Dadaab’s Christians

Text and images by humanitarian photographer Robin Wyatt.

Dadaab now qualifies as Kenya’s third largest city, after Nairobi and Mombasa. It consists of three refugee camps – Hagadera, Ifo and Dagahaley – with a total population of around 400,000 and counting. The vast majority of these are Somali Muslims; the small number of Christians who also call Dadaab home are seldom spoken of. These Christians, coming from Sudan, Ethiopia, Congo, Uganda and Burundi, fled their homelands at different times during the last two decades, escaping civil war and violent persecution.

TSM, whose work on drought relief and mitigation in North Eastern Kenya I documented in my photo essay entitled ‘Building Hope in the Face of Drought’, help to address the particular needs of Dadaab’s Christians. Uppermost on their priority list is a group of Christians that hardly anyone is even aware of: a handful of Somali refugees who declare an outward allegiance to Islam but are quietly practising Christianity behind closed doors. TSM refer to these Christians as ‘Muslim Background Believers’ (MBBs). It was unfortunately not permitted for me to photograph or even meet with these people, as doing so could pose a very real threat to their security. Indeed, Christians from other African countries also experience considerable obstacles owing to their faith.

While at Dadaab under TSM’s auspices, I was able to attend three Sunday church services and one community’s Saturday prayer meeting. I also met with both church elders and members of their congregations. This photo essay is my effort to share what I learned about life as a Christian in the world’s largest refugee camp.

All of the images below were captured by humanitarian photographer Robin Wyatt. They may be purchased as beautiful colour prints and high resolution downloads, as well as greetings cards and eCards (eCards are free). To make your selection, just click directly on the image that interests you and you will be taken to the gallery entitled ‘Dadaab’s Christians’ in Robin’s Image Archives.

This is Dadaab International Worship Centre. It gives space for Christians of all persuasions to worship together, and counts attendees from around 50 denominations every Sunday. Most of its congregation work for the agencies of the United Nations (UN) and large NGOs that are permanently operating at Dadaab. For worshippers’ protection, the church is located just across from the UN compound and within the grounds of Dadaab’s main police station.

 

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While the video above arguably shows what one might find in a church in any modern city in Africa, this image shows what most of us think of when we imagine the living situation of refugees in a camp like Dadaab. However, the majority of the Christians in Dadaab don't actually live like this. Most of them have been here for far longer than the duration of the current drought, and now reside in homes similar to those they left behind in their countries of origin. At the moment, a community of Christians from Sudan are the only ones living in UNHCR tents while they wait to be allocated blocks in which they can stay longer term. They were relocated from their semi-permanent homes at Hagadera to this transit camp at Ifo after their church and many of their homes burned down in an arson attack by Somali Muslims who targeted them after being convinced that in accordance with their customs, Sudanese Christians eat people in the same way that hyenas do.

 

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The community are currently using this hall as their makeshift place of worship. Though there are just a few chairs and the majority of people have to sit on the floor, they are making the most of the limits they must operate within. Here, children dance and play drums during a Saturday prayer meeting.

 

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Though they are few, these people do not feel forgotten. On this occasion, a group of guest preachers from the Kenya Police have come from Garissa, two to four hours away by road and the largest town in North Eastern Province. Left: Clutching their Bibles, special guests listen attentively as one of their number speaks. Right: A member of the Sudanese community gives heartfelt thanks after the meeting. In contrast to this open gathering, TSM's support to Dadaab's Somali Christians is underground. These believers fear for their lives as they practise their faith. In September this year, after being tracked from Somalia, one of the MBBs was badly beaten alongside his family, an attack that caused the death of one of his children. TSM therefore takes great care when it reaches out to these people, as it is determined to maintain contact with them. When its staff visit their camp, they spend quality time with them, encouraging them in their faith. Recently, they were able to show them a film on Jesus in Somali, and prior to this they had already provided them with Somali Bibles to enable them to study the word of God and quietly conduct their private Sunday services.

