Washed Away by Drought

Here in Dadaab, Kenya, northeast of the capital Nairobi, where the native people speak Swahili and the refugees speak Somali, I have heard a new English phrase: “Washed away by drought.”

It’s devastatingly descriptive, isn’t it? Elegant.

At first, I wasn’t sure if it was literally what people were telling me, or if it was a word choice by the translator. But I’ve heard it often enough now that I’m beginning to think it’s just the way people really talk.

Q: What happened to all of your crops and livestock in Somalia?
A: “Washed away by drought.”

Sacks of grain arrive to be given out in the reception center at the Ifo refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, August 22, 2011. Refugees fleeing the famine in Somalia are met at the camp by staff members who welcome new arrivals with essential non-food items such as mats, tarps, soap and cooking kits, as well as 3 weeks' worth of food supplies. (Photo for LWR by Jonathan Ernst)

But over the history of this place — twenty years of people taking flight from Somalia and getting placed in a never-ending holding pattern in the massive camps — their troubles with water have usually been floods.

Rainy-season flooding has repeatedly taken lives and cut off access to these already remote camps. Many people live in small house made of sun-dried mud bricks. The less-than-ideal structures practically melt in flood waters.

A 2010 report from Refugees International on the challenges of long-term investment in the Kenyan refugee camps, which I saw quoted in a news story, noted that: “Half of the year UNHCR is scrambling to provide enough water to refugees, and the other half of the year UNHCR is responding to the raging floods that emerge from the rainy season.”

Things would get washed away in the traditional sense.

But now the opposite problem has taken hold with a death grip. The drought has persisted for years, to the point where it is now talked about as the worst to hit the region in 50 or 60 years. And the only flooding now is the flood of starving refugees pouring out of Somalia to the camps here in Dadaab.

People have proved so desperate to escape the famine, that they’ll bloody their feet walking here. And they’re still coming by the thousands.

An aid worker from another organization told me the other night that, the way he figured, Dadaab, Kenya, is now the second-largest city in Somalia due to the size of the population here — over 400,000.

And over the next few months, everyone here will hold their breath to see if the rainy season comes this year — and if so, will it be kind?

Lutheran World Federation is doing a huge job here, and doing it well, but they can’t make it rain. And they can’t stop a flood.