To my eye Nairobi, Kenya's capital, looks good, leafed out in tropical vegetation. After three years of drought, rains came in May 2006. And the government shows signs of doing its job. The streets are cleaner than they have been in years. Shops and supermarkets are full of food. It's hard to believe that the drought has pushed Kenya into a food emergency. Yet 3.5 million people survive on emergency food aid in Kenya, part of the 6 million people who suffer likewise in the Horn of Africa, a vast region sweeping north from Kenya into Ethiopia and Somalia. You have probably heard about this crisis. And you have probably forgotten. It is easy to forget when this emergency feels like just one more in a never-ending series of African crises.

Why do food emergencies repeat again and again in this part of the world? To try to answer that question, I ride a tiny Missionary Aviation Fellowship aircraft north from Nairobi for three and a half hours. Under the plane's nose, the rough terrain of the Rift Valley turns gradually from green to pink to tan to gray as we descend into a desert of barren, rock-creased mountains rising from empty wastes. Turkana is Kenya's northwest neck, reaching up to the Sudan border. It is a hard land without margins. If you left me out here, I could survive maybe three days.

Startlingly, a wide muddy river, the Turkwel, slashes across the plain under our wings. Tin roofs twinkle in the harsh sun. We land on a dirt runway in Lodwar, a Wild West town of wide, sandy streets and low, spreading buildings. Go half a mile in any direction, and you will be in the wild.

Desolate as it feels to me, hundreds of thousands of people consider this region home. The nomadic Turkana people herd goats and camels in a land where a few tabletop thorn trees and bits of scrub punctuate ground as bare of grass as a Manhattan street. Apart from the Turkwel there is no water, only dry washes where a temporary well dug deep in the sand will reach muddy water. The Turkana build their homes out of palm fronds and sticks, making egg-shaped baskets they can easily dismantle and move to new pastures. They live on their animals' milk. Since their animals died in the drought, many are going hungry. World Vision and Oxfam are the lead agencies here, feeding 288,000.

Rain Is with God

My World Vision hosts take me by Land Cruiser to one of the feeding stations. We stop to talk to a group of four women who look like pictures in an old National Geographic: bead necklaces stacked at least six inches high around their necks, heads shaved except for a top thatch of tiny braids. Exotic as they look to me, they converse as friendly women and mothers. Their men have left to follow the camels, which cover vast distances in their search for grazing. All of these families have been on food aid for two years. Their children, some of whom flock around and cling to the women's legs, have no milk. A nearby school is the only building for miles, but the children only attend when food is provided. That rarely happens.

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I ask, through a translator, if the women would prefer to be given replacement goats instead of food aid. An older woman gives her name as Margaret Lore Nabwel. She says goats would just die under these conditions.

This is the worst drought she can remember, and the May rains did not last long enough to break it. "We still have hope that the rain will come," she says. "But that is with God." She tells me that hunger this year claimed one of her children, a 10-year-old son. Looking more closely at her weathered face, I realize that she has probably lived fewer years than my 56.

Food emergencies due to drought are not like tsunamis or earthquakes or wars. They develop silently and slowly, over vast regions. People in these arid places have developed coping mechanisms over generations. Though skillful at finding water and surviving on leaves and roots, the Turkana live precariously close to starvation. In the old days, children, pregnant women, and the elderly would weaken and slip away. Few in the outside world knew. Those who knew could offer little help.

Times have changed. We know. We have the resources to respond. In America, half a world away, we know. If you started now, you could be here in 24 hours, staring into the eyes of a desert child.

The Turkana do not like depending on food aid. It offends their sense of dignity, grounded in their ability to cope. Yet in this seemingly empty location—I see only handfuls of basket houses—World Vision has registered 955 people to receive food. Peterson Erus, World Vision's field coordinator, shows me the hut they built to hold the food when it comes monthly by truck. People assemble and respond when their names are called to receive a food basket, calculated to provide 70 percent of their food needs for the month.

It's a textbook case of emergency response, the modern world helping the pre-modern avert disaster. While not exactly clockwork, the process is a long way from the panicky, uncoordinated, too-little-too-late response that could happen if not for experienced nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the United Nations, and government agencies. They monitor potential disasters. They have carefully developed protocols for determining when a true food emergency has begun. They mobilize compassion in the developed world, communicating needs and channeling help. They know how to work with local communities to identify the people most in need of food aid. Their formulas determine how much food should be delivered, and how often, and what kinds. They complete systematic follow-up evaluations.

