Washing hands in the slums

Mathew Otieno
April 3, 2020
Reproduced with Permission

As the flagship tool in the global effort to combat Covid-19, the instruction to "wash your hands" has become the standard sign off at the end of phone calls, YouTube videos and Zoom meetings. No public service announcement ends without it, and it is at the top of all the sensible listicles of what individuals can do to stop the spread and flatten the curve.

To the question of how this should be done, the standard answer is, "With soap and for at least 20 seconds, dummy!" A kinder response might enumerate all the steps one should take to do it properly. Don't forget the nooks under your fingernails, make sure the soap reaches the back of your thumb, and sing "happy birthday" as a timer.

But this humble question has an extra layer of meaning where I come from.

You see, in the developed world, the assumption is when one turns the tap is that water will come out. Over here, however, the tap cannot always be trusted. In fact, the default expectation is that it might not deliver. Heck, for most people, there aren't even any taps.

Only 58 percent of people in Kenya have access to so called improved water sources . And this is only half of the story. As a rule, the available improved water sources aren't very reliable. In most neighbourhoods of Nairobi, a long-running water rationing scheme means most buildings don't get running water for some days each week.

In the informal settlements of urban areas, water doesn't get into the houses except through cans and buckets. The task of fetching water is part of the daily routine for a large number of women and children. At the end of its use, dirty water is thrown out of the house into an open drain that forms a vast network spanning entire neighbourhoods.

Villages have it a little better, but not by much, since water often has to be carried from rivers and open ponds. To these folks, the constant reminder to "wash your hands" invites a long game of hoop jumping. It is simply out of touch with reality and, I must add, comes rather close to being offensive.

However, rather than wallowing in their destitution, and not to be outdone in creativity, some people in these places have hacked out interesting solutions. One of the most impressive is a youth group in Mathare, a low-income area of Nairobi, which turned hundreds of used cooking oil jerrycans into portable and refillable handwashing stations.

Granted, the idea itself is not new. Small business eateries in low-income neighbourhoods and in rural shopping centres have used repurposed containers as their handwashing solutions for years. What is new is that the youth group handed them out to residents for free, and then challenged the government to fill them up with water.

The idea has been replicated in other informal settlements around Nairobi. Folks around the country have also come together to donate money for soap to be used at these stations, alongside other basics that the residents of the low-income areas will need to weather the lengthy lockdown needed to ride out the coronavirus wave.

Nobody knows how many lives will be saved by this upswell of innovation and generosity, and it certainly will need to be supplemented by many other measures. However, it is to be hoped that the government (in Kenya and elsewhere on the continent) sees this as a reminder to take access to water seriously.

If combating a global pandemic relies on such a basic thing as washing hands with soap for 20 seconds, we should be ashamed that so large a number of people could be left without the means to do so.