By Naomi Kitur
Kenya has been classified by the United Nations (UN) Water as a water scarce country. With a population of about 50 million, 15 percent of Kenyans rely on unimproved water sources, such as ponds, shallow wells and rivers, according to Water Org, a global nonprofit organization working to bring water and sanitation to the world (www.water.org).
Though these are the dominant sources in rural areas, the narrative is changing for residents of Kapkures sub-location in Bomet County, Kenya. Having experienced her community’s suffering due to lack of clean water, Joyline Chepkorir, a PhD student at John Hopkins University, School of Nursing, Baltimore, USA, initiated the ‘Maji Safi ni Uhai,’ a Kiswahili saying which translates to ‘Clean Water is Life’, to provide clean water for her people back home.
“The Maji Safi ni Uhai initiative is aimed at ensuring supply of safe, clean water for all people in Kapkures sub-location. A few of the people in my community are lucky to have roofs with corrugated iron sheets and tanks to collect rain water from the roof during rainy seasons. However, those with grass-thatched houses have to depend on contaminated water from open wells,’’ says Chepkorir.
She explained that in desperation, a large number of families have resorted to diverting dirty water from dirt roads, paths and farms into small wells for domestic use thereby risking catching waterborne diseases and other ailments.
Based on what I witnessed and conversations held with Kapkures locals, almost every homestead in the village has a shallow well that collects rainwater during wet seasons. The water is usually greyish to brown in color and evidently unsafe for human consumption but due to lack of alternatives the residents have been forced to use the dirty water.
As if that is not bad enough, Chepkorir intimated that ‘’during dry seasons, most wells dry up and women and children have to go to River Sisei and other open wells in far flung places to fetch water for drinking and other domestic uses on their backs or heads. The lucky ones use donkeys.”
She adds that most people do not boil water from the river or wells to kill disease-causing germs, which leads to incidences of typhoid, cholera, skin rashes and other waterborne diseases.
Besides the water borne diseases, the raw water has also been found to contain high levels of fluoride. ‘’People who have been exposed to fluoride in water during their early stages of life, have their teeth greatly discolored. Unfortunately most of them are unable to afford to see a dentist to have their teeth whitened,’’ she adds.
Averagely, dentists charge from KShs 10,000 (about USD 100) and above just to clean brown teeth. This is way above the means of most poor Kenyans who live below a dollar a day. Thus, those affected by the untreated water are forced to live with the shame of having brown teeth that ultimately affect their self-esteem.
Too much fluoride has been shown to cause enamel fluorosis, a discoloration of the permanent teeth. Many residents of Kapkures sub-location and Bomet County in general have this issue.
How Maji Safi ni Uhai came to life
While studying in the U.S, Chepkorir kept thinking about the plight of her people back home and began to look for funds to fix the problem by drilling a long lasting borehole. She submitted an application online, which included a proposal for the Maji Safi ni Uhai Initiative to the Schoenl Family Grant for Dire Needs Overseas.
As the name suggests, the objective of the Schoenl Family Undergraduate Grant for Dire Needs Overseas is to identify and fund the most outstanding projects which will serve dire human needs in countries other than the U.S. The grants must be used within a 12-month period to make an impact that will help alleviate dire human needs.
In April 2019, Chepkorir’s proposal, upon thorough review by a panel of grant reviewers appointed by Schoenl Foundation, was declared the winner of a grant valued at $1800 to start fund her community water project.
Though a big boost, the grant was not enough to satisfy the need. Thus, Chepkorir teamed up with another water initiative based in Baringo County, another part of Kenya seriously affected by water scarcity, to apply for a grant from the MasterCard Foundation Entrepreneurship Fund. They were granted $4000 in October 2019. The Maji Safi ni Uhai Initiative used its part of the grant in the project.
The sole aim of the project was to drill a long-term borehole with an electric pump for pumping water to a community storage tank centrally located within the sub-location for easy access by all residents.
The drilling of the first borehole commenced in January 2020 on a private piece of land offered by one of the locals. Unfortunately, the inaugural project did not yield any water to the utter disappointment of Chepkorir and the community who had great expectations. Asked about it, Chepkorir said the contractors’ did not use a proper equipment to ascertain the true depth of the levels.
This initial failure did not stop her from looking for other alternatives to try and eradicate the problem of access to clean water in her community. In August 2020, through an acquaintance, Chepkorir connected with Africa Water Wells (AWW), a philanthropic organization founded by Sandy and Bud Mulcahy, which drills clean water wells for African communities.
She sent her proposal to the AWW Organization and they availed their resources to help Chepkorir accomplish her mission. Even so, AWW, due their previous experience working with communities in Bomet County, only drills boreholes in that county on condition that the site is a public land.
Chepkorir, therefore, connected with the headmistress of Kapkures Primary School who agreed to have the borehole drilled in the school. The school was the best suited location due to its close proximity to Kapkures dispensary and Kapkures secondary school, which would also be beneficiaries of the proposed borehole.
However, some members of the community had conflicting views on the choice of drilling site, with others completely opposing the idea claiming that it was impractical because no borehole had ever been drilled before. But the majority of the community members supported having the borehole in the school.
With the small controversy over the choice of site resolved, AWW began the water project in January 2021. The project involved the collaboration of the community, leaders, experts as well as professionals. The organization paid for site assessment, permits and other fees associated with drilling, installation of a water pump, pipes and a storage tank. The project was completed in March 2021 and the three institutions were connected with water pipes directly from the source.
According to John Barimen, the Deputy Head teacher at Kapkures primary school, approximately 830 people access the water per day, that includes 500 pupils, teachers and non- teaching staff from the primary school, 300 secondary school students and approximately 30 people from the dispensary.
“Before the completion of the Maji Safi ni Uhai project, people used unsafe water from dams that were dug near the school compound and during the dry season, our pupils would walk three kilometers to River Sisei to fetch water. Currently, all the three institutions have access to clean and safe water,” said Barimen.
Bornice Lang’at, the school’s headmistress says that the project has helped to curb water shortages that had existed for a long period of time in the school and the dispensary and has also helped in the observance of the COVID-19 measures. ‘’Our pupils can now wash their hands regularly with soap and clean water,’’ she said.
Jackson Lang’at, in-charge of Kapkures dispensary, says that cases of water-borne diseases have reduced, explaining that in November, the local dispensary treated 46 cases and in December only 39 cases have been reported and they expect the numbers to drop even further. He adds that all staff from the dispensary can now work efficiently with the availability of clean and safe water from the borehole.
The three institutions pay for the water as per their consumption which is gauged using a water meter that is read at the end of every month. The money collected is then used to pay for the electricity bill since water is pumped using electricity and some spent in maintenance.
‘”Currently, the water is not connected to the villagers because the tank was just recently installed, in September 2021. The three institutions, Kapkures primary school, Kapkures secondary and Kapkures dispensary are the only beneficiaries at the moment but plans are underway to connect the water to the residents. We plan to have a water kiosk at Kapkures shopping center very soon, which will serve majority of area residents. The water will be sold at Kshs. 10 (about USD 0.1) per 20- litres,’’ said Barimen.
He added that pupils from Kapkures primary school are allowed to fetch and carry the water home from school for their families’ domestic needs.
In an interview, Chepkorir said ‘’Maji Safi ni Uhai project worked to supply safe and clean water to the residents who did not have access to it before. This has notably reduced incidences of waterborne illnesses in the community and that is my joy and it gives me motivation to do even more.”