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Walking for 17 days

Kenya, July 15, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joy Portella/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Hindiya Roble, 10, and her family have been walking for 17 days in search of water. Photo: Joy Portella/Mercy Corps

Hadado is dry as a bone. The landscape changes dramatically as you approach this small town in the western part of Kenya’s Wajir county. I thought the landscape around Wajir town was bleak — dusty and dotted with dried bushes and only an occasional sprig of green life. But in and around Hadado, it’s a moonscape. There is nothing alive for as far as the eye can see.

Until we saw Hindiya and her goats.

Hindiya is 10 years old, and she’s beautiful and smiling. She’s traveling with her father Roble, and her brother and sister, as well as an extended clan of herder friends and family. And of course, they have their goats in tow.

We pass around bottles of water to Hindiya and her family, not as a bribe for them to talk to us, but because they’re obviously thirsty. I’ve never been on a Mercy Corps trip where we’ve just given water and food to people as we pass. It’s usually a bad practice — an easy way to start a riot of thirsty, desperate people. But out here, there aren’t many people, and when you come across a solitary herder, you know that he or she has been walking for hours — if not days — with no sustenance. Human instinct compels you to offer water, the most precious commodity around.

Hindiya’s father tells us a bit of their story. The drought forced their family to separate. Her mother and the rest of her family have gone to Somalia in an attempt to find water and food for the family’s camels. Hindiya, her father and siblings are on the move, wandering wherever they hear there might be water.

That’s what led them north to Mandera county two months ago. The family camped there until the local water source was depleted, and now they’re on the move again. By the time we caught up with them, they’d been walking for 17 days, almost nonstop.

They tell us they’re planning to settle down for the day and evening under an expanse of trees that is about a mile in the distance. “Settling down” means they will lay out the thin sheets they wear draped over their shoulders and sleep out in the open. Despite the warm temperatures, nights here get chilly and are very windy, so it can’t be pleasant. When we pass the trees later in our car, I’m disheartened but not surprised to see that they’re bare and dead. They won’t offer Hindiya’s family much shelter tonight.

Eating is a luxury. Hindiya’s family didn’t have any food this morning, and they have nothing to eat tonight. Sometimes they’re able to eat in the evenings — usually when they can stop in a town, slaughter a goat and sell it — but sometimes not. Amazingly, the family doesn’t report any serious illnesses though they claim that occasionally someone gets “a bit of malaria,” indicating that the bar for “serious illness” may be set high. But I wonder how long they can keep up this pace without someone becoming terribly ill.

A herder’s life sounds hard, drought or no drought. Even in a good year, there’s a lot of moving around, and living off of whatever the land fortuitously offers man and beast. Right now, the land’s not offering much.

People tell us that this part of western Wajir has not seen significant rain in the past three years. Herders — like Hindiya’s family — that used to settle down for six months at a time are now lucky if they can stay somewhere for a month. And in between settled stints there’s hunger, poverty, dying livestock and walking, walking and more walking in search of water.

I can’t help looking at Hindiya’s stick-thin child’s figure and wondering: How long can she possibly keep going?