a marsabit video in the making

Remember when I was last in Marsabit, Northern Kenya? One of the things I did while I was there was take my first plunge into the world of video while I was in the village of Larachi, where this and this photo were taken. In all honesty, I had no idea how well or how poorly I was capturing the story, the people or the scenery, and felt rather uninspired as it seemed there was little artistic control over what I was doing. And then I saw the first draft of the short (3 min) video that is being made from the footage. Exciting. I am hopeful that the video will be out by the time I head to Africa again (August 16) so that you can see it, but no promises.

For now, a photo of me with the women and children captured in the video (I am holding the little camera that shoots HD with the furry mic that everyone thought hilarious). Plus we can all start to get excited over the video that will be made from footage I took in Uganda on the last trip. And I can look forward to capturing more fun on my coming trips! Oh happy day.

lemon:aid

One of the things that I do as I travel is gather stories – through words, photos, and video – to be used in campaigns and project updates. Remember when I was in Zambia, Uganda, and Kenya? There are photos and videos you have not seen from that trip – most recently used in Blood:Water Mission’s summer campaign, Lemon:Aid.

The concept behind the campaign is simple: kids make lemonade stands – they tell people about water in Africa and raise money by selling lemonade – so that kids (and parents) in Africa can have water. It has been awesome to watch so many people get behind this campaign. There is still time before school starts, so if your kids need something to do, check out the website to download materials and take a stand for safe water in Africa. Whether or not you decide to do a Lemon:Aid stand, I hope you enjoy these photos & short stories.

acacia honey

As we were driving back to Nairobi on the last day of our journey, there was a stretch of road where people were selling acacia honey. Pure, rich honey. This is a more critical find than you would think – most of the honey in Kenya, including that sold at supermarkets, has sadly been diluted with molasses. This here is the real deal.

dew on flowers

I found these flowers covered in dew the morning I was in Maralal – the last morning of my journey through Northern Kenya.

mud like chocolate

I took this picture as we were trying to decide if we could pass the mud up ahead. These are dried rolls of mud sitting on top of sand. They reminded me chocolate shavings that might go on a cake. In the end, we turned around – we found out that other vehicles had been stopped for days in the mud further ahead.

Just a few more pictures from Northern Kenya, then I promise to move on to Uganda.

a journey in the northern forgotten district: part 2

What the Northern Forgotten District (NFD) lacks in infrastructure or amenities it makes up for in diversity and complexity. Our crisscrossing and backtracking path took us through incredibly diverse lands. The grasslands were lush and seemed ready for animals to graze.The sandy plains were littered with small rocks and tough shrubbery and trees preparing for the next drought. The hills around Korr were covered with sand, rocks, and tough plants with an ever-present wind to keep things cool. The top of Mount Kulal was protected dense forest and, when I saw it, was regularly hidden by a cloud. Not far from the shadows of Mount Kulal was Lake Turkana, the Jade Lake. I was told that Lake Turkana, an alkaline lake filled with fish and crocodiles, is the largest desert lake in the world (though a soon to be constructed dam in Ethiopia will change this). Its shores were surrounded by volcanic rocks of all shapes and sizes with the random and rare shrub or tree. Not far inland was an oasis – a natural spring surrounded by grasses and palm trees.

Grasslands, forests, an oasis and a lake – not exactly the classic images of a desert, but remember that I was also journeying in the midst of the longest and heaviest rainy season in the last 20 or 30 years. The Chalbi Desert, just north of where we were, was not crossable because parts were flooded.

Nearly everyone who lives in the NFD is a pastoralist. The primary exceptions are the few fishermen along Lake Turkana. The tribes of the region include the El Molo, Borana, Gabru, Ariael, Turkana, Samburu and the Rendille. Could I tell you how to distinguish one tribe from another or where to find each? No. I was told much of this, but my small brain can only handle so much at one time. I can tell you that the Turkana are slowly moving into lands held by other tribes.

It seemed that all the moran, or warriors (aged mid-teen to late 30’s, these men were not married), of the tribes wore brightly colored wraps and as many necklaces, bracelets and rings as I have in my entire collection. Then there were the headdress that often included small plastic flowers and feathers. They stuck out like peacocks against the children, women, and elders. I would not mess with these moran and their sticks, knives, and machetes. But I was told that the Turkana warriors are not so brightly adorned. Is this one way they win battles?

These tribes traditionally walk long distances from watering spots to grazing land. Cows, sheep, goat, donkeys, and camels cover these distances with their herdsmen and moran – sometimes as much as 3 days each direction – week after week. And that distance is critical. Some boreholes have been drilled in some of the good grazing land. This took away what seemed to be a water problem… and the nomadic communities moved the area. Then, in a classic act of the tragedy of the commons, the land was overgrazed. When arid or desert lands are overgrazed it is difficult, sometimes impossible, for the land to recover. A short-sighted solution is now part of the problem.