 

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This is the church of Dadaab's Gambela community, Christians from Western Ethiopia. Specifically, they are of Anuak ethnicity; in the face of increasing in-migration from 'highlanders', these 'lowlanders' asserted that Gambela is their historical home. They came to Dadaab in 2004 following a massacre by government forces that killed over 400 of them, supposedly carried out in response to the murder of eight highlanders. Though they have supposedly been given safe haven here in Dadaab, they still face significant challenges. In addition to the insecurity of being minority Christians, many suffer continued trauma from what they went through before arriving here, and also mental anguish from being separated from loved ones who may now be alive or dead. They find solace in their church, which they have called ‘God’s Help Church’, and its services are so well-attended every Sunday that it becomes full till the point where some can only get a view from outside the open door.

 

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Church is very much a part of life here, and mothering duties do not stop at its threshold. In this shot, a woman continues her feeding duties without taking her eye off the pastor as he preaches. Several of the choristers, seated to the right, are also mothers and tend to their children while they are not on their feet to sing.

 

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Women in prayer (left), Bible study (centre) and receiving communion (right). These are the lucky ones; some churches at Dadaab are crying out for Bibles and communion utensils, while others lack trained pastors. As devout Christians, they feel the need not only for physical sustenance during this time of chronic drought, but also spiritual nourishment. In response to this need, TSM are seeking funds for Bible provision, improved seating conditions, etc.

 

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Tradition meets modernity in the Gambela church choir. Right: Though the service is deeply rooted in custom, this chorister's bandana shows that globalisation is alive and well. Left: Now taking the lead among the choristers, Ariet Omot Didumu has been a member of this choir since she was 12 years old. She says that over the course of all that she's been through, she has always known that God is there. Just knowing that He is present makes life a lot easier for her, so she says her spirit is continually boiling to worship Him. Praising Him together with this group fills her with joy, and spiritually this is tremendously uplifting for her.

 

Gambela church at Dadaab

Click the link above to hear Ariet Omot Didumu and her colleagues for yourself as they belt their lungs out to the rhythm of traditional Gambela drumming.

 

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Providing a rhythm for proceedings on goat skin covered drums.

 

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Children who didn't manage to get a seat inside find other ways of attending the service. Left: A boy joins in as the congregation prays. Right: Two girls take a relaxed peak through the window.

 

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Outside, Sunday school gets underway. This will be its last outdoor session, as the building behind the children will house them from the following Sunday onwards. Its construction has just been completed and the clay - which appears damp in this image (left) - is still setting. Right: Full of enthusiasm for the little ones gathered all around him, the Sunday school teacher teaches them about the Israelites' journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.

 

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Left: Children pay close attention to their Sunday school teacher. Right: Church drummers in training. Most of these children were born in Dadaab, and this is the only home they have ever known. Will they ever go 'back' to Ethiopia? From what their parents understand, every government that takes the reins in their country follows the same plan. According to the parson, Reverend Thwol Omot Odola, “in Gambela, you cannot find an educated person with grey hair. The moment they find an educated person, they will kill him”. Indeed, Dadaab is still receiving new arrivals from Gambela who are escaping the political situation and forced acquisition of their lands for industrial development.

 

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Reverend Thwol Omot Odola (left), Church Women's Committee Chairwoman Ariet Olan Kwot (centre) and chorister and Women's Committee member Ariet Omot Didumu (right) speak of the massacre that caused them to flee their homeland, the difficult journey they took to reach Kenya and their life in Dadaab since then. Here, they say they experience relative security compared to what they faced before, and they keep praying to God to keep them safe. However, they continue to live somewhat in fear because they experience antipathy and even occasional attacks on individuals by the Somali Muslim majority population of the surrounding camps, against which forces of law and order seem totally ineffective. Gambela community leaders have tried to enter into dialogue with the leaders of the local Somali community, but these discussions have so far made no positive difference because the elders apparently deny control over 'rogue cases'. In terms of their daily survival, the two ladies pictured here speak of the role they play as part of the Women's Committee. The UNHCR only gives 3 kg of foodstuff for each person for 15 days, which they find insufficient for their basic needs. They have therefore set up a decorative bead making cooperative to generate income, so that their members' households can purchase additional food.

