Mother's Day: The unsung heroines amid raging floods

This woman risk her life to cross the overflow Nairobi River in Mathare 4B to Mathare 4A Slums to get food donations for her family from the Transformers Organization on May 11, 2024. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Jane Anyango, a mother of three, sways her one-month-old baby slowly and flashes a weak but assuring smile to the infant as she attempts to calm her down.

A thudding sound in a pool of water a few meters from where she sits at Ombaka Primary School in Kisumu startles her as she shifts her attention to her other two children playing in a puddle of water.

The children, who are barely six years old, rush to her and ask her when they will be going back home and if they can go back and find their drawing books.

From a distance, it is easy to tell that she does not have a definite answer to her children and is fraught with pain and agony. But still, she gives it her best effort and showers them with praise as she tells them they will be home soon.

"We will be going back very soon," she says before handing the children a cup of porridge for them to share. 

She is among more than 500 women who have been forced to stay strong for their families after destructive floods swept Kaswindi village in Nyando and several other villages, condemning them to a life in crowded rescue camps.

And as the world marks this year's Mother's Day today, the floods crisis that has left some families broken after losing loved ones and all their material possessions has unearthed the resiliency of a mother's strong love.

It is a love that overcomes all seasons and glues together a family even at their lowest and with nothing to their name save for their clothes after losing everything.

A spot check by The Standard across several rescue camps across the country elaborates the silent heroines who are sending smiles and comfort to their families at a time when most families have hit rock bottoms.

Displaced women and children with what they managed to rescue as floods destroyed homes after River Nyando burst its bank. [Michael Mute, Standard]

They are the group that may not receive physical flowers to celebrate Mother's Day but are the cornerstone of the survival and well-being of families torn apart by floods.

For others like Anyango, the struggle to explain to inquisitive minors what is actually happening to them and why they are not at their homes makes their resilience even stronger.

"The children do not even understand that all our foodstuff was swept away by floods. All they want is food when they are hungry, so you have to find a way even if it means begging," explains Maureen Auko, a displaced mother.

When The Sunday Standard visited the camp yesterday, several mothers were busy attending to their younger children. Here, they have to monitor the hygiene of their children, ensure they get food, assure them of their physical safety, and monitor their mental health.

In one of the makeshift tents, Margaret Okoth, a 53-year-old mother of 7, appears to be in deep thought.

She says she moved to the camp with five of her children. Two others refused to join her after claiming they were embarrassed to share a small tent with her and the rest of the family members.

With her large family, she says, most of the time she spends the entire day on an empty stomach because she has to ensure that all her children eat first.

"We are given food by well-wishers. If you have a large family like mine, it is even more worrying because you are not spending with all of them in your tent," she explains.

Women wade through flood waters in Bundalangi after fetching firewood. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

For others, the struggle to protect their young girls from sexual predators makes life at the camp even more challenging. 

With almost their entire property swept away by floods, the women are exploring ways to get out of the deep hole the environmental crisis has plunged their families into.

The heroic tales of how some of them managed to rescue their young children from the fangs of floods in the darkness of the night is baffling and sound like a script from a Hollywood set.

For Jane Atieno, another mother, she was displaced by a backflow of the lake that struck at 2 am on a Tuesday.

"It was on a Monday night. We went to bed as usual and we were not worried because there was no rain. At around 2am, I heard frogs croaking everywhere only to learn that water had started sipping into my house," she says.

She hurriedly woke up her two children and carried them to the camp even, while relying on a small torch to trace her way to the school. Her neighbors also mobilised to help other families to escape the floods.

Similarly, in the Western region, several mothers are the shining light of their families as they struggle to make ends meet and see off a day successfully.

Amid Budalang'i's floods landscape, Hellen Sibagaya navigates the tumultuous waters with unwavering determination.

Once a vendor at the now-submerged Mau Mau market, she has adapted to the challenges brought by the rising waters, moving to higher grounds and finding solace at the Namabusi IDP camp.

"When the floods hit some weeks ago, I knew I had to keep moving to keep my family and business safe," Sibagaya says, her voice tinged with determination.

"It hurts that my family lost its home and our crops on the farm were soaked in water, but we haven't lost hope."

Women wade through flood waters at Makunda Primary School in Budalangi to fetch water for domestic consumption. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

With her entrepreneurial spirit undeterred, Hellen continues to sell groceries and cook fast food for her fellow displaced residents with little regret of what befell her.

"I may not have much left after the backflow from Lake Victoria and River Yala engulfed our fortune but I'll always find a way to provide for my family," she affirms, a glimmer of resilience shining in her eyes.

But the 27-year-old's responsibilities extend far beyond her business endeavors.

With the proceeds from her sales, she cares for her elderly parents and two young children, a duty she undertakes with unwavering devotion.

"My family is my strength and they don't have anyone else to look to," she says.

She's not only helping her family but the larger community." I can't stand to see children suffer," she admits, recounting how she assists young children in crossing the marooned roads near her makeshift roadside stall.

Recent aid from organizations such as the Kenya Red Cross and UNICEF has provided much-needed relief to her and her fellow residents.

This comes even as the UN estimates that by 2050, climate change will push up to 158 million more women and girls into poverty and lead to 236 million more women into hunger.

“Climate change is creating a downward spiral for women and girls”, said Sarah Hendriks, UN Women Deputy Executive Director in a recent publication.

In the Mount Kenya region, Teresiah Njoki a mother of two, from Thunguma village next to Chania River is camping at Thunguma Primary in Nyeri town constituency.

She says it has been one week since they left their flooded home.

A woman wades through flood waters in Garissa town as heavy rains continue to cause havoc across the country. [AFP]

"We were told to vacate our homes to safer grounds after Chania river burst its banks, and water flooded our homes. However, life is unbearable here, the sanitation is so poor, we are afraid we might contract some waterborne diseases,” she said.

The mother of two said her nine-month-old son had already developed rashes on his body as a result of poor bedding while her five-year-old son is yet to settle.

Njoki noted that she had a business before the floods where she hawked cooked food within the shops and construction sites to earn her daily bread.

With schools set to open on Monday, May 13, 2024, Njoki and many others camping at the school are wondering how they will be accommodated, while schools are in session.

“The head teacher said that there is an empty class that we can shelter but I prefer to return home and nurse my children from there, this will be too much to bear,” she said.

A spot check within the school compound, where they are sheltered, revealed that the classrooms were dirty.

The primary school holds 21 adults and 23 children including young children.

At Githiru primary school, just a few kilometers away, some 22 families have sought shelter for one week now. The primary school has provided temporary shelter for 42 children and 31 adults.

[Report by Harold Odhiambo, Clinton Ambujo, Michael Mute, Purity Mwangi, and Robert Amalemba]