In the urban compound of Menno Kids Academy, in an impoverished area of Nairobi, Kenya, tables of clear, plastic bottles fill the courtyard — a simple but powerful tool in a fight for better health.
Through the day, the sun’s UV rays soak into the bottles of water, killing bacteria, viruses and parasites such as giardia and providing the gift of clean water to the school’s nearly 500 pupils.
MCC-supported teachings in Solar Disinfection (SODIS), a low-cost method of purifying water, and in sanitation and hygiene are changing lives not only for students, but also for their families.
“I could not believe that water can be treated in such a simple way,” parent Morris Ndalila remembers thinking when he first learned of the project.
Ndalila, a father of seven, had long known the water coming from his tap was contaminated and unfit to drink. Yet he could not afford to buy water or the fuel needed to boil enough water for his large family.
“We always suffered from diarrhea, children complained of stomach pains and their skin was always having ringworms,” Ndalila remembers. Whatever money he could save seemed to go for treatment at the local health center.
Today, Ndalila’s family is rarely ill — a change he attributes to SODIS, plus training in hand-washing, hygiene and sanitation.
Each year, MCC’s Global Family education program provides funding for teacher stipends, educational supplies, nutritious food and other needed items for Menno Kids Academy and Mukuru Menno Academy, schools run by Kenyan Mennonite congregations.
And it was because of this relationship that MCC and a partner organization, The Water School, began water, sanitation and hygiene projects with the two schools.
“The connections with the school were vital to MCC and our partners,” says Dan Wiens, coordinator of MCC’s food and water programs. “What other context can we think of where you’d have a daily audience?”
SODIS technology works — but it only improves health if it’s used consistently and correctly, Wiens stresses.
When students use the method at school, they become accustomed to the rhythm of keeping bottles filled and in the sun — making it more likely they’ll use them at home too. Many of the students’ families have gone on to purchase additional bottles for other family members.
The project’s lessons in hygiene, sanitation and health also are making a difference.
When the Menno Kids Academy effort began in 2010, students reported washing hands primarily before meals — but not necessarily after going to the bathroom or changing a baby’s diaper.
In Mathare North — where contaminated water, inadequate sewage and toilet facilities and improper disposal of waste, including human waste, pose numerous challenges to health — any lapse in hand-washing can trigger diarrhea and illness.
Through this effort, children — who may not normally take the time for proper hand-washing — learn over and over of its importance and begin to push each other to wash well at school.
The project also provides trainings for parents in SODIS, hygiene and sanitation.
If the costs of not keeping clean are high, so sometimes are the complications of putting good ideas into practice.
Keeping your family’s latrines clean sounds like a straightforward task — except that in the Mathare North compound where Lillian Achieng lives, 24 families share two latrines, and any progress requires cooperation among neighbors. “This is a challenge, especially when some households do not care for sanitation,” Achieng says.
Yet the training prompted Achieng to call a meeting with neighbors. They committed to creating a rotation for cleaning the toilets, a step of shared planning they had not taken before, and to being more conscious about disposing of trash in shared areas.
“This has truly helped in keeping our environment clean and ensuring that our children play in a clean compound,” Achieng says.
It’s a change that means more than safe fun.
Achieng, Ndalila and other parents report that since the project began, their children are spending more time in school and less at the health center. Parents, saving money on health care, become more motivated to continue the new methods.
And, Ndalila found, as children’s health and school attendance improved, grades often go up as well, so much so that now he has a new worry — how to pay fees for secondary school.