This article has been published in Enabling Education Review 10
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Title: Focusing on food baskets and reproductive health in Kibera, Kenya
Author: Wamaya, M and Corcoran, S
Publisher: EENET
Date: 2021

Mike Wamaya and Su Corcoran

Project Elimu provides extra-curricular programmes that build primary school learners’ confidence and work with networks of schools and parents to provide support and keep children in school (see our article in Enabling Education Review 9). When lockdowns began in response to COVID-19, many of the families we work with lost their main sources of income. In this article we explain how we adapted our support for learners in Kibera – the largest informal settlement in Kenya – during the pandemic.

Project Elimu works with children who mostly attend community-based schools in Kibera. Their families rely on work in the informal labour market. For example, mothers may work in other people’s houses and fathers may work in construction. Mitigation measures set up by the government included dusk-to-dawn curfews, partial lockdowns and stay at home orders, meaning they were unable to work and therefore were not being paid.

The situation was the same for teachers, cooks and cleaners at the schools that relied on the payment of fees to pay wages. They were suddenly unable to pay for food and basic needs for their children.

Local shopkeepers stepped up to give credit to regular customers, but that left them struggling to restock, which affected their ability to eat. School closures also meant provision of school meals ceased. Therefore, in Kibera, the government-enforced lockdowns brought many more issues for children beyond the struggle to learn at home with limited resources.

The Ministry of Education designed measures for the continuation of learning through online platforms and radio and television broadcasts. Many children in Kibera could not access this provision and, with livelihood loss, some were pressured into income-generating activities to support their families.

Interacting with local families, Project Elimu found that there was also:

  • increased neglect of the elderly;
  • increased exposure of children to child labour, online abuse and other forms of violence;
  • increased vulnerability and exposure to illness for those with pre-existing medical conditions who could not easily access help during lockdowns;
  • increase in domestic violence, gender-based violence, alcohol and drug use;
  • increase in mental health issues, particularly depression.

We set out to address some of these challenges, aiming to ensure as many children as possible could return to school when they reopened. Their safety and survival was our main concern.

Providing food packages
Our first task was ensuring that our networks had access to up-to-date information about the virus and related government regulations. Secondly, we decided to fundraise for food packages for families to see them through school closures, which extended until almost the end of 2020.

We modelled this programme on our menstrual health programme, which keeps girls in school when they have their periods. Essentially, we give local shopkeepers responsibility for distribution. Girls are linked to a local shop where they pick up free sanitary towels without travelling across Kibera every month, and local stockists benefit. We wanted to replicate this system to enable children and their families to access food packages close to where they live and by sourcing food locally, we would keep shops in business.

Providing food aid enabled children and their families to eat while parents were not able to work, preventing ill health linked to hunger and giving them the best possible chance of survival should they become infected by the virus. It also prevented the children and their families from taking risks and becoming infected because they needed to go out to find food. We also provided soap and other items required to meet hygiene needs.

In addition to targeting the children and teachers who were already known to Project Elimu, we identified families with disabled family members, whose breadwinners were sick, or who were headed by children.

A girls’ dance class at Project Elimu
A girls’ dance class at Project Elimu

One of Project Elimu’s main activities are dance classes. We teach ballet and other forms of dance as part of our extra-curricular programme and wanted to use our platform to fundraise for our COVID-19 support programmes. Mike and a limited number of colleagues live streamed a weekly dance class over Facebook.

These sessions were available globally. Using a social media platform meant people could attend the class live or access the recording later when electricity or internet were accessible. People joining from outside Kibera were encouraged to donate to our appeal through an online platform in exchange for the dance class.

A focus on the girls
Adolescent girls especially felt the impact of the pandemic. With school closures, instances of teenage pregnancy increased. Working within regulations set by the Ministry of Health, we set up non-formal education classes for adolescents. We organised daily meetings at Project Elimu’s safe space, to discuss issues around sexual and reproductive health and rights, and prepare lunch together. Kitchen activities provided cooking skills and opportunities to develop relationships that have become foundations for a strong peer support system.

In addition to sexual and reproductive health, we ran dance sessions and tackled wider issues related to transitioning back into formal education when schools reopened.

Supporting returns to school
Even after schools reopened, many families struggled to provide food for their children as employment opportunities were limited by the pandemic. To ensure that students could focus on studies after school or attend online classes using the computers at our centre, we set up our Open Kitchen. We provided each child with a warm nutritional meal.

Open Kitchen continues in 2021, targeting adolescent children to access the various extra-curricular activities and building relationships as they prepare their meals together. We are working with them to understand the issues they are facing as they go back to school, especially learners in their last year of primary school who are preparing for national examinations and trying to make up the important periods of learning they have missed over the last year.

The COVID-19 crisis threatened everyone’s way of life. Project Elimu prioritised better access to food supplies, sanitation products and credible reliable, accurate, timely and effective information so families could make informed decisions regarding the pandemic. Our programmes bring young people together – providing opportunities to build peer support and spaces to help them pause, focus and reflect on their situation together.

Mike is ballet teacher and the founder of Project Elimu. Su is on Project Elimu’s advisory committee.