Yesterday was a difficult day to process for our team. We saw two villages that spoke of their complete lack of resources and livelihoods, and their almost total reliance on scant relief food and assistance from a few non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the distant Kenyan government. This vulnerable and disempowering situation has left many Turkana people wondering what the future holds for their children and their way of life. Will they be able to return to the pastoral life that they have lead for generations now? Is a nomadic, pastoral life sustainable or possible in today’s world of state borders, urban living, land titles, and chronic drought?
These are difficult questions that need to be asked for the long-term food sustainability of this arid region. However, to see and be a part of this future, first, the people of Turkana need food and clean drinking water. This is crucial.
Today, in Lokitaung in north Turkana, we hope to see the food distribution that was supposed to have happened yesterday. Maize and beans, brought over difficult roads and long distances, should help feed families for a few weeks, but as many share food with their extended families and neighbors, this food will be depleted well before the next food distribution.
This morning, Don Golden – World Relief’s SVP of Marketing and Church Engagement – is meeting with local pastors to hear and discuss the challenges that their congregations and communities are struggling through. Pray that as we meet these leaders and community members we can better understand not only the current urgency of their hunger and vulnerability, but also how World Relief and the Church can begin to stand for and serve the immediate and long-term needs of Turkana.
In many ways, this morning saw the pinnacle of our media trip journey to Turkana. After days of traveling, we reached the northern district of Lokitaung – any farther north and we would be in Ethiopia. In this remote area, the need is great, but today the most immediate of these needs is acute hunger. 3 surrounding villages – some as far as 4 miles away – walked to a church in Lokitaung to receive maize, beans, and cooking oil. Local pastors and community leaders played an integral part in not only the selection of the most vulnerable in their communities but also the logistics and physical hand-to-hand action of giving out vital food supplies. To accurately describe the mixture of emotions and tensions felt throughout the shuffling, patient lines of men and women is impossible. Often it seemed that murmurs of anticipation to receive food quickly turned to cries of anxiety as some feared they would get nothing and continue in hunger.
While we know that hundreds and thousands more in northern Kenya need food assistance, today we must look to Lokitaung for hope and inspiration. Today in Lokitaung, Turkana hundreds received food for their families.
Much of today was spent in the car, bouncing and jostling our way across the vast and sometimes desolate plains of rocks and dust in northern Turkana. Our intention was to detour to a small village, meet with the community there and then head to Lokitaung where World Relief’s northern Turkana food distribution operations will be based. However, as things do, our plans were significantly slowed down by rocky, rough terrain, mechanical problems, a flat tire and, oddly, a curtain of rain that turned the road into a slipper river. In our car, Pastor David, a man of great heart and vision, guided not only our path, but also gave us great insight into the way of life the Turkana people live. He himself is a Turkana, the group of people for which this northern Kenya region is named after. For generations now, the Turkana have been nomadic herders of cows, goats and camels. Their lives were lived on the move to find pasture and water for their herds. As we continued to speak with Pastor David, it became clear that the pastoral livelihoods of the Turkana people is under serious threat not only from shrinking natural resources but also from a complete shift in the structure of their community.
We inquired about the temporary homes clustered into villages that we saw periodically as we traveled. Pastor David informed us that congregating in villages is in fact not the norm for the people of Turkana. “A Turkana in a village is a Turkana that has no livestock to tend and therefore has given up”.
We stopped at one village and spoke with a group of men, women and children that congregated underneath a large acacia tree. An elderly woman stood and with great fervor told us of the hunger that grips their village. Pointing to the other side of the cluster of huts, she told us that the fresh graves were there, we could see them if we wanted. Later that evening on our way back though that village we saw the new piles of earth that lined the road – 8 people have died in the last month. However, many are reluctant to speak up over these deaths, as they fear the government will further neglect their food assistance needs.
We continued driving north until our car could go no further. We were almost to the border of Ethiopia, with Southern Sudan not too far to the west. “Here”, Pastor David informed us, “Is the poorest village in Turkana”. This bleak title, however, seemed to be a descriptor of circumstances rather than spirit as they greeted us with dancing and song. Their stories were similar to others in Turkana: loss of livestock to drought or raiders, lack of clean drinking water, limited assistance by aid and development organizations and marginalization from Kenyan society. The youngest children, born in the last few months of drought, and older adults that often pass their food on to the younger children showed the most visible signs of malnutrition.
This morning we return to our dusty vehicle for another day of driving. But today is different, because first of all we are here. We are in Turkana, and we are meeting and listening to the stories and realities of the families and communities that are most affected by this food crisis. We are going to Lokitaung, which is another full day’s drive towards the northern edge of Turkana near the Ethiopian border. This area is extremely remote and only faintly connected by a rough road to Lodwar, 10 hours away by car. It is in part because of this difficult accessibility that the World Food Program (WFP) identified this area and requested that World Relief focus one of its food assistance programs here.
