Posting by Jordan
We have been in Isiolo about a month now and our current task is to visit the different villages to try and understand the main problems affecting the local peoples. Isiolo is a very remote, sparsely populated region of Kenya with so many tribes and languages that it is difficult to keep track of everyone (the main tribes are Boran, Turkana, Samburu and Meru). Fortunately, each tribe has a “center-point” that serves as a meeting place and communication post from where the rest of the village can be called and informed.
We have visited a few center-points now and, although the tribes are very different, the experience is much the same. Since we are partnering with A Wind of Hope in the Arid—one of
the few organizations that has gained the trust and support of all tribes—we are welcomed with much fanfare: boisterous women are inevitably the first to greet us, dressed in the most striking colors, always leading the others in a melee of singing and dancing. We form a circle for a while—us “wuzungu” doing our best to mimic the local flavor—and are eventually pulled into the middle by joyous women who have a great time teaching us the traditional dances. The site of us white wuzungu hopelessly attempting the dance brings a chorus of laughter and we are eventually called to be seated. The group forms another circle, with the 2-3 three elder men sitting to the side, as if to declare their status and uniqueness, and we are welcomed with a prayer and asked to speak.
We question the villagers about the main problems facing their community. Despite the diverse tribes, the answers we are given—just like the welcomings—are also much the same. Indeed, although many communities mention HIV/AIDS, lack of food and run-down schools as problems, there is always one underlying challenge, one root cause that is inevitably mentioned: maji (water), the epitome of what we take for granted in the West. Simply turn a lever, press a
button or twist a hinge and there it is, pure, distilled and ready for consumption. Yet, who of us can imagine walking for hours on end, in the blistering desert heat, with the galling weight of 5-gallon buckets of polluted water on our heads, only to return again the following day? This is the reality for many here in Kenya.
The situation in some villages is ironic: They have the water, they have the land, but they have no way of getting the water to the land. When we visited the Turkana tribe a few days ago they told us: “We don’t want any more hand-outs! No more food! Just find us a way to access the river water and we can start farming.” Indeed, the African villagers understand the principle of sustainability, much more than we ever could.
Isiolo is a region like much of Africa; It straddles the line between desert and savanna. Yes, it is dry… very dry. But only a few miles away there are lush forests and ubiquitous agriculture. If we listen to the scientists, places like Isiolo are becoming even drier, and the weather more extreme. This is what the people see here. Years of drought have decimated crops and livestock, gradually destroying decades of work and preparation. And when the rains finally came, it took the form of the worst floods even the eldest of elders had ever seen, washing away most of the remaining food sources.
So, the people here struggle in desperation. Many in the West know that malnutrition causes emaciation, vulnerability to diseases, brain damage and, eventually, a slow and agonizing death. This is all true. However, the effects on a community are even more devastating: tribes war over cattle and other scarce resources; men and women receiving AIDS medicine are made even worse by the powerful drugs; groups of young men rape women in sad attempts to restore their power; parents sell their young daughters into prostitution in order to put a little food on the table; and whole villages become completely dependent on outside resources.
This latter point—dependence—takes many forms, none of which are beneficial. In one village, a windmill was constructed to pump water from the ground. But, as soon as the windmill stopped working, there was no one to repair it. So it sits there, turning and turning but doing nothing.
In another village, UNICEF told the locals to start digging trenches, promising to return to lay the pipes and bring water to the impoverished community. So, the people worked, around the clock, digging and digging, women and children, men on AIDS medicine, some who even died in the process, hoe in hand, thinking not only of themselves but of the future of their community. One villager mentioned how he didn’t care if he ever saw the water himself, but the thought of his community receiving this life-giving elixir sometime in the future was enough to keep him working. It’s been three years now… The trenches are still there… as are the people… waiting….
This is what makes our work so challenging. All of the false promises have created a palpable atmosphere of distrust and suspicion. But we are slowly being accepted. We try to not make promises we can’t keep, and to listen to the people themselves for solutions to their problems. So far, it looks like we can solve many of the problems with only a few thousand dollars per village: a simple solar or manual water pump with some pipes can bring water from the rivers to the villages, and water-purifying bags that use solar heat can make the water potable. At this point we are researching all of the different options, so please, if anyone has any experience in this area, send us an e-mail and share your thoughts, comments or ideas. Specifically, we are trying to find the cheapest, most efficient way of either transferring river water or extracting ground water.
In the US, we have seen the impact of extreme weather. Hurricane Katrina was an ample reminder of how quickly a city—and a nation—can be brought to its knees. Climate change is something affecting all of us, simply as a result of being residents of the same planet. Yet, it does not affect all of us in the same way. As devastating as Hurricane Katrina was, it does not even compare to the impact that is being felt here in Isiolo, or in other developing countries. In Isiolo the problem is insidious, continuous and worsening, with no relief in sight. In the West we at least have our basic needs met, and I have begun to realize that without this, you can have no peace, no trust, no unity, no prosperity. All of the problems mentioned earlier—the wars, the child prostitution, the HIV/AIDS, the malnutrition, the suspicion—these are not African problems; they are human problems. We would surely act the same way if we were faced with such a situation. The Samburu tribe in Malitano put it very clearly: “If you solve the water problem, you solve all of the problems.”