Africa Food Crisis

Business as (Un)usual

When the small puddle jumper plane landed on its rinky-dink airstrip, I came to grips with the fact that I was face to face with one of the world’s oldest, most isolated, and yet most intact cultures. I had been a student of Africa for years at that point, but Turkana (the name of the people and their ancestral homeland) was unlike anything I had ever encountered. This would not be ‘business as usual.’

It was 2011 and I was on staff at Wheaton Bible Church. At the invitation of World Relief, our church was considering responding to the food crisis that was gripping Turkana, and setting up a long-term response by equipping the few local churches on the ground to help change their community. I had no idea what was in store for the journey ahead—both for me and the Turkana.

After a 9-hour drive to World Relief’s program area on the border of Kenya and Ethiopia, I realized just how much I had to learn. With roots dating back thousands of years, the Turkana have changed little until the past few decades. With very little Christian witness, the Turkana have maintained their centuries-old faith tradition—one of the only monotheistic traditions in sub-Saharan Africa.  

At the center of the very complex life of the Turkana stood something very simple: cows. Cows represented stature in the community. They represented livelihood and economic well-being. Cows were traded between families as part of traditional marriage arrangements. Men created physical scars on their arms to note how many cows they had stolen from neighboring tribes during raids. One woman even told me on that inaugural trip that the pecking order of a Turkana family goes as follows: Men, cows, and then women. And if a man had to choose between his cow and his wife, he would choose his cow.

The importance of cattle is not something that is, by itself, remarkable about tribes in this region of Africa. However, as I entered Turkana on this first trip, I quickly became aware of something quite unsettling: there were absolutely zero cows to be seen.

While always a dry region, the severe changes in climate meant that the land could no longer sustain cows. They had all died. I learned that Turkana historically encountered roughly one period of unseasonable dryness in a 10-year period. However, in a very rapid fashion, their climate had changed dramatically. They were now experiencing periods without rain every 2-3 years [1].

Cows—the very thing at the center of Turkana life—had been taken away. Without the ability to trade livestock for food, the population—especially children—faced significant hardships. On that first trip, I learned that over thirty percent of the children were malnourished. The communities were being forced to transition from their ancient roots. Pastoralist herders now had to settle down and learn to grow food on plots of land.

To the outsider, this seems an obvious adaptation. But it was and continues to be a radical departure for the Turkana. Learning to grow food in a place with increasing severity of drought and altering their livelihood during the midst of crisis presents numerous challenges. The Turkana were facing the most significant challenge they had ever encountered in their ancient history.  Nothing was usual about this experience for me, or for the Turkana.

The realization that your history and belief system could be (at worst) harmful, or (at best) not helpful for the future is a very painful and confusing process. Changing hundreds of generations’ worth of cultural beliefs about what is valuable—beliefs about identity, gender, family and vocation—is no easy feat and no short-term project. This is what the Turkana were faced with; simple interventions and programs would be helpful, but would not help the Turkana transition long-term. There needed to be something more unusual, something more transformational for this group of people.  

On that first trip, we met seven small indigenous churches who were responding on the ground and who wanted to expand their reach. Through emergency food distribution and setting up wells and small farms, these churches—many of whom had pastors that could neither read nor write—were trying to do something remarkable. They wanted to help their communities transform their mindset and make the transition to life in a new climate. My colleagues and I could not say anything other than, “Count us in.”

You can view the first several years of this journey in a mini-documentary that was produced by Wheaton Bible Church. The Sunday this documentary was shown was my last Sunday on staff at Wheaton Bible. Coincidentally, I was in Turkana on a subsequent trip when God made clear a calling to my family to move to a different part of the country. Shortly after leaving Wheaton Bible Church, I joined the staff of World Relief.

Now, seven years into World Relief’s project in Turkana, two things are true:

  1. A lot of good has happened in Turkana. World Relief has helped catalyze a movement of change where families are able to thrive, communities are able to flourish and churches are being strengthened and even planted. We now serve 41,258 people through 83 volunteers, 25 local staff and 20 Turkana churches. We are the only humanitarian organization in the area of Turkana where we work. The ministry includes wide-ranging activities such as providing access to clean water, agricultural programs, nutrition training, church and volunteer mobilization and maternal and child health interventions—not counting several more programs on the way.

