The road to Dadaab

Published: 25 August 2011 16:23 CET

By Faye Callaghan in northern Kenya

A red sandy track stretches far into the distance, bordered on both sides by low bush – grey and dead. The only interruption is the scattering of cows lying at the side of the road, they too grey and dead. The scorching sun beats down relentlessly; drivers of broken down trucks seek respite in the shade beneath their battered vehicles.

The drought has made this part of north east Kenya virtually uninhabitable. But with all eyes on Dadaab – the world’s largest refugee camp, swelling day by day – what of those who ordinarily live in the communities nearby?

“I had five hundred cattle once,” says Sheikh Mohammed, resident of Lago, a village just a few kilometres from Dadaab camp. “Now what do I have? A family of twenty and nothing to feed them but the handouts we get every few months.”

At least water is one less worry for Mohammed since the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) started trucking in 40,000 litres every two days to this community and hundreds of others in the Garissa region. Here people depended on shallow wells, but a lack of rain for over year means they dried up some time ago. With the nearest borehole seventy kilometres from Lago, the community was left in a terrible situation.

Women with babies strapped to their backs in colourful cloths wait anxiously for the truck to arrive. A donkey, exhausted from its toil, collapses before it has even been loaded with full jerry cans. The women group together to help it to its feet; without their donkey, they too will soon collapse from carrying heavy loads.

“Now my cattle have died, I want to settle here,” said Mohammed, a former Somali pastoralist. “I want my kids to go to school, but without water that’s not possible. It’s hard to live without water,” He adds.

The KRCS has been working in Garissa for decades and runs a successful agriculture project that has helped many people find new livelihoods growing fruit to sell at the market.  This long-term project has had significant successes, according to Sahal Abdi, KRCS regional manager in Garissa. “We want to do more work on long term approaches, helping people change to more sustainable livelihoods,” he says. “Of course we have to save lives, and that’s why we do the water trucking, but we need to stop this situation happening again.”

Back in Lago, being able to grow food is just a dream for Sheikh Mohammed. This drought has changed his view on the future for his children. “My hope was once that my children would be pastoralists like all the generations of my family have been. Now I just hope for an education for them, and that we survive this drought.”

Unlike many humanitarian organisations, the KRCS is focusing its efforts on helping existing communities through the drought, rather than work in camps like Dadaab. It has launched an appeal for 14 million Swiss francs to continue life-saving activities like water distribution, but also to ensure investment in long term solutions.

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