With her son studying in China, word of a strange new illness reached her before others in her community. Understandably, she worried for his safety.
Then Kenya had its first case on 19 March 2020.
“When COVID came, I felt like this is it. I have something to give the community. My knowledge, my skills.”
She coordinates school health in her county’s 11 sub-districts and has been a public health officer for 28 years. Her county was quite well prepared and had strategic water and sanitation plans ready. Together with her team, she formed a joint work plan. The first action on their list: to reach the schools, the teachers, non-teaching staff and the children.
You ask, why them? “If you go through the schools and the children, you’ll be able to achieve more.” Her nearly three decades of working in public health told her this.
The team tried to influence and convince everyone to get on board to stop the spread of the virus. In the middle of a strict lockdown, movement was severely restricted. It proved difficult convincing people and the mask she was wearing made her suspect in the eyes of some.
It took up all of her time, even weekends.
Did it work?
She relates a key insight gained during a school visit where she saw how some kids went to the toilet and kept looking for clean water to wash their hands until they found some.
“Diseases will always be here. But when we invest in water, sanitation and hygiene, I’m sure we’re going to reduce diseases in this world.”
The incident indicated a behaviour change. That the small interventions they had been pushing were starting to work.
It showed how children can be agents of change and influence behaviour in their communities. And it demonstrated the importance of investing in water infrastructure.
is a public health officer and lives in Nakuru County where she was born. Her son Matthew is still studying in China, though online, and staying in Nairobi at the moment. He is hoping to graduate in 2022.
The total distance Mary travelled on foot to talk to children in schools. In comparison, medical professionals advise us to walk 10,000 steps a day, less than five miles.
The team put in endless hours during the first month following the outbreak of COVID. This included evenings and weekends and is probably an underestimate.
Although Mary and her team reached out to the whole community, they focused on school children as this is where changes are likely to be long lasting. A staggering 450,000 junior change agents across Nakuru County is just one result of their efforts.