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!

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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.

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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.

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Critical questions for drought relief

Francis Omondi, chair of CMS Africa, has been leading Christian community work in the Horn of Africa for two decades – through more than one drought. His on-the-ground experience reveals that voices like his are too often ignored.

The east African drought, the worst in 60 years, is proving to be a stern testing ground for the willingness of Christian humanitarian agencies to empower local organisations. It’s a well worn saying, “Give poor people a fish and they will eat for a day: teach them to fish and they will feed themselves for lifetime.” Are they doing enough to make this a reality?

When Joel Edwards from Micah Challenge was invited to share a Thought for Day on BBC Radio 4 (30 July) he raised questions that demand answers about the crisis on the Horn of Africa.

“We should ask why these people were left to languish for so long until the problem became so acute. And it’s a good time to talk about our relationship to God’s creation and the environment. In the last decade we have had four major droughts in the Horn of Africa. Given that each had ample warning and opportunities for faster responses, we should ask why we waited until the deluge of suffering undermined our usefulness to help.”

He continued, “No one responding to the tragic events in East Africa can do so without asking critical questions.”

One question I want to explore here is the local initiative in response to the crisis. Western media coverage often skews disaster response in unhelpful ways. What inevitably captures media attention is what Western NGOs are doing while the effort of locals is ignored and remains invisible.

Outside NGOs tend to exaggerate the impact of what they do to justify their work to their supporters. The Sheepfold Ministries (TSM) is an indigenous community which has worked in the Horn of Africa region for over 20 years now. During this time it has lived alongside communities hit by a series of disasters. The current crisis is no exception.

In July TSM, with the help of its partners, distributed food to 2,000 households, many of them poor Christians identified as being in special need by Christian pastors or members of the local community identified by tribal elders. As I write a second round of feeding has just been completed, covering many more families.

Again it sounds a cliché, but hardest hit are the poorest and weakest. In north-east Kenya this means two particular categories of people: children from poor families and poor Christians. Why? It’s simply that Christians are a minority in this part of Kenya and despite the best of intentions, they tend to be last to get help. Meeting their needs is an important ‘front’ in the battle against the ravages of drought.

Each family received 10kg of maize meal, plus beans and oil, food supplies, enough to last at least a month. One the same day as the first TSM distribution a consignment of government food was brought to a neighbouring village. Four hundred people got just 10 bags of maize and five bags of beans, enough for just a couple of days. You can guess there was a stampede to lay hold on something to take home!

Even though Christians in this community were our primary focus, we reached out to help people who for different reasons were left out of the government food ration. Muslims who received from us responded with questions. One fellow asked directly, “Where did this food come from?” We said, “Christians from across the world have given it and we are sharing it with you.” He replied, “The Christians have helped us, where are our Muslim brothers?”

What a testimony this has been especially that it was given with no strings attached. This has helped in a tremendous way to built up the confidence among local believers in a previously hostile environment.

The scale of the need has drawn many Christian agencies to help. To be honest, this can easily be a mixed blessing. Many NGOs actually retard the capacity of local people to help themselves.

The rush to intervene by many Western NGOs has pushed the local initiatives to the fringes. Consequently, locals may never learn to respond to disaster themselves and never work out how to deal with future disasters.

In fact, because local institutions and their communities are weakened by disasters on the scale we are seeing in east Africa today, the cycle of dependency on the West grows even bigger.

There are NGOs like TSM with their long-time partner organisations who were dealing with the drought in east Africa well before the Western media captured it. With support of Western groups they do far better than outsiders in bringing food to people in genuine need.

Meeting the needs of starving people requires more than food. During the drought in 2009 we at TSM worked out that our best contribution was to dig water wells. Two years on the people are using those wells to irrigate food. They are now oases in the desert.

Where these wells exist people are developing a permanent hedge against drought. That is the advantage of engaging with locals. No matter how acute a disaster, locals will always have an eye on the long term. People in the middle of the disaster tell me that had more of this happened, less people would be in the grip of this terrible drought.

It is important that relief help is appropriate. I have seen groups bringing in food from America that ended up being fed to donkeys and other animals. Why? Because the people who sent it wrongly assumed they knew what local people needed.

Even so I struggle with some of the attitudes we encounter. Western donors like to hear that every pound they give will buy food for hungry people. I can understand that, but it’s unrealistic. It costs money to transport food from depots 300 miles to the south. As well as providing food Western donors need to grasp the challenge of making sure that all the necessary overheads are in place.

If we want to see Africa “feeding itself for a lifetime” then how some Western NGOs operate must change. Let’s be clear. African NGOs will never be able to respond to disaster unless someone outside brings money. But good local connections can ensure it is used effectively.

