Wagoma: Eliminate the choice between food or health

Kenya has reached the seventh week of partial lockdown and curfew. From her vantage point at the Rona Orphans and Widows Centre in Wagoma Village in rural Kenya, the centre's founder Roseline Orwa finds herself wondering if some good news has come from the COVID-19 pandemic, amid all the fear and uncertainty, as the country "finally realises how important the informal economy is, and the essential role rural women play in driving this misunderstood sector".


At the same time, I see and hear so much evidence that gender-based violence is rising. Perhaps it is the final breakdown of matriarchy, where women were once considered divine. Look online, and amid the lockdown stories of queues, scarce protective equipment and police brutality, it is shockingly easy to find jokes about marital murder. This week one of the highest-trending posts on social media was about women-led households sharing a single reusable cloth mask with their children and other women neighbours. This spiteful humour illustrates the additional suffering that the COVID-19 pandemic response has brought to rural women living in poverty, on top of the threat of HIV/Aids, the lack of healthy food, orphan care and ageing. It also hints at the hidden ways that rural women are learning to adapt to these strange, new hard times.

'The spiteful humour illustrates the additional suffering that the COVID-19 pandemic response has brought to rural women living in poverty on top of the threat of HIV/Aids, the lack of healthy food, orphan care and ageing'

Not all the changes these days are losses; some are gains. As new hand-wash areas are strategically placed at key public places in villages like ours, I see women enjoying the moment they take to wash their hands. For many, this might be the first time they have used running water, living as they do in places where basic needs such as water are rights that must be fought for. But I also see these resilient women, along with orphaned children, when they visit our Rona Centre asking for humanitarian support. In their faces I see the marks left by poverty, the gender struggle and economic inequalities, and all too often, of the sexual gender-based violence that has risen along with the pandemic. In the past, these women’s faces were objects of mockery, casually dismissed on social platforms by the very people who now depend on rural women to sell them food, or to lend them their stock, as more and more carefree middle-class Kenyans become cashless, jobless and hopeless.


Here in rural Kenya, widows are walking long hours to beat the 7pm coronavirus curfew, after rising before dawn and walking those same long hours to temporary markets in the hope of earning 100 shillings. Enough, with luck, to put a single meal on the table for children who have been at home for more than four weeks. The schools closure during the pandemic is a story yet to be told. At the Rona Centre we daily see the effects of these strange new times: the growing numbers of walk-in children, alone and in little groups; the widows who need just a plate of rice and beans. Even at Easter this year, prayer alone could not nourish starving souls. Reports are also coming to the Rona Foundation of pregnant teenagers prostituting themselves for 500 shillings to support their mothers in female- and widow-headed households. Whenever such terrible events take place, it is somehow the woman’s sin that becomes the public story, and patriarchy protects the man. 

'At the Rona Centre we daily see the effects of these strange new times: the growing numbers of walk-in children, alone and in little groups; the widows who need just a plate of rice and beans'

Widows at a hand-washing station in Kobare Market, Alego, May 2020.

Photo credit: Felix Orwenyo, Assistant Chief, Komolo Sub-location, Male Champion.


But we see acts of kindness, too. Many diaspora Kenyans who are themselves struggling have joined hands with global friends to fight hunger through our Rona food drives for elderly widows. These are women whose regular support via Kenya’s world-celebrated mobile money transfer system M-PESA has been cut, or does not come through, as their relatives lose jobs, economies shut down, and incomes become unpredictable. Maybe in the future we will see that the pandemic has given us an opportunity to look at the traditional care economy through a gender lens. Kenya’s elderly widows have long cared for orphans during the decades of HIV/Aids pandemic. Maybe it’s time we cared for the carers, through a transparent national policy of support that is devoid of corruption, favouritism and nepotism.


I see, too, how rural women are seeking ways to self-manage their emotional wellness, as places of worship remain closed, church leaders are unreachable, and big questions remain unanswered. When will the church unfold its arms, even if its doors remain closed? Has the church abandoned its role as the frontline of emotional care and service to vulnerable communities? The absence and silence of organised religion has left a vacuum that underfunded organizations such as ours at Rona are doing our best to fill. I find myself wondering: instead of tithing their churches, will people begin to tithe the local grassroots organizations, community dispensaries and frontline activists who are keeping hope alive against all odds during this pandemic? Will Rona’s next funders be local worshippers? I wish I knew.


'The absence and silence of organised religion has left a vacuum that underfunded organizations such as ours are doing our best to fill'

At the end of another long day in our community of volunteers, widows and orphans, I see with pride that it is Kenya’s grassroots women leaders and small organisations who are in the frontline now. We are becoming more and more resourceful and innovative – because we have to – as we fight hunger, and provide daily essentials like sanitary towels.


Rona food distribution, May 2020

Photo credit: Sally Odiyo, Male Champion, Rona Foundation.


All around us, we see the overwhelming needs, collective grief, and individual triggered trauma from our widow members and the orphaned children who look to them for care and support, with nothing in their hands.


“I have not eaten for two days, and was going to go to sleep hungry today, had you not come,” said one widow at our dry food donation point in Bondo. I look into her hollow, hopeful face and see courage and endurance. If you ask us what we need in these pandemic times, the answer is simple: at Rona, we desperately need dry food. We need water and soap, which have become highly prized commodities, along with masks. For the women and children we serve, when the choice is between bread and hygiene, food remains a priority: better to stave off hunger another day, and leave COVID-19 to fate.


For rural women, the struggle now is not decent living, nor social justice or gender equity, but survival. The changes brought about by COVID-19 have left rural communities with few choices. Outside these homes, the pandemic goes on, with its stay-at-home order and its curfew, and the shocking police brutality that has come with it. Inside these homes, there is hunger, domestic violence in some cases, unaffordable child care, mounting debts and bills, and fear. 

'For rural women, the struggle now is not decent living, nor social justice or gender equity, but survival'

As the world opens its pockets to provide rapid response funds for the pandemic, we can only pray that some shift will happen that will send help our way at the Rona Centre. We remain hopeful that the storm we are facing contains not only the violent turbulence of the coronavirus pandemic, but also the quiet promises of God.


We will keep on, because we must.


This story was shared by Roseline Orwa, the founder of the Rona Foundation, which supports rural widows and champions the protection and advancement of their rights, alongside orphan education, care and support via the Rona Orphans and Widows Centre in rural Kenya. She is an appointed Commissioned Expert with the Ministry of Labour and Social Services, and an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity. She tweets at @roselineorwa.


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