    This progress is worth its own full-length exposé. Working with churches to help an ancient culture transition through the hardest thing it has dealt with in thousands of years is nothing short of an act of God! While many choose to stop short of total transformation, we are compelled to the longer, harder journey.

  2. Turkana is worse off now than it was in 2011. Wait…what? Yes, in spite of all the progress that we have made, it continues to be ‘business as unusual.’ Turkana is facing a new drought wherein it has not rained substantially in over two years. Remember those cows? The Turkana transitioned to small farms and goats. Goats are smaller and need less food and water. This current drought is so bad that even the goats cannot survive. When my World Relief colleagues visit villages, they are greeted with goat carcasses—a reminder of how bad things are. Remember the thirty percent of children who were malnourished seven years ago? Currently in 11 of our 12 operating areas, over fifty percent of people, including adults, are severely malnourished and in need of immediate food aid for their survival.

It has been reported (though not widely) that the world is facing the worst food crisis since World War II [2]. In Turkana and in many places throughout sub-Saharan Africa, this is due to several cycles of failed rains. In places like Yemen and South Sudan, it is due to conflict. In the coming months, World Relief will be writing more on this global catastrophe, as well as our response and the ideas we have about what our enduring solutions to it might be.

A quick detour: The institutions created post-World War II to work in such situations (e.g. the U.N. and the World Food Program) have never been so strained, due to this current food crisis and the global refugee crisis. The global community has cut poverty in half since 1990 [3], but now it is stretched so thin that many of those gains might be erased [4].

We can’t let this happen. And we won’t.

Back in Turkana, we are seeking to provide emergency food aid to over 40,000 people through a network of community leaders, churches and volunteers developed by World Relief over the past seven years. We know how to do this. We have the skills, the knowledge and the network. But this effort will cost more than $2 million.

Food aid is simply not enough. The sad reality is that Turkana will continue to experience a worsening climate and more severe droughts like this one. We do not want to stop at giving food aid. We do not want to stop with normal programming—business as usual. We do not want the legacy of our work to be a faded sign on the side of the road. We want to work with the Turkana to help them change and adapt to the world around them. This is why working with churches is so important. Such complete change can only come from within the community and it will take years. This is what makes this work so transformative, so sustainable and so special.

It will not be an ordinary journey. Our hope is that people will come to find their identity in Christ. That women and girls will find dignity as image bearers of God—not as less than livestock. That families will move from being on the brink of starvation to finding solutions that allow them to work with pride as they provide for their children. That churches would be strengthened and planted.

We need partners like you, and churches like Wheaton Bible, who won’t let 20 years of progress in sub-Saharan Africa be erased. We need individuals and churches throughout the U.S. who—in the face of global crisis—will answer Jesus’ call to stand with the vulnerable, to feed the hungry and to help an entire people group transition to a more resilient, sustainable future.  We need people who are okay with business as unusual.

Will you join us?


[1] Drought Adaptation and Coping Strategies Among the Turkana Pastoralists of Northern Kenya (International Journal of Disaster Risk Science)

[2] 20 million at risk of starvation in world's largest crisis since 1945, UN says (CNN)

[3] World’s Extreme Poverty Cut in Half Since 1990 (Wall Street Journal)

[4] The world has made great progress in eradicating extreme poverty (The Economist)

As SVP of Strategic Engagement, James Misner helps churches, foundations and individuals stand with the vulnerable in the U.S. and around the world. Leading teams domestically and internationally, James seeks to facilitate meaningful cross-cultural experiences, leading to deeper levels of discipleship. Prior to joining World Relief, James served on the pastoral staff at Wheaton Bible Church, leading global outreach efforts, and also on the outreach staff of McLean Bible Church. James received his undergraduate degree from American University, and a Master's degree from Wheaton College. He lives in Maryland with his wife, Sabrina, and their family.

