Checking in on our team in northeastern Kenya

Kenya

August 2, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joy Portella/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A traditional herder stands on the withered landscape outside the drought-stricken town of Hadado, Kenya. Photo: Joy Portella/Mercy Corps

I returned from the drought-stricken Horn of Africa just over two weeks ago, and am amazed by the progress our team has made in such a short period of time. But there is an enormous amount of work to be done in the coming months as millions of families struggle to survive the long, dry summer and early fall.

Today I had the opportunity to talk with our Africa Director Matthew Lovick, who’s traveling with our team in Wajir County, one of the areas I recently visited. He and our team spent yesterday traveling to seven of the eight villages where we’re working in western Wajir.

A seasoned aid worker, Lovick declared that he’d “never seen anything like it,” referring to the incredibly arid land and desperation of people and animals.

“People are living in nonstop sandstorms,” he noted, explaining that it’s so dry that topsoil has loosened and blown away, taking any remnant of what used to be grasslands with it. The team even lost their way at one point yesterday when they discovered that all tracks and markers on western Wajir’s sparse dirt roads were suddenly gone — simply blown away.

I asked how the team in northeastern Kenya is doing — they’ve been working nonstop. He said they’re exhausted, but still going. We have started work in this area with remarkable speed. Since I took part in an assessment a little over two weeks ago, we’ve already begun trucking water into communities where there is none, and providing emergency fuel to places where water pumps exist but need a boost.

I wondered how people in the region are getting along.

“The animals are all dead or dying, and people are hanging on, but barely,” Lovick explained. “Families cannot pay for water. Once in awhile they are able to sell a goat at a very depressed price, and buy food with that money, but mostly they’re purchasing food on credit. That system’s drying up too because traders can’t afford to extend any additional credit; they’re being driven out of business.”

He also elaborated on a trend I witnessed during my visit to Kenya: the destruction of families. “All the men and their older sons are gone with their remaining animals, and wives and children are stuck in villages with no means to support themselves.”

Apparently men and animals have gone to chase down water they’ve heard is available in the Jubba Valley of southern Somalia, or perhaps in southern Ethiopia. The problem, Lovick noted, is that these people on the move don’t know what they’ll find in their destinations. As our team in southern Ethiopia recently discovered in an assessment, there’s no water there either.

The resulting scene is what Lovick called a “grim, weird matrix” of people on the move, hunger and thirst. And it will be months until people in the Horn of Africa feel the relief of the fall rains…if those rains come at all.