The impact of a school WASH project in Kenya

[Individual articles from the Winter 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

After many years of supporting water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) activities in Kenyan schools, MCC asked one school, Mukuru Mennonite Academy, located in an informal settlement of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, what impact its WASH program has had on the broader community. The school serves over 350 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. Most pupils live in rented, makeshift houses that have poor ventilation and lack water and sanitation facilities. Seventy-five percent of homesteads in the settlement use community pay toilets. Some have private toilets and others use the “flying toilet” method of defecating in a plastic bag and then throwing it out into the alleyway. Almost all (98%) inhabitants use community pipes for their water supply. Residents buy this water from the Nairobi city water supply and the pipe infrastructure is fraught with leaks, often passing through open sewer ditches. According to the local Rueben Health Center, more than 30% of common recurrent diseases that they treat are water- and sanitation-related. 

The long-term goal of the WASH program at Mukuru is that “the Mukuru community will be healthier with children having fewer incidences of diseases caused by poor personal and environmental sanitation. In addition, good hygiene practices will become a social norm within the Mukuru community.” Specific goals of the program include: educating community members and school children on methods of treating their drinking water; educating households on the importance of proper human waste disposal; facilitating community clean-up days to remove litter and clear drainage ditches; and increasing the attendance rate at the school by reducing waterborne diseases.  

In responding to the question of what impact the WASH program has had on the community, the WASH promoters tell stories of improved relationships—both relationships between the school and students’ parents and relationships between the school and community leaders (clan elders and chiefs). One component of this WASH program is that every three months the WASH promoters visit the household of each pupil. The benefit of these household visits has gone beyond the original goals of educating the family on WASH practices. As the promoters visit parents, they develop a trusting relationship with them, fostering a feeling among parents that the school is concerned about the well-being of their child, not simply managing the school for personal gain. This has improved the engagement between parents and the school. Often during these visits, curious neighbors come and join the visit and learn about WASH practices as well. An additional benefit of this relationship between parents and the school is a high retention rate of pupils. In this densely populated community, there are many schools (most of them private) to choose from and it is not uncommon for a student to stay at one school for only one year or one term before changing to a different one. When WASH promoters regularly visit pupils’ homes, the opportunity for that student to succeed in school is greatly improved.  

Another positive outcome of the household visits by the WASH promoters is an increased security in their community due to the positive relationship between the community administrators and the school. The community administrators see the promoters educating parents in their homes, regardless of what family or tribe they are from, and appreciate that the school is actively promoting community health. This positive relationship bears fruit when the community administration calls for community clean-up days where the whole community works together to clean out drainage ditches, pick up litter and learn more about environmental sanitation. Since the WASH promotors have been training on the importance of good hygiene and sanitation, more people participate in the clean-up days. The promotors also note that as they build rapport in the communities, more families welcome them into their households for training.  

Together with the Kenyan government, Mukuru WASH promoters also observe international Water Day, Handwashing Day and Toilet Day. During these celebrations, community members are encouraged to actively improve hygiene and sanitation by physically opening drainage systems, collecting litter and constructing ‘leaky tins’ or ‘tippy taps’ for improved handwashing. Promotors model good handwashing behavior and establish places to wash hands in the school and community. 

The respectful relationship between parents and WASH promoters can help dispel some commonly held myths. One myth that some families believe is that young children get diarrhea because their teeth are coming in. This leads parents to not intervene when a child gets diarrhea, leaving the child vulnerable to dehydration and malnutrition. A second myth is that children’s feces are safe, and one cannot get diseases from them. This can lead families to not properly dispose of a child’s feces because they believe they contain no pathogens. During the WASH visits, myths like these can be discussed and parents learn healthy WASH behaviors. WASH promoters report that parents have increased their practice of WASH behaviors and they have become a regular part of their lifestyle. For example, the number of families using flying toilets has decreased by 34%. The Mukuru WASH promotors attribute the success of behavior change to the consistent follow-up visits within the community and the WASH-related murals painted at community gathering points. Parents self-report that they are washing their hands after using the toilet and overall toilet usage has increased by 78%. Households have also reported improvement of garbage disposal habits.  

Promoters report that 233 families of students are treating their drinking water and 182 families use the Solar Water Disinfection (SODIS) method for improving the safety of drinking water. Promoters report that a few households (5%) have installed a ‘leaky tin’ handwashing station at their homes to encourage more frequent washing of hands as well as to conserve water. Mukuru Mennonite Academy has several of these leaky tins installed at their school where children wash their hands. Parents also report that they spend less time taking their sick children to medical facilities and less money on medicine. This change is attributed to practicing WASH behaviors. 

The private schools in the community belong to a cluster of schools that meet together regularly to collaborate. Mukuru Mennonite Academy administrators noted that as they adopted WASH behaviors on their school grounds, other schools followed suit as they were able. For example, now some schools have installed one toilet and one handwashing station model for their students to use during the school day when previously there had been no facilities available. And now some schools are purchasing water for their students to drink after learning from Mukuru Mennonite Academy about the importance of water for one’s health. 

The WASH program has achieved a positive impact in the community. This has been a result of good relationships within project staff and beneficiaries. Relationships have led to open discussion of good WASH practices and helped in tackling myths which sometimes prevent adoption of good hygiene and sanitation. The participants share challenges as they brainstorm together for concrete solutions to the problems they experience while trying to maintain good hygiene and sanitation. As the health goals are being realized in Mukuru Mennonite Academy, the WASH program has also created peaceful and trustful relationships between the school, students’ parents and the community. 

Krista Snader works with MCC Kenya in its WASH projects. The Mukuru Mennonite Academy WASH team is an MCC Kenya partner.


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