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Organizations like World Vision have warehouses stocked with materials, ready to go. They know how to hire airplanes, boats, and trucks in any one of a hundred countries where you or I would spend the first month just learning what permits were needed. So NGOs, in cooperation with national governments (if there is one—a benefit that countries like Somalia cannot claim), the World Food Program of the United Nations, and donors around the world are feeding 6 million people in this one corner of Africa.

People in the Western world have shown time and again their compassion for the needy on the other side of the world. They are showing it now by feeding these people. However, our attention tends to be fitful. The May rains temporarily stopped animal deaths. That is a mixed blessing. Now there are no dramatic pictures to show the desperate need. And without pictures of desperation, the outside world gets distracted. In Turkana, people in need are supposed to get a monthly distribution of corn meal, beans, and vegetable oil. Last month, only corn came down the column.

I visit a World Vision farming project where people are learning to irrigate on the verge of the Turkwel. The project is going well; hundreds of families feed themselves. But teaching nomads to farm is difficult, and the opportunities are limited—only one river in a vast territory. The Turkana need to learn other skills, develop new means of providing for themselves, and adjust their way of life to new conditions. The government has neglected this area: It has few schools, few roads, and terrible problems with bandits. Change is difficult for this fiercely traditional people.

Some Turkana will change their way of life, when opportunity pulls or necessity pushes. Some can sell animals and save for hard times—if they have a market. Some can send their children to school so they can eventually get jobs in town—if they have a school. Some can practice agriculture by the river—if they have help learning agricultural skills. Some can raise and sell honey; some can make and sell baskets. Ecotourism is possible.

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Opening up such possibilities requires long-term, coordinated work with NGOs and the government. For the last 30 years, places like Turkana have been ignored or exploited by the government. Only NGOs have offered anything tangible—water, medicine, and development schemes—to help people.

Offers Without Takers

I travel to Kitui, because it presents a different face of the famine. In Kitui, a stony area to the east of Mt. Kenya, farmers have not harvested their main crop, corn, in five years. Here, too, food aid is widespread. Distributors have registered 186,000 mouths to feed—about one of every three residents. These are not nomads but dirt farmers, who live by the rhythm of planting and harvesting on their small subsistence farms.

I drive east from Nairobi with Haron Wachira, an old friend who serves as chairman of the water board for the Tana River basin. He tells me that when he was first appointed chairman, he visited every regional water office in his district. He found most water systems had deteriorated due to poor maintenance. Among hundreds of water wells dug by the government and charities, most had quit working. Wachira attacked the problem by making an issue of squeaky doors. When he found—as he inevitably did—a squeaky hinge in a regional water office, he would demand that it be oiled on the spot. This upset everything. Engineers and supervisors scurried to find some oil to put on the hinge. Then Wachira would make his point: If an office filled with professional engineers can put up with a squeaky door day after day, how can they maintain a complex water system?

His point reveals a problem bedeviling much of Africa. Many educated people know their work from a technical point of view, but they are not necessarily identified with it. Innovation, problem solving, and attention to squeaky hinges are not in the job description, so they don't get done. Today, Wachira will make the same point when a Ministry of Agriculture official explains that they no longer have sufficient staff to go out in the field to visit farmers. Instead, he says, just as doctors let the sick come to them, agricultural officers wait in their offices for farmers to come with their problems.

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"If the farmers know they are sick," Wachira says.

Most of the men in the room understand the inference. Wachira has convened a group of government officials from the water and agricultural ministries, plus officers from several prominent NGOs in the area, including the Catholic diocese and the Seventh-day Adventists. They know too well the problems of people in their area, which they describe to me, along with the solutions they are trying to implement. I learn about issues different from those I saw in Turkana. For example, farmers continue to plant corn even though it requires more rain than they typically receive. Cassava, pigeon peas, and sorghum are better suited to dry-land farming, and those who plant them are harvesting plentifully right now. Still, farmers prefer the taste of corn, so they keep planting it even though they do not harvest. It is a simple but profound issue: How do you get people to change their diet?

