Alumni News

August 20, 2020 at 11:34 am

Alumnus, Faculty Put COVID Communications Plan into Action for Kenyans

Alumnus Aggrey Otieno addresses a crowd in Korogocho, Kenya.

Alumnus Aggrey Otieno addresses a crowd in Korogocho, Kenya.

Not everybody in the world has easy access to hand washing and social distancing as their top two ways to stop the spread of COVID-19. So two Ohio University professors and an alumnus are partnering with community groups to create locally tailored COVID-19 communication products in hopes of reaching 40,000 people in in the Korogocho area of Nairobi, Kenya.

Now their campaign is hitting the airwaves and the streets with messaging tailored to this community—along with more than 5,000 masks.

Dr. Thomas Smucker, Associate Professor of Geography, and Dr. Steve Howard, Professor of School of Media Arts and Studies, received a grant from the U.S. Department of State’s Citizen Diplomacy Action Fund to create the multi-faceted communications campaign tailored to the needs of communities in the informal settlement of Korogocho in Nairobi, Kenya.

Steve Howard, portrait

Dr. Steve Howard

Smucker and Howard, both alumni of the Fulbright program, saw an opportunity to rethink approaches to health communication in light of the water access and social distancing challenges in Korogocho.

Thomas Smucker, portrait

Dr. Thomas Smucker

“Simple advisories on hand washing and physical distancing are all fine and good where people have access to water and adequate domestic, working and neighborhood spaces that allow for maintaining distance. But it’s just not the right starting point for hundreds of millions of people around the world,” Smucker says.

An example of a tweet in the mix of English and Kiswahili that is often commonly spoken in Korogocho. This one indicates to sneeze in your elbow to avoid spreading germs.

An example of a tweet in the mix of English and Kiswahili widely spoken in Korogocho.

“Tweets focus on measures that everyone can take to reduce the likelihood of  COVID-19 transmission,” Smucker says. “There is a major focus on reaching the youth and speaking to their role in protecting the wider community, since youth are less likely to experience severe symptoms but may be important in diffusing COVID-19.”

Alumnus Puts NGO to Work against COVID

The project is a collaboration with Ohio University alumnus and Ph.D. student Aggrey Otieno, who has a wealth of experience in health communications in his home community of Korogocho, one of Nairobi’s largest informal settlements. Otieno earned an M.A. in Communication & Development from the Center for International Studies in 2011.

Otieno is pursuing a Ph.D. in Mass Communications in the Scripps College of Communication. His dissertation in progress is titled: “Anatomy of Child Protection Communication in the Digital Era: Social Media Users’ Influence and Framing of Child Trafficking in Kenya and USA.”

Movement Against Child Trafficking (MACT-Kenya) is a Korogocho-based organization that is engaged in child welfare on several fronts. MACT-Kenya is a strategic partner in this activity because it has strong community and local government relationships and a history of engagement with vulnerable populations across Korogocho. MACT-Kenya founder and Korogocho-born Otieno, an experienced health communications practitioner, serves as communications adviser and co-facilitator of the project.

“In addition to its strong community connections, MACT Kenya also hosts its M-Health system, designed by Otieno and MACT Kenya staff. M-Health is a messaging platform that reaches tens of thousands of Korogocho residents, providing an important means of diffusing locally tailored messages regarding COVID-19 prevention and treatment,” Smucker says. “MACT-Kenya is a strategic partner in this activity because it has strong community and local government relationships and a history of engagement with vulnerable populations across Korogocho.”

Partners in Kenya Use Multiple Channels

The project partners with MACT Kenya, an NGO co-founded by Otieno, as well as community radio station Koch FM and the Kenya Ministry of Health.

Team members produce locally tailored messaging that are diffused across several platforms:

  • SMS text messages
  • social media
  • in-person with community health volunteers
  • a series of call-in radio shows

The volunteers will not only reinforce the messaging, they also will distribute approximately 5,000 cloth face masks funded by the project.

The OHIO team will work with Koch FM to produce the radio shows to highlight positive responses to this public health crisis, identify service providers for mental health and other challenges, and address COVID-19 myths.

State Department Funds Citizen Diplomacy Action

In April 2020, the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs invited U.S. citizen alumni of all U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs, including the Fulbright Program, the Gilman Scholarship, and Cultural and Sports Envoys to apply for grant funding as part of the Citizen Diplomacy Action Fund Rapid Response funding opportunity. Exchange alumni from across the United States submitted proposals for public service projects that addressed issues related to the COVID-19 crisis and helped build community resilience.

Since April, the U.S. Department of State has funded over 25 projects that address the current global health crisis in cities and towns across the United States and virtually with international partners in communities around the world. Exchange alumni are contributing to their communities in meaningful ways by sharing media literacy best practices that help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, increasing access to virtual and at-home education for youth and their families, providing artistic and creative outlets for local and global audiences, and responding to other community needs.

“We are thrilled that our U.S. alumni are using the skills and knowledge they gained during their exchange programs overseas to join the worldwide effort against COVID-19,” said Marie Royce, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State in a story on the department’s website. “These Citizen Diplomacy Action Fund public service projects uplift communities and provide them with resources and education needed to fight the pandemic.”

The Citizen Diplomacy Action Fund is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and implemented in partnership with the Partners of the Americas.

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