The road from Kitale to Lodwar – World Relief’s hub of operations in Turkana – is bone-jarring. The distance is around 180 miles in total, which could be a manageable 3 hour drive on any tarmac road, but on this road riddled with potholes and mostly devoid of any smooth surfaces, the journey was a hot and dusty 8 hours. Our team has begun to understand one of the many logistical difficulties of getting food assistance to such a remote and poorly connected region. Not far from the border of Turkana region, we encountered an overturned truck that lost control around a sharp curve in the road and rolled down into a steep ravine. The truck looked like a twisted and battered box of metal, but we were told that miraculously the driver survived. A closer look at the surrounding wreckage revealed that this truck carried a full load of maize and beans to communities in Turkana that desperately needed food. And in hopes that some food could be salvaged, workers under the watchful eye of a policeman, painstakingly gathered maize and beans scattered across the banks of the ravine. This food is precious; it could not be wasted.
We are finally in Lodwar, Turkana. The land, in sharp contrast to the rain-fed countryside only 180 miles south, is rocky, stark and dry. Every riverbed we drove through was a sea of parched sand. We saw a few locations with a pump-well or perhaps a small muddy pool of leftover rain water, and around these water sources we saw families with their livestock. There homes, domes of twisted sticks and straw, were temporary – just suitable enough till the water dried up and they are forced to move on. This has been the pattern for hundreds of years for many in Turkana. But with chronic drought, land disputes that inhibit nomadic movement and marginalization from mainstream Kenya society the complexity of “food security” seems daunting and will require a much more integral and long-term intervention than acute food assistance. Yet, as thousands face starvation; this is where we must start.
We will be in Turkana today! After traveling for almost 3 days now, we will finally arrive at our intended destination. It’s hard to know what to expect, when Turkana has occupied too little of the world’s attention when it comes to the unfolding food crisis in East Africa. Images of Somali refugees in the overcrowded Dadaab camp on the eastern Kenya-Somalia border are the icon of this crisis. Yet, in Turkana, acute malnutrition in children under 5 is over 30%, which classifies it well within the definition of a “crisis”.
This largely undocumented crisis is why the World Relief media team is now headed to northern Kenya. The full, complex picture of Turkana, its people and current food crisis will be hard to fully capture, but we can begin to now. We can also listen to the stories of those not yet heard, and pass them along to you, in hopes that you will pray with World Relief and the Kenyan Church as we move to be the hands and feet of Christ in Turkana.
Today it seems that life in Nairobi, Kenya jolted and grinded along as it always does. The traffic from the airport through the city was a buzz of chaos, and we crawled through early morning rush hour at a paradoxical slow surge. Our delicious and well-portioned breakfast at a popular city café filled our empty stomachs and served well to ease our two-day jetlag. Good Kenyan coffee in hand and laptops connected to the free wireless internet, it was almost too easy to forget why we are here.
As green pastures, tall maize fields, and roadside vendors with potatoes and veggies whizzed by our car, it is no wonder that many even in Kenya know little about the plight of drought-stricken communities in remote Turkana. Our trip north to Turkana takes us through the central regions of Kenya where at least a meaningful harvest is usually expected. With year-round rains, this region is called the breadbasket of Kenya. It is here in the town of Kitale that World Relief buys the food items needed to feed thousands who are suffering from hunger and acute malnutrition just 300km north in Turkana.
Today we drove through verdant forests and rainstorms; tomorrow this will all change. From Kitale the road crumbles away and the landscape changes to harsh desert-scrub terrain. The people will also change – their stories, way of life and the challenges they face, now daily, to stave off hunger.
In Kenya, right now, more than 3.5 million people need emergency food assistance. And while the statistic is true, the statement is vast and oversimplified. This great number of people in need breaks down to individuals and families in a myriad of conditions, classifications, terms and definitions. Some are pastoralists throughout northern Kenya whose cattle are dying from a lack of water and grazing resources. Others are farmers, who have now seen a third rainy season come and go with inadequate rains and scant harvests. And then there are those who don't have land to cultivate, as insecurity and conflict ensured that they never settled anywhere long enough to sow any seeds or put down stable roots. The reasons and faces of this food crisis are as vast and diverse as the land it covers and the people groups it affects.
The worst affected country, Somalia, has declared in parts to be in full-fledged famine. All the disadvantages of chronic drought and years of war are blocking access to food, causing mass starvation and ultimately, death. Other regions in the Horn of Africa are considered in emergency or crisis status, teetering on the verge of starvation, but in Somalia and the refugee camps, it seems that the devastating outcomes of famine have finally galvanized the world to humanitarian action!
Yet, in the Turkana region of northern Kenya, a vast and remote region declared to be one level away from famine, there is a limited humanitarian aid response and even less international media coverage. It is here that World Relief was asked by a Kenyan church, Parklands Baptist Church, to help them bring vital food assistance to drought-stricken communities. It is here that World Relief sees an underserved crisis unfolding that must be addressed before it becomes a catastrophe. So it is hope, not acute calamity, that now compels us to action.
Others, from all walks of life, are standing with World Relief and the people of Turkana. Farmers in central Kenya are giving from their surplus crops to their neighbors in the north where little rain has fallen. Churches in Kenya are coming together, partnering with World Relief and giving money and food for their brothers and sisters in hunger. Generous donors from the world over are financially giving to secure food for communities in Turkana they have never met. We see great hope in these stories.
World Relief has specifically sent a media team to document these stories of hope that the world has not yet heard about. In Turkana the situation is serious and thousands need immediate food assistance, but hope is resilient. We pray that it will galvanize you, as it does us, to act before starvation demands it.