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 the images below, along with others from the same series, may be purchased as beautiful colour prints, licensed for download or shared via social media platforms. To make your selection, just click on the ‘Buy | Share’ link at the end of any of the captions, or directly on any image, and you will be taken to the gallery entitled ‘Building Hope in the Face of Drought (Sheepfold Ministries)’ in my Image Archive. If you’d like to leave a comment about this photo essay, you are more than welcome to do so in the journal section: just click here and scroll to the bottom.
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. Buy | Share
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. Buy | Share
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. Buy | Share
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. Buy | Share
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. Buy | Share
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. Buy | Share
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. Buy | Share
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. Buy | Share
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. Buy | Share
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. Buy | Share
Distribution of maize (left) and beans (right) in Wajir. Buy | Share
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. Buy | Share
Women and children from the same community delight in exhibiting the cooking oil and maize they have been given. Buy | Share
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! Buy | Share
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. Buy | Share
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. Buy | Share
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. Buy | Share