Editor’s note: Upon returning from her trip to Kenya earlier this month, Abby wrote the following reflection. Read also the prequel to this post, Modern times, ancient stories.
I’ve never been in a place so desolate, so barren. Sand and scrubby trees stretched for miles. We drove for hours without seeing another person, save for one herdsman begging for water in 105-degree heat. When I stepped out of the car, the sand burned my feet through the soles of my shoes.
Two weeks ago I traveled with a World Vision team to Turkana — a marginalized, isolated territory in northwest Kenya’s Rift Valley. When you arrive there, the locals tell you, “You’ve left Kenya.” They don’t consider themselves part of the country, feeling ignored by their government and the outside world as they suffer through year after year of drought and hunger.
The mainstay of the nomadic tribe that lives here is their livestock — goats, sheep, cows, and camels. These animals not only provide food and clothing, but also income, societal status, and even the ability to start a family. If a man wants to marry, he must pay a dowry of livestock to the woman’s parents.
Drought in this part of the country is common. But this year’s drought has been particularly crippling. Many animals have died from lack of water and pasture, and some of diseases. Compounding natural factors are cattle raids from a neighboring tribe, in which Turkana families sometimes lose their entire herd, and may even lose a husband or a child in the violence.
Nakirdio, a 27-year-old mother of 8, lost 40 goats in a raid in February. She tells me, “It was like death when the goats were taken — everybody was crying.” Eight villages in the area lost thousands of animals, and now many families depend on making and selling charcoal from firewood to buy food for their children, but it’s not really enough.
“When I see my children hungry, it’s very painful,” says Nakirdio. “That makes me go to the forest, where it’s feared, to look for firewood.” The forest is the very place where the raiders hide, and they’ve often attacked those who walk for firewood or water.
I met another woman, Atabo, who remembers a young daughter who died a few years ago. “I lost one child to hunger,” she says. “I knew that I would lose her because there wasn’t enough food at home.” I didn’t see much sorrow as she told me this — just resignation, until I asked her what she says when she prays. Then she tells me, “I say to God, ‘Why leave me to suffer this much? The children you gave me, I’m losing them one by one.’” After days of interviews just like this one, I feel worn down and at a loss for words of comfort and compassion.
The roads here are rough, and it takes hours to get anywhere. As we drove past acres and acres of sand and thorny trees, we saw shepherd boys sitting in what little shade they could find, watching their goats and sheep as they grazed. Sometimes they had guns instead of staffs, in case of raids. I was reminded of Psalm 23 (particularly the version by Jon Foreman), and never have the words been so meaningful as they were in the Rift Valley, surrounded by pain and death:
Even as I’m walking through the valley of death and dying, You are with me, You’re always with me.
I listened to this song and thought of these words over and over as we drove. I thought about lack, hunger, pain, thirst, suffering, and sorrow, and the points at which I touched all of these during my time in Turkana. I thought about comfort for mothers like Atabo and Nakirdio and their husbands and sons as they watch the animals, hoping that they know that God is their shepherd and walks with them through this Valley and aches with them in their suffering.
More photos from Abby’s trip: