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.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.
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.
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.”
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.