Last week, David Ochieng barely slept. The Kenyan fashion designer has been working day and night in his studio, crafting hundreds of face masks from the colourful scrap fabrics of his designs.
Ochieng’s sustainable fashion designs are popular on the streets of Nairobi. His fashion brand, Lookslike Avido, is internationally known for its vibrant street-inspired style. But for now, he only designs face masks, with his trademark African print. He hands them out for free to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus among some of Kenya’s most vulnerable communities.
“I know what is motivating me to do this. Giving out the masks and letting people know how to help themselves when the virus tries reaching us gives me joy because at least I can help them to understand the situation,” Ochieng says during a short break between sewing.
Ochieng was born and raised in Kibera, a sprawling informal settlement on the outskirts of Nairobi that is often referred to as Africa’s largest slum. When the first case of COVID-19 was announced in Kenya on March 17, he knew that this was where the virus could have the most dire effects.
Concerns about COVID-19’s potential impact on informal settlements like Kibera are high. How possible is it to prevent the spread of the virus in a slum area, where few residents have access to running water? How can social distancing be an option when homes are stacked precariously on top of one another, and where a day without work means a day without food?
These were among the fears expressed in Kibera following news of the first outbreak, and it is what inspired Ochieng to start making his own masks and distributing them for free among his local community.
“I’m doing my best to help people around here. The people in my community motivate me to be who I am and at the end of the day, I can’t see them suffer because not all of them are able to afford the masks, the hand wash, and the sanitiser,” he explains
In a community where access hand sanitiser or surgical face masks is sparse, his hope is that the masks will at least prevent people from touching their face and contacting the virus. And unlike surgical masks, they can be washed and reused; a more sustainable alternative for those living below the poverty line.
However, the effectiveness of masks in preventing the spread of coronavirus has been debated and Ochieng is quick to say that they do not fully protect people from the virus. Alongside making the masks, he distributes them, educating people in the community on how to fully protect themselves from the virus as he does so.
Some days Ochieng goes deep into villages to inform and assist those who aren’t aware of the dangers of coronavirus and its rapid spread. To each man, woman, or child he hands his masks to, Ochieng explains how to safely use them and emphasises the importance of other prevention measures including thorough hand washing and the use of sanitiser.
“Some people don’t really know what is happening, so I have to educate them. Once you do that, they are able to understand. It takes time for them to understand what is happening and to teach them the preventative measures. People are really happy [to receive the masks], some are even falling into tears,” he says.
Ochieng has already run out of the scrap fabrics he was using. He continues to purchase more from the market as he becomes overwhelmed by the demand for masks on the ground. He has made almost 1,800 masks in the last week, and on his last distribution in Kibera he handed out 700 masks.
With each mask taking around 10 minutes to make, his life has become consumed by what feels to be an urgent need to create and distribute as many masks as possible for a community in need of support. “When I go out, at some point I run out of masks, and I don’t know what to say. I have to run back home and make more. You get tired but you have to push on for the people,” Ochieng says.
However, it is not just people in Kibera that Ochieng supplies masks to. Across Nairobi, demand is high; from other informal settlements like Mathare, to the high-income areas of Karen and Lavington. He has even had requests from as far as Europe and the United States, where people have told him masks have been sold out.
Regardless of who is asking, Ochieng will distribute the masks for free. He refuses any payment other than hand sanitiser, which he then distributes throughout the Kibera community.
For now, a sense of uncertainty hangs in the air as Kenya shuts down borders and steps up measures to prevent the spread of the virus. And for Ochieng, who remains deeply connected to the community he has lived in his whole life, his masks and education are all he has to offer as he works to protect his community from a virus that would be potentially crippling to his hometown.
“When you die, you don’t go with money, but if you have the chance right now, help people around you, show them love and support, because that is what keeps us going,” Ochieng says, before turning back to his sewing machine for another day and night weaving together his colourful masks.