Friday, March 6, 2009

Food! Glorious food!

As Kenya’s premiere newspaper, Daily Nation, reminded us in what seems like eight out of ten cover stories—that Africa’s new covergirl nation has declared a national disaster of famine, counting an estimate of roughly 10 million citizens starving—we couldn’t help but become obsessed with the issue, knowing that the family who presently hosted us ate every American family I know off the table.

Our month-long commitment volunteering at Thika District Hospital was soon up for re-negotiation and we were keeping our eyes and ears open for a new vein to prick and shoot our energy deeper into the Kenyan national body.

After two weeks of incessant research and calling every Prime Minister’s office that had any connection to food, agriculture, public health, and cultural affairs, we dropped our bloodied doctor’s costumes off at the door and hopped into a 2-ton lorry with 1-ton of maize flour and screamed our way (assisted by a hired driver named George) up the northern highway like a pack of rabid hyenas.

Isiolo. A lovely town of dehydrated dirt, midnight windstorms, and mountains that hover from all sides like monsters in a childhood dream. Isiolo. The town we chose after great debate to be the receivers of our independent, bloodless aid. We had decided the hungry warranted ample help as they are a conglomeration of pastoral tribes with new limitations to feeding grounds as the government has become more industrialized and developed, they can no longer defend diversity or sustainability. Those who want to earn money and have access to food, must move to the cities. Those who persist on a nomadic path, are well, left to roam, that is, on one path: to the city.

We connected with an enthusiastic coordinator for the Kenyan Red Cross, Isiolo and Eastern Province Branch, Jimiya. A young woman of the Nubians who had recently finished her undergraduate degree in Political Science and Social Structures from The University of Nairobi. (Of course we got along!) We met her at the branch office, waiting excitedly for our arrival, accompanied by an army of volunteers. We loaded our maize into the Red Cross Landcruiser and set sail for a journey of a lifetime—hoping it wouldn’t end our lives.

The driver climbed up volcanic cinders the size of port-o-potties and wove the way through combative cactus and sand traps like a fish in a reef.
30 kilometers outside of Isiolo town, we arrived at our drop-off zone, a fairytale of a Turkana village—acacia trees with fantastically elongated branches, like arms of a principal ballerina, and awe-inspiring views of the mesas and steep rock faces waving from the northern-lying Shaba National Reserve. This was the community of Daaba, the community who was now, with our help, able to feed their children and families once a day, securing life on this earth for one more month.

We distributed thirty kilograms to each family representative (all women—the Turkana are a fascinating tribe where the women do all of the work, domestic and market, and the men sit and chat all day, waiting for their multiple wives to come home from an 11 kilometer trek home with the goats and cook dinner. Fascinating?)

Smiles were plentiful and intrigue rang all bells as they studied us muzungus (whitefolk). I couldn’t quite understand their acknowledgement for our help—even the translator was in broken English—but we did converse like sisters using the simple Turkana phrase, ‘Ajok,’ for ‘Hi. How are you?’ interweaved with gazing into each other’s eyes in attempt to communicate more.

After the maize flour was distributed, each woman embarked on her journey home, to her 6ft x 6ft dung-construct of a house covered with USAID bags and donated mosquito nets to pose as a roof, like a little kiss from the U.S. government.

Our mission had been accomplished. Although our meager relief is no nostrum to the national famine, we did what we could. And we did it through our hearts. And our hearts were counseled by our intelligence gathered through hours of research and speculation and talks with the UN World Food Programme and USAID, and local authorities, and the starving.

I’ve always found sensible the little adage: One for me, one for you. Maybe Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki could make use of this mantra as he sits in his un-taxed Nairobi penthouse wondering why 10 million of his citizens are literally starving and reliant on food relief. “The Kenya We Want,” and his “Vision 2030,” just may actually retreat from the clouds and take a wander upon this desperate, convoluted nation.

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