The land that rain forgot
Abbas Gulle, head of the Kenyan Red Cross, assists a starving child.
I n East Africa, the rains come twice a year. In the spring, the long rains soak the ground, fill the wells, swell the rivers, and nourish the plants. In the fall, the short rains tide the land over until spring. In good years, farmers can get three crops out of their fields, the nomads’ cattle grow fat, and families laugh together over dinner. In bad years, none of that happens.
In late 2010, the short rains failed and hunger came. Early in 2011, people looked at the sky and hoped, but the long rains never came either. The hunger got much worse, very quickly. An estimated 70 percent of herd animals died. It was the region’s worst drought in 60 years, and soon refugees started pouring into camps. Across the Horn of Africa, the famine has affected about 12 million people, who face increased risks of armed conflict, human trafficking, and outbreaks of diseases like cholera, in addition to hunger.
On a Sunday afternoon in July, Paula Lanco-Mutua, a member of the Rotary Club of Karen-Nairobi, was at home watching a movie with her three kids when the phone rang. The call was from Abbas Gullet, head of the Kenyan Red Cross, which works on the front lines whenever the country is facing a crisis: flooding on the coast, fires in the city, violence after elections.
This time, the situation was one that reached past Kenya’s borders. It was also one that some members of the Kenyan government were denying: famine.
Making the famine known
In the county’s remote Turkana region, people were dying. The crisis in Ethiopia and Somalia was making headlines, but the famine in far northern Kenya went unnoticed. Gullet needed Rotarians’ help to show the world what was happening, and had arranged for a plane to Turkana to leave the next morning. Could Lanco-Mutua be on it?
Of course, she said, and then asked if she could bring some other Rotarians along. “Geeta Manek was the first one to come to my mind,” Lanco-Mutua says. “Whenever there is a crisis, Geeta is there.” Along with Manek, who is governor-elect of District 9200 (Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda), she asked Janet Mathenge, president of the Karen-Nairobi club, and Harry Mugo, a member of the Rotary Club of Nairobi North.
The next morning, 25 July, the four Rotarians met at the airport, along with a phalanx of reporters Gullet had also invited. They piled into a twin-propeller plane and headed north. They got their first glimpse of the drought from above.
“There was a lot of land – vast, empty land,” Lanco-Mutua says. “We couldn’t believe it from up there. It looked like a desert. It was so dry. You couldn’t see any life – no trees, no water, no animals, nothing.”
It takes four days of off-road driving to reach Turkana from Nairobi, but only an hour by plane. After landing, the group drove 50 miles, passing dead animals and dead land until they reached the village of Lotitanit, about 30 miles from the border with South Sudan.
“On the way, we never saw a water tank,” Manek says. “We hardly saw life of any sort. All the trees were dry. The camels – you could see their skeletons. We saw one or two kids with a little jerry can that had some water. They were as thin as twigs.”
"He didn't even weigh five kilos. He was so little, so light."
In Lotitanit, the Red Cross had set up a medical outreach clinic where mobs of people had converged, hoping to get some food or water. One of them, a 28-year-old man who hadn’t eaten for several days, died just before the Rotarians got there. His body lay on the ground covered with a blanket.
The medical team weighed children and gathered information while the journalists took photographs and the Rotarians took notes. Abbas brought a child over to the group.
“He said, ‘How old do you think this child is?’” Lanco-Mutua recalls. “We said, ‘Three years.’ And he said, ‘No, this child is nine years old.’ He didn’t even weigh 5 kilos. He was so little, so light. Abbas wanted to take us to another village, but the local officials would not allow it. We were told that it was because they had dead bodies lying all over the place.”
The day went on. The group also visited a Catholic mission, which had a garden full of fruits and vegetables as well as a borehole well. The soil there is fertile, and the water is not far down. But the people in this area are nomads, and their traditions put them at the mercy of nature.
“We met two grandmothers who hadn’t eaten for a week,” Lanco-Mutua says. “The children were suckling their mothers practically to death. There was one instance where we thought the woman was dead. She was lying on the ground, and the baby was still sucking.”
It was a somber trip back to Nairobi. “When we came back, we were numb,” Manek says. “We all had our little water bottles in our bags, but could not bring ourselves to take a sip. Everyone was thinking about what we’d seen. We couldn’t believe it. When we went, we didn’t know what to expect. Coming back, it was very quiet.”
The next morning, the Rotarians met again. They knew they had to do something, and fast. “We said, let’s mobilize,” Manek recalls. “I sent out a communication to see if they could get some more help. By the end of the day, I had 20 replies.”
They hit the street. They sent out emails. They worked the phones. They visited Rotary clubs across the city. “I went to five clubs talking about it,” Lanco-Mutua says. “In one week, I did a meeting every evening.” She and Mathenge went to churches to plead for assistance.
The response was quick. People had also seen the journalists’ reports on TV, and they were angry and ashamed of what was happening in their country. Lanco-Mutua’s boss, Rasik Kantaria, a bank chairman and a member of the Rotary Club of Nairobi-South, pledged to donate a truckload of food, and Lanco-Mutua rallied the bank’s staff to provide another. At the Rotary clubs of Nairobi-Langata and Nairobi North, among others, Rotarians opened their wallets. In four weeks, they collected enough to buy 101 metric tons – seven semitrucks full – of Unimix, a blend of beans and corn formulated for food crises.
A proud moment
And so, on a cool morning in August, a hundred or so Rotarians met on the north side of Nairobi at the Visa Oshwal, a Jain temple and community center, to see the trucks off. The mood was somber but excited. A few people made remarks.
“We are here, we’re going to talk about this, and then we’re all going to go back to our jobs and forget about it until the next time the famine comes, and we’ll be back here doing the same thing,” Manek said. “We’ve got to stop this. We want to make sure we have sustainable projects, because we don’t want to do the same thing year in and year out.”
When the speeches ended, everyone filed outside. The engines rumbled to life. The Rotarians waved flags, and the trucks rolled onto the road north.
“Rotarians came all the way from Nakuru, from Thika, from Mombasa,” Lanco-Mutua says. “We were so many. It was a proud moment. It was one of those times when you could see the power of Rotary at play.”
By October, some rain had arrived, softening the edge of the drought. At the end of that month, the famine-relief campaign shifted to a new phase. The focus is now on long-term solutions such as drilling boreholes, purchasing drought-resistant seeds, reviving local health centers, and expanding agricultural training programs. Funds have continued to pour in, and the Rotary Horn of Africa Famine and Refugee Relief Fund is accepting donations through the end of June. Rotary’s Horn of Africa committee is working to implement the more far-reaching projects; Manek and Lanco-Mutua are among its members.