The trouble with drought

Dry earth

This story was published in Flyway.

A water pump hums in the pre-dawn dark at the wells of Wajir, where a convoy of tanker trucks is lined up. They are wheeled statues in the moonlight, casting shadows on the white sand where the drivers are sprawled out and blanketed, dozing as they wait their turn at the pump. Aadan is at the front of the line, his rust-red truck idling in grainy rotations as water pours from a black tube snaked into the top of the tank. Shirtless, he rubs his eyes as he looks over the machine, climbing up onto the large-rutted tires. Judging the water level by the pitch of the echo, he taps the tank with a stone, the yellow, hand-painted letters sprawled across its side glowing in the shine of a flashlight: DANGER! FLAMMABLE!

In his mid-thirties, Aadan is preparing to head into the desert as he has been doing each morning over the last few weeks. Some hours northeast of here, still in Kenya but not far from the Somali border, a group of pastoralists are stranded. Their camels are dead, their water gone, and like the other truck drivers in the line, Aadan has been contracted by aid agencies to bring them water.

“Why do you want to go?” he questions after I ask if I can ride along, a blue hue on the eastern horizon silhouetting the broad crowns of acacia trees and the slender minaret of a mosque.

I tell him that I want to understand drought.

Aadan laughs as he climbs into the truck and pumps the gas pedal, revving the engine.  “All I know about that,” he continues, “is that it’s good business.”

*

Over the last few years the weather patterns across the arid lands of the Greater Horn of Africa have become unpredictable, the rainfall erratic, and in 2011 the region experienced the worst drought in living memory. True, people said that in 2009. They also said that in 2010. But by 2011 the consecutive seasons of climate variability pushed the region over the edge, and more than ten million people – most of them pastoralists living in the arid rangelands and regularly described as the world’s “most vulnerable” – were in need of humanitarian assistance. The aid agencies responded. The United Nations evaluated the situation using the IPC – the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification – and by the middle of the year parts of the region had reached stage five, the “famine/humanitarian catastrophe” stage.

The journalists mobilized.

They snapped photos, did interviews, asked questions. A young freelance writer interested in environmental questions, I became caught up in the fray and searched around Nairobi for a news outlet that might be interested in a story about the arid region of northeastern Kenya. “Don’t bother,” I was told by the editor at the Associated Press East Africa Bureau, “we’ve already done that.” Apparently one of his journalists had flown in for a few hours last week. Box checked. Done.

I came to Wajir anyway. It took two days. On the first I hitchhiked to Thika with two young men in a white Toyota Corolla and then climbed on a bus to Garissa, halfway to Wajir. When we arrived in Garissa at two in the morning the moon was up, and as I walked around the quiet, moonlit streets looking for a place to sleep, a small, beaten-up blue sedan pulled up and parked in front of me, headlights beaming. Three policemen got out, shouted, and pushed me into the car. They had alcohol on their breath, told me I was “arrested,” and for the next hour we drove around town, empty Tusker beer bottles rolling around on the floor between my feet. My eyes half-closed in tiredness, half-open in frustration, I could barely stay awake. After making numerous threats and shaking their heads, the policemen eventually stopped outside a small hotel, smiled, and welcomed me to town. I “wasn’t really arrested,” they said, creasing their cheeks and shaking my hand.

The hotel was shut. I found the watchman sleeping on the verandah and asked if I could just sleep on the ground outside. He motioned to a prayer mat under a tree beyond a row of cars and said I could sleep there, but I had to be gone before the morning call to prayer.

In the morning I got on the first bus to Wajir. The bus stopped twice, first at mid-day where we pulled up under a large acacia tree at the edge of small town where the road crossed a dry riverbed. Most of the passengers went for sodas and tea. We also stopped at sunset on a sandy rise in the middle of the desert. The land there was quiet, the breeze slight, and the driver and a few other middle-aged Somali men pulled woven rugs from the cabin of the bus, laid them on the crest of a sand bank above the road, and began bowing in prayer. Out beyond them the flat land was fringed by shades of pink and blue, and in the distance two desert hills stood like purple-grey islands rising up out of the flat expanse. Three camels walked in single file through a dry riverbed that ran like a vein into the fading light.