More needs to be invested in building up the capacity of indigenous organisations. Without a change in this direction, beginning with donor awareness, the cycle of dependency will persist. And Africa may remain a byword for hunger.

Francis Omondi is Director of The Sheepfold Ministries [TSM], a Canon of Kampala Cathedral and Chair of Trustees for CMS Africa.

Millions Stare Death in the Face Amidst Ravaging Drought

Miriam Gathigah

18 July 2011

Nairobi — While Kenya struggles to cope with the influx of refuges fleeing the drought in Somalia, it is estimated that about 1,300 people arrive daily at the Dadaab refugee camp, the country is facing its own crisis of malnutrition and starvation.

It takes on average nine days in 50-degree Celsius heat for Somali’s fleeing the drought in their country to travel the 80 kilometres of the sandy, expansive desert that separates Dadaab in Northern Kenya from Somalia.

The journey to Dadaab is a treacherous one, made even more perilous as it snakes through territories of lawlessness where armed bandits and even police harass the refugees.

And when those who survive the journey finally reach Dadaab, they soon realise that the camp is far from the haven they hoped it would be.

In Kenya an estimated five million people across the country are facing starvation because of drought, according to Abbas Gullet, the secretary general of the Kenyan Red Cross.

In the northern part of Kenya, the local Turkana community is facing starvation, just like the refugees at Dadaab.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), from a population of about 850,000 people in Turkana, more than 385,000 children and 90,000 pregnant and breastfeeding women are suffering from acute malnutrition. This has increased the number of new admissions of children suffering from malnutrition to a staggering 78 percent.

“This is a very serious situation, across the region (Horn of Africa) more than 10 million people are affected. Of this, two million children are severely affected with half a million of them suffering from severe acute malnutrition and (many are) on the brink of death,” UNICEF executive director, Anthony Lake, says.

This comes less than two months after Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki declared the drought a national disaster as the lives of people in Moyale, Turkana, Wajir, Marsabit and Mandera hang in the balance because of a lack of food and water.

“On my visit to Turkana, one of the drought-stricken regions, I saw a mother putting powdered palm nuts in her mouth in order to moisten the grains before putting the mixture in the mouth of her baby because of the lack of water … this is a crisis,” says Lake. He was speaking at a press briefing in Nairobi on Jul. 17.

The ministry of special programs and the Kenya Red Cross have been providing food aid to those most affected by the drought, but with the arrival of a high number of refugees, locals say that the aid focus has shifted to Dadaab.

Those asylum seekers who succumb to the heat and lack of water along the way to Dadaab are buried not far from the camp, in a makeshift graveyard. The graveyard serves as a reminder to the living that unless circumstances improve, death may also soon be their fate.

“Dadaab in Northern Kenya was built for a maximum of 90,000 refugees, the numbers are now at 423,000 and counting, with 50,000 more building makeshift camps around the refugee complex,” explains a source at the Kenya Red Cross. The camp was officially declared full in 2008.

And that is not all.

“More refugees are on their way,” says Doctors Without Borders nurse, Nenna Arnold. “We are already at bursting point, but the figures keep growing. This situation is a humanitarian emergency.”

As more and more people crowd the three camps that make up the Dadaab complex, the availability of essential services like water, food and basic sanitation is becoming inadequate to serve the numbers living there.

While speaking after a tour across drought-stricken Kenya, Andrew Mitchell, British secretary of state for international development, says that millions of people are staring death in the face as the Horn of Africa faces the most severe humanitarian crisis in the world.

UNICEF confirms that one in every three Somalis is living through a humanitarian catastrophe. Somalis have endured a long drawn socio-political crisis for about 20 years, which has led to the escalation of poverty, food insecurity and instability.

The situation in Somalia has spilled over to the neighbouring countries, particularly Kenya and Ethiopia, which are also dealing with millions of people who require urgent food and water relief.

This has led to a feeling of animosity from the host communities who feel that the refugees are competing with them for scarce food aid.

“The host community is now expressing frustration for what they see as negligence as the government and aid agencies rush to the rescue of the refugees,” explains Lake.

“The locals are wondering why there is a lot of attention to help refugees while our people in Turkana, Wajir, Mandera, Marsabit and other regions are suffering the same fate,” wonders Mohammed Abdi, a cattle trader who is counting his losses as more of his livestock succumb to the drought.

“We understand that the refugees need help. But we in Northern Kenya are not fairing any better. We are feeling very neglected, who feeds visitors in their home while his own children are starving?” asks Abdi.