Siaya, Kenya: The “Covid Women” making the difference

This story is the second part of last week’s story from Siaya, Kenya and will highlight women-led initiatives in the county. Rosemary Atieno reports

This is the thirty-eighth in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN.

Ngiya and Nyabera, two villages in Siaya County, are located along the shores of Lake Victoria, Kenya. Women groups from this area have been at the forefront of supporting the impoverished, climate-vulnerable communities and building resilience in the past. Once again, they have shouldered the responsibility to support their communities during the global pandemic.

A team of ten dynamic women from different parts of the community have bonded with a common goal of safeguarding their communities during the Covid crisis. These women have trained other women in various skills, and volunteered their services as community health workers or church leaders despite the cultural stigma that women face in taking these roles.

“We have heard that the disease attacks those with low immunity, those with life threatening conditions like diabetes and hypertension and these conditions are mostly associated with the elderly. There is an urgent need to act,” says Isabella Otumo, the leader of the dynamic team called “Mine Covid”, meaning the “Covid women”.

Educating the communities

“As the pandemic continued to ravage in the country, the rural communities, especially along the shores of Lake Victoria continued behaving as normal. They wore face masks on the chin, and did not keep social distance and proper hygiene. This bothered the team because they were of one accord to help their communities” says Isabella.

Seeing the indifference among the community members, this group of women decided to take it upon themselves to educate the community, especially the elderly and other vulnerable groups such as disabled people. As community health workers, they went from door to door and held courtyard meetings, maintaining all hygiene protocols to describe how to wear masks, wash hands properly and maintain social distance.

“The pandemic had diverse effects on families:  those in the cities lost jobs, women had no option but to stay at home, lockdown made small businesses close, people lost their livelihoods and many returned home when the opportunity availed itself. All these hardships had left the communities with little money to spend on precautions,” Isabella shares.

To help the community members in distress, Isabella and her team decided to donate part of their one month allowances (worth 500 Kenyan Shilling each) to help people to access soap and hand washing stations. While donating the money, they prioritised households with elderly and disabled persons and children.

Training community women in soap-making

All the members of “Mine Covid” team are members of Women Climate Centers International where they have learnt a few techniques in Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) with emphasis on hand washing and soap making.

Seeing the opportunity to change the hygiene situation of the communities, Isabella and her team got to work using their skill of making liquid soap and distributed it among the community members. They further mobilised resources to buy a few masks.

As the team commenced their work, they received a donation from WCCI. They worked together, made more soap ready for distribution and bought a few 5 litre cans to make tippy taps. Later on, they have distributed over 300 litres of soap with donations from well-wishers and have distributed face masks and some food items to over 50 households.

The team has also started training women how to make soap at household level. Some women started small businesses out of it to recover from the impacts of Covid-19. “Ever since I came across this team, my life has never been the same. They taught me skills on how to make and sell soap, this has enabled me to make money especially during this pandemic. I now make and sell both liquid and bar soap, I am able to help support my family and I even save some money now in my new bank account. In the last few months I sold over 220  litres of liquid soap and 12 bars making a total of 14400 Kenyan Shilling (worth of 144 USD)’’ says Margaret Nahason, one of the trained women by the Mine Covid team.

“I am happy to be part of ‘’the COVID Women’’ team. “My life has changed, using the profit I made out of the soap making business, I have managed to repair my house that was halfway fallen down, I am now saving my daughter’s school fee with ease, and we are able to have three meals a day despite the challenges posed by Covid” says Beatrice, a widow and a member of Mine Covid.


Interviewer’s perspective

“As the third wave of the COVID 19 pandemic continues to ravage the country, the rural communities like Siaya along the shores of lake Victoria are not exceptions. Economic and medical shocks associated with the pandemic are adversely affecting the women, the old and those with underlying conditions. Women are facing increased pressure at the household level taking care of these vulnerable members of the community.

In thinking about these set of people, our society calls for fearless women like Isabella and her team to swing into action. With their little resources they have chosen to help the needy in society by encouraging them, and providing what is required to keep them safe such as soap and food hampers. If the “COVID Women” locally known as ‘’Mine COVID’’ are supported with resources, they will be more encouraged to fight this course especially for the elderly and others with underlying conditions.

About the Interviewer

Rosemary Atieno is a trained agriculture officer and community development worker. She is also the founder of a local NGO named “Community Mobilization for Positive Empowerment (COMPE)” in Kenya. She has vast experience working with rural grassroots communities in Kenya in livelihood support programs, community engagement, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), reproductive health, food security and women’s leadership. Rosemary specializes in community engagement through participatory approaches that encourage self-reliance and reduce donor dependency. In her work, she specifically emphasizes agricultural technologies that conserve water and help preserve the environment. Such technologies include bio-intensive farming, zero tillage energy saving devices and tree planting. She is passionate about empowering communities to take control of their lives.

About the Interviewee

Isabella, aged 36, lives in Ngiya community of Siaya County with 3 children. Isabella did not get a chance to finish school due to high poverty levels. She has been trained on several issues of Water sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), masonry and soap making among others. Isabella is outgoing, ready to learn and has a passion to help others as she shares her knowledge and skills.

Margaret lives in Siaya County in West Uyoma. Margaret is a community leader and an early innovator. She is also a beneficiary of training conducted by Isabella and her team. She has taken soap making as a business and is selling soap at schools, and local households among others.

Beatrice is a widow living in Siaya County with several children has found a resolve in soap making which has been handy for her in the fight against COVID 19. She has taken soap and detergent making as a business under the guidance of the COVID women. She is outgoing, resilient and ready to learn.