As we left Korr for the last time children, mostly boys, who were in secondary school were trying to find rides out of town to get back to school after the holidays. These lucky children each represented families working hard and selling animals to keep a them in school – particularly past an elementary education. There is the hope that these children will find jobs in the cities and support their families by sending money home. Charles, one of the men working on the FH water project I was visiting, was one such case. He went through school and has returned to help his family – both financially and through development. It does happen, but it is rare. Many more are forever lost to the cities fighting for the available jobs, which never seem to be enough to go around.

And so I wonder about false hope. Why do children have to buy and wear drab school uniforms and leave their traditional dress behind? What does a primary school education teach a child if he does not continue and leave the village for a city job? It seems that traditional math, english, and science could be transformed into basic husbandry, marketing, and business – an education that could help each become more successful in their current life. Which makes me wonder if education is always valuable.

I do not have an answer to any of the complexities of this region (I have talked about just a few of them here), and I know that what seem like simple, obvious answers are often blind to the complexities. What this journey has left me with is an appreciation and respect for the families who live in the NFD. This is not to gloss over and idealize their culture or lifestyle – it is hard and difficult, and there are cultural practices that I could not adopt. But these people have survived for centuries, and they and the land live on. I also have a deep respect for my colleagues at FH who work in this region. Simply getting from one location to another is difficult, much less trying to find a solution that can not only be sustained by communities, but also that is environmentally sustainable. It is a system of give and take and much conversation. It is slow going.

I hope to return to the NFD by Land Rover in the future. This year I will likely fly over the land and visit some of the communities we never made it to. But there is something wonderful and alluring about traveling wide open spaces by car that provides a respect and an understanding of the land that is missed by plane. This was a grand journey and I hope for more in the future.

a journey in the northern forgotten district, part 1

This trip would have been very different 6 months ago…. Cows were lying in the [dirt] roads with feet running through the air dreaming of one last drink of water. Everything was brown and the dry grass was all eaten. The children were skinny. I visited one village where 11 cows and calves were lying down in the center of the village… all but one was dead. The next day it was dead.

6 months ago Northern Kenya was in the midst of a long drought. The land was dry and the fight was to survive. But in November last year the rains began and they have not stopped; normally the rainy season is November to December and April to May. 4, 5 or 6 days of good rain during each season is what people have become accustomed to. I experienced that many good rains during my 8 day journey. These are the longest and heaviest rains people remember in the last 20 or 30 years. The cows, goats, sheep, donkeys, and camels are fat. The desert has come alive – green grass, trees growing and flowers blooming. The children look healthy. The streams are flowing.

The streams are flowing – overflowing. Day one of this journey found us ending the night with our Land Cruiser STUCK in the Milgis River. We tested the waters and they seemed fine. We just forgot to take into account the length of the Land Cruiser with the deluxe bull bar on the front and extended steel bumper on the back. We fought to not loose the vehicle. By the end of the night we were down a man as Erik H’s hand was wrapped and bandaged (thank you gauze, athletic tape, band aids, tea towel and electrical tape) after slicing his palm and four fingers on the machete he was using as a shovel. We finally crawled into our tents with a small dam made of brush in front of the vehicle and having dug out a channel behind it.

And thus began the grand adventure. Day two found us starting the day mud covered taking shelter from the burning sun under a tree. It is by God’s grace that we got out. When the Land Cruiser was finally pulled out of the stream the following had happened: Erik N had walked 10 km out and then 10 km back to find cell coverage to call for help. Martin, our help had walked 2 km from the other direction because water and mud blocked his path. Martin then sped down roads to approach us from the other direction after walking out with Erik H and taking him to get stitches (Martin, we owe you). Our vehicle was jacked up and branches put under the back tires. At this point we were down to 3 litres of good water. And as we are preparing to jack up the front of the Land Cruiser with Martin’s high lift jack (we broke ours the day before… thank you China), we hear the water coming. The Miligis was about to flash flood – ends up rain from the mountains comes crashing down about 22 hrs later to where we were stuck. We had exactly one shot as the water was rising, and, by God’s grace, those front tires lifted out of their deep holes and an $80,000 Land Cruiser (thank you Kenya taxes on vehicles that NGOs typically use) was not lost to the river.

We were freed about 23 hours after we got stuck. Then we drove another 4 hours over roads that should have taken us 2 hours to reach the day’s destination – a clean bed, safe drinking water, and a cool shower. That is how day two ended. And it was par for the course of this trip.