*

Aadan calls his truck “Italian.” I imagine it to be an old military tanker, perhaps brought into Kenya from Somalia or Ethiopia years ago. The window on the passenger side doesn’t open, the glass shattered in spider-web fragments, and as we roll along the desert track I look out through the splinters and watch the land pass in pieces, rising and falling in my view as we rock, boat-like, through the drifts of sand.

Aadan keeps his eyes fixed on the road, swerving occasionally to avoid the bloated carcasses of donkeys. He talks a little, half-yelling over the deep hum of the engine, a bright green stem of miraa hanging from his lips. His bloodshot eyes contrast with his amber-brown skin and as I listen I learn that, as a driver, he’s been all over the place. He’s been to Somalia and Tanzania, to Ethiopia and Uganda. When he was younger he spent time in Nairobi, driving a truck for a tea company based on the edge of town, and he has also traversed most of northern Kenya as a humanitarian, delivering aid to pastoral communities, from whom he also bought livestock to increase his profit margins on the return trip to town.

As we speed along the track under the white, mid-morning sun, we pass a group of camels. They are thin, bony, their ribs standing out like ridges. Their light, dusty coats resemble the color of the sand. Tired and weak, they drop to their knees at the side of the road without the strength to turn their heads and peer in that curious way that they do, as though they are looking down at you through their nostrils.

We pass a lone woman standing in the shade of an acacia, wrapped in a dark cloth. She has something in her arms. A baby? I cannot tell. But I see the desperation on her face, her mouth open in a scream silent to the passing truck, and I see it in the way she holds up her plastic water jug and continues to hold it up – arm straight above her head – after the vehicle passes, remaining visible in the small square frame of the side-view mirror until the dust, turned up by the large tires, engulfs her.

Aadan doesn’t turn his head.

*

In the arid rangelands of the Greater Horn of Africa the new buzz word among humanitarians and policy makers is “resilience.” Listen to it, how comprehensive it sounds. And it is comprehensive. “Resilience,” explains the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), “involves reducing the likelihood and severity of crises; building capacity to buffer or absorb shocks; creating and enhancing communities’ or families’ ability to respond; and reducing the impact of crises.” In a region where over two billion dollars have been spent in three out of the last four years on humanitarian aid – with increases each year in the number of people needing humanitarian assistance – the effectiveness of aid support programs (food relief, emergency water delivery, etc.) is increasingly being questioned. For organizations such as USAID, whose separate humanitarian and development arms have not integrated well, often competing for funding streams and offering different perspectives of how best to assist vulnerable people, the resilience approach attempts to link the two together. Aid relief and development agendas can catalyze each other, the thinking goes, so that vulnerable people are not only kept alive during periods of extreme stress, but through diversified livelihoods they will also have more robust household economies to cope with variability in the future.

The challenge is, though, that the patchwork of humanitarianism and development in the arid lands is in fact deeply ingrained into the contemporary fabric of place. Resilience, by trying to re-create aid and development into a comprehensive whole, is simply a rebranding of the status quo, which becomes clear when looking at humanitarianism and development through an ecological lens.

In 2009, for example, during a harsh period in northern Kenya, I got a lift on a food-aid truck going to a small pastoral settlement in the Kaisut Desert. The Kaisut is a hot, wind-blown place where small swirls of dust spin through the sparse, stunted thorn trees. But it is also a core territory for the Rendille, one of northern Kenya’s many pastoral ethnic groups, who are well regarded for their knowledge and skill with camels. On that ride, perched high on the back of the truck on top of twenty kilogram maize bags with FROM THE AMERICAN PEOPLE printed across them in red and blue, I began to see humanitarian aid in a new way, a way full of complexity and contradictions.

Riding next to me was an elderly Rendille man returning to his home after being in one of the administrative towns to take care of some paperwork. He wore red fabric around his waist and a neat button down black shirt, and he carried a spear and a small transistor radio.

“Mr. Mau-Mau,” he called himself when I asked his name, smiling through his few remaining teeth at me and the other passengers. He said he’d been there to fight the British, and I couldn’t tell whether his stories were true or a jest, for in his good nature he kept the other passengers and me laughing during the twelve hours we spent on the back of that truck, his jokes mostly directed at the driver who was keeping us “prisoner” on the grain bags of food.

