From riot refugee to proud volunteer

Published: 21 September 2012 14:11 CET

By Johanna Lassy-Mäntyvaara, Finnish Red Cross, in Kenya

The air is thick with the stench from rubbish, dirt and smoke. Were there not countless children running around laughing, the sight of huts built from waste material and mountains of rotting garbage might depress any visitor.

Sarah Kanyingen, a 28-year-old mother of three, comes walking from around the next corner. She lives in Nairobi’s second largest urban slum Mathare, which is home to an estimated half-a-million people.

Sarah was born in Mathare and raised all her children here. Her eldest is ten and the youngest has just had a first birthday. Poverty, hunger and insecurity have haunted the family for as long as they can remember. But even in this context of these everyday struggles, events from five years ago still raise their ugly head in the album of family memories.

Riots, which started as result of the presidential elections, spread like wildfire through Mathare, and many other places. Houses were burned and looted, people injured. Nationwide, one thousand people lost their lives. “Our house was surrounded by the rioters and everything we had managed to build our home with was looted,” Sarah said. “We had to escape to temporary shelter for nine months.”

A nearby school was requisitioned as shelter. Volunteers prepared meals for the riot refugees, acquired mattresses and tried their best to ease the burden of fellow citizens in need.

For Sarah, seeing this work was a revelation. “This is where I witnessed the work of the Red Cross. I was able to see how much they helped. Personally, this experience convinced me that I, too, want to be among the people assisting others instead of someone just at the receiving end,” she said.

Ever since the days at the shelter Sarah has been part of a Kenya Red Cross Society Action Team in Mathare. The Nairobi Branch of the organization has established similar teams in six other slums in the Nairobi metropolis area.

Neighborhood volunteers visit homes regularly to pass on information about fire hazards, health and hygiene and infectious diseases. They also organize community efforts to clean up the open sewers in the slums which could become a cause of disease outbreak.

Despite the lack of resources, including such vitals as first aid kits and protective gloves, the volunteers have had - and continue to have - a positive impact on their community testifying, they say, to the mighty power of humanity.

Thanks to the volunteers safety promotion activities, fires in the targeted slums have been reduced dramatically. In the past, they could expect to see at least one bad fire every week, mostly due to illegal wiring.

But teams are also involved in disaster response. In May this year, a landslide in the area killed six people, and Sarah’s Action Team was first at the scene. One of the victims was Sarah’s friend. “Had we not been so fast to alert people and help, there would have been many more fatalities, for sure,” She said.

The people in the volunteer teams that work in Mathare make a difference to people’s lives every day, and in the process help strengthen community bonds and demonstrate the power of working together.

After her experiences five years ago, Sarah - perhaps more than most - understands how important it to dare to care, and help your neighbours.