 

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Here, mothers from Sudan sit with their infants in the congregation of Dadaab's Episcopal church. Sudanese Christians number around 1,200 in Dadaab. The civil war between northern and southern Sudan caused many people to flee. They started coming to Kenya in 1992, and were given the protection of the UNHCR and the Kenyan government in Kakuma. The UNHCR then started resettling some of these refugees in Dadaab in 1995, making its decisions on a case-by-case basis. The ones it sent here were those with personal situations that prevented them from returning to Sudan, such as expectations of reprisals. As a Christian, life in Dadaab is not easy, they say. Even when shopping or going for the distribution of relief food, they can be insulted as 'people without religion', a word in Somali that puts them on par with the Devil. Speaking back can result in getting knifed or beaten. The police apparently do not help, either because they are corruptible, they are not strong enough or their station is simply too far away, so it's not considered worth taking problems to them. They therefore try not to react when provoked, as encouraged by their religious leaders. Women only visit the market and relief distribution in groups, and often wear veils for fear of getting stoned. The community's women's group, supported by the UNHCR and Care International, were at one point given some money to start a restaurant. However, nobody would come to it because it was said that the food was prepared only for Christians (i.e. it was not halal). In the market, Somalis sell to 'the minorities' at a higher price. This means that the small amount of money these people earn from their UNHCR allowance and the incentive work that many of them do for relief agencies becomes insufficient to supplement their food rations and cover other basic necessities such as firewood. “If we were staying here without God, we could not survive in this place”, says one woman. Still, the Sudanese Christians here agree that this life is better than going back to Sudan would be. They are therefore pinning their hopes on being resettled to third countries.

 

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Left: Two women enjoying their Sunday service. Right: Proud to be African, in spite of all he's been through. It is because of their strong faith that these people are able to patiently endure their conditions, they say, and even forgive those who do them ill, continuing to regard those who persecute them as their brothers and sisters. They find the time taken by Christian fathers to counsel them tremendously helpful, as this gives them strength. They remain sure that God will show them the way, and are adamant that they will not convert to Islam just for the sake of their safety (as they have often been urged to do by local Somalis). “We will retain our faith in Jesus Christ”, asserts one woman. “He will answer our prayers one day”. They feel fortified in this conviction by TSM's periodic food distributions at times of need. And they know that at least for the time being, their children are in school, the Kenyan government gives them a greater degree of protection than they could get back in Sudan, and they have the right to work to supplement what the UNHCR gives them.

 

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Pastor Ancent administers healing to the congregation, helping two children with their sight (left and centre) and a woman who suffers from goitre (right). Some of the members of this community have been suffering from chronic health conditions for years, and yet they say that Somalis somehow always get treated ahead of them at the hospital. They speculate on whether this is down to bribery, discrimination or both. One woman, who works as a nurse in the hospital, says that she sees a lot of things: the sidelining of Christians, pharmacists deliberately handing over drugs other than those prescribed, refusals to make referrals; even a woman who died through wilful neglect, with her child still in her womb. When she once spoke up about this, doing so put her in great danger. Others report being discriminated against during relief distribution, as the loaders and transporters conspire against them being able to take home their correct allocation. While the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) don't make any special effort to assist Christians in this, despite being 'faith-based' organisations, these people are very grateful to TSM for their targeted help: “God answered our prayers”, they say.

 

Episcopal church, Dadaab – Sermon excerpt

Click the link above to hear Pastor Ancent preaching passionately on how Christians can heal themselves from disease and how the congregation should believe that they will one day return to their homeland.

