From Kenya’s postelection violence, an online community forms to give aid

When Sallinder Nyawira tweeted that she could help others, the response was overwhelming, and RescueBnB was born. It aims to map the locations of those in need and connect them with volunteers.

Brian Otieno
Sallinder Nyawira is a marketer and single mother, but she and others have also made time to help fellow Kenyans. Coordinating their efforts has been facilitated by technology.

When Sallinder Nyawira received panicked messages from a colleague last August amid Kenya’s postelection violence, she knew she had to help. Her colleague was hiding under a bed while bullets flew outside her home in Kibera, a slum in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. Fearing for her life, she spent all day and night lying on the floor until she felt it was safe.

After both Kenya’s August election and a second election in October, violence broke out in hot spots, namely in the port city of Kisumu and in Nairobi slums such as Kibera. Amid police clashes with protesters, almost 100 people died, according to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. 

Ms. Nyawira’s colleague managed to get to safety, but Nyawira knew there were other distressed Kenyans still in need of shelter. So she sent out a tweet, offering to house anyone who felt unsafe. The response was overwhelming. 

“I need help,” one person tweeted back. “Do you still have some room left?” another asked. 

And Nyawira’s tweet inspired others to offer aid: “I can also accommodate three if you get overwhelmed” and “On that note I will also offer temporary shelter.” 

This led to the founding of RescueBnB – a community with the mission to map the locations of those in need of shelter and connect them with volunteer hosts. Within 24 hours of Nyawira’s tweet, a core team of volunteers had formed, a web developer had set up a pro bono website, and Kenyans were spreading the word on social media. Within 48 hours, they had assembled more than 100 volunteers across the country and had arranged multiple home stays with vetted hosts.

The story of RescueBnB shows the power of crowdsourcing solutions through social media. It also shows how a single act of kindness can create a ripple effect.

“We all have normal 8-to-5 jobs,” says Nyawira, who is a marketer and single mother. Members of the core team “were all reporting to work and were doing this around their work hours and within [those hours].” 

Indeed, the team worked around the clock, using Twitter, WhatsApp, emails, and phone calls to coordinate relief efforts. It wasn’t until weeks later that they finally met in person.

To date, RescueBnB has supported 800 people across Kenya, and team members say that’s just the start.

More than just housing

Early on, they realized temporary housing wasn’t the only need. Once the situation in Kibera, for example, had cooled down, “the issue was not accommodation, but it was food because shops were damaged or shut down,” Nyawira explains.

So RescueBnB began crowdfunding to provide care packages as well as to cover medical expenses. Its partnerships with community organizations and religious groups helped it reach more individuals, and companies stepped in to assist. A supermarket chain welcomed shoppers to drop off donations, and a boda boda (motorbike) delivery company volunteered to get the donations into the hands of people who needed them. 

One of those people was Catherine Mumbi. She owned a small shop that sold electronics and phone airtime in Kawangware, another slum in Nairobi, before it was burned down in the postelection violence. “[RescueBnB] gave us food. We needed it at that time; we were desperate,” Ms. Mumbi recalls. “It was very difficult for us to get food. Shops were closed, and we didn’t have any cash.”

Mumbi is rebuilding her shop with financial support from the Red Cross. RescueBnB, Nyawira notes, can offer a temporary solution while longer-term projects such as rebuilding are under way. 

Relief efforts are a shared responsibility, points outs Mathews Ogolla, one of the organization’s volunteer directors. Aid groups “can do as much as they can, but they cannot reach all the corners of this republic. Even the government can’t give everything to everyone in need, so people need to turn up and say, ‘OK, this is what we are going to do to help society.’ ” 

Swinging into action

Mr. Ogolla initially connected with Nyawira on Twitter, and the two quickly began coordinating relief efforts. Although Ogolla lives in Nairobi, he’d returned to Kisumu, his hometown, to cast his vote in the election, and he was still in the port city three days later when riots were breaking out.

He recalls the chaos. “Police were shooting guys everywhere. They blocked all the roads coming in and out of town, and they were not allowing people to walk [freely].” During this time, Ogolla distributed food to those in need and used RescueBnB’s funds to cover the medical expenses of those injured.

When the violence ended, RescueBnB hosted fun days for children, held healing sessions for adults, and offered free ongoing counseling with the help of a mental health organization.

Today, RescueBnB is expanding its mission, aiming to become a permanent disaster response group. “We want [not only to] respond to political unrest, but also to distressed women and children,” Nyawira says. 

And Nyawira is becoming known as a helper. When a neighbor was the victim of domestic violence, she turned to Nyawira, who assisted in securing temporary housing through RescueBnB hosts. When a young man was sexually assaulted by a gang, his family members reached out to Nyawira on Twitter, and she connected him with a counselor.

Some organizations, Nyawira notes, can take a week to respond to requests for urgent support. “For someone who has been raped, they can’t wait a week for a rape kit. There is bureaucracy,” says Nyawira, and she is determined to change that.

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