HOPE Project helps families with emergency food - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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HOPE Project’s assistant director Florah Mwandoe organizes food bags for distribution in the project office.

Many of the children that our HOPE (Helping Orphans Pursue Education) Project in Mombasa, Kenya, serves have lost both parents. Some live with a single surviving parent, and others live with family members and, in some cases, community members who have taken them in. These families typically are supporting HOPE children in addition to their own.

Pretty much all of our HOPE families live in single-room dwellings — some made of mud — and share bathrooms with other families within their densely populated settlements. They cook using propane, or sometimes charcoal, in this single room. In some places garbage and sewage can be seen along the roads and alleys, as there is no garbage pickup. Residents are forced to burn trash and a noxious smell of burning plastic often fills the air. Many places have no running water. Water — both for drinking and for bathing and cleaning — needs to be bought and carried in.


Most families have only one wage earner — typically the single mother (or in a few cases, a father). The unemployment rate in Kenya is very high, and stable, decent paying jobs are scarce. Women typically sell items like fruits and vegetables or porridge from roadside markets. Others earn money by cleaning houses. Most men are day laborers who are forced to look for some kind of work each day.

These families rely on the money they earn one day to feed their entire family for that day. They have no savings to tap into and no one to help them buy food and pay expenses if they can’t earn money.

The COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns have created significant additional challenges and hardships for our HOPE families, who were already struggling to live, eat and provide for their children in the best of circumstances. With the lockdown in Kenya, their livelihoods are severely threatened. Travel and movement restrictions have made it difficult — and in some cases impossible — for families to earn money to eat and survive. Even as the government encourages frequent hand-washing to slow the spread of the virus, soap remains a luxury item. Buying food to feed their families takes precedence over buying soap.

One of our students, Maxmilla, joined HOPE Project as a class eight student in 2011. HOPE funded the remainder of her primary school and secondary school education. Maxmilla is the oldest of three children. Her father died in 2009 of AIDS. After the death of her father, her mother became the breadwinner of the family by selling fried fish.

But her mother also tragically succumbed to AIDS in 2013. After the death of their mother, Maxmilla and her brother and sister were taken in by her uncle and his wife, who have four children of their own.

The family lives in Bangladesh, one of the largest informal settlements in the Mombasa area. The people of “Bangla,” as it is called for short, live in corrugated iron huts, built one on top of each other, with waste-filled ditches snaked between them. The residents share a limited number of pit latrines and there is no running water.

Maxmilla is studying to be a teacher and is in her final year at a teachers training college. Her brother finished secondary school last year and is hoping to go to school to learn how to do electrical installation. Her sister is in primary school.

Rich Tarro packing food bags in the HOPE Project office.

The pandemic has disrupted the education of Maxmilla and her siblings, as all schools in Kenya are closed during the lockdown. The three of them, along with the rest of the family, currently stay at home all day. This puts additional stress on the family as, like many families in Kenya, they were relying on schools to provide some of the children’s meals. With all the children at home, all meals are now dependent on what the breadwinner in the family can earn — in this case the uncle.

Maxmilla’s uncle is an electrician. He has no shop, but goes to where work is needed when called. Since the lockdown has been put in place, he has had no jobs, since traveling to and entering into other people’s homes is very restricted. The family is really struggling to survive during the pandemic. There is little to eat.

Through the generosity of several donors, we were able to provide food packages to Maxmilla’s family as well as 43 other HOPE families. The food items included green grams (mung beans), rice, milk, wheat and corn flour, sugar and soap. Like Maxmilla’s family, these families are all struggling to survive and eat during the current pandemic. The food that we were able to give them will help the families eat for about the next five days.

My colleague Florah Mwandoe and I bought the goods from local vendors rather than the supermarket to support these small businesses. We brought the bulk goods to the office and assembled the bags there. We then set up fixed distribution times, an approximate two-hour window in each of our two locations — Changamwe and Mbungoni — and let people know when to come. To maintain physical distancing, they entered the compound one at a time, picked up their bag and left. A few familes were unable to travel to pick up their bags, so we made alternative arrangements to get them their food.

This was our first distribution of food to our HOPE families, but we hope to do additional ones. These families will need more help to meet basic needs as the pandemic stretches on. Their livelihoods have been completely disrupted by the pandemic, and they have no means to earn money to eat and pay expenses. However, our ability to do additional food distributions is completely dependent on donations to support our efforts.

I can’t emphasize enough what a difference any financial assistance during this crisis can make in the lives of people who have next to nothing on which to live. Please consider a donation to support the vulnerable families and children we serve in Mombasa.

Mungu ni mwema. God is good.


Rich Tarro
Rich Tarro is the director of HOPE (Helping Orphans Pursue Education) Project in Mombasa, Kenya.