Tito Mwamati, an Adventist water officer, tells me the basic problem is not really drought, which "is merely cyclical." He says environmental degradation poses the greater challenge. Even an inexperienced eye like mine can see that most soil here is sandy and hillsides are steep. Crucial practices like soil and water conservation need consistent investments of time and work. Instead, many farmers overgraze their pastures, neglect terracing on hillsides, and cut down trees for firewood or charcoal to sell.

The particulars may be different from those I saw in Turkana. But broadly speaking, the root problems are the same. People in both places need to adjust their way of life, but they find that very difficult to do. On another day, Wachira and I visit the farm of Matthew Musau in a nearby district. Musau has retired from his graphic design business in Nairobi and devoted himself to farming. He farms on steep, stony hills, but his land looks like a well-watered haven. He is harvesting abundant crops, raising bees for honey, and keeping a dairy herd of 30 cows. When you look across his fences at his neighbors' farms, you can hardly believe the contrast.

We stop to talk to one such neighbor, David, who tells us that he has not harvested corn in three years. We ask what he sees as the difference between his farm and Musau's. David says Musau plants at the right time and terraces his land scientifically. "If we were taught," he says, "I am sure we would harvest enough."

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But how to teach him? Musau spent his adult life in the city. He knew very little about farming, but he has learned how to do new things. He is an educated, modern man, which is to say, he knows how to change. He offers to help his neighbors. But so far he has no followers. People stick to what they know, especially in traditional societies. Musau's example may rub off, but only in bits and pieces over time. Perhaps David's children will farm like Musau.

Solving the Chronic Problem

Hunger is an old story. It was hunger that drove Jacob's children into Egypt. Until recently, lack of transportation meant that one region might be starving while a hundred miles away food was plentiful. In extreme cases—which came often enough, in places like Turkana and Kitui—the weak died.

Today, the world can feed everyone. And to a large extent, we do. We solve immediate hunger crises through emergency food distribution, but we do not solve the chronic problem.

The problem lies with those who have not or cannot join the modern economy—those in poverty-stricken urban slums, whose labor will not earn enough money to buy food, or those in remote places pursuing traditional lifestyles that are subject to natural disasters. The number of such traditionalists has grown, even as their ability to feed themselves has declined. Their land has been restricted (by war, land grabs, or borders) or degraded (often by overgrazing or poor farming techniques). Crime and war and bad government have kept them isolated from education and business, forces that could change their lives. They are more vulnerable than ever.

When I talk to people in relief and development organizations, I find them frustrated by these realities. They want to make a lasting difference but, by and large, they cannot. By feeding people, they are putting off problems to another day. Drought will come again. Donors will groan and ante up again—we hope.

To make a lasting difference, they must help people change their lives. They know it can happen. They see it happening here and there. But the work is slow, unspectacular, and difficult to fund. As John Kisimir of World Vision tells me, "It is hard to interest the media when no one is dying." Donors say, "Show me the pictures," according to Beatrice Mwangi of World Vision Kenya. These communities require a coordinated plan, not piecemeal efforts. If the government can't provide security, for example, building a school, drilling a well, or offering a micro-loan won't help much. All the pieces need to work together, and they need to work together for a generation.

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For the foreseeable future, we will continue to feed hungry people, because they are our neighbors. Yet somehow we have to go beyond the cycle of disaster and short-term response—a mode that is appropriate for tsunamis or earthquakes but not for food emergencies or chronic epidemics like AIDS. We must go on to long-term engagement. Organizations like World Vision, Oxfam, and Compassion are ready to do just that. They have the people and the programs. Mechanisms like child sponsorship help to humanize our connection. The volume, though, needs to grow dramatically. There is just not enough money for programs that require patience and long-term, hands-on involvement.

Traditional Africa is crashing at tectonic speed into the modern world. At the edges, where Africa strikes modernity, societies crumble. Urban slums, AIDS, food emergencies, corrupt governments, wars: All reflect the disruption of colliding unevenly with global realities.

We think of global economics, climate, and disease as the prime realities. But there is also global compassion. It provides food, but it should go on to open up dead ends and offer people the possibility of finding a new way to live. That kind of compassion takes in-depth commitment—as it should