 

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Led by a small boy (left), members of the congregation file out of church one by one (right), shaking the hands of the pastor and church elders along the way. The church encourages a spirit of togetherness, love and unity in these people. They say that while some of their community used to get into fights among themselves, the counselling provided by the church changed this behaviour and now they're living together in peace. They remain sure that God will one day answer their prayers and lead them out of this place. From 1995 to 2000, a lot of Dadaab's Christians converted to Islam because they found life as minorities too tough. That time was apparently a lot harder than it is now. Those who remained true to their faith say they see how important it is to never give up: “God still has plans for us”, they insist, over and over again.

 

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Returning home from church, along the lanes of Ifo Camp. “We are teaching our children and giving them hope”, says one man, “because we're like the Israelites, who were suffering in Egypt but were heard by God and taken to the Promised Land”. This man believes that one day, the Somali Muslims who persecute his people will ultimately learn from them. “They'll see that we have never done anything bad to them; we even love and pray for them, as our Bible tells us to pray for our enemies”. Hope, it seems, perseveres.

 

With thanks to Jonah Oswak for translation work with the Gambela community.

 

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Building Hope in the Face of Drought

Text and images by humanitarian photographer Robin Wyatt.

Kenya’s North Eastern Province (see map) feels a world away from the country’s temperate, green and well watered capital city, Nairobi. This land is arid, and the temperature is almost always scorching hot. And now, the region has been caught up in East Africa’s worst drought in 60 years.

Among the people one finds here are many Somalis who have migrated from Somalia, particularly to escape the civil war, joining the large number of ethnic Somalis who were already present in the area at the time of independence from Britain. There are also Bantu people who have settled here from ‘down-Kenya’ and other parts of the country. These people live very isolated existences. Many are nomadic pastoralists, constantly moving on in search of food and water for themselves and their cattle. However, there is becoming less and less water and pasture available to them.

There are few government initiatives aimed at improving the situations of these people. Those who are unable to move on stay where they are and hope that relief aid will reach them before death claims them. Those who make it to towns find that the cost of living there is high owing to the great distance from ‘down-Kenya’ and other areas where food, industrial and other products are sourced, exacerbated by a poor road infrastructure. It is only in the last few years that schools have been established, so without hard skills, it is hard for them to find gainful employment or make exchanges for food and other basic necessities.

The Sheepfold Ministries (TSM) is a small Kenya-based organisation that is helping select communities build hope in the face of these conditions. Hope not only that the outside world will prop them up in these times of scarcity, but also the hope of a more sustainable, self-reliant future. TSM provides immediate relief through supplemental food and onsite feeding programmes in various locations, and invests in long-term sustainability through the rehabilitation of wells, sinking boreholes and developing small-scale agriculture projects. This photo essay introduces you to some of this work, setting it within the context of the current realities of this region.

All of the images below were captured by humanitarian photographer Robin Wyatt. They may be purchased as beautiful colour prints and high resolution downloads, as well as greetings cards and eCards (eCards are free). To make your selection, just click directly on the image that interests you and you will be taken to the gallery entitled ‘Building Hope in the Face of Drought (Sheepfold Ministries)’ in Robin’s Image Archives.

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This is a painfully common sight throughout the countryside of North Eastern Province. Evaporation is extreme in these desert and near-desert conditions, due to the immense heat; this, coupled with only sporadic rainfall and a tendency for long droughts, leaves the region bone dry. Somalis take pride in owning cattle, especially camels, goats, sheep and cows. However, as watering holes dry up and pasture dies off, grazing animals succumb to the high heat and dehydration. This leaves many people at a loss, as their livestock is their primary source of income. Increasingly, they have become dependant on relief from humanitarian agencies.

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Left: A warthog searches the arid and dusty land for food. Right: A Marabou Stork which, like the vulture, has fewer problems in surviving in these conditions. It does not take long from the point at which an animal dies for its carcass to be picked bare by these birds.