Kenya Update: On the Horizon of Hope in Turkana

turkana - kenya- africa relief program

By Christina Klinepeter
World Relief VP of Marketing 

With millions of people on the brink of starvation, Africa is facing the largest food crisis since 1945. While antecedents to the people’s hunger vary based on their specific context and location, one of the contributing factors to the hunger in Kenya’s northern part of Turkana county has been the lack of significant rainfall over the last two years.

A Land of Beauty, Resilience and Need

Turkana county, where I recently visited, is a land of beauty and resilience. Its vast, low-profile landscape set amidst the arid and extremely hot climate of Kenya sits along the longitude of the Equator and is sparsely populated by a pastoralist and semi-nomadic people, living off the land and their animals. Colorful beads layered around the women’s necks, bodies wrapped in vibrant material, and tiny hats sitting atop the men’s heads, distinguish their ancient culture’s traditional fashion from the skinny jeans worn by hipsters in modern cities around the world.

World Relief, has been on the ground in Turkana since 2011 when the region experienced its last food shortage. At that time, childhood malnutrition had reached one-third of the population. Through mobilizing networks of churches and local leaders, as well as through coordinating supply chains, that number was cut in half.  

Now, in spite of our collective efforts to prepare the region to endure famine-like conditions, that number has once again skyrocketed to over 40 percent of the population. The lack of sufficient rain has simply lasted too long.

Two Girls and Their Goat

In an emotionally gripping moment during our team’s recent visit to the area, we came across two young girls, no older than 10 years old, who wisely stopped on the side of the road in order to slaughter their family’s goat before it died and the meat became inedible. We watched as these sisters worked together and harvested the meat to take back to their family. I couldn’t help but think about my 10- and 11-year-old sons and how they and their peers’ average day in the U.S. compares with the stark reality of children in Turkana. And yet these girls exhibited their strength, wisdom and capacity while carving away the fur of the goat, carefully organizing the goat’s skin, bones and meat into resources to be used in their own right, nothing wasted. Unfortunately, more than 60 percent of the region’s goats, sheep and cattle have succumbed. And the people know that when they’re animals die because of the dire conditions, that they are next.

Most Recent Update

More recently Ric Hamic, Disaster Risk Reduction Advisor, visited Turkana North to help roll out World Relief’s disaster response project, as well as identify and register beneficiaries. He reported back, sharing a bittersweet story after meeting Mama Lobek and a compassionate, generous, hard-working woman in her thirties named Ngasike.

Mama Lobek and her surviving five children are victims of the food crisis in Turkana North as well, and like other pastoralist families in the area, the drought has killed their goats and completely destroyed their livelihood. Lobek’s husband abandoned them years ago when she experienced some illness, leaving her as a single mother to both provide and care for the family. And now with the current environmental conditions, Mama Lobek is starving.

Months ago, Lobek and her children walked for days from her home village to reach Nakitoekakumon. Even though she had no family there, she thought the family would be able to find food because it is a bigger village. The first day she arrived, she met Ngasike. Ngasike saw how the family was suffering and was immediately moved to help them.

Asked why she took in Lobek and her family, Ngasike replied “I had compassion for Lobek because I am a Christian and because I was an orphan myself.  I have suffered before, and I know what it is like.”

But Ngasike is also a victim of the drought and has limited resources, herself. She runs a very small shop, selling some small goods to her neighbors. “When I sell something, I am able to buy food for Lobek.”

A mother of four children and supporting others in need, Ngasike worries that she won’t be able to provide for them all.  “When I don’t sell anything, I am not able to purchase additional food because I am fearful my children will go hungry, too.”

At this stage of chronic undernourishment, Lobek is able to talk and to stand, but not much else. “It is only hunger that has made me sleep like this,” says Lobek. Still struggling to get food, she now weighs less than 84 pounds. Ngasike has committed to continue caring for Lobek until she recovers or until she dies, a likely outcome due to the food crisis in Turkana North. Of course, both women hope that doesn’t happen. “I will accept God’s will for me, but I hope to see my children grow up” says Lobek.

On the Horizon of Hope

Through our work on the ground and with our local church partners, both Lobek and Ngasike were recently enrolled in World Relief’s project for emergency food assistance. Soon they will start receiving a small monthly stipend, designed to help vulnerable families like Lobek’s and Ngasike’s decrease hunger in their households.

