered with several other groups and foundations and with fund donations, some of which come from well-wishers, we have managed to help 500 families,” he explained.

The project started with challenges because they had no time to plan for it.

“Donating food while observing social distance was almost impossible at first. Issues with trust also arose as some people thought we were conning them,” he observed.

However, they managed to fix this by raising resources through M-changa and making deals with shopkeepers. They also involved community volunteers who would fetch shopping vouchers and give to the most vulnerable. Using the vouchers, one person from a family goes to the shop to collect the shopping.

Asha’s group first conducted surveys to establish who needed what and how badly. To avoid chaos, they use village representatives to help distribute the food.

“What we do is mobilize funding via M-changa, buy the food and package it. The rest we leave to the representatives.”

Channel donations to government

They insisted that the government has failed and cannot be trusted to help anyone. They do not believe that the government’s directive that donations be channeled Emergency Response Fund will work.

“We were doing this out of goodwill and in an organized manner but some people noticed and began donating without any proper organization, leaving chaos behind. That is why the government issued the directive,” Asha stated.

Billian lamented that the bad example the government has set in the past with its indifference to the affairs of the citizenry is genuine enough a reason not to trust it with donations.

Casual generalizations

Billian further expressed his disappointment in the casual manner in which the government has been handling the situation. He finds fault in the government’s generalized statements issued at press conferences.

With the government calls for people to sanitize and wear masks, he imagines how someone who cannot afford a daily meal is expected to buy a mask, which is more expensive than what some people spend on food in a day.

His only wish is that people should share the little they have.

“Do not take it as competition. It is about putting ourselves in the shoes of others,” he appealed.

Asha concluded that the only way the government can help is give people food and water. That way people will stay at home.

Ochieng' Obunga, a Writer at large, is the founding Chief Editor of Mobile Journalism Africa.

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