The flight from New York City to Nairobi, Kenya, leaves at 11:15 p.m. In the next two days you will lose track of time as you stumble through airports and down crowded airplane aisles. But eventually you will sit on a plane, slipping through dark skies into Africa.
You will enter the continent somewhere over Libya, flying over Sudan before reaching the border between Uganda and Kenya. It will be 9 in the morning, Kenya time, when you begin your descent toward Nairobi.
Pressing your face to the window as the muddy sky lightens to gray and then bright blue, you will notice something on the ground below you. You will watch as the green farmland gives way to brown.
You will see a land that has dried up. If you could fly lower, low enough to see the people walking on the parched dirt, you would see the devastation. The protruding ribs of children, the hollowed cheeks of their mothers. You would see the normally gentle women standing in lines at feeding stations, tensely waiting for the food and water they hope will save their babies.
As you feel the landing gear bump into place, you will spot a little girl named Lena, no more than 11 years old, leading a few gaunt cattle to a dry patch of grass. She is small for her age, and thin. And she walks with the stooped shoulders of a child who is weary of disaster.
When you finally land, you will blink in the hot Kenyan sun, looking around for Lena. But she has disappeared into the dust, and you will find yourself asking, How did this happen?
Preparing for Survival
Africa, and specifically Kenya, is no stranger to drought. For children like Lena, who takes her family’s cattle every day to find water and grass, hunger and thirst have been a regular part of life.
As rain has become increasingly sparse and unpredictable, there is little time to recover from one drought before another strikes. How can a farmer who has lost his crops year after year possibly “save up” for the next drought that will surely strike his village? “We do not expect a good harvest this year,” says Lena’s father, Joseph. “The birds have eaten up some of our produce and the scorching sun has hit hard on the crops.”
There is a Kenyan proverb that says, “We should put out fire while it is still small.” And for the Compassion workers serving nearly 75,000 children there, that proverb is crucial. While those battered by constant drought and famine can do little besides attempt to survive, Compassion is equipping churches to act, even before the next disaster strikes.
In 2010, Compassion Kenya began to learn of warnings about a shortage of rain predicted for the coming harvest season. Nearly 75 percent of Kenya’s population depends on agriculture for survival, and lack of rain results in malnutrition and even death for the children Compassion serves. Immediately, our workers there began to build up infrastructure, putting in place plans to serve the 14,600 Compassion-assisted children and families who would be most affected by areas of drought.
These warnings proved to be true, and between October and December 2010, less than half of the rain necessary for crop growth fell. In rural areas, food supplies deteriorated. Regular medical checkups at Compassion child development centers revealed an escalation in malnutrition, with 922 children suffering from severe malnourishment. Four children were hospitalized. Families left their homes to search for food and land for their cattle, and in some Compassion centers 25 percent of children stopped attending.
The problem was not limited to those living in rural areas. With farms drying up, food in the cities also became scarce. Prices of staples, including rice, flour and oil, skyrocketed, quadrupling in some communities.
Ready for the fire
In February 2011, just three months after the drought began, Compassion Kenya reported that more than half of the Compassion centers in the country had been affected by the drought. Lena and her family saw the river near their home shrink and the crops dry up. Lena had to take the family’s cattle more than three miles from their home to find food, in temperatures often exceeding 100 degrees.
But Compassion was ready for the fire. In anticipation of the drought and resulting food shortage, Lena’s father learned about drought-resistant crops and began planting millet. The family also received a water tank, which will store fresh water when the rains return. Compassion had also worked to begin a demonstration farm at the Kamwaa Child Development Center to teach families how to use their resources to prepare for the drought. Parents tilled the land and dug irrigation ditches from a nearby river. The farm grew to 20 acres, providing food and income for those who worked it.
And from the gray thorny bushes, a lush green canopy grew. Pawpaw fruit hung heavy from green vines, and vegetables were plucked each day and placed in baskets. The center even added beehives to provide honey to sell in the community. Provisions were needed across the country, and Compassion Kenya’s preparation for the drought made it possible to begin distributing food and supplies in April of 2011, just a few months after the rains failed to come. Due in large part to a gift by the First Baptist Church of Glenarden (see sidebar), bags of maize flour and jugs of cooking oil have been distributed across the country, with more supplies delivered daily.
For Lena and her family, and thousands of others, these supplies have meant the difference between life and death. They had seen the sparks of disaster, but before their eyes the fire that could have devoured them was distinguished.