Also, some rain has fallen in Turkana North during the last few weeks. While it created temporary flooding because the ground was too dry to soak in the rapidly falling rain, thankfully the people in the region have experienced a bit of relief from the water. Still, the rain that came was not enough. With dry weather and food crisis conditions expected to remain through the rest of the year, limits to available resources will determine how long these families can be assisted. Ultimately, with increased funding, World Relief could expand and extend the food assistance project, and is committed to recovery activities toward the end of the crisis to help people re-establish their livelihoods and regain self-sufficiency.

Where do we go from here?

In the West, it can be easy to operate out of the busy pace, be consumed by social media, the news, the divide in our country, and forget that people across the world don’t have access to basics like food and water. Hearing first-hand accounts of the reality on the ground in places like Turkana North can be overwhelming and leave us to wonder if there is a way to make a dent in the enormous need from an ocean away. Admittedly, I have never felt the helpless ache of true hunger, wondering in desperation if I would ever eat again. I have never looked into the eyes of my wilting children as they wonder why I won’t feed them. This is the reality of the unearned privilege that most of us reading this were born into.

The question now becomes, what is our collective responsibility? What should our response be?

The first answer to that question must be to spread awareness. In this time of political division, soaring rhetoric and accusations of scandal, it’s difficult for any message to break through the noise. This is understandable, but unfortunate nonetheless. And still, we must find a way to spread awareness. That starts with each and every one of us.   

Secondly, this can be an opportunity for all of us to lend a helping hand. World Relief is working around the clock to serve Turkana’s most vulnerable, but the truth is that humanitarian efforts in the region are vastly under-resourced. There is so much more that could be done to deliver lifesaving essentials to those who need it most if we only had the means to do so. I would encourage everyone reading this to consider giving, if and when you can.

Thirdly, we can put pressure on our leaders in Washington and at the UN to step up their response to the crisis. USAID-OFDA and the UN’s humanitarian operations are unequaled in size and scope of funding, and they are instrumental in resourcing and coordinating local NGOs with staff on the ground in affected areas. The more our collective attention is on Africa; the more they see news reports and articles about the crisis; the more people are talking on social media; the more likely they are to act with urgency.

It is important to stress that the people of Turkana North are highly self-sufficient people. They aren’t looking for handouts, yet many have come to the painful realization that if the rains continue to fail them, or if outside help doesn’t come quickly, they simply won’t make it. But because of World Relief’s long-term commitment to the people of Turkana North, our objective is to see them through to recovery.

To learn more about the food crisis in Kenya and Africa at large, visit this page, and consider donating to further our capacity to change the trajectory of children, individuals and families in Africa.

Christina Klinepeter is World Relief's VP of Marketing. Before joining World Relief in 2015, Christina worked at SOM, the global architecture, engineering and urban planning firm, spent time at CannonDesign, helped launch Hard Hat Hub and ran her own design consultancy.

The Oven of the World — Food Crisis in Turkana North

The farm at Katong'un is empty because of lack of access to water, due to a rainy season that never came, and rabbits that have foraged on their crops. [Photo courtesy  GI-INC ]

The farm at Katong'un is empty because of lack of access to water, due to a rainy season that never came, and rabbits that have foraged on their crops. [Photo courtesy GI-INC]

“Just another field trip,” I said to myself before we set off for Turkana. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

It is hard to imagine a more isolated, inaccessible or hostile terrain than Turkana North, right up on the Kenyan border with Ethiopia, where World Relief is the only international NGOs to have a permanent presence in many parts of the region.

“The oven of the world—even the stones on the ground are blackened by the heat of the sun,” one pastor said to me as temperatures soared above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Travel between communities is difficult. Distances are considerable and there are no real roads and no cars, except for those belonging to aid workers or security forces.

