Where residents consider hand washing a luxury – Kenya’s East Pokot

By Kenyan journalist Margaret Wambui, first published in TalkAfrica.

Emily Korir, 35, a teacher born and raised at Natan Village, East Pokot in Barongo County, understands too well the predicament her community faces when it comes to accessing clean water to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

Natan Village is located 21 kilometers from Chemolingot Town. Here pastoralism is the main activity for making a living.

She is lucky because she can afford to buy water for her family’s daily use. Although the pandemic control rules prescribe frequent hand washing as a possible solution to curbing the spread of the disease, this isn’t a feasible option for most residents of East Pokot.

The pastoralists perennially face extreme water shortages and households rarely have access to clean running water for basic hand washing. Most of them have limited or no access to sanitizers or soap, with the health infrastructure, crippled from years of underinvestment.

Emily, a mother of three heard about the deadly effects of COVID-19 over the radio, but reality hit home when she learned of the death of a former colleague. This necessitated the installation of a hand-washing station at her home.

What worries her most is that her neighbors are not using the water to wash their hands, but rather for a more urgent need – quenching thirst. According to Emily, East Pokot residents view regular hand washing as a waste of a precious commodity and most of them are not willing to follow the basic rule simply because they can’t afford it or don’t appreciate the need to keep their hands clean.

“Many people here are not aware of the virus. Little has been done to sensitize the community about it. And even those who know about it, are living in denial that they cannot be infected with the virus because of their superstitions,’’ she says.

Emily, a primary school teacher in a nearby private school, now fears she may not even afford to buy water because she has not received her salary since May 2020. Although she is hopeful that the re-opening of schools could ease her struggles, she is not sure the school where she works will re-open. She is considering relocating temporarily to her brother’s home.

“I have no other choice. My children and I will die of hunger over here,” she says. It is not only a failure to access water and soap that is a challenge to the pastoralist communities.

High-risk zone

The dawn-to-dusk curfew has affected the ability of pastoralists to move their livestock at night in search of pasture or markets. Pastoralists travel over long distances, and this requires movement during both day and night. This curtailed movement reduces pastoralists’ income from livestock, further reducing household incomes. With no cash to go to the shops, some pastoralists are only eating blood, meat, and milk – the only available food.

Social distancing has contributed to disrupting the trade in livestock. People no longer gather to buy or sell livestock. The government has closed down livestock markets across the country because they are considered high-risk zones for the spread of the virus.

According to Kenya Markets Trust, livestock accounts for 12% of Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). On a national scale, Kenya sells approximately 500,000 heads of small stock per month valued at Sh2.527 billion (US$25 million).

Peter Loritong, Tiaty Ward Representative, said 80% of East Pokot residents depend on animals for survival.

“When pastoralists can no longer sell their animals, they have no money for use even during these difficult times, which further threatens their livelihoods,” Peter says.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, Pokot residents have decided to overlook containment measures. They claim that if they continue observing these restrictions, their livelihoods will be destroyed completely. Some have found new ways of selling their livestock through illegal markets.

Toduso Lokenjug, a pastoralist in East Pokot, makes his living by buying and selling goats. Over the last seven months, his business has taken a beating.

“We have nothing to fear. I believe there’s no Corona, and if it’s really there, I won’t let my children die of hunger. I will continue with my normal duties,” he says.

The public measures of wearing face masks and regularly sanitizing are disregarded in the market.

Grave consequences

“The Pokot community or pastoralists at large are usually left out of national matters. These people are not aware of the dangers of the virus and nobody, not even the county government is helping them understand. Sensitization has been left majorly for the few NGOs operating here,” says Kevin Leparkery, a social worker at Hifadhi Africa Organization.

From the semi-arid areas of East Pokot to the capitals of the most developed countries, Covid-19 has threatened global economies and has affected everyone. It is evident that any outbreak among the poor rural communities like East Pokot will be hard to contain and will cause grave consequences.

To improve access to Covid-19 prevention methods, the Kenya Human Rights Commission is now calling on the government to translate the guidelines into local languages.

For pastoralists like Toduso, global measures to contain the virus are affecting them negatively, much more than the pandemic itself. The majority of the East Pokot Community cannot afford the essentials and unless they are more informed about the virus and the safety measures, this pandemic will only disrupt their livelihoods.

Pressing concern

A report by the State Department for Development of the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands reveals that livestock is responsible for 90% of employment and 95% of household income in the arid and semi-arid lands of Northern Kenya. However, East Pokot still lags behind in terms of economic empowerment.

A study on pastoralist communities in Southern Ethiopia and Northern Kenya further found that while the average worth of an individual’s livestock totalled Sh19,500 (US$1,800), the total value of household assets (such as beds, radios, and lanterns) was less than Sh2,700 (US$25).