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A new “Hatari” in town: Mobilising grassroot action in response to COVID-19

By Tim Ndezi, Festo Makoba, and Emmanuel Osuteye


COVID-19 in Tanzania

Tanzania, like many other African countries, recorded the first cases of COVID-19 by the end of March 2020. The initial response of the government was to follow suit in the regional efforts to place international travel restriction that address the likelihood of increases in imported cases from abroad, and less emphasis on the development of a comprehensive public health response to deal with the inevitable likelihood of community spread. The delay was also coupled with an apparent reluctance of the government to commit resources to in-country mitigation efforts, amid claims of projecting messages that even downplayed the risks and potency of the coronavirus pandemic. As of the end of September 2020, Tanzania had one the lowest official case counts and fatalities (501 and 21 respectively) recorded in Africa, as well as a relatively smaller number of tests that were carried out (approx. 4000 compared to the approx. half a million tests conducted by neighbouring Kenya and Uganda).

Some of the direct consequences of the government’s posture and management of information were the huge gaps in information, and the limited support offered to the urban poor and residents living in informal settlement. These residents were at a great risk of community spread due to the impracticality of the conventional management practices of self-isolation, social distancing and hand washing that were recommended by the WHO to deal with the pandemic. In the absence of adequate governmental support and a concrete public health strategy, informal settlements have relied on the instrumentality of local community organisations to mobilise and bridge the deficits in information and in the provision of essential aid. The Dar es Salaam case highlights the inequalities inherent in this major urban centre, that have been accentuated by COVID-19, especially with the challenges of access to water and sanitations services.

Above: Community sensitisation with public address systems and educational infographics (credit: CCI, 2020)

Mobilising a grassroots campaign

In light of these problems and drawing on the strong relationships with many informal settlements since its establishment in 2004, KNOW city partner - the Centre for Community Initiatives (CCI) rapidly put in place a strategy to run a campaign to raise awareness and provide targeted assistance to the urban poor. In order to achieve this, CCI partnered with the Tanzanian Federation of the Urban Poor (part of the global Slum and Shack Dweller collectives), to conduct COVID-19 related community work in over 20 targeted communities in three major cities: Dar es Salaam, Dodoma and Zanzibar.

A core campaign team of 29 people, predominantly youth in the targeted settlements, was formed (10 youths from Dar-es-Salaam; 8 youths from Zanzibar; and 8 youth from Dodoma) and supported by three CCI staff members. The campaign team members were trained on COVID-19 prevention practices, management of messages, and how to summarise approved WHO guidance. This enabled the team to form a common understanding of the key concepts and terms, and to navigate appropriate translations into the local Swahili language. The headline of the campaign was intended to clearly articulate that there was a new threat in town (Hatari!). The term “Hatari” in Swahili loosely translates as “danger,” and is appropriate in the context of COVID-19. Furthermore, CCI took proactive and concrete steps to engage the local government leaders (who are Municipality Executives – Dar es Salaam is administratively divided into 5 municipalities) and the Ministry of Health, who provided permits for CCI to carry out its health education campaigns in the settlements.

The priority of the campaign was to fill information and knowledge gaps about COVID-19 and raise awareness about prevention and other best practices (e.g. using mobile battery-powered public address systems, and also through WhatsApp messages). Communication strategies had been developed by the Federation during previous ‘Know Your City” campaigns, and they knew how to map and zone each settlement in order to ensure proper coverage during the campaigns. Additionally, other Federation volunteers acted as focal persons within each settlement, allowing for continued engagement, providing ongoing updates to the residents, and helping to identify the most vulnerable. CCI has also raised funds to provide sanitary materials (mainly soap, mobile handwashing stations and sanitizers) and facemasks, to help fight the spread of the virus.

Above: Campaign team members delivering COVID information within a settlement (credit: CCI, 2020)


The campaigns have been well received in the settlements, and the sanitary supplies were directly beneficial to the residents in preventing the spreading of COVID-19. Furthermore, in this process CCI has also forged new relationships with other external support agencies, such as the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) and NGOs such as the Sanitation and Water Action in Tanzania (SAWA), to collaborate on COVID-19 responses for the urban poor, and they subsequently joined in their campaign efforts. As a result, the COVID-19 campaign was able to reach some informal settlements where there was little or no previous Federation presence, and this has expanded the outreach potential of the Federation. The campaigns have coincided with the peak of the rainy season, which creates a vicious cycle of several flood events each year, causing the spread of disease-carrying vectors that breed in polluted and stagnant water. The campaigners’ efforts, which were aimed at responding to COVID-19, have also led to an observable reduction in the reports of such water-borne diseases, particularly in some informal settlements that were known to be hotspots for cholera.

In all these efforts CCI and the Federation demonstrate the value of grassroots activity in responding to COVID-19.

Above: Campaign team members distribute hand washing stations and soap to traders in the market (credit: CCI, 2020)


Further reading and resources

Devermont, J. and Harris, M (2020) “Implications of Tanzania’s Bungled Response to Covid-19”

International Institute for Environment and Development (2020) “Emerging lessons from community-led COVID-19 responses in urban areas”

Kwayu, A. C. (2020) “Tanzania’s COVID-19 response puts Magufuli’s leadership style in sharp relief”

Patel, S. (2020) “Community Based Organisations are Key to Covid-19 Response”



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