Dear Got Matar Supporters,
We are all learning how to live in lock-down. For some it is profoundly depressing.and spells financial disaster. Others see it as a wonderful opportunity to get to know their immediate family better than is possible when they are all rushing around at speed. For some people it is a rare opportunity for greater creativity or for reflecting on how to lead a better life in future.
In whatever way it may have affected us personally, coronavirus and the prevention of its spread has come to dominate – and disrupt – our daily lives. For now, the debate is about when and how to ease the restrictions imposed on our behaviour without increasing the risks of a new burst of infections. It won’t be long, however, till the big question arises as to whether, in retrospect, total lock-down was the right response to the epidemic. It is a policy that has effectively meant that we are collectively prepared to pay any cost to save a life from being lost to the dreaded COVID 19. With the spotlight shining on the epidemic we could even find ourselves in an anomalous situation in which the concentration of resources on saving the lives of corona-infected people, risks increasing mortality linked to other illnesses.
The only time in which I have found myself in the midst of another pandemic was when I visited Bondo District in Western Kenya at the height of the country’s HIV/AIDS epidemic in 2001.This was one of many consecutive years in which Kenya was losing about 300,000 people per year to AIDS or 10 times the number of people likely to die from COVID 19 in UK or Italy during this current episode. Even now, in spite of the availability of anti-retroviral therapy (ART), there are still about 28,000 deaths per year attributable to HIV in Kenya partly because of the stigma of being known to be taking ART medicines.
The big difference between COVID 19 and HIV/AIDS epidemics is that the victims of the former are mainly non-working elderly people who already have other health problems. In contrast, HIV/AIDS kills people of working and child-bearing age. In a rural district such as Bondo, at least a third of the ‘bread-winners’ had died by 2001, and a third of the children were orphaned and heavily dependent on grandparents for their care.
Interestingly, the negative economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic comes less from loss of potentially productive lives than from the cost, in terms of lost output, of the short-term containment measures. Recovery should be relatively quick.
In contrast, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has had massive long-term structural economic and social impacts, upsetting dependency ratios for a whole generation, cutting deep into the workforce, preventing the normal transmission of practical knowledge from parents to children and depriving very large numbers of children of parental love and care. In 2019, there were 2.6 million orphans and vulnerable children in Kenya of whom 650,000 were orphans due to AIDS,
I had gone to Bondo, one of the poorest rural districts in Kenya, as part of my work with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to learn from people on the spot as to how they saw their future and how we might be able to support their recovery efforts. The immediate requirement was to increase the productivity of the area’s small-scale farmers and to raise the nutritional value of food produced for local consumption. This involved FAO in creating a local capacity for conducting ‘food security field schools’, bringing groups of farmers together to work out amongst themselves how best to improve their farming systems, nutrition and livelihoods. and enabling them to access the means to take up agreed changes.This programme started quickly, building on the considerable success of large numbers of farmer field schools in other areas of Kenya.
When we looked at potential longer term solutions, the elders with whom we met came up with various large-scale investment ideas including a huge irrigation scheme close to Lake Victoria and building fish processing plants.
The most meaningful suggestion, however, came from a rather shy lady who asked the men for permission to speak She simply observed that “we must admit that we have lost a generation and must invest in educating the young so as to enable them to live a better life than their parents.”
I had to admit that, while FAO could invest in training farmers, it lay beyond its mandate to support general education. But, when I returned to Bondo some months later, I was presented by Grace – for that was the lady’s name – with an inventory of all the children in the villages served by the 10 primary schools in the area (showing their names and whether they were orphans). She also showed me a certificate of registration for the Got Matar Community Development Group. This evidence of commitment led us and other family members to start donating towards upgrading some of the primary schools.
This went well under Grace’s voluntary leadership and five years later, after I had retired, I accepted the invitation of the Community to serve as their fund-raiser for construction of a brand new Secondary School for 600 pupils. Thanks to your generosity, the school was completed in 2010 and now has over 800 pupils. More than 2,000 students – of whom about 400, mostly orphans, have benefited from bursaries – have ‘graduated’, with many going on to higher education.
The Community is now in the third leg of its education programme development which involves the construction and equipping of an Institute of Technology (IoT) which is being run as a community managed enterprise. Initially, from 2012, skills training courses were run in rented buildings but, now that the concept has been proven successful, permanent specialised training workshops are being built for 10 courses, serving 200-300 students on a single campus. So far training workshops have been completed for tailoring and dressmaking, carpentry, masonry, beauty therapy and hair-dressing. New buildings are under construction and will soon be opened for the food and beverage and car mechanics training workshops. The next call on resources will be for the construction of the IoT’s new computer training centre at an estimated cost of Euro 25,000, added to which Euro 11,000 would be required for purchase of additional equipment.
Looking back over the last 18 years, I feel that the Community can take huge pride in having successfully achieved most of Grace’s aspirations for better equipping its young members to overcome all the constraints posed by the huge HIV/AIDS pandemic around the turn of the century. Although the schools are now closed because of coronavirus, construction of the new buildings is going ahead. The present pandemic is unlikely to prove a serious obstacle to the continued impact of the education programmes because the lives of younger people – students, graduates and teachers – have been relatively unaffected by the disease,
Kenya seems to have learnt much from its HIV/AIDS pandemic of the importance of getting to grips with coronavirus in a systematic way from the moment of its detection in the country. As a result of early case identification, testing and contact tracing, there have so far only been 281 cases and 14 deaths (20th April 2020), confirming that for this new pandemic ‘a stitch in time saves nine’. The mortality caused by COVID 19 in Europe and the USA would have been much lower and the economic consequences less severe had the concerned governments acted with such immediate resolve.
With many thanks for all your support,