At one point in the journey, as it was nearing dusk, we stopped on a rise where the road dropped down a lava escarpment, and as the sun sank in the western sky it painted the land a fiery red, silhouetting the one leafless tree that stood part way across the hill. It felt as though we were descending into the core of the earth itself and into the cradle of time – which I suppose it is, at least for people, for not far away from where I stood paleoanthropologists have found hominid skeletons millions of years old. If any land understands a human presence then it is this one, and in that moment I felt insignificant, as though I knew nothing, would always know nothing, and anyone who has a grand design for people and place is delusional, for the only agencies are time and our beating hearts, which we do not control anyway.

The Rendille elder spoke about everything on that journey, but it was what he told me towards the end, when it was dark and we had entered into the flat land of the Kaisut, which started to make sense.

It happened during a prolonged dry period some years ago, when, like many other pastoralists, he was forced to relocate to a settlement where food aid was being delivered. The move kept his family alive, he said, and eventually important services came along with the food aid, such as a clinic and a school program for the children. The small seasonal settlement that was once inhabited only during the dry season by nomadic camel keepers grew into a permanent village with shops and boreholes and, after a time, government administrators.

Deserts are always fragile systems, but what is rarely considered is how reorganizing people shifts the ecological patterns of the land. The thousands of years of nomadic presence – of large herds of livestock and their pastoral keepers migrating in response to seasons, of even larger herds of wildlife that are now mostly gone, all grazing, shaping and impacting the land, leaving it to rest once they have grazed it – have been altered in a few decades as people settled and concentrated their livestock into smaller areas over longer periods of time. Whether settlement was a goal of early colonial administrators – and later, the humanitarians who took up the flag – or whether it was a by-product of their policies, the patterns of the land have changed, by decisions and by management, and with that, culture has changed, too. Drought, I suppose, is an easier way to describe all this; there is no one to blame.

In the dark under a stretch of sky shining with stars from one end of the land to the other, I asked the Rendille man about his camels. He shook his head, none left. “The grazing around here isn’t good anymore,” he continued. And then, rolling a cigarette from loose tobacco and a piece of faded newspaper, he asked me if I knew what you call a Rendille man who can’t look after his camels.

I shook my head.

“Nothing,” he replied.

*

It is around mid-day when Aadan slows the truck and turns off the main road to follow a few tire tracks in the sand that weave in and out of the sparse vegetation. A little ways off the track we pull into a small clearing fringed by thorny, leafless Commiphora trees, and in their sparse shade groups of Somali pastoralists sit amidst piles of empty twenty-liter jerry cans. Most of them are women. Their faces are hidden in dark cloths wrapped around their heads. They are dusty. The children gathered around are not playing.

It is quiet.

One hundred sets of eyes watch the truck.

Aadan leaves the engine running as he steps out to embrace one of the elders, an old man with an oranged beard and a white embroidered cap that sits on top of his skull. One of his American crocodile sandals has a broken strap, and as he and Aadan shake hands he bends slightly over his camel stick.

In the middle of the clearing a deep pit has been dug into the sand and lined with a plastic yellow tarp. It’s edges are weighted with boulders, and from the four corners long lines of cord run to nearby trees, fastening it in place. Aadan looks it over before he climbs back into the truck, and the exhaust pipe spurts smoke as he revs the engine and backs up to the pit.
Aadan attaches a grey pipe to the spout on the tank and rests it on the edge of the pit. Water begins to flow. People stand and start to gather around. A donkey with a half-broken hoof edges up behind the crowd, and noticing him, a teenaged boy in a red t-shirt nudges the donkey away. It refuses to go. The boy lets him be.

A woman wrapped in a faded gold cloth with flower-patterned edges approaches Aadan, her light brown skin looking dry, almost crusted. She speaks to him in Somali and, gesturing, cuts the air with her palm. Aadan brushes her away and lights a cigarette as he inspects the pipe hooked up to the truck, checking the strands of rubber inner tube that seal it to the spout.
The water pouring into the pit resonates through the air, and the rising pool shimmers in the middle of the desert. The sun is blistering, the air dry, the anticipation painful, and as we wait for the tank to empty I walk over to three elderly men sitting on a fallen branch in a small fragment of shade. I shake hands with one of them, the one who greeted Aadan when he stepped out of his truck. He sits with his legs crossed, back straight, the curve of his camel stick draped over his forearm. We begin to talk. He glances at me occasionally as we do, but his eyes are mostly fixed, staring at the rising pool. The water looks alive, it looks like everything, and it looks forbidden.

