August 23, 2011

Chronicling the East African drought

Kenyan Women carrying Corn Sack
Women haul a 40 kg sack of maize, or field corn, from a food distribution in Kibauni, Kenya. Photo: George Arende

By Tim Shenk/CWS

There are an endless number of stories to tell about this year's devastating drought in East Africa.  Across much of Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and beyond, 13.3 million people are struggling to survive the failure of seasonal rains, the scarcity of water and the skyrocketing price of food.

"This time is the worst drought we ever faced," an Anglican priest, Rev. Ezekiel Mutua, told me in Kaikungu, a rural Kenyan community three hours' drive east of Nairobi.  "People have gone without food, two to three days, so it's just surviving by God's grace."

Kaikungu is a farming area with about 6,500 people.  The fields where corn, beans and sorghum once grew are now just bare, reddish dirt, and spiky green sisal plants (a type of agave) are about the only crop that grows.  To survive, women hand-weave sisal fibers into colorful baskets to sell in Nairobi.  There are few other sources of income.

Church World Service and the Anglican Church of Kenya began distributing food in Kaikungu in August, hoping to stave off the worst forms of malnutrition.

Most people believe, however, that the long-term solution to recurrent drought is to capture and store more water in the community.  Since 2007, CWS and ACK have helped residents drill a well, build a hilltop water catchment and construct six concrete "sand dams" that hold water in the sandy beds of seasonal streams.

These efforts have helped ease the current drought by preventing people from having to walk miles to fetch water, but local water supplies must still be rationed to 40 liters per household per day.

In Kibauni, another rural area east of Nairobi, scores of women and a handful of men stack rocks in a dry riverbed in preparation for building a sand dam.  Two years ago, a sand dam was built along another stream in the community, and it still holds water in sand that naturally accumulates in the riverbed.  People scoop the water from shallow wells to irrigate a few small gardens and orchards.

But there is an acute need for more water, so the women of the community came out in force to build another dam.

I asked a community leader, Christine Matheha, why the laborers were mostly women, with some as old as 70.

"Because the women are more suffering than the men in our homes," she said with a long laugh, before explaining that men have left the community to look for work.

People hope that seasonal rains will return in October or November.  Then it will be another five months or so until crops mature.  In Kibauni, as in many other drought-affected communities, ACK and other partner organizations of CWS are distributing food to help sustain the population until the next harvest.

Yet there are many places where too little help has arrived, and too late.  In Huruma, an impoverished section of Nairobi, the National Council of Churches of Kenya distributes food packages to people living with HIV.

With food shortages driving up prices, many HIV patients are not eating enough to stay healthy, and some who were healthy are now bedridden.

Phyllis Kamau, an NCCK regional coordinator, took me to visit five ailing HIV patients in the lightless, tenement buildings of Huruma.

"Whenever I take the medicine I feel dizzy," explained a 17-year-old named Bob, who contracted HIV from his mother and is now battling tuberculosis.  "We sometimes go hungry if there's no money."

Phyllis explained to me that the NCCK food packages have been reduced due to a lack of funding, and only the most desperately needy people receive them, and only on a rotating basis.  She has a proposal to significantly expand food aid for HIV patients in Huruma but so far the necessary donations have not been forthcoming.

The worst case we saw was a girl named Elizabeth, about 12 years old, who lay unresponsive on a sofa in the home of her aunt and caretaker.

Elizabeth contracted HIV from her mother, who has since died, and in recent months her own condition worsened dramatically.  Elizabeth's CD4 count – a way of monitoring the severity of AIDS – dropped to 50, and anything below 200 is considered very serious.

Elizabeth's aunt, a single mother, stopped working at her market stand in order to take care of Elizabeth when her condition worsened.  They were hungry.  She did not have the money to pay rent and buy food.

"How can we be helped?" she asked Phyllis and me.

I wanted to give her the money in my pocket, just the Kenyan equivalent of $15, and although it would not have saved Elizabeth, I wish that I had given it anyway.

Instead, thinking everything should go through the proper channels, I turned to Phyllis and asked if she could respond.  Phyllis said to hold on, we’re doing our best to get support so that more help will come your way.  We stepped out on the street and talked about where funding could come from to feed the neediest of the thousands of HIV-infected people in Huruma.  We agreed that we must do everything possible to share the story of this drought and why help now is so desperately needed.

The next day, Phyllis emailed me: "I hope you will remember the last client that we visited yesterday.  Her name is Elizabeth ... I HAVE JUST BEEN INFORMED THAT SHE PASSED AWAY THIS MORNING.  HER BODY HAS BEEN TAKEN TO KENYATTA UNIVERSITY MORTUARY.  I am very sad.

What a loss!

This is what this drought situation actually means."

I feel stunned, both sad and angry.  What can we do?

In 2 Corinthians 9:9-11, Paul writes: “God freely gives his gifts to the poor, and always does right.  God gives seed to farmers and provides everyone with food.  He will increase what you have, so that you can give even more to those in need.  You will be blessed in every way, and you will be able to keep on being generous.”  My prayer is that I, and all those like me who have been generously blessed, can help those suffering the consequences of this terrible drought to the best of our ability.

– Tim Shenk is a communications officer with Church World Service.

HOW TO HELP: Contributions to support CWS emergency response efforts may be made online, sent to your denomination, or to Church World Service, P.O. Box 968, Elkhart, IN 46515.

Church World Service is a member of the ACT Alliance, a global coalition of churches and agencies engaged in development, humanitarian assistance and advocacy.