Stephanie Ross, ActionAid editor
As hunger turned to famine in east Africa, ActionAid’s emergency response delivered life-saving food and water. But it is child sponsorship that has created the basis for this vital work, says Stephanie Ross.
As we make our way north from the small town of Isiolo, we soon see the first signs of the tragedy unfolding here: a dead dog lies by the roadside. Gradually the carcasses increase in number and size – next come sheep, goats; eventually a camel. Then just piles of clean white bones.
It hasn’t rained here for three years. The carcasses are signs of a way of life literally dying out, pastoralist communities who, until recently, relied on their animals to provide them with food, milk, meat and something to sell when times got hard. But few can remember the last time things were this hard.
The drought affecting northern Kenya and Somalia has been officially declared a famine. Families who would move with their herds from pasture to pasture now crowd round the only water source for miles around. Everyone knows that when this water runs out, there is nowhere else to go.
At around 11am we stop at the village of Bulla Juu, where there is already a queue of about 20 women sitting in the unbearable heat, waiting at the standpipe in the middle of the village. Most of them have been here since just after dawn. Water is released from the standpipe once a day – at 8pm – and strictly rationed to two jerry cans per family.
There won’t be enough to go round, so for those who come too late, it will be another day with nothing to drink.
The water that arrives in the village is pumped down from two wells 5km away. So far, water has been available all day at these wells, and as a consequence a makeshift camp has sprung up around them – a once nomadic people too scared to move away from this precious resource.
Haredha Mohammed, 50, came here with her husband and four children four months ago. “Most of the time we are hungry, we are facing a lot of pain, a lot of hardship,” she says. “About 10 of our sheep have died, and three cows. The rest are so weak we have to pull them to their feet by their horns to get them to the water. I don’t know how long they will survive.”
As we talk a commotion breaks out nearby – people collecting water are charged by a cow so desperate to drink it is willing to face the wrath of 20 thirsty humans to get there. The cow eventually wins, and drinks long and deep. Haredha explains that there is a fight over water every day – sometimes it is the animals, but often it is people.
One of the two wells stopped supplying water yesterday. This morning the pump on the second one stopped working. It is only a matter of time before it runs dry, before the women waiting patiently in the village are told that there is no longer anything to wait for.
A silent emergency
For all its severity, this crisis didn’t arrive out of the blue. By the time it started gaining media coverage in June, there had been suffering and drought here for over three years. It’s what’s known as a silent emergency, one of hundreds affecting the countries ActionAid works in at any given time, ready to tip over into crisis if the rains fail, or the floods come, or the fighting flares up again.
ActionAid and our partners work with local people over many years to help them prepare for emergencies and stop the worst effects. But until they hit the headlines, it is very difficult to raise funds for emergencies such as these.
Which is where child sponsorship comes in. If you sponsor a child in a community that is under threat, then you will already be helping them protect themselves against risk. In the case of Kenya, this means we have been able to deliver water, emergency food supplies and school feeding programmes since the rains first failed.
In addition we have supported community-led initiatives such as irrigation schemes, installed water reservoirs and boreholes, organised water trucking and the distribution of high nutrition porridge, and have been lobbying the government to put in place a long-term plan to treat drought-stricken areas as an absolute priority, while strengthening community resilience to drought.
“It is very clear that the effects of this drought are not as terrible in the communities where ActionAid has been working,” says Enrico Eminae, who is in charge of our emergency response in northeast Kenya. Enrico knows the situation better than most – he was born and brought up in this area, and was himself sponsored through ActionAid as a boy.
“Child sponsorship allowed me to get an education, to make something more of my life,” he says. “And right now it is giving us the flexibility to come up with innovative solutions to the crisis. It’s a difficult situation, but this work is saving lives. I have no doubt about that.”
Where the water flows
After the endless desert-like landscape, it is something of a shock to walk into a garden full to the brim with healthy looking crops. But in stark contrast to Bulla Juu, in Kieni there is plenty of food and water to go round.
Kieni is a child sponsorship area, and ActionAid has been working with this community for the past nine years. It’s no coincidence that people here have enough food and water, because the area has been subject to a long-term project to mitigate the effects of water scarcity and drought.
“This all used to be barren, dry earth,” says Geoffrey Kareko, chairman of Ngonde Gatei water project. “We used to suffer from drought the way others are suffering now. But there is no hunger here now.”
This is something of an understatement. Cabbages, maize, avocado and spinach are all growing abundantly on several plots in Kieni. The secret is so simple I can’t quite believe it – effective irrigation.
“The community decided seven years ago that the way to stop our crops failing was to bring water down from the side of Mount Kenya, 16km away,” says Geoffrey. “So we asked ActionAid to support us. They agreed to fund the project, if we provided the labour.” And so work began on digging 25km of trenches to bring pipelines to the village.
The results are dramatic. “We used to spend all day in search of water. I would have to walk about six to ten kilometres,” says Rose Waryiku, 40. “My mind is relaxed now, we don’t need to have the government feed us if the rains fail. We have plenty of food and milk for our own use, and some left over to sell for an income. We can furnish our house and pay for the education of our girls.”
A fight for survival
If only that were the case everywhere. In Bulla Juu, we are delivering emergency food supplies and have been running a school feeding programme for the last three months. But it is a community we don’t have a long-term presence in, so the help we can give is limited. We are pushing the government to invest in the infrastructure that would allow for progress, but there are few roads, no electricity and the nearest large town is four hours’ drive away.
“Apart from the food given out by ActionAid we have nothing else to depend on,” says 28-year-old Hawo Bashir. “If that were to go, then we would be hopeless. We have nothing for the future.”
As we talk, Hawo’s daughter Sadia poses patiently for our photographer. She seems very serious and grown up for a six-year-old girl. When I ask her if she likes to play, she tells me shyly that her favourite game is skipping.
As we make to leave, Maurice, our colleague from ActionAid Kenya, presents Sadia with a skipping rope he has somehow managed to procure. Her face lights up with pleasure, as she and her friends enjoy this unexpected new toy. It is lovely to have helped provide a moment like this, even if it is just for a few hours.
But as we get back in the car and drive slowly away from this devastated place, we all know that it is not enough.
We desperately need new sponsors to help us support more than 4,500 children like Sadia across Africa. Please help us by asking one of your friends, family or colleagues if they could sponsor a child. All you need to do is pass on our website — www.actionaid.org.uk. Thank you.
Photos: Piers Benatar/Panos/ActionAid