Top photo caption: In Mathare, an area of Nairobi, Kenya, Anna Mwatha, shown with her son Josiphat Zinga, maintains one of the 50 handwashing stations provided through an MCC partner and teaches neighbors how to prevent the spread of COVID-19. MCC photo/Scott Stoner-Eby
As the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Nairobi, Kenya, in March 2020, Judith Siambe’s thoughts turned to the people she works with through an MCC-supported maternal and child health project in Mathare, one of the poorest areas of the city.
In this informal settlement of 500,000 people, small tin houses stand one next to another, all packed with people who spill out onto the dirt streets and pathways each morning. Most homes have no running water, latrines or electricity.
Parents, more than half of them single mothers, already struggle to make enough money to feed their children each day and to protect them from cholera, malaria and other diseases.
The COVID-19 prevention measures government authorities were suggesting — social distancing, staying home, wearing masks and paying careful attention to hygiene — seemed almost impossible.
But Siambe, like MCC partners across the globe, sprang into action — working to figure out how to continue to meet urgent and changing needs in the midst of lockdowns and striving to give communities the information and supplies they needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
As the director of the Centre for Peace and Nationhood (CPN), a program of the Kenya Mennonite Church, Siambe already had an established network of 12 health promoters and about 150 care group leaders in Mathare who would teach others how to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. She also had MCC, who supported CPN’s health program and agreed to help financially with the urgent, new effort.
Health promoters and care group leaders shifted their work. Rather than meeting with 10 to 12 mothers at a time, they donned masks and visited group members individually — a change that also brought new insights, including ensuring that a child with tuberculosis got the treatment she needed.
In addition, CPN, with MCC support, supplied 50 hand-washing stations, each holding enough water to serve 20 households. Care group leaders like Anna Mwatha keep containers full, hand out soap that they have made and encourage passersby to stop and wash their hands so they don’t get COVID-19 or other diseases.
In Mathare, people must buy the water they use, a barrier to frequent hand-washing. Now, because of these efforts, as many as 5,000 people have access to free water and soap to wash their hands.
In country after country, MCC and its partners shifted their work to meet the changing contexts and needs.
“We were responding before COVID-19 really took hold in a lot of places,” says Paul Shetler Fast, MCC’s global health coordinator. So, for the most part, partners were able to get the supplies they needed more easily than they could have as worry and case numbers rose.
The first two significant additions to projects began in late March in Afghanistan and Ukraine, he says. Other efforts soon followed in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia.
In April and May, 9,000 families in war-torn communities in Syria received COVID-19 hygiene kits with items including bleach, soap, hand sanitizer and masks.
Health clinics supported by MCC partners in Burundi, Lebanon, Nigeria and elsewhere had the personal protective equipment and supplies they needed to keep patients and staff safe and to remain in operation.
Funds from MCC and Mennonite World Conference helped Mexico’s Anabaptist churches reach out to members in need of food or who had lost jobs. MCC supported efforts to assist migrants in shelters and camps in southern Mexico and in northern Mexico along the U.S. border. And MCC canned meat helped families in the U.S. in places from Florida to California.
In Zimbabwe, MCC partner Score Against Poverty recognized that COVID-19 warnings on smart phones or in English weren’t likely to reach rural families, especially women. So, they broadcast prevention messages through radio, T-shirts, posters and simple text messages in local languages including Tonga, Ndebele and Shona.
“We were responding before COVID-19 really took hold in a lot of places.”
- Paul Shetler Fast
From Latin America to Africa to Asia, warnings about COVID-19 from MCC partners and local faith leaders, who have trusted relationships with communities, carried weight.
“I did not believe what was being said in the media about this new disease,” says Kambundi Germaine, who benefits from a Mennonite Brethren outreach to displaced people in Kikwit in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But, she says, since the church “is speaking of this, I now believe it and will warn my friends and children.”
Across the globe, MCC partners were forced to find new ways to continue to do work that, in some cases, was needed more urgently than ever.
In Colombia, MCC partner Riohacha Mennonite Church had long opened its doors to people in need, including operating a home for the elderly on its grounds and serving meals to Venezuelan refugees flooding into the area. Then lockdown regulations protecting the elderly precluded the church from welcoming refugees for daily meals.
The church began packing meals, then recruiting others to serve them outside church grounds — feeding 70 to 100 Venezuelan refugees each day while keeping safe those most vulnerable to COVID-19.
“During this time, it’s easy to focus on the things that are not possible,” says Elizabeth Miller of Goshen, Indiana, who is MCC representative for Colombia along with her husband, Neil Richer. “And the project of the Riohacha Mennonite Church has been this testimony of how to imagine what is possible, no matter what you think you have to start with, or your limitations, but to have that holy imagination.”
“The project of the Riohacha Mennonite Church has been this testimony of how to imagine what is possible, no matter what you think you have to start with, or your limitations, but to have that holy imagination.”
- Elizabeth Miller
That imagination took hold across MCC’s programming.
In Zambia, MCC worked with Brethren in Christ schools and the Ministry of Education to develop a radio literacy program and distribute corresponding work packets that children could use at home.
From Bolivia to Ethiopia to Egypt, education programs found ways to continue to provide food and educational materials to students even though classes were on hold and gatherings were not possible.
Overall, Shetler Fast says, MCC prioritized responses, like the hand-washing stations in Mathare, that would meet existing needs and improve people’s lives in addition to protecting families from COVID-19.
That’s critical. Especially in the places where MCC works, suffering from the pandemic goes far beyond the virus itself.
“It’s also the economic impact, the social impact,” Shetler Fast says. “The pandemic upended all of our lives. It is devastating to the places MCC works and the people we work with.”
In India, Maleka Khatun, married less than a year, was with her husband Manik Alam in the western Indian city of Surat working in the garment industry when the lockdown began.
Some 1,500 miles from their home village of Jharbari, they ran through their savings and, by mid-April, were down to one meal a day. “I told my husband, ‘Better to die with (coronavirus) in our own village instead of dying because of hunger and mental stress in house arrest,’” Khatun remembers.
By late May, after a harrowing four-day journey in a truck with more than 40 people, they reached home, where they also had no work.
But Alam and Khatun soon connected with MCC partner Islampur Ramkrishnapally Rural Welfare Society (IRRWS), which had been working in the village since April 2019. Staff brainstormed with the couple about how they could support themselves without leaving home.
Alam began a small business buying and selling fish. He sold vegetables grown by farmers working with IRRWS and, once a small market opened in the village, he became a vendor there.
Seeing what his father had learned from IRRWS about kitchen gardening, Alam and Khatun began growing vegetables in a 3,000-square-foot plot.
That connection to MCC partner IRRWS, and the possibilities he found through it, he says, “ultimately strengthened my trust that I can do something here.”
These are gains to celebrate, but MCC and its partners are keenly aware of the harms the pandemic and its economic repercussions are causing across the globe, Shetler Fast says. Hunger is rising, along with the costs of seeds and fertilizers. As mothers avoid hospitals for fears of the virus, the risks of maternal mortality go up. The United Nations warns that the millions of students who have spent months out of school, especially girls, may never go back.
“The fallout of this is going to last a long time,” Shetler Fast says.
Marla Pierson Lester is publications coordinator for MCC U.S. Linda Espenshade is news coordinator for MCC U.S. Jason Dueck is a communications generalist for MCC Canada.