Partners in relief
by Andrei Neacsu
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
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
On land the Red Cross will have to find ways to fight deep-rooted
traditions, which have a destructive impact on HIV and AIDS
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.
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
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.
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
"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 is International Federation regional information
delegate based in Nairobi.
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
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
HIV/AIDS peer education by Red Cross volunteers among risk
- Reducing the incidence of malaria, typhoid and other
diseases through health education, vector reduction through
clean-up campaigns, promotion and use of insecticide-treated
- 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
- 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
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