Every day, nearly every hour, of this trip was unexpected. Every tentative plan was dropped and then modified at least three times. By the last days, we spoke not of plans A, B, or C, but of plans M and Z. Most of the time I did not know where I would be setting up my tent or rolling out my sleeping bag until the day came to a close. When paths were chosen in the morning, every alternative option was discussed. When we went into a village, we asked about the roads ahead and if cars (read: vehicles with clearance and four wheel drive) were making it through. The one constant was chai. By mid-day Friday, we were ready to begin what should have been a 1.5 day journey back to Nairobi.

It took us 3.5 days to reach Nairobi. To do this, we bought all the diesel available from a Catholic Mission (20 litres) and all the fuel in Korr (40 litres)… our two 80 litre tanks would have sufficed if we had not gotten stuck or spent our days tracing our steps from place to place as the rains shut down roads. The Milgis River (where we were stuck on day one) overflowed, jumped its bank, and chartered a new course towards Korr transforming roads to mud pits and grass plains to lake beds along the way. We had one option out, through an area where 2 people had been shot in the last 2 weeks. And so we prayed, we drove, and we made it.

If I had made this trip 6 months ago, I would have seen different circumstances and my photos would be filled with more shades of brown. I likely would have been able to visit every community that was on our original list and would have all of the video footage that I would ever want. I would have been covered with more dust than mud. If I wanted to spin things, I could have published pictures of thin children with big eyes as well as black and white images of dead cows on the road. But that is not the trip that I had and I believe in photos filled with hope and dignity.

The trip that I did have taught me about the land and the people. And it filled me with compassion for everyone who lives and works in this diverse and harsh land. In colonial times, the district was referred to as the NFD, or Northern Frontier District. The acronym has made a comeback, but now it stands for Northern Forgotten District. Roads that were once tarmac are now gravel and dirt. The most basic of infrastructure has broken down having a domino effect on access to supplies and other infrastructure. Our last night on our 3.5 day return to Nairobi was spent in Maralal. We joked about having “re-entered” Kenya that night. There were gas stations, a run-down safari lodge, fruits and vegetables, and cold drinks.

Note: To read a different and more detailed account of this adventure, check out whiteafrican.com, Erik H’s personal blog. Besides, it is a good blog worth following.

hidden smile

I promise that under her hand is a huge smile. I promise. A little while later she was leading the other children in games and, more than once, threw her head back as her laughter filled the air. I love smiles and laughter, and Nabopu was no exception.

gladys

There is a wonderful magic about children. They have the ability to capture the heart and the soul with nothing more than a smile and a twinkle in the eye, and tonight Gladys captured my heart.

We visited a girls’ home run by one of our partners. Here the children are well clothed, have wonderful facilities, and are surrounded by people who love them. Each child comes out of a difficult situation ranging from abandonment to living on the street to abuse to lacking parents. By being family with one another, they are rising out of these difficult, seemingly hopeless situations, to live full lives. They learn the enduring power of love and hope.

Tonight as these girls sang and danced for us, little Gladys, only two and a half years old, was held in the loving arms of her new sisters and mothers. Later, as she sat next to an older girl, she stretched her small hand out to greet me. Suddenly shy, she backed away to play pick-a-boo around the edge of the table, a game that stands outside of language or culture. Then I gathered this delightful child in my arms. Over the next minutes we shared smiles and gestures and she proceeded to capture my heart.

Before leaving I sat down to sign the guest book, Gladys still in my arms. An active child engaged in the world around her, she wanted to participate in the writing. So after I signed their guest book, young Gladys signed my field notebook. Now I have two pages of scribbles that are Gladys’s two year old signature sandwiched between pages of notes from endless days of meetings. These two pages, a reminder of a child who captured my heart in a moment, might be the most precious thing that notebook holds.

kenya

I was born in Kenya while my parents where in the Peace Corps. While I only spent 7 months there out of the womb, I have always had a fascination, a connection of sorts, with the country and have wanted to return. 27 years after being one of two white babies in Nairobi Hospital, I returned. Five rip highlights:

 

1-Visiting the hospital where I was born. Though it has grown significantly, ‘my ward’ was still there, and mom and I snuck a quick photo while we walked down the hall.

 

2-A friend treated us to a wonderful day at a tea estate where we learned all about how tea is made, drunk our fair share of tea, ate some wonderful food, and enjoyed some magnificent gardens and tea fields.

 

3-We returned to Thika High School, the boys’ boarding school where my parents taught math. We visited our house, and walked all around the school.

 

4-One night was spent at Castle Forest Lodge, where Queen Elizabeth stayed at age 19. A beautiful location, Mount Kenya gave me a beautiful birthday present when she was fully visible in the morning.

 

5-We had birthday cake and coffee at the Norfolk Hotel. A waiter searched high and low for a way to keep a candle lit with the wind outside, and was, finally successful. So not only did I get a beautiful piece of cake, but a candle to blow out as well.