The town of Marsabit is on the Cape Town to Cairo road, a main artery of the African continent. Just two hours west of this main road is the village of Kargi, home to numerous clans of the Rendille people. Like many of the main villages in Northern Kenya, Kargi became a settled village because of the continued presence of missionary and aid organizations that, over the course of 50 years or more, have responded to the humanitarian call for food relief during the periodic droughts that are part of the life cycle of the arid lands of Northern Kenya.
Aid organizations like to distribute food in road-accessible locations with a certain population density. As one official of a large organization based in Nairobi told me, “our foreign government donors don’t like us to do too much in Northern Kenya. There is not enough population density, so our cost per person to distribute food aid or provide development programs is too high.”
That is why we are seeing so many traditional pastoralists settle in villages like Kargi. As many residents have told me, “if we move away, then we will not receive food aid when there are droughts. We have to stay here.”
So now Kargi has a population of about 5,500 people and there are many aid organizations in the village. If you Google “Kargi,” you will come up with all kinds of videos and press releases on their life-saving work. Recently, the aid organization CARE piloted a progressive food-aid program called the Hunger Safety Net Programme (HSNP). Instead of providing relief food, CARE gives people money, so they can buy the food they need to survive.
In casual conversations with village leaders, it becomes obvious to visitors like me that more than 50% of the Kargi population receives some form of food aid — either monthly distributions of maize, and sometimes beans and oil, and/or HSNP funds.
It is in places like this that you get a good picture of what food aid looks like. Almost every stick hut is covered with relief food sacks or cans emblazoned with “US AID” or “Gift from the American People.” The maize, or cow corn, is the main staple of food aid. Purchased from large industrial farms in the Midwest by U.S. taxpayers, it is put on ships, also paid by American taxpayers. Food aid is big business and it is a source of significant revenue for farmers and shipping companies, hence their lobbying presence in Washington, DC. They need famine.
The World Food Programme oversees much of the distribution of food aid when it arrives in the port of Mombasa, Kenya, channeling it through other aid organizations like Red Cross and CARE. Some distribute the food to places like Kargi. Others, in a controversial procedure, sell the food on the open market, providing a source of revenue that helps pay for salaries, offices and poverty reduction programs. But this practice also undermines African food markets and can be a devastating blow to small African farmers. In a brave stand, CARE was one of the first to disavow this practice.
This season, the food aid is different. Much of the corn is very hard. People have asked me if the American farmers were somehow drying the corn with heat. When the corn is this hard, it must be cooked for 7 to 8 hours over an open fire, using up precious resources like firewood and water. Even then, the resulting porridge is difficult to digest, especially for the elderly and young children.
And so I found myself sitting in the hut of Ndebe Arbele, a member of one of the BOMA businesses in the village of Falam. With a seed capital grant of $150 provided by BOMA, her business group, May Yeel, has been able to buy food, beads, washing powder and other small essentials in Marsabit, which they then sell in their village to residents and travelers. Ndebe and her other partners attended BOMA business-skills training programs and soon they will start a series of training programs on savings. After just two short months they were able to distribute profits to their members and according to their record book, they now have savings and cash on hand of 5,300 shillings.
As Kura translated, Ndebe told me about her son who was bitten by a rabid dog. The medical treatment was 4,000 shillings for four injections. She told me, “If it was not for this business, I would not have been able to pay for the medical treatment for my son. Many children here die from rabies, but not my son.”
I am very aware when I visit with our BOMA businesses that many times, I am told what I want to hear. On this occasion, I decided to push back.
“But didn’t you also receive money from HSNP? I am looking at your group’s record book and I don’t see how the 4,000 shillings came from the BOMA business,” I said to her.
Ndebe looked down. “Yes, you are right. I also took my HSNP money to pay for the shots.”
She looked up at me with tears in her eyes. “Please,” she said to me, “please don’t take this business away from me. All my life I have been a beggar. I used to be idle, waiting for food relief to feed my children. Now I am a trader. Now I work every day. From others we get relief, but it always ends. This business stays with us, and now I am someone. Please, please don’t take this away from me.”
I suddenly realized that in places like this, we stake our claim. We can provide grants and training so that women like Ndebe can earn an income that will help her care for her seven children.But the human spirit craves dignity and respect more than it seeks wealth, and that is what we had given Ndebe. It was enough.
“I could never take this business from you, Ndebe. It is yours forever. Thank you for telling me why this business is important to you. I will always come and visit you when I am here, and I want you always to tell me what you feel in your heart.”
“Kalath, Mama Rungu.” Thank you.