For Somali refugees, handwashing lessons from a surprising teacher

Farhiya, center, washes her hands as a crowd looks on. Photo courtesy of CRS

In a refugee camp in northern Kenya, someone is teaching people how to wash their hands properly. The demonstrator lathers the soap, pours water, and rubs her hands together in a circular motion. She works slowly and systematically, making sure her nails are clean too. A crowd of children gathers, watching. Their “teacher” is three years old.

The little girl, Farhiya, is probably saving some of her friends’ lives. Hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees like her are crowded into the camp, and disease spreads quickly. In East Africa, thousands of children die of diarrhea.

Farhiya learned about good hygiene because of sanitation programmes carried out by CRS (a Caritas member based in the US). ‘’My father, who works for CRS, taught me to wash my hands to remove dirt and germs which might make me sick,” she says. Her father fled a port city in Somalia in September 2011 to escape fighting, bringing his wife and three children to Dadaab camp.

In Dadaab refugee camp, CRS has built latrines to serve thousands of Somali refugees who fled drought and conflict in their country. Photo courtesy of CRS

The CRS project—in a part of the camp called Kambioos—is helping more than 13,000 refugees. CRS builds latrines and trains the refugees to keep the latrine areas clean. CRS also trains community members to teach others about good hand washing practices. To reinforce the message, CRS is distributing soap and installing hand washing stations. “Hygiene promoters” from a local partner organization called FaIDA (Fafi Integrated Development Agency) are paid a stipend to train their fellow refugees.

Farhiya might not understand the exact connection between germs and diarrhea, but she has perfected the art of hand washing. When asked what else she can use if there is no soap, she says that there is always soap from the soap distribution; as if to prove her point, she runs to the side of a tent and comes back with a bar of soap and a soap dish. She quickly fetches a jerry can of water and motions her father to pour water on her hands as she lathers the soap. After following the handwashing steps she’s learned, she shakes the water off and proudly stretches her arms out in front of the crowd, saying, ‘’Look at my clean hands.”


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