One of the most affecting aspects of the times we’re in may be sensory overload – the daily requirements of living, working, schooling and coping in this COVID bubble; the fire-hose gush of worrisome news; and the desire to move to the next stage despite uneasiness about what that move might bring. What a blessing, then, to turn our attention toward caring people around the world who have turned down the noise – and who keep finding ways to help those with no voice.
We spoke with Bill Coble, PRUMC member and founder of Start with One Kenya (SWOK), a Global Missions Partner. From taking in students who had no safe place to go when the pandemic closed schools, to feeding families who lost their already limited earning power, to restarting SWOK’s life-changing water filter distribution under very different circumstances, Bill, his wife, Chat, and their team are moving their vision forward. (And, they haven’t run out of toilet paper!) Here’s what we learned. (Interview was edited for clarity and length.)
What has it been like, experiencing lockdown in Kenya?
I assume that in many ways, lockdown circumstances are universal. We’ve had to stay in our compound, in our house, except for going to the grocery store or to get certain supplies. There are 14 people under our roof now, including students we sponsor, a friend who drives for us and his three children. When we go to the grocery store we wear a mask, and our stores here require you to wash your hands and have your temperature taken before going in. Only five of us have left our compound since lockdown began. I’ve honestly lost track of when that was! But I think it was shortly after you began in the U.S.
I feel very blessed being here in Kenya. It’s difficult knowing that we’re so far away from the struggles at home in the States. But I know this is where we’re supposed to be. On a lighter note, we haven’t run out of toilet paper! Life has not changed to a huge extent. We haven’t had a shortage of “things”. Just a shortage of team members coming from the U.S.; all have cancelled for this year. So it’s a little more lonely.
What does sponsoring a student involve for you? These students actually live with you?
Our ministry here is not just water. Water is a large part, but we also have about 100 sponsored kids under our program, sponsored by people from all over the U.S. and overseas. That means their school fees are being paid, their medical issues are handled, and they’re getting books and school uniforms and so forth. But some of these kids don’t have a home life, or their home life is just not acceptable for them to be there. So we have some of those kids living here, and some of our other staff have had kids with them. They’re here so we can feed them and keep trying to educate them. Luckily, one of the young adults in the house is in medical school and very bright. He holds class every day for the younger ones here so they can get ahead or at least maintain where they should be.
During the lockdown, some sponsored kids have gone back to parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles. So we’re supporting those families, not just the kids, because a lot of families here – and this is the story globally – are suffering since they can’t go to work or sell what they’d normally sell. Even though they might only have made a couple of dollars a day before, they’re not making that now. And they’ve added another mouth to feed with the student coming back. So on a weekly basis we’re providing food for about 75 of those households, and with that they’re able to survive. It’s a short-term fix, not the long-term fix our program is based on. But – extraordinary times, extraordinary measures.
Tell me about restarting your water filter distribution recently. How have you changed your program to adapt to COVID?
When the lockdown began, the government set guidelines for public gatherings. None could be larger than 10 people. So that squashed us on being able to distribute thousands of filters a day as we had previously, because we usually gather an entire village at one time for education and demonstration and we also need a large team to manage that process.
As of June, we just got special permission to gather 50 people at a time, with proper social distancing, monitoring temperatures, washing hands and wearing masks. That’s including all recipients and our team members. The bare minimum team I need in field to do a small distribution is five people, me included. So holding three sessions per day, we’ve been able to restart on a limited basis, giving out about 150 filters a day. In each session we’re teaching a family cluster how to put the filter together and how to maintain it, which is very simple. And we’re training them on hygiene. This disease might actually have some benefits long-term, because it has underscored what we’ve been trying to teach for years: washing hands is critical to stop diseases.
The other part of the equation is moving filters from point A to point B. We had to get government permission to travel in a vehicle during lockdown, and they’re allowing vehicles to carry only 50% of their capacity, including people. We use my own pickup truck to move filters, so the 150 daily limit is working well for now.
Our filters are manufactured in South Korea. Before lockdown, we already had a good amount of stock in, but I’ve also received three full containers since the pandemic started. Turns out, container ships have been able to keep moving, as they don’t have a lot of people and nobody’s in close contact!
Have you heard from affected residents or villages about the delay? Did they know what was supposed to happen?
Yes. The region we’re distributing in now, Njoro, is one of Kenya’s biggest hot spots for waterborne disease. We’re here because the local health department asked us to be. Our team members had notified households in advance of what their filter timeframe would be, how the process would work, and so forth, and then the week before we were to start everything got shut down. We’ve heard from lots of people who want to know when they will get their filter. One official hoped we could bypass the guidelines, but we told them we wouldn’t. Our responsibility is to protect our team and those we serve. We won’t do anything that could give the wrong appearance or cause harm to the trust we’ve built.
What do you most want people reading this to take away?
There’s so much going on in the world right now. I always tell people, when we come home and speak in churches and so forth: This is not 100% about Kenya; it’s about how we respond to need in the world. My hope and prayer is that everybody who reads this will have a heart to take a pause to see what people’s needs are.
There are people suffering in Atlanta and around the world. It’s hard for me to say this need is more important than someone else’s. But the needs here are different. A dollar a day changes a life here. A dollar a day somewhere else may get lost. We’re here to make sure things are happening, things are being spent properly, so we can go back home and look you in the eye and say your donation was properly stewarded and has made a difference. Not just a short-term, one-meal difference. A life-changing difference.
I want people to get in the game somewhere. It doesn’t matter where – go where your heart is touched. Follow it. Christ called us to do things, to go into the world. Everybody can’t get on a plane and go to Kenya or Honduras or wherever. But a check empowers organizations to do the work. I want to see revival happen because people are involved. Gospel is supposed to change us. It changed me and my wife enough to move here! We’ve got to respond, be different, serve those who don’t have a voice.
Follow your heart where it’s leading you. That’s the Holy Spirit speaking to you. It speaks differently. Maybe now, as crazy as the world has gotten, this is the time when we really listen.
Thanks to your generous Christmas Eve donations, PRUMC has provided more than $1,000,000 toward SWOK’s distribution of water filters in the last five years. Tens of thousands of households have experienced the benefits, including: a 90% reduction in waterborne diseases such as typhoid, cholera and dysentery (and even greater for children under the age of 5); a 95% reduction in days of school missed and days of work missed; and illness-linked savings of about $250 per year per household (which is dramatic given that many households are living on a couple of dollars a day).