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Chatting with the richest man in town

Kenya, July 14, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joy Portella/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Adan Qala Dido, the richest man in Elwak, tells me how he's fallen on tough times. Photo: Joy Portella/Mercy Corps

Today the Mercy Corps team visited Elwak, a small town in the northeast corner of Kenya that lies only about eight kilometers from Somalia. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to the poorest of the poor about how their lives are impacted by the drought that’s plaguing this region. Today I discovered how it’s impacting even the richest.

Adan Qala Dido, age 62, is a rarity in places like Elwak. He has money, a lot of it. He owns three stores in town where he sells clothes, food and household items. He’s also a wholesale seller and trader. Without prompting or pretense, Adan describes himself as “the richest man in town.”

But these are tough times for everyone, even someone as well off as Adan. A combination of factors has conspired to make his life significantly harder. People in this area used to buy staples like sugar that were imported cheaply from nearby Somalia. But a closed border for the past two years exacerbated by conflict means that these goods can no longer come through Somalia, and have to be obtained from Nairobi, where prices are much higher. Add soaring national rates of inflation to the mix — as well as a global increase in food prices —and you’ve got the perfect storm of high-priced items.

No one can pay those prices. The local economy of Elwak and much of this region relies on livestock, and these days many animals have migrated to other areas, or are sick or dying because they cannot find water and food. Adan is surrounded on the street by “pastoral dropouts,” guys who’ve just stopped raising livestock because of the drought and now do sporadic odd jobs and not much else. In such a depressed economy, Adan has goods but they’re not selling.

“We just open and close everyday,” he explained. “No one buys anything.” He’s also facing a credit crisis. Besieged by requests from friends and family, he cannot turn people away who are asking for food. So he lets them purchase goods on credit, which will likely never be repaid. He told us, “My business is collapsing.”

Things are also tough at home for Adam. When we asked if his family has taken in any friends and neighbors who are experiencing tough times, he replied, “It’s not a question of IF I’m taking them in, it’s how many.”

Adan is hosting two families on a continual basis; one is his sister, brother-in-law and their eight children. But on top of that, there’s a rotating door of families who stay with them a few nights or weeks at a time. In a town as small as Elwak, he told us, everyone’s a relative or friend so there’s an obligation to help many people if you can.

I felt bad for Adan. His business is ailing, maybe even failing, and he’s stretched thin taking care of friends and relatives.

But then I thought: He’s the richest man in town. If he’s hurting, how bad is it for everyone else?