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Clockwise from top left: 1: The Tana River flows through North Eastern Province, passing close to the province's largest town, Garissa. This is Kenya's longest river, carrying water from areas of the country that have far more precipitation, so it is perhaps ironic that this region is suffering so badly from drought. The potential for using this as a source for irrigation projects would appear to be tremendous. 2 and 3: A flock of goats is shepherded through the dust at Dadaab, in a search for water and pasture that seems perpetual. 4: Between Garissa and the village of Mulanjo, a dog - used by the people here for hunting - takes a rest while a Somali woman passes by with her camels. Healthy animals are so essential for the continued existence of the people of North Eastern, yet these - like so many others - are showing clear signs of undernourishment. 5: A young Somali goatherd, whose flock is trying to satisfy its thirst at an almost dry watering hole. People here usually draw their water from watering holes like this one and also from valley dams, sources that are shared by humans and their livestock as well as wild animals, owing to water scarcity. This often leads to contamination, resulting in sickness, particularly among those people at the highest risk owing to the decreased immunity that results from undernutrition.

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TSM understands that the availability of water will radically change the lives of the people here. In and around Wajir, where TSM has focused much of its efforts, there are no rivers or lakes. Nevertheless, the low altitude keeps the water table comparatively high, helping to keep water available. This has drawn many to live here, escaping more adverse conditions. Unfortunately, this in-migration has created conditions of high demand, causing shallow wells to dry up in recent times. For this reason, TSM has installed several deeper wells with hand pumps, such as the ones above (centre and right). Another well is being dug at Wajir Success Academy (left) to help meet the demands of the onsite feeding programme that TSM has established at the school there. This programme caters for the needs of enrolled students and their siblings who are under five years of age, as well as needy children of that age from the village surrounding the school. TSM is now seeking funding for the sinking of a borehole in this area, as these provide water that is cleaner and safer than that sourced from valley dams and watering holes. With improved access to clean water, the organisation hopes that fewer people will need to struggle with a relentless search to meet the basic needs of themselves and their animals, time that may instead be directed towards other productive purposes, such as rearing the animals that provide them with food and income.

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Another productive purpose that reliable sources of water can help people engage with, in turn developing long-term sustainability, is the small-scale farming of foodstuffs. TSM is now engaged with such a project at Wagberri in Wajir, involving the rehabilitation of a large well and windmill to drive a drip irrigation system. In addition to providing the community with drinking water, they will gain the ability to farm because the windmill (right) will pump water from the well into tanks and then to drip pipes. On this site, TSM has helped develop a small demonstration farm where vegetables and other foodstuffs that are able to withstand the harsh weather conditions of the area are grown (left). The intention is to teach the local people how to grow such items in where they live, thereby reducing their dependence on aid and their expenditure on food, thus boosting their food security. It is hoped that other communities can learn from this farm, and also that schoolchildren will be able to gain and understanding of how to grow simple vegetables and fruits as part of their academic studies, thereby laying the foundation for their future ability to grow food at home.

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While these initiatives are ongoing and will require sustained investment of expertise and money while capacity is built, feeding people affected by the ongoing drought remains the immediate short-term priority. To this end, TSM has been responding with the kind support of its donors by distributing maize, beans and cooking oil to at-risk communities in various parts of North Eastern Kenya. The rest of the images in this photo essay tell the story of recent distributions undertaken in the towns of Wajir and Garissa and the remote village of Mulanjo. TSM conducts its distributions with the support and guidance of community elders. Left: Elders from Wajir beneficiary communities meet to discuss how relief distribution should be managed, and agree a system for prioritising those they consider to be of greatest need. Right: Women from households listed by local elders are called forward one by one to receive food aid in Garissa.

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Elderly women, some with very little energy left after the walk from their homes, sit and wait in anticipation of the food they will be given.

