Editor's Note: Joy Portella is communications director for Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian organization. She recently visited parts of Africa suffering from drought and famine. The following includes some excerpts from her blog at MercyCorps.org that she wrote during her journey.
I recently visited Garissa, Kenya -- a city of at least 180,000 people not far from the border with Somalia -- and areas to the north to see how this year's drought has impacted families in the area.
From an outside perspective, it's easy to hear about drought in the Horn of Africa and glaze over. It's one of those creeping natural disasters that people in the West hear about almost every year.
But this isn't just another annual drought -- this is the worst crisis the region has seen in 60 years. (The United Nations officially declared a famine in Somalia on Wednesday.) To put that in historical perspective, the situation is looking more grim than the massive drought in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s that prompted the Live Aid concert, and the drought in Somalia in early 1990s that led to the well-known United Nations peacekeeping mission.
Garissa and the rest of the region -- including parts of Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia -- usually have two rainy seasons, one in the fall and one in the spring. This year, neither rainy season happened and the earth is bone dry.
Here are three people I met while in the region and their personal stories of the drought.
Walking for 17 days
Hadado is dry as a bone. The landscape changes dramatically as you approach this small town in the western part of Kenya's Wajir County. There is nothing alive for as far as the eye can see.
Until we saw Hindiya and her goats.
Hindiya is 10 years old, and she's beautiful and smiling. She's traveling with her father, Roble, and her brother and sister, as well as an extended clan of herder friends and family. And of course, they have their goats in tow.
The drought forced her family to separate. Hindiya's mother and the rest of her family have gone to Somalia in an attempt to find water and food for the family's camels. Hindiya, her father and siblings are on the move, wandering wherever they hear there might be water.
That's what led them north to Mandera County two months ago. The family camped there until the local water source was depleted, and now they're on the move again. By the time we caught up with them, they'd been walking for 17 days, almost nonstop.
We pass around bottles of water, the most precious commodity around, to Hindiya and her family.
Eating is a luxury. Hindiya's family didn't have any food this morning, and they have nothing to eat tonight. Sometimes they're able to eat in the evenings -- usually when they can stop in a town, slaughter a goat and sell it -- but sometimes not. Amazingly, the family doesn't report any serious illnesses, though they claim that occasionally someone gets "a bit of malaria," indicating that the bar for "serious illness" may be set high. But I wonder how long they can keep up this pace without someone becoming terribly ill.
People tell us that this part of western Wajir has not seen significant rain in the past three years. Herders -- like Hindiya's family -- who used to settle down for six months at a time are now lucky if they can stay somewhere for a month. And in between settled stints there's hunger, poverty, dying livestock and walking, walking and more walking in search of water.
I can't help looking at Hindiya's stick-thin figure and wondering: How long can she possibly keep going?
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Struggling to keep a goat alive
One thing to keep in mind about people in this region is that most of them herd and sell animals for a living -- including cattle, goats and camels. When there's not enough rain, animals can't find sufficient food or water. Animals getting progressively weaker and sicker, and people rush to sell the animals they cannot feed.
About 10 kilometers from the center of Garissa is a settlement of a few hundred families, some of whom have been there for years, and some of whom recently migrated in search of water. I talked to Nimu Adan, a 65-year-old woman who lives with her husband, eight grown children and several grandchildren.
Nimu's family has lived in this settlement for 15 years, but they're surrounded by newcomers who have moved into the area since the drought. The family has 20 goats -- most of which have been sick for past two months because there's not enough food -- and with the newcomers, there's extra competition for the little food that does exist. The family has purchased some medicine for the goats, but Nimu contends that it's not helping.
Nimu explained that -- because the animals are sick -- no one wants to buy them, which means her family's income has taken a nosedive. As a result, the family can't buy enough to eat so they have cut back from three meals a day to just one or two, and they've done away with "luxuries" like milk. They are now consuming almost entirely staples such as maize flour -- hardly a nutritious diet.
The saving grace of Garissa is that it's located near the Tana River, which means that there's a water source for people and animals. But the farther you get from the river, the less green you see and the more desperate things become. As one herder family recounted to me, "We moved from the grasslands -- where the animals had plenty of grass to eat -- to Garissa because they needed water. Now we have water at the river, but there is no food."
No respite for refugees facing famine
The story of a 'drought widow'
One of the saddest things about the current drought in the Horn of Africa is that it's destroying families. Men go off with livestock to find water -- often traveling hundreds of miles for months at a time -- or they drop out of pastoral life and flow into towns to look for odd jobs. Either way, women and children are often left behind.
In the town of Hadado, I met one of the women I'll call a "drought widow." Zeynab Hassan is a middle-aged mother of five children who range in age from 7 to 20 years old. Zeynab is relatively new to Hadado. She and her sister's family moved here from what used to be nearby grasslands when both of their husbands left. The men are now wandering with their remaining animals to search for water and food.
That was about one month ago. I asked Zeynab when her husband will return and she only shrugged, saying, "I have no idea."
Zeynab is scraping by, selling firewood. She walks 20 miles round trip to gather wood, which is a tough and potentially dangerous journey. She sells the bundles of wood for a few shillings in town and uses the money to buy sugar and ugali -- a favorite East African starch -- for her children. It's a job that doesn't provide much. Three long sticks of firewood sell for five Kenyan shillings; a kilogram of sugar costs 120 shillings.
Water is a worse situation. Zeynab's family has been getting water from a local borehole -- at a cost of five shillings for 20 liters -- but it's salty and contaminated, so her children have been suffering with diarrhea. A private vendor is trucking in and selling fresh water, but at 50 shillings for 20 liters, it's out of her price range.
Zeynab and her family used to be well off before the drought. They had many cattle, goats and camels. When I asked how many animals they possessed, Zeynab told me "more than 100" but couldn't -- or wouldn't -- get more exact than that. "I don't want to talk about the number of animals we had and lost. It makes me too sad," she explained.
Zeynab's story is all too common. When we told a colleague from a local organization that we wanted to talk to a "drought widow" about the challenges she is facing, he said, "Just walk into any village. You will find those women everywhere."