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Partners in relief

by Andrei Neacsu
All around Lake Victoria, in the villages of Kenya, Tanzania or Uganda, disease, natural disasters and poverty are a tragic reality. The Lake Victoria Red Cross partnership is setting out to address some of the region's most pressing humanitarian concerns.

©Andrei Neacsu / International Federation

Ogembo Oguonyo Dunga never worried about his old age. He figured his ten children, two daughters and eight sons, would be there for him. He lived on the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria, where fish were plenty and farming always provided for him and his family.

But the first sign of trouble came as catches from the lake got scarce. In 30 years, more than 300 species have disappeared. Now 80, Ogembo's story does not end with "and they lived happily ever after".

"One wife is dead and in only five years, Ayaki — the illness that gets into your body and eats you from inside — or AIDS, took seven of my children away. I buried the last one three weeks ago. Since death came over my family, I feel dizzy and deaf. I thought I would rest but I pray for force to look after my six grandchildren," he says with no apparent emotion.

His visitor, Belinda Awino-Ajuang, a local Red Cross worker and teacher at the neighbouring Wang'Adong school has heard the same complaint over and over again. She touches the old man's hand in understanding: three-quarters of the 400 children in her school are AIDS orphans of one or both parents.

A Red Cross partnership

In Rachuonyo, on the shores of the lake some 60 kilometres from the western town of Kisumu towards the Tanzanian border, explains Muktar Ali, the district commissioner, practically no family is spared from HIV and AIDS. "There are widows and orphans in almost every house. We have a lot of school drop-outs. Although this is a rather dry area, when it rains in the Nandi hills, the Miriu River causes a lot of destruction. And every year, malaria takes its toll on our poorest district of Kenya," he says.

There are, however, an estimated 3,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) whose declared aim is to save Lake Victoria and improve the lives of the 30 million people living on its shores. Is there a role for the Red Cross to play?

"Yes!" says Commissioner Ali who — while agreeing that a lot of good things have been done in the past five years — complains about those NGOs who come, stay for a short while and leave, taking away their skills and thus allowing for the situation to fall back to its initial stages.

Established in 2003, in Musoma, Tanzania, a Red Cross partnership that spans across the borders of the three countries concerned, and involves the Swedish Red Cross, is welcomed by authorities and communities alike.

"The idea is to contribute efficiently to the efforts already deployed by the governments of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, and other organizations in those areas where the Red Cross has an expertise. By strengthening the capacity of the local branches we ensure that competences remain," says Staffan Wiking of the Swedish Red Cross.

Supported by the ICRC and the International Federation, the ten-year partnership fits into the national development plans of the three National Societies. The main supporter of the Red Cross in this partnership could be the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA); discussions are still under way to perfect an agreement.

"SIDA's possible backing should be seen as a guarantee of their long-term commitment to the Lake Victoria issue as a whole, but also as a recognition of the role the Red Cross plays in civil society," says Wiking.

Laurean Rugambua, of the Tanzanian Red Cross, sees the partnership as a "an understanding that it takes time and determination to change behaviours, improve the health conditions and ensure economic stability and decent living standards for some 15 million people believed to live below the poverty line in the Lake Victoria basin".

Saving lives on land and sea

Every time they go fishing in their light boats, fishermen put their lives at risk. At six or seven in a tiny, fragile structure the probability of capsizing is high. Few know how to swim and none can afford to spend 3,000 shillings (approximately US$ 50) on a life jacket. The Red Cross would like to create life-saving teams and, through a sewing project for widows and other vulnerable women, produce life vests at an accessible price.

On land the Red Cross will have to find ways to fight deep-rooted traditions, which have a destructive impact on HIV and AIDS survivors.

Belinda Awino-Ajuang explains: "In the Luo region, customary rules forbid women from working on the land alone. Given the high incidence of death among men in the region, widows have to find other sources of income in order to feed their children." The most common coping mechanism is prostitution. Its immediate effect is the spread of HIV/AIDS.


Safe water and sanitation

Mikael Nataka, of the Uganda Red Cross believes in prevention rather than cure. His National Society is ready to embark on a programme of distribution of antiretroviral drugs to people living with AIDS. But for him, in the long term, peer education coupled with income-generating projects is certainly a better answer.

Since the lake does not offer enough fish these days many women and men have resorted to ingenious solutions to make ends meet: for example, they harvest the lake's sand.

Mikael Omondi has been harvesting sand for ten years. "I collect seven piles a day. I get 25 shillings for each from middlemen who sell it to construction companies. It's not enough to make a living but there is no other job around," says the 26-year-old, as he quenches his thirst with thick brown water taken straight from the lake in a red plastic jar.

Omondi knows about bilharzia, a disease that killed some of his work mates who drank water from the lake. Water-borne typhoid fever is also frequent among the lake's population. "But there is no other water to drink," he adds with an honest smile. A few metres away, their hands deep in washing foam, a mother and daughter are busy washing the family's laundry. Every day fishermen, factories and municipalities dump 100 tonnes of human waste and untreated sewage in Africa's largest lake, said Kenyan media recently.

There is obviously a lot of hard work ahead for those embarked in the Lake Victoria Red Cross partnership.

Adult concerns

Back in Kanyango, dressed in their pale green school uniforms, Ogembo's six grandchildren are ready to return to school for afternoon classes. Instead of playing these children have grown-up' concerns.

"I wish I were able to do something to bring happiness back to our people," says Ogembo's grandson Sospeter, as he walks along a narrow path, leaving behind the empty houses with their adjacent graves of his uncles and aunts. "I wish I could become a doctor — to save lives."


Andrei Neacsu

Andrei Neacsu is International Federation regional information delegate based in Nairobi.


Lake Victoria partnership at a glance

The goal of the Lake Victoria Red Cross Partnership is to improve the quality of life of the people in the lake basin, particularly for the most vulnerable, through the development of comprehensive programmes addressing the poverty-related areas of health and care, disaster preparedness, risk reduction and self-reliance.

Partners: The governments of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda through their specialized ministries and local authorities, and Sweden through its international development agency. Non-governmental organizations and community associations such as AMREF (African Medical and Research Foundation), associations of people living with HIV and AIDS (PLWHA), widows' associations and fishermen's cooperatives.

Activities: Develop and/or strengthen the existing home-based care programmes assisting PLWHA, orphans and unattended elderly people.

  • Provision of antiretroviral drug to selected HIV/AIDS patients.
    HIV/AIDS peer education by Red Cross volunteers among risk groups.
  • Reducing the incidence of malaria, typhoid and other diseases through health education, vector reduction through clean-up campaigns, promotion and use of insecticide-treated nets.
  • Form and train Red Cross life-saving action teams, capable of intervening in case of disasters such as floods, but also in case of fishing accidents.
  • Develop disaster early warning systems within the concerned communities.
  • Provide local communities (i.e., fishermen's cooperatives) with basic first-aid knowledge, skills and equipment.
  • Empower local communities (widows' associations) to start small projects (i.e., sewing workshops) that will reduce poverty while improving safety for the fishermen.
  • Increase communities' access to safe water and sanitation through construction and rehabilitation projects in the most vulnerable areas.
  • Train community teams in water-pump maintenance.
  • Encourage cross-border exchanges between Red Cross branches that lead to the promotion of tolerance between neighbouring communities (often at risk of conflict over fishing issues).
  • Advocate for the rights of PLWHA and other marginalized groups.

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