Even before I arrived I knew that a harsh drought was hitting Kenya. In fact, one of our main goals of the trip was to document how the drought is impacting the lives of children in the areas where we work.
To be honest, though, I worried that we’d have a hard time finding stories that really illustrated the drought’s severity. I feared that, because the rainy season had already begun, the landscape would be too green and lush to provide the dry, desolate, desperate backdrop that makes a fundraiser’s job relatively easier.
I thought I’d never see a place poorer than Niger. I had no idea what I was about to experience.
We passed this camel carcass on our first day in the Lokori region. “That’s it!” we, the marketers, thought. “That’s the image we need to show the world that there’s a drought happening!” I mean, camels are supposed to be able to go for days without any water, right? So, finding a dead camel in the middle of a dry riverbed is a pretty powerful story.
But it’s only the beginning of the story.
We didn’t pass any more carcasses, but the further we ventured into Turkana, the more confused I became as to how the people there are able to survive. We drove through countless sandy riverbeds. Flying over the terrain a few days later, the dried up rivers looked like veins across the landscape — withering trees along their banks defining the dead rivers from the rest of the sandy earth.
Once every couple of hours we would pass someone walking along the path. They’d look at us, and we’d stop to offer a bottle of water. I am sure that if the Land Cruiser had dropped me off at any point during the journey, I would have died before finding water.
We finally arrived at a site where our staff distribute emergency food rations to the most vulnerable families. When we got out of the car, all I could think about was finding shade. The sun was pushing down on me and it hurt. I glanced all around and there was nothing but sand and shrubs. No trees were tall or full enough to provide more than an inch of cool relief. The few shelters that had been constructed to protect from the sun were packed full of people. In fact, if I’d been deaf and pointed at 90% of the visible space, I would have thought myself completely alone in the desert. In actuality, there were several hundred people crammed in the tiniest of shaded space.
I felt desperate. I couldn’t even concentrate on the introduction being given about our programs. I became angry when a teammate asked a question, keeping us in the sun for seconds longer. Finally, I walked away from the group, and occupied a one-foot wide sliver of darkness I’d spotted beside our newly-emptied food storage facility.
And then we heard people’s stories. A nomadic culture, the community began congregating together a few years ago as a defense mechanism. As the available resources — water, grazing land, food — became depleted, tensions rose and tribal conflict developed. Raids on goats and cattle increased. Herders were killed. Widows and children settled in self-made camps in hopes of finding strength in numbers.
They found strength and protection, but it brought new problems. Livestock that hadn’t been stolen in raids were now dying from drought. There isn’t enough land for the animals to graze when families are so concentrated in one area. And because areas near the water sources are the most dangerous, the communities established themselves remotely. This means that women are forced to leave their hungry, thirsty, sun-suffering children at home while they trek for a full day to fetch water. When they return, the children are so dehydrated, that they vomit up anything their mother gives them to eat or drink.
I’m at a loss for how to give this blog post a happy ending. I thought I’d seen poverty in Niger, and I did. But there are people even worse off than what I knew there. People who have no possessions whatsoever. People who don’t know if they’ll have a meal from one day to the next. People who have to cross the desert in search of water for their children to drink.
I guess I’ll just make a plug for charity. When I talk about having lived in Africa, so many people tell me, “I could never do that.” And I always think, “we’re so lucky that we have a choice where to live.” And, really, humans are tough. If we’d been born deep in the Kenyan desert, we would have fought to survive too. Instead, we were amazingly blessed to be born in America. But that doesn’t mean we should live in a bubble. People — children — would literally die without food and water brought in by charities. So give to help them out. And give generously. Give because you have food and water and money to spare.