In Turkana North, the animals that the people of the region rely upon are often the first to suffer and die when a drought hits.  [Photo courtesy  GI-INC ]

In Turkana North, the animals that the people of the region rely upon are often the first to suffer and die when a drought hits.  [Photo courtesy GI-INC]

The Turkana are pastoralists and semi-nomadic, living off their herds of goats, donkeys and even camel. But this way of life is now colliding with global warming and the human response to it. The land will no longer support the growing population and its flocks of goats, even in the best of times when the rains come as predicted twice a year.  

And this is not the best of times.

The people of Turkana face devastation in the face of a drought that began almost a year ago when the long spring rains fell only sparsely. Each passing month without rain has made their lives more precarious. For 18 months, there has been almost no rain, so that now inexorably an impending crisis has graduated to an immediate and acute one.

Livestock and villagers drink from the well built by World Relief in Katong'un.  [Photo courtesy  GI-INC ]

Livestock and villagers drink from the well built by World Relief in Katong'un.  [Photo courtesy GI-INC]

As we drive from community to community we see dead and dying animals in many places; we see children suffering acute malnutrition; we hear stories of wells dried up and we hear prayers for rain. But even if the rains come now, it is too late. It will be months before the impact of the rains will return life to a sustainable level. More likely, the rains will simply make more places inaccessible, as flash floods in the dry riverbeds sweep away what few bridges there are and make the dry riverbeds impassable. And if the rains do not fall again later this spring, it is difficult to imagine the scale of suffering we will see unless the international community steps in.

This is not the first time the people of Turkana have faced such a crisis. Since the last drought in 2011, World Relief has been working with both U.S. and local church partners to build community resilience by developing more year round water supply through drilling wells and building sand dams to save and store water, as well as by introducing desert farming techniques so that the Turkana can grow vegetables and fruits such as tomatoes, onions and watermelon to improve nutrition and make the population less dependent on their livestock—their animals who are the first to suffer and die when a drought hits. And there has been visible progress in many places, simply not enough and not in enough places to withstand this climatic onslaught in a region that too easily could be seen as “God-forsaken.”

But God is here.

A mother and her infant child retrieve water from a well in her village built by World Relief and its partners.  [Photo courtesy  GI-INC ]

A mother and her infant child retrieve water from a well in her village built by World Relief and its partners.  [Photo courtesy GI-INC]

The poverty and rigors of life in Turkana North are hard to imagine, but there is resilience and pride too. The children are the same as children everywhere—curious and ready to smile and engage at the first sign of interest. And they love to sing and dance. It is a reminder that we are all made in God’s image and all precious to Him.

The task ahead seems gargantuan, but the the Church is present, growing and bringing hope to these people. There are leaders in local churches in Turkana whose desire to bear witness to Jesus and to change the lives of their people—both spiritually and physically—is palpable. Those whose receptivity to learning is impressive and who welcome the expertise of World Relief and our partners on the ground.

As one partner put it: “There is a future. And although the future is uncertain, one thing is certain—these people have been touched by the love of Christ.”

A flourishing farm from a World Relief-trained farmer who has access to water because of a local dam. [Photo courtesy  GI-INC ]

A flourishing farm from a World Relief-trained farmer who has access to water because of a local dam. [Photo courtesy GI-INC]

For much of the last year, a food crisis of epic proportions has been growing across much of the African continent—in places like Malawi, Mozambique, Burundi and Sudan as well as Kenya. Tens of millions are at risk. But with so many crises in the world today and more turmoil in the world order we have seen since the end of the Cold War, the food crisis in Africa has largely gone unreported.

My prayer is that the vivid images we captured in Turkana last week will capture the hearts of God’s people everywhere and that we will rise up in compassion not just for the people of Turkana, but all the starving people across Africa.


Donate to provide immediate food assistance and nutrition outreach to the people of Turkana.

Tim Breene served on the World Relief Board from 2010 to 2015 before assuming the role of CEO in 2016. Tim’s business career has spanned nearly 40 years with organizations like McKinsey, and Accenture where he was the Corporate Development Officer and Founder and Chief Executive of Accenture Interactive. Tim is the co-author of Jumping the S-Curve, published by Harvard Publishing. Tim and his wife Michele, a longtime supporter of World Relief, have a wealth of experience working with Christian leaders in the United States and around the world.