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Left: A blind man, guided by his grandson, waits patiently to be called to receive his share of relief food in Wajir. Right: An elderly couple, waiting with empty sacks in hand at Wajir Success Academy, watch as bags of maize (out of shot) are loaded onto a vehicle to be taken to another distribution site.

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Women gather with their children to receive food aid in Wajir (top) and - in stunning colours - Mulanjo (bottom). As managers of household feeding arrangements, women are always the ones to receive and take charge of households' relief.

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Women awaiting relief in Mulanjo. Those with babies and infant children typically carry them to distribution points too, and take the food on their heads home with their child slung in cloth across their backs.

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Distribution of maize (left) and beans (right) in Wajir.

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In some cases, it was found to be easier to distribute food door to door, as was done by students of Faulu School for this community in Wajir (left). Here, almost twice as many hopeful people had arrived for distribution at Wajir Success Academy as compared with the number of names listed by community elders, making the task difficult to conduct as arguments broke out, particularly among the menfolk. Right: Cheerful children pose outside their mundal (traditional Somali hut) after being brought food aid.

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Women and children from the same community delight in exhibiting the cooking oil and maize they have been given.

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Relief distribution is seldom without challenges, and relief workers thus need to be skilled problem solvers. The door to door distribution in Wajir mentioned above was one such solution arrived at by TSM staff in consultation with community elders. In Mulanjo, some of the Muslim community had initially indicated that they did not want to receive relief from Christians. However, when the food arrived, it was harder to stick to this line while confronted by hungry bellies, and many appeared to ask for a share. Ultimately, in consultation with a local family (top left), and with support from community elders, a system was put in place to ensure that everybody would have something. Women from this group were then called forward one by one to receive what was available (top right and bottom left). Happily, the end result was one of smiling faces (bottom right), and the family pictured above then welcomed the relief workers home for celebratory porridge!

Robin Wyatt, humanitarian photography, humanitarian photographer, NGO photography, NGO photographer, Kenya, North Eastern, Garissa, Sheepfold Ministries, drought, famine, humanitarian, relief, emergency, arid, Muslim, Somali, hope, distribution, undernutrition, undernourished, food, aid

At one of the Garissa distributions, a delay in proceedings that resulted in handouts commencing only around sunset presented its own logistical test. Under the extremely low light conditions, where the moon and stars provided the only illumination, it was difficult to see what was happening and for elders to keep at bay those hungry people whose names had not made the lists. Arguments were loud, and at one point a young man ran off with a sack of maize, though he did not get far before he was tackled. Ultimately, community spirit prevailed and the elders received the support they required to ensure that the available food reached those whose needs were greatest.

Robin Wyatt, humanitarian photography, humanitarian photographer, NGO photography, NGO photographer, Kenya, North Eastern, Mulanjo, Wajir, Sheepfold Ministries, drought, famine, humanitarian, relief, emergency, arid, women, Muslim, Somali, hope, distribution, undernutrition, undernourished, food, aid

Left: After receiving her share of relief food, a Mulanjo woman stops, all smiles, to talk with a friend on the way home. Right: An elderly woman in Wajir carefully secures her bags of food, looking after them as if they are her most important possessions in all the world.

Robin Wyatt, humanitarian photography, humanitarian photographer, NGO photography, NGO photographer, Kenya, North Eastern, Mulanjo, Dadaab, Sheepfold Ministries, drought, famine, humanitarian, relief, emergency, arid, children, playing, hope

Despite the adversity they continue to live through, children's ability to be playful shines through, a tremendous indication of the hope that perseveres here. The relief their communities are receiving will ensure they will continue to survive through the short term, though it is becoming increasingly necessary to take a longer-term approach that focuses on sustainability. The hopes and dreams of this emerging generation rest on doing so, as organisations like TSM can only do so much. The stark reality of climate change makes it likely that the harsh environmental conditions currently being experienced across Kenya's North Eastern region are here to stay. Thus, adaptation is the call of the hour and local capacity must be built and scaled up in order to achieve this.