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By Kevin Mwanza and Sheba A. Odondi
WAJIR, Kenya – For Shukri Isaack, insulting by-names like “poop-man” did not deter him from pursuing his mission to stop the long-running practice of open defecation in Kenya’s Wajir County when a programme known as the Kenya Sanitation and Hygiene Improvement Programme (K-SHIP) started in November 2014.
Four years later, his nickname has changed to “honey-man” as communities across the county came to understand and accept the push for each household to have and use a toilet and make all villages free from open defecation.
“Initially we used to call him Shukri the poop-man. Now we call him the honey-man because he brings sweet things,” Abiba Abdi said at a gathering of residents in Kajaja 2 location.
“When he came with his team for the first time, they brought us feces,” Ms Abdi said referring to the contaminated water Shukri and his team came to sensitize with. “We thought that was a terrible thing for someone to do. Now our daughters in schools no longer go to the open defecation sites. They comfortably go to the toilets.”
K-SHIP is a five-year programme funded by the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, executed by Amref Health Africa alongside implementing partners in 11 counties across Kenya.
The sanitation and hygiene improvement programme also contributes to the broader goals of poverty eradication, health and environmental improvement, gender equality, and long-term social and economic development.
In Wajir, some 680 kilometers northeast of the capital Nairobi, K-SHIP works with the country government, local non-governmental organizations, Wajir South Development Association (WASDA), and Global Child Hope.
Shukri, who previously worked with WASDA, is now the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) coordinator, a position at the county public health office, and has been working relentlessly to see residents of Wajir achieve 100 percent open defecation free (ODF) villages.
His efforts include sensitizing villagers in Wajir on the importance of behaviour change to be free from open defecation and practice handwashing to help improve their sanitation and push back occurrence of diseases such as typhoid and cholera.
This, Shukri said, was done through triggering the residents to come to self-realization on how their borehole water was being contaminated by the practice of open defecation and leading to the eruption of infections in their community. Such sensitization was supported by K-SHIP.
“Our work is not yet done despite the achievements we have made. I know it’s not easy but with effort and support from the government and partners, we can do it,” Shukri said.
Already some locations like Arbakheramso have achieved what was previously seen as impossible. Six out of eight villages in the location have achieved 100 percent ODF.
Yusuf Warsame, another villager, said before they builtpit latrines, they used to suffer from diseases such as typhoid, kidney stones and cholera but never knew that open defecation contributed to the prevalence of such diseases.
Kenya has made progress toward increasing access to water and sanitation. However, one in every 10 Kenyans still defecate in the open, according to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Report.
In particular, Wajir is ranked number 44 out of 47 in the county sanitation benchmarking by the Kenya’s Ministry of Health with more than 75 percent of the people not having access to toilets.
This has led to frequent outbreaks of waterborne diseases especially cholera and diarrhea.
High ground water table and use of shallow wells as a source of water for domestic and livestock use has also made it impossible to construct pit latrines as latrine slug infiltrates the ground water.
With the absence of sewer system in Wajir town, over 68 percent of its 100,000 inhabitants depend on bucket latrines, a system introduced during the colonial times to protect the ground water, the World Bank says.
During rainy season, the fecal waste overflows and runs in to the shallow water wells leading to contamination and many water diseases, according to Ahmed Guhad Omar, the county chief officer in-charge of medical services.
“There are recurring cholera outbreaks because of this. The kind of support K-SHIP is offering is what we need to improve the sanitation in Wajir,” said Mr Omar.
“Other organizations have also taken up their own ODF programmes including World Vision, an implementing partner for K-SHIP, which achieved its first seven ODF villages this year,” he said, acknowledging that implementation approaches used by K-SHIP were successfully adopted by other partners such as WASDA, Global Child Hope and World Vision.
Under K-SHIP, some 40 villages were the first to be declared open defecation free in Wajir with a target of having the total of 400 villages in the county of over 600,000 people ODF before the end of 2020.
Nationally, K-SHIP has reached and sensitized over 1.95 million people with appropriate sanitation and hygiene interventions, and 830 villages have been certified ODF. The programme is focused to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6.2.
“We should consider scaling up so we can take ODF to the whole country,” said James Wicken, WSSCC’s Head of Global Policy, Advocacy and Innovation.
“As long as we have some household OD the problem will still be there. We need 100 percent ODF for this to work,” he told residents of Kajaja 2.
Halima Mohammed, while six months pregnant with her sixth baby, decided to dig her own latrine in the absence of her husband who had gone away searching pasture for their cattle.
Three months later, as her baby was due, a 10-foot-deep basic pit latrine was ready for use. She said it was her joy to name the newborn baby Malabey, which means honey in Somali language. This, she said, was in honour of Shukri the “honey-man”.
“I was really inspired by the efforts Shukri had put into educating the community about having toilets in their homesteads and really wanted to have one just like my neighbours,” said Halima.
“After three months of digging the hard rock, I delivered a baby girl and named her Honey. Now I’m not ashamed to go to poop.”
The push for ODF in Wajir has faced a number of challenges including the nomadic lifestyle of communities living in the region and insecurity from inter-communal conflicts and a spillover of the conflict in Somalia where Al Shabab militants have reined havoc for decades.
Wajir is also one of the largest counties in Kenya with a sparse population and poor infrastructure that makes some areas hard to access.
Despite these challenges, K-SHIP and its partners have managed to reach most parts of the county.
For areas that are proving a challenge, K-SHIP plans to use community members from villages like Arbakheramso as ambassadors in creating ODF awareness, Wiken said.
“People from this village can go and teach in other communities. They become the ODF ambassadors to the villages that are still practicing open defecation,” he told a gathering of villagers.
For Shukri and his team the journey has not been easy or welcoming in a society that views talking about issues of sanitation as taboo and disturbing.
But where they previously faced hostility, they are now being embraced and welcomed as norms change and more OD villages turn ODF.
“I remember when at one time someone poured hot tea on us. We just entered his door and he poured hot tea on us,” Shukri said. “Now they are more than willing to welcome us because they know the message we bring will benefit them and their families.”