Bristol nonprofit funds global relief

HELLEN GATHONI KIHORO, a WMI scholar and medical student battling coronavirus in Kenya, provides hand-washing resources and information in her community. The project was funded by the Wells Mountain Initiative, which also helps fund Kihoro’s education.

BRISTOL — With grant money she received from the Wells Mountain Initiative (WMI), Hellen Gathoni Kihoro this week launched a project in her home village of Gitogothi to increase pandemic awareness and provide hygiene resources.
“It was hatched so as to emphasize the information that is being recommended by the WHO (World Health Organization) and (Kenya’s) Ministry of Health on matters of prevention of COVID-19,” Kihoro told the Independent in an email.
Kihoro, 30, studies medicine at Mount Kenya University and is one of several WMI Scholars — whose educations are funded by the Bristol-based nonprofit — to receive a WMI COVID-19 Community Response Grant.
WMI launched the grant program on April 13 in response to a global pandemic whose solutions will depend in part on supporting frontline workers globally.
“Past disasters — from Hurricane Katrina to the Ebola outbreak — have demonstrated that locally rooted solutions, networks and connections are key to effective emergency response, especially for reaching the most vulnerable groups,” wrote WMI board member Carol Wells in a statement to the Independent. “With governments stretched thin, local organizers are vital to ensuring that information and opportunities for preparation, safety and treatment are afforded to everyone.”
WMI fosters social change at the local level by building a global network of grassroots leaders (WMI Scholars) who are catalyzing community transformation across 44 developing countries.

According to Johns Hopkins University, there are currently 715 reported cases of COVID-19 in Kenya, a country of more than 51 million people in East Africa.
Kihoro’s village is home to about 2,000 people, she said. Many of them have up-to-date information on the global pandemic and are taking what measures they can to slow the spread, she told the Independent in an email.
“That being said, today I met several people who claimed that all they had to do was pray COVID-19 away because it’s a curse and if we repent, we don’t even have to follow what measures we are being advised on. They told me they were on a fast, praying COVID-19 away.”
Similar beliefs can be found all over the world, including in the United States.
For Kihori, they are a “myth” that needs to be “debunked.”
Elsewhere in her village, people have decided not to wear masks, thinking that the coronavirus posed little risk to them because of their rural environment, she said.
Which is partly why she named her project “Elimisha Jamii” — Swahili for “educate the community.” 
Kihoro and her volunteers have prepared hundreds of gallons of hand soap and are delivering it door-to-door in Gitogothi.
“In every household, we demonstrate the hand-washing technique and also educate on COVID-19.”
WMI’s support has had a significant impact, she said.
“Initially I just used to talk to the several people I met on the road about safety measures, and pass along any information about COVID-19, but through this grant I was able to systematically reach everyone.”

As of Wednesday morning there were only 122 reported cases of COVID-19 in Uganda, East Africa, which is home to more than 42 million people.
On March 26, the government instituted a “transport lockdown” throughout the country, which may have helped slow the spread of the disease. But it has also severely restricted access to non-emergency health care, resources and information.
“Many patients are dying from home because of lack of medication,” said Shamim Nalunkuuma, 24, a WMI Scholar studying clinical medicine at Kampala International University.
“My project is directed to provide some most needed essential medications (for) the majority of the old population (who) are hypertensive and diabetic and are on a daily dose of lifetime drugs,” she said. “We are also looking at delivering HIV drugs to the affected population, together with contraceptives — most commonly condoms — to the population.”
Nalunkuuma is also focusing on creating awareness and providing support for girls, boys and women facing domestic violence during the lockdown.
In the midst of a pandemic, she’s also worried about the vulnerability of her community, Kalangala — which consists of more than 80 islands with a population of roughly 35,000.
“Kalangala has one health center as a main hospital serving such a big population, and on top of that people always move for long distances to access this health center,” she said. “Now there’s not any public transport, which means no one can access the hospital like before.”

Sierra Leone in West Africa is also reporting a relatively low number of COVID-19 cases — 338 in a country of 7.65 million people — but its population is at high risk if prevention measures fail.
Foday Kamara, 25, a Wells Mountain Scholar studying public policy at the University of Makeni, is especially worried about the market workers in two local communities, Magburaka and Mile 91, which have a combined population of roughly 37,000 people.
“It is difficult to control social distancing in our markets due to market size and the population of the communities,” Kamara told the Independent in an email.
A skilled tailor, Kamara used his WMI grant to produce 600 masks for distribution to market workers. He also bought buckets and soap for five hand-washing stations, which he installed at the major entrances to the markets.
“I got the idea after a visit to the market in Mile 91 and saw only a few traders using facemasks,” Kamara said. “Engagement with them made me realize they cannot get facemasks to buy due to scarcity (and the fact that) those available were expensive.”
Kamara has distributed all 600 masks already and now plans to conduct bi-weekly monitoring.
He believes COVID-19 poses an urgent health and economic risk to his community.
“Health care attendance has dropped hugely since the (first) COVID-19 case was registered in our country,” he said. “Many people don’t visit the health centers for treatment for other diseases, for fear of testing positive to Corona…. (And) due to the lockdowns, many people have gone out of business and jobs, and prices of commodities have soared.”

All 54 African countries are now reporting cases of coronavirus. According to AfricaNews.en, nearly 70,000 cases had been reported throughout the continent Wednesday afternoon, compared with 1.37 million in the United States.
As they do in the U.S., experts believe that Africa’s numbers are vastly underestimated because of patchy testing.
Because many health care systems in Africa are fragile, health officials are strongly focused on prevention.
And they’re growing increasingly worried.
This week, according to the Guardian, the WHO estimated that Africa could see somewhere between 29 and 44 million cases of COVID-19 if containment measures fail, and after killing as many as 200,000 people this year, the pandemic could “smolder” on the continent for several years.
WMI is uniquely positioned to have an impact on the pandemic because nearly half of its scholars worldwide are in the medical field.
“Many of these are young people on the front lines of COVID-19,” said Jordyn Wells.
To date it has awarded more than 40 grants and hopes to fund at least 60 projects in all.
“Right now the projects we’re funding are primarily about prevention,” Wells said.
The average grant is around $400.
WMI’s current fiscal year budget did not include line items for “global pandemic response,” however, so the nonprofit is simultaneously raising funds even as it distributes them.
For Kamara, WMI’s support has been invaluable.
“I want people to know that WMI for us in Sierra Leone goes beyond education,” he said. “It is leadership, service and humanity in one box. WMI has helped develop many mindsets to continue volunteerism and community service.”
For more information about the Wells Mountain Initiative and its projects, visit
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

Share this story:

More News

Middlebury man killed in Weybridge crash

David K. Ricklefs, 53, lost control of the Subaru Impreza he was driving on Morgan Horse F … (read more)

Homepage Featured News

Documentary puts Vermont food insecurity center stage

A Middlebury filmmaker’s new film charts the evolution and impacts of the wildly successfu … (read more)


The eclipse was cool enough to yell about

Groups of Vermonters and visitors spread themselves around town greens, highway pull-offs, … (read more)

Share this story: