Tell Them We Need Rain
I pick my way through the lifeless bodies of donkeys, cattle, and goats. The camels around us do the same, finding their way amidst the thirsty expressions frozen on dead faces. I stumble into a carcass, my foot hitting its sun-dried skin as though it were the surface of a drum. A deep sound resonates through the empty space behind its ribs.
“Let’s go!” shouts Aden, as he starts the engine of the water tanker. “We still have a long way to travel before we get there.”
The crew and I crowd back into the cabin of the truck, the large red tank on the back holding hundreds of gallons of water. We are carrying the water from the capital of Wajir to a remote region in northeast Kenya, to a group of pastoralists who have been stranded in the desert for days. These pastoralists—migrant residents of Kenya—chase the sparse Kenyan rains, relying on seasonal changes and word of mouth to find fresh grasslands for their livestock. But because the rains have not come, they need help.
“It is becoming much more difficult to understand the rains,” Aden tells me as he drives the truck down the dirt road. Although only in his 20s, his deep-set eyes, pronounced cheekbones, and withering frame make him look much older. Years ago, he left his nomadic family and began working for a nonprofit group in the city that delivers water to this part of the district.
“We have always lived with drought. We are pastoralists and we know how to survive,” he says, squinting as the sun comes into view. “But I don’t understand what is happening. When I was young, we lost all our camels because there was no rain. Since that time, the rains have become even less.”
Thirty years ago, rains in this region were easy to predict. Now, intense dry periods are more frequent and follow no apparent pattern. Some researchers blame global warming, but there is a remarkable dearth of research into the reasons behind the decreased rainfall. At the time of my travels, 70 percent of livestock in this region died from thirst or lack of grazing terrain, rendering over 80 percent of pastoralists without livestock.
By late morning, we pull into a sandy clearing where pastoralists have set up camp for the month. Families with young children and old men sit with empty water jugs, gathered around a deep sand pit. Behind them are a few donkeys, standing amidst rotting skeletons of other livestock. They are all waiting for water. Just as they do every three days, Aden and his crew drape a plastic tarp over the hole and begin filling the pool with water. In this dry, dusty place, each family of five receives about five gallons to last the three days until the truck returns.
Soon the makeshift pool starts to empty and patience turns to frenzy as the remaining people struggle for the last few drops. One bare-chested man takes a full water jug from an old woman and runs off into the bush. Although she yells angrily, she is too weak to chase him. No one seems to notice—everyone is intent on getting his or her own water.
As the remaining jerry cans are thrust into the pool to claim the last few puddles, Aden and his crew try to regulate who gets what and mark down the names of those who received water. It is a daunting task. Looking for a bit of respite, I find a small ray of shade under a leafless tree. It too wants a drink of water.
An old man, his face taut from skin clinging tightly his bones, approaches me as I sit on a protruding root. His white robe is covered in dirt and his head is wrapped in a turban. He introduces himself as Salim, an elder of this nomadic camp.
“We came here because it was the last place of pasture for our animals. Without them, we will die.” Gripping his walking stick, he continues grimly in careful, calculated Swahili. “The closest water is a three days' walk, and the animals are too weak to make it back to the wells. Most have died and now we are stuck here. It did not used to be like this.”
As he speaks, another man with red ochre in his beard sits down next to us on the sand. He is thin with tired eyes, and one of his sandals has a broken strap.
“We don’t like to take water like this. It makes us feel helpless and then what will people think? We are not helpless,” he says, irritation in his voice surfacing. “We have always lived here, but now the rain doesn’t come; there is no food for the camels. When you go, tell them that is the reason. Tell them we need rain.”
Soon, it is afternoon and the thirsty donkeys linger around the dry, empty pit. There is no water for them, not today and probably not tomorrow. There is nothing else for us to do—the water has been divided up—and the engine of the empty truck starts up. Acacia thorns strike the windshield as we leave the empty water pit behind us.