FEATURE: Kenya – Indigenous women overcome discrimination to lead community COVID-19 responses
In Kenya, indigenous women are tapping into local resources, and undertaking individual and collective initiatives to tackle the COVID-19 crisis. Rose Wamalwa reports. This is the twelfth in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN.
Community-led awareness campaigns in Kenya’s Maasai region
The Maasai, a well-known indigenous ethnic group in east Africa, are located in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. They are renowned for their distinct traditions, attire and proximity to several national parks in the region. While the Maasai men herd cattle, patrol as warriors and act as principal decision-makers, the women are married off at an early age and put in charge of running a household.
When COVID-19 hit, the Maasai communities in Kenya were scared and confused. “Where did this virus come from? I have been told that everyone is at risk of contracting the dreadful virus – men, women, children and the elderly. No one is spared,” says Diana Nooormishuki Chesengei, a Maasai woman who works as a community climate change ambassador for Women’s Climate Centers International (WCCI are piloting a network of Climate Centers across Uganda and Kenya that provide localised peer to peer training in climate resilient agriculture, water, health and sustainability).
The virus and the consequent lockdown had resulted in a temporary cessation of women-run small businesses as the government has banned all public gatherings. “Our main income was selling Maasai beads to the tourists but they are not coming here anymore. We have the beads but there are no customers,” Mama Chesengei shares.
In Mama Chesengei’s community, health facilities are inadequate – they are obsolete and dysfunctional. Stocks of medicines are insufficient and the overall health infrastructure is in a despicable condition. Hence, the community members quickly realised that they have to take their own initiatives to protect themselves from the virus. Recognising that coronavirus treatment facilities are sparse, they have focused on educating each other on hygiene measures to stop the spread of the virus and keep everyone healthy.
“We cannot rely on the government because it is yet to respond to the pandemic. In addition, government interventions take ages to reach the ground. The solution is with us and within us,” adds Mama Chesengei, whose community has faced numerous hardships from the beginning of the year.
The COVID-19 crisis is augmenting stresses that the communities have suffered since earlier in the year: in March, they lost crops, animals and nurseries in which they had invested their scarce resources, as a result of severe floods.
“My house was submerged in water and my neighbour’s daughter drowned in the river Mara. Never had I experienced such back-to-back crises in 35 years of my life!” said Mama Chesengei.
“I was vulnerable as I was internally displaced with my children. Many referred to me as a refugee in my own community. And then COVID-19 struck. This was a big blow that left us completely disoriented socially, politically and economically,” she adds. Realising the severity of the situation for her household and her community, Mama Chesengei took it upon herself to sensitise other community members about the virus.
As a community change agent and an ambassador for peace and development, Mama Chesengei has been working with Participatory Integrated Community Development (PICD) and Community Conversation Approach (CCA) strategies that apply community inclusion in development projects, by representing local interests and needs in regional planning.
Learning from the PICD and CCA strategies, Mama Chesengei has been able to communicate the importance of a collaborative indigenous response to COVID-19 to community stakeholders. “At first, it was difficult to sensitise my community because I did not know how to translate the COVID-19 phenomenon into the local language. It took time for me to convince everyone that the virus exists and can be fatal,” said Mama Chesengei.
The Maasai cultural system is based on strong social interactions and reciprocity that encourage people to move freely from one household to another. Utilising this culture and her experience of mediation with others, Mama Chesengei has developed a community-led COVID-19 information strategy that involved collaborating with and mobilising women groups, local churches, community health workers, government officials and village elders. These groups would lead awareness campaigns within the communities. Women-led groups also organise communication events to educate community members about the virus and its preventive measures, by maintaining social distance and wearing masks.
The women, led by Mama Chesengei are challenging the cultural beliefs and practices that are preventing their community from responding to the pandemic effectively. “It is considered a taboo for a woman to challenge cultural beliefs, traditions and norms, but we don’t have an option right now. We have to defend our lives, and as women, we are strongly opposing archaic practices that threaten the lives of our loved ones,” says Mama Chesengei with determination.
Furthermore, the Maasai women are using their sewing skills to make face masks for the community members and making liquid soap for handwashing purposes. These skills were acquired in the past, and have become their means of survival during the current crisis.
Home-based care approach in the Mount Elgon region
Thousands of miles from Mama Chesengei’s community is Evelin Namalwa who lives in Mt Elgon, Bungoma County in western Kenya. Here, local community beliefs are a challenge, when seeking to persuade people to take public health measures that are scientifically proven to combat the virus. Mama Evelin, also a WCCI community climate change ambassador, has a different story but a similar approach towards COVID-19 prevention in her community.
Mama Evelin’s community holds strong beliefs in witchcraft and feels that COVID-19 is an ancestral spell that has been cast on its members. The elders believe that their ancestors’ wrath has engulfed them in the form of the virus, and they are performing sacrifices to appease their spirits.
Traditional beliefs are difficult to challenge in indigenous communities. Despite the gruelling circumstances, Mama Evelin along with a group of women are working as health volunteers for the home-based care approach introduced by the government. This is an initiative that engages community health volunteers acting as a communication link between healthcare workers and community households.
Anyone suspected of COVID-19 symptoms is monitored and treated by the volunteers, who are provided with a standard protocol to follow. They also educate the patients and the family on safe hygiene practices and other safety measures. In addition, Mama Evelin maintains a list of the most vulnerable households and she visits these on a weekly basis, and discusses with them the importance of social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands during the pandemic.
Evelin’s efforts are often challenged by community members who refuse to adhere to these instructions if they are not provided with food as an incentive. “I’m just a community health volunteer, I don’t have the resources to provide food to these families. I wish the government would recognise our efforts and provide further support for these interventions,” Mama Evelin says.
Agents of change
Both Mama Chesengei and Mama Evelin have acted as agents of change within their respective communities during a crisis. However, their initiatives have not been without obstacles. In indigenous communities in Kenya, women are considered inferior to men and have to abide by the directives given by their husbands. In the past, Mama Evelin had even been abducted and almost killed because of her work on women’s empowerment. Currently, she coordinates a group of 50 women who are working to create pandemic-related awareness. A majority of these women are victims of physical abuse and rape.
Women like Diana Nooormishuki Chesengei and Evelin Namalwa are confronting gender discrimination and risking their own lives for the betterment of their communities. “Every day I arm myself with a face mask and take all hygienic precautions to visit community households and share information and knowledge about the virus. I am now known as, “Mama Corona” and am very proud of this title, because it recognises my work during a global pandemic,” shares Mama Evelin.
The compounded economic shocks of the flooding in Maasai and community violence in Mt Elgon, followed by COVID-19 and its associated economic impacts are adversely affecting women because they earn less than men and save little. Consequently, with children out of schools, women are facing increased pressure of household and care-giving responsibilities. In addition, they face compromised reproductive health services due to the reallocation of resources for COVID-19. Due to restricted movement and social isolation, communities such as the Maasai are facing the highest levels of gender-based violence. In Mama Chesengei’s community, a young woman has recently been battered by her husband, who cut off her hands because of family disagreements.
Mama Evelin and Mama Chesengei are typical examples of resolute and fearless women leaders who are at the forefront of tackling the current crisis. Despite their vulnerabilities, women are taking actions to support their communities in times of need. It is important to represent indigenous communities when documenting stories of COVID-19 response initiatives, as they are faced with multiple challenges given their remote locations, traditional customs and patriarchal values.
About the Interviewer
Rose Wamalwa is the Coordinator of Women Climate Centers International (WCCI) in Africa. She works with indigenous women in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda to co-create sustainable solutions, emphasising low-cost and environmentally-friendly technologies.
About the Interviewees
Diana Nooormishuki Chesengei is an indigenous Masai woman in Kenya working with WCCI as a climate change advocate and community health volunteer.
Evelin Namalwa is also an indigenous woman who lives in a remote community situated in the south-eastern slope of Mt Elgon, Bungoma County, western Kenya. Evelin is a WCCI community climate change ambassador and a community health volunteer.
Read more Voices from the Frontline
This article is part of a series. CDKN and the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) in Dhaka, Bangladesh are reaching out through networks of civil society organisations and local groups to commission interviews with community pioneers at the frontlines of devising localised solutions to COVID-19. Many of these communities are already trying to cope with the effects of climate change, and other threats to their wellbeing.
Read more stories from communities: Voices from the Frontline series.
 Indigenous: in Kenyan context, the term ‘indigenous’ is used in the same way as, internationally, the term ‘First Nations’ is used. In the local lexicon, it refers to peoples who still have lifestyles that have not changed much over time and remain traditional.
 Participatory Integrated Community Development (PICD) and Community Conversation Approach (CCA) strategies entail community inclusion and representation. For example, integrating grassroots-level planning with regional planning. This leads to a more sustainable and coordinated approach to development. In addition to this vertical integration, PICD also enhances horizontal integration through multi-sector stakeholder collaboration within a region.