What happens when those who are trusted by communities to help them navigate difficult situations are themselves victims of the same difficult situations?
This is the reality that continues to rock many communities living in Kenya’s coast in the wake of the pandemic. Curfews, lockdowns and other restrictions make it challenging for governments and civil society to meaningfully support communities when they too have to operate within the same restrictions, and manage the same risks of infection.
Majengo and Mishomoroni are just two of Mombasa’ informal settlements. Helping people who live in settlements such as these respond to the outbreak has been hard. Each has a long history of poor relations with security agencies, and the harsh enforcement of new government regulations has only made things more volatile. The widespread sharing of false and misleading information has further hindered the community’s ability to collectively respond to the outbreak.
We have died many deaths before, but we are still alive!
Such is the reality of day-to-day life in the settlements; most residents of Majengo and Mishomoroni regard the virus as just one of many life-threatening hazards to be managed. These people have lived amongst a wide array of perils ranging from police brutality and recruitment by violent extremist organisations to lack of clean water, poor sanitation…the list goes on. A comment from one local trader, ‘We have died many deaths, but we are still alive!’ says everything about the attitude of many in his community; Covid-19 is just one more challenge against which they will eventually prevail.
But it’s not easy. The historical inadequacies of government support for informal settlements coupled with violent crackdowns have severely eroded people’s trust in the state. This means that few are willing to believe in or abide by the new Covid-19 directives. As well, such restrictions have further impeded access to jobs, making life particularly difficult for the many young people who relied on informal work to support themselves and their families.
Part of the problem lies in the disruption of informal networks – for instance, preventing access to local hangout joints known as maskanis means that young people are not able to access information about informal employment or support services. Sadly, but as we have seen elsewhere, Covid-19 enforced idleness has reportedly led to increased crime and domestic violence against women.
Is the pandemic opening new opportunities?
There have been glimpses of hope however. In a recent national appeal, young people were called to join the fight against Covid-19 by helping raise awareness among their communities. In Majengo and Mishomoroni, groups took it upon themselves to go door to door, sharing information among their neighbours. The restrictions have also prompted some young people to reimagine what they are willing to do to earn an income. In an employment context where the division of roles is stark, young men have indicated that they are now more willing to take up work traditionally left for women, such as cooking and washing clothes.
New initiatives are also being launched which stand to improve the deep divide with security forces. A number of cases have emerged of police offering to help people during the curfew. In Mombasa, amateur videos have been shared widely of police helping women get home safely through checkpoints, sharing hand sanitizer with passers-by and helping cart pushers make their way through the traffic. Police officers have been seen handing out face masks despite a national government directive to arrest people not wearing them. The move has reduced the potential for harassment and bribery and was applauded by residents. Remarkably, amidst Covid-19, a more humane image of the police service is emerging.
Can these positive steps extend beyond the pandemic? Newly improved relations could be leveraged to encourage communities to work more closely with security agencies in tackling other issues such as crime and extremism. Civil society organizations might be able to capitalize on the trend to strike up new local security initiatives which empower rather than frighten citizens.
It might be useful to find out more – the informal, organic, home-grown initiatives that have sprung up among communities and police forces may offer useful lessons that go beyond Mombasa’s settlements. Tapping into the energy and innovation found in this time of crisis might tell us much about what has worked, and whether others elsewhere might stand to benefit.