To my eye Nairobi, Kenya's capital, looks good, leafed out in tropical vegetation. After three years of drought, rains came in May 2006. And the government shows signs of doing its job. The streets are cleaner than they have been in years. Shops and supermarkets are full of food. It's hard to believe that the drought has pushed Kenya into a food emergency. Yet 3.5 million people survive on emergency food aid in Kenya, part of the 6 million people who suffer likewise in the Horn of Africa, a vast region sweeping north from Kenya into Ethiopia and Somalia. You have probably heard about this crisis. And you have probably forgotten. It is easy to forget when this emergency feels like just one more in a never-ending series of African crises. Will we be feeding these people forever?
Why do food emergencies repeat again and again in this part of the world? To try to answer that question, I ride a tiny Missionary Aviation Fellowship aircraft north from Nairobi for three and a half hours. Under the plane's nose, the rough terrain of the Rift Valley turns gradually from green to pink to tan to gray as we descend into a desert of barren, rock-creased mountains rising from empty wastes. Turkana is Kenya's northwest neck, reaching up to the Sudan border. It is a hard land without margins. If you left me out here, I could survive maybe three days.
Startlingly, a wide muddy river, the Turkwel, slashes across the plain under our wings. Tin roofs twinkle in the harsh sun. We land on a dirt runway in Lodwar, a Wild West town of wide, sandy streets and low, spreading buildings. Go half a mile in any direction, and you will be in the wild.
Desolate as it feels to me, hundreds of thousands of people consider this region home. The nomadic Turkana people herd goats and camels in a land where a few tabletop thorn trees and bits of scrub punctuate ground as bare of grass as a Manhattan street. Apart from the Turkwel there is no water, only dry washes where a temporary well dug deep in the sand will reach muddy water. The Turkana build their homes out of palm fronds and sticks, making egg-shaped baskets they can easily dismantle and move to new pastures. They live on their animals' milk. Since their animals died in the drought, many are going hungry. World Vision and Oxfam are the lead agencies here, feeding 288,000.
Rain Is with God
My World Vision hosts take me by Land Cruiser to one of the feeding stations. We stop to talk to a group of four women who look like pictures in an old National Geographic: bead necklaces stacked at least six inches high around their necks, heads shaved except for a top thatch of tiny braids. Exotic as they look to me, they converse as friendly women and mothers. Their men have left to follow the camels, which cover vast distances in their search for grazing. All of these families have been on food aid for two years. Their children, some of whom flock around and cling to the women's legs, have no milk. A nearby school is the only building for miles, but the children only attend when food is provided. That rarely happens.
I ask, through a translator, if the women would prefer to be given replacement goats instead of food aid. An older woman gives her name as Margaret Lore Nabwel. She says goats would just die under these conditions.
This is the worst drought she can remember, and the May rains did not last long enough to break it. "We still have hope that the rain will come," she says. "But that is with God." She tells me that hunger this year claimed one of her children, a 10-year-old son. Looking more closely at her weathered face, I realize that she has probably lived fewer years than my 56.