Once upon a time in northeastern Kenya

Kenya, August 12, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Erin Gray/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Grandmother Halima. Photo: Erin Gray/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Erin Gray/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Grandmother Halima and one of her grandchildren Photo: Erin Gray/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Erin Gray/Mercy Corps  </span>
    One of Halima's seven grandchildren. Photo: Erin Gray/Mercy Corps

Once upon a time in northeastern Kenya, there was a huge stretch of land called Wajir. In the language of the people who lived there, that name itself meant ‘Once upon a time...’

Once upon a time, the land in Wajir was green, the rains came often and life was good.

Grandmother Halima, her son, his two wives and their seven children travelled far and wide with their camels, donkeys and more than 300 goats. Though they journeyed many miles and three of Halima’s grandchildren were born unable to walk or talk, they were happy. The children rode on the camels and they all kept moving, never settling in one place and enjoying the freedom to go where they liked. The family had milk to drink and meat to eat and life was good, just as it had been for generations before them.

But then, one day the rains stopped.

Pasture began to dry out, and water holes dried up. Soon the land began to change, turning to red dust desert and all life shrivelled up. The winds howled across the empty plains, making clouds of dust that covered everything for miles. Then, all the animals began to die.

One by one, Grandmother Halima’s family animals grew weak without food or water, and they died too. It was too dry even for the camels to survive.

So Halima, her son, his wives and their children decided to take their last donkey and look for a place to stop, for the first time in their lives. The donkey could only carry three of the children, so they had to leave all of their belongings behind. They walked for 10 days in the dust and wind and sun. Eventually, they came to a village. Though even the village had no water, they could go no further and had to stop for good.

So Grandmother Halima, her son and his wives collected twigs and covered them with their own clothes to make shelter for the children. They had nothing else, not to sleep on, to eat or to drink. Soon, Grandmother Halima’s son left to look for work, and one of his wives walked for many miles every day to collect firewood to sell for pennies. Grandmother Halima had to beg the villagers, who struggled to provide for their own families, for whatever food or water they could spare to feed the children.

Every night Grandmother Halima couldn’t sleep because she worried how they would survive the next day.

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I met Halima in the small village she and her family settled a month ago. She was waiting in line to collect water from a Mercy Corps water storage tank, clutching a twist in the fabric of her dress that held the handlful of food she’d managed to beg for her family that day.

She told me her story, how worried she was and how hard life is for her family now. She took me to her home — still three shelters built from twigs and cloth — and my heart broke.

One month after they settled for the first time in their lives, she and her family still have absolutely nothing. No belongings, no money, no food of their own and the only water they have to drink is what’s been given to them by Mercy Corps. Asha, one of Halima’s daughters-in-law, sat in the dust staring desperately into space, her face gaunt. She didn’t look up at us at all. Her three disabled children lay barely clothed and hardly moving in the dust at her feet. Halima told me that she just didn’t know what to do, or how they were going to survive.

I asked her when the family last ate. She told me that in the last 24 hours, all the family had eaten was a cup of porridge shared between all nine of them.

Wajir might be the land of once upon a time, but for Halima, her family and the thousands like them in the grip of the drought, it’s hard to see how life here can have a happy ending.