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Kenya Escaped The Worst Health Effects Of COVID-19 — But Got Hit Hard In Other Ways

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Like many other African countries, Kenya has so far escaped the worst health effects of the COVID pandemic. But the social and economic effects have cut deep, and they are leaving many families in despair, as NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Pauline Afandi dodges electricity cables as she guides us through the narrow alleys of Kibera, one of the big slums here in Nairobi. Afandi is a community health worker. But throughout this pandemic, she hasn't really treated people with COVID. Instead, people are telling her how they've lost jobs, their homes, how their kids have left school.

PAULINE AFANDI: (Through interpreter) Some parents are still, like, challenged in terms of the school fees. And even some of the kids are forced to sell this illegal bang.

PERALTA: Illegal bang or marijuana - we jump over an open sewer and enter Jacklyne Ngaira's house.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Karibuni (laughter).

PERALTA: It's one room, a couch, a bed behind a curtain. For more than a year now, Jacklyne has not had steady work.

JACKLYNE NGAIRA: Life is very hard. It is very hard from that corona.

PERALTA: Jacklyne used to wash clothes and clean houses, but now no one wants a stranger in their house. It means she can't afford to send her four kids to school. Her oldest boy almost graduated high school, but now he's on the streets doing whatever odd job he can get, hustling to help with money.

NGAIRA: He's just hustling for now. When the country gets better, then we look for what he will do.

PERALTA: Her daughter, who is 14, got pregnant when schools were shuttered. She gave birth three weeks ago. Both Jacklyne and her daughter say this is not the way they imagined their life. What's worse, Kenya has vaccinated about 1% of its population, so COVID isn't going anywhere.

NGAIRA: It will not get well soon, but we'll just keep going on.

PERALTA: Earlier this month, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which studies African governance, put out a report looking at how COVID has affected the continent. It found that many African countries went into recession for the first time in 30 years. It found that more than a million girls might never return to school after getting pregnant when schools closed. In Kenya, virtual learning was impossible for most, so kids simply missed a whole year of school. Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, is on the board of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. She says before the pandemic, African countries had made huge strides in getting and keeping girls in school.

MARY ROBINSON: Now we're back to that vulnerability again. It's setting back the sustainable development goals.

PERALTA: Not only that, she says, but this disruption in education comes amid high levels of youth unemployment. The report found that last year, Africa was the only continent that saw a rise in all kinds of violence, including war, crime and riots.

ROBINSON: And it's because a lack of, you know, futures for young people. And that has to be tackled as an absolute priority.

PERALTA: Back in Kibera, we stop in another one-room house. This is 18-year-old Teresa Achunga's parents' house.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY COOING)

PERALTA: Her dad, Peter, sits on the couch. She sits on the bed with her brand new baby. She's good at science, so she wants to be a doctor. But this pandemic threw her whole life into disarray.

TERESA ACHUNGA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Her hope was that if the government would not have closed, she will still be in school and with her friends who will still be working to earn some living.

PERALTA: Her dad hangs his head. It's been more than a year since he's worked.

PETER: No money, no nothing. We're just rotating around like we don't know exactly what to do.

PERALTA: Kenyans are defined by hard work and optimism. They toil from sunrise to sunset. Even in the worst of times, you hear hope from them. But this family is barely hanging on.

Do you have hope that you'll be able to go back to school?

ACHUNGA: No.

PERALTA: No. Not a maybe, not a God willing - just a resigned no.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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