“What happened to the camels?” I ask.

The old man tells me that the camels are dead. A couple weeks ago, he says, they heard that there was grazing in this area, that there had been rain. They walked for three days. The camels were already weak so they bet all they had on the possibility of food, and when they arrived all they found were a few leaves. It wasn’t enough. The camels weakened. Some of them tried to make the return trip and died en route. Others were sent for water and they too died en route. And without the camels and their water supplies the Somalis not only lost their livelihood but started to weaken themselves. Foodless and waterless, they asked for humanitarian assistance.

“And there is no grazing where you came from?” I ask, trying to understand what is shaping life in this place.
He shakes his head and taps the ground with his camel stick. “It is hard to keep animals in the villages,” he says, explaining that most of the historic grazing grounds have been permanently settled and that, if you want to keep animals, “you have to come out here where no one else is.”

As we talk the water coming out of the truck begins to slow to a trickle, then a drip, and as it does there is movement. Everyone was patient but now they move closer, jerry cans knocking against jerry cans as the crowd grows around the pool. The old man stands and raises his camel stick and shouts out in Somali and a loose line is formed. It isn’t a patient line but one of jostling and nudging and arguing about who is in front of whom.

A teenaged boy is selected to fill the jerry cans. The old man points to him with his stick, and the boy takes off his shirt, revealing lean, sinewy muscles. Jerry cans are handed down to him, and as he fills them one by one, the owners watch him closely. A family of five will get one twenty-liter jerry can to last them until the next delivery, perhaps a week away, and as the water level gradually falls further and splashes around the boys’ ankles the crowd becomes more chaotic. Everyone can see that there isn’t enough water, not for all of them, and the line begins to break. Elbows shove. Voices shout. And one man who judges he can’t wait any longer barges past the rest and down into the pool, tumbling slightly as he does, caving in the sandy side of the pit. His action is a spark that sets off the rest, and the group lunges forward. Aadan shouts. His voice is serious, determined, almost hateful. But they push past him and another body is shoved down into the pool. The water is a soupy brown now, muddy, and two loose sandals float amidst the flailing legs. A woman with a baby strapped to her back hits another in the face with her jerry can as she tries to fill it up, and she in turn is shoved against the side of the pool by a man with a metal mug who is trying to drink cup after cup.

This sends Aadan into a rage. He rips the pipe from the spout on the tank and climbs into the cabin. Three women approach him. One of them places her hand on his knee. They plead. They didn’t get any water and want to know if there is any left. They point to the tank. Aadan shakes his head. “It is all gone,” he says.

Starting up the engine we weave our way back through the bush towards the road, leaving just as easily as we had come. The sun is low in the sky, the shadows long, and when we reach the track we turn back towards Wajir. Aadan is quiet, I am in shock, and looking out at the desert I feel swallowed.

After about an hour we stop at a little trading center where three buildings straddle the road. One of them is Fatima’s Teahouse, a small hut of tree branch lattice and dried mud, and Aadan leaves the truck engine idling as we go in for tea. Fatima floats in the yellow and red fabrics that wrap her body as she ducks in and out of the back of the teahouse, where a pot of camel milk browned with majani leaves boils over a small fire. The tea is hot when she hands it to me. I cradle it in my hands. Lips pursed, I take a sip, and Aadan does too, and as we drink Fatima’s daughter comes into the hut and stares at us, her toddler’s palm clinging to the doorframe.

I stare at Aadan, wanting to point my frustration somewhere. I try not to judge him, but I do, this man who makes money off of suffering, an agent of humanitarianism’s flaws. And as we sip I ask who those Somalis really were, still trying to understand.

“They are my people,” Aadan says without emotion. “Some are relatives.”

“So the people in Wajir hired you to take water to your community?” I ask, feeling my judgment turning back on itself.

“No,” he says, “we weren’t supposed to come this way. The people in Wajir hired me to take water to their communities.”

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