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Floods Compound COVID-19 Suffering in Kenya

The Rt. Rev. Dr. Joseph Wandera, Bishop of Mumias in the Anglican Church of Kenya, likens the devastating waves to biblical pestilences.

Bishop Joseph Wandera

In the midst of a nationwide coronavirus lockdown, the region he serves in Western Kenya is experiencing catastrophic floods. Over 200 people have been killed and thousands displaced by the swollen Nzoia River, which has been overflowing its banks for three weeks due to an unusually intense rainy season and backflow from Lake Victoria. Meteorologists predict the rains will continue until the end of June.

Crops, livestock, and houses have been destroyed, and displaced people are crowding into makeshift shelters in towns on higher ground. “Three houses belonging to my three wives are all gone, and my seven-acre crop of maize and over 3,000 trees” said John Wesonga, one of those affected.

Bishop Wandera reported that a major bridge across the Nzoia at Mumias failed last week, cutting off the city from its surrounding towns. While workers are rebuilding the bridge, the city is scrambling to find shelter for displaced families. Many are crowded into schoolrooms, and Bishop Wandera said he worries about pregnant women and children who are especially vulnerable to malaria-carrying mosquitoes, which are breeding quickly on the rain-soaked ground.

He said that he hears heartbreaking stories every day from members of his congregations who are suffering greatly. In an interview with TLC, Bishop Wandera noted, “One member of an affected family told me, ‘I ran to safety at 1 a.m. in the night. My house is gone, my goats are gone; I am only left with my God.”

He added, “I am visiting each of the temporary shelters occupied by those affected. We are praying with them and encouraging them with the word of God. In these circumstances, I have found the passages from the Psalms very helpful. God as the Good Shepherd who provides and restores.”

“Not all those affected are Christians,” Bishop Wandera noted. “A significant proportion are Muslims. Therefore, our response of necessity has taken an interfaith perspective bringing on board Muslim leaders around us. The tragedy has strengthened our common humanity as the people of God.”

The Diocese of Mumias, he said, has been urging local media to highlight the situation to attract government support. They have launched an appeal to friends of the diocese across the world, seeking funds to provide food, clothing, blankets, mosquito nets, and medicine to the displaced, as well as professional counseling for those who have been most deeply traumatized. “By our standards,” he said, “the response has been good. But the humanitarian needs are simply overwhelming.”

In time, he said, the diocese will help people to rebuild their homes, and donated funds will be used to purchase building supplies, as well as seed and fertilizer for replanting devastated crop fields. Bishop Wandera said, “The work of rebuilding homes will be a herculean task for affected families. However, God is not dead. God’s grace is unlimited and he can provide more than we can ever imagine. I appeal to all who believe in our common humanity to join in supporting those affected.”

The recovery effort, he added, has been complicated in various ways by the economic challenges brought by COVID-19. Coronatracker.com reports that Kenya has 700 diagnosed cases of coronavirus as of May 13, with 33 fatalities. The Kenyan president has suspended public gatherings and there is a 10-hour nationwide curfew. The four counties with the highest infection rates are locked down completely.

Public markets have been closed or are operating under strict sanitary protocols, and thousands are jobless. Bishop Wandera said there has been massive inflation in the price of necessities, and that life is unbearable for many people.  The flooding, he explained, poses particular challenges in his largely agrarian region. “Farmland is gone and harvest will be poor. The prospect of starvation for millions is real. These developments have hit squarely at livelihoods. Many people are losing hope in life and there is real need for outreach with messages of hope.”

Bishop Wandera said that the disaster also raises important issues for theological reflection. “There are ecological questions around how humanity continues to transgress Mother Nature with devastating consequences,” he said. “The impact of climate change is rife. Drought, COVID-19, locusts and now floods are the consequences. How might we as a church strengthen theological and pastoral reflections on the need to secure the environment around us? This is a divine commission, which too often is forgotten or given less than adequate attention in our churches and communities.”

“The poor pay the ultimate price” for such environmental devastation, he noted. “We must embed in our sermons and pastoral care the consciousness that all creatures are part of all others. Without seeming to reify nature, we must teach our children that humanity share a destiny with nature. We must repent some of the aspects of our practices which do not promote a common humanity.”

Bishop Wandera invited fellow believers across the world to uphold the people of his region in prayer.  Donations to the relief effort are also welcomed, and can be made by PayPal on the diocesan website.  Wire transfers may be sent to the Cooperative Bank of Kenya, P.O BOX 905 – 50102, Mumias, Kenya (Bank ID: 011, Swift Code: KCOOKENA, Branch Code: 034, Account: 01120067385600)


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