Chronicles of a "drought widow"


July 16, 2011

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    Joy Portella/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Zeynab Hassan lives in the bone-dry town of Hadado with her five children. Her husband has been gone for one month and counting. Photo: Joy Portella/Mercy Corps

One of the saddest things about the current drought in the Horn of Africa is that it’s destroying families. Men go off with livestock to find water — often traveling hundreds of miles for months at a time — or they drop out of pastoral life and flow into towns to look for odd jobs. Either way, women and children are often left behind.

This week in the town of Hadado, I met one of the women I’ll call a “drought widow.” Zeynab Hassan is a middle-aged mother of five children who range in age from seven to 20 years old. Zeynab is relatively new to Hadado. She and her sister’s family moved here from what used to be nearby grasslands when both of their husbands left. The men are now wandering with their remaining animals to search for water and food.

That was one month ago. I asked Zeynab when her husband will return and she only shrugged, saying, “I have no idea.”

Zeynab is scraping by selling firewood. She walks 20 miles roundtrip to gather wood, which is a tough and potentially dangerous journey. She sells the bundles of wood for a few shillings in town and uses the money to buy sugar and ugali — a favorite East African starch — for her children. It’s a job that doesn’t provide much. Three long sticks of firewood sell for five Kenyan shillings; a kilogram of sugar costs 120 shillings.

Water is a worse situation. Zeynab’s family has been getting water from a local borehole — at a cost of five shillings for 20 liters — but it’s salty and contaminated, so her children have been suffering with diarrhea. A private vendor is trucking in and selling fresh water, but at 50 shillings for 20 liters, it’s out of her price range.

Zeynab’s kids have been able to attend the local school, but there’s been such a recent influx of families that the school can’t handle them all. Kids have to attend classes in shifts — Zeynab’s children go in the afternoon — because there aren’t enough teachers or classrooms for them to attend all day.

Zeynab and her family used to be well off before the drought. They had many cattle, goats and camels. When I asked how many animals they possessed, Zeynab told me “more than 100” but couldn’t — or wouldn’t — get more exact than that. “I don’t want to talk about the number of animals we had and lost. It makes me too sad,” she explained.

Zeynab’s story is all too common. When we told a colleague from a local organization that we wanted to talk to a “drought widow” about the challenges she is facing, he said, “Just walk into any village. You will find those women everywhere.”

And that’s when I looked up and took notice. All along the windswept landscape of Hadado were dots of pastoral huts with willowy women standing outside surrounded by children. Hardly a man in sight…