The sound of a cowbell calls students from their classes at Menno Kids Academy (MKA). Lunch is served, but the chattering students don’t head to the food line. Instead they swarm around outdoor water faucets, where they wash their hands with soap and water.
Then they go to the kitchen for a plate of ugali, cooked white cornmeal, a food even more common in Kenya than mashed potatoes are in Canada and the U.S. The children fill their fingertips with ugali and scoop up seasoned collard greens before popping it into their mouths.
Their routine is well established — wash your hands before you eat. For the 314 students from preschool to grade eight, handwashing is as normal as raising their hands to answer a question.
That’s because at this school, which is a ministry of Mathare North Mennonite Church in Nairobi, Kenya, learning about sanitation and hygiene is part of education, just like math and reading.
The combination works. Children who are healthier come to school more often. Because they are in school more often, their academic performance improves.
In Nairobi, MCC has supported a Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) program at MKA since 2010 and at Mukuru Mennonite Academy, a ministry of Embakasi Mennonite Church, since 2012. Led by WASH promoters hired by the schools, students learn practical lessons about purifying water and washing hands that are vital to staying healthy in communities where drainage and sanitation are poor.
“Before we started this program there were problems in school whereby many children were getting sick with waterborne diseases,” says Herine Akinyi of MKA, who is lead WASH promoter at the school. Students were often absent because of stomachaches, diarrhea or vomiting.
In response, the WASH program began at school, and students and WASH promoters took messages home to students’ families and neighbours, not only about handwashing but also about the importance of using a toilet. The use of flying toilets — plastic bags used as toilets, tied and tossed out the window — is a practice that is decreasing with education, but still a source of disease.
"There’s a greater sense of dignity when you feel clean."
- Krista Snader
Many parents had moved from rural areas where open defecation was a common practice to poor neighbourhoods in the capital where they live in one-room dwellings built tight against each other or stacked in tall buildings. Hemmed in by alleyways and streets strewn with trash, rooms usually have no running water, and families must rely on toilets they share with neighbours or pay to use toilets that are privately owned or controlled.
Jay Herine, a grade six girl with a two-month-old brother and a brother in grade two, told her mother Wilkista Akoth about the importance of handwashing. The WASH promoters visited Akoth, along with all the other school parents, to reinforce the clean water and hygiene messages with them and often with their neighbours.
Accepting their messages was not hard, Akoth says, because she saw her children’s digestive health improve. Enforcing new habits with her family wasn’t difficult either because the children brought their hygiene practices home — after using the toilet they washed their hands without reminders from her. She makes sure she washes her hands after changing diapers.
“It has become a habit. You don’t have to remind anybody, ‘Go and wash your hands,’” she said. “It’s the way of our life.”
At home, Akoth purifies her drinking water by boiling it, but at school, students drink water purified by the sun. Through the Solar Disinfection (SODIS) method, transparent polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles and the sun’s ultraviolet rays purify water.
Each morning, students fill their water bottles to the brim from the faucets and lay them on long wooden tables lined with metal. While students study, the sun shines on the bottles. In class, students can drink water from a second bottle that was purified the day before.
Naomy Monyenye, a member of a student club promoting health, is responsible for reminding her grade seven classmates about good health habits, including changing their water bottles. Students in the club get extra training from the WASH promoters.
“I also make them remember to remove the bottle and also wash the bottle and wash the rack, so that you can always be clean. You know, if you don’t clean this, the bottle will also get dirty and get germs.”
Recently the WASH programs at the two schools have added another sanitary practice that helps keep older female students in school — the distribution of reusable sanitary pads to all menstruating girls. The WASH promoters also teach the girls about menstruation, a topic that is still taboo in many homes, as well as how to clean and use the pads.
Disposable pads are too expensive for most parents who earn unpredictable wages as day labourers or street vendors, says Irene Anyango, WASH promoter at Mukuru Mennonite Academy. Rags are often the default, which can cause infection and embarrassment if they leak.
As a result, menstruating girls tend to stay home from school and isolate themselves from group activity, she says.
Now, she says, the girls have the supplies they need to participate confidently in school.
All of the work of the WASH program is about dignity, says MCC worker Krista Snader of Ephrata, Pennsylvania, who oversees the program at the two schools. “There’s a greater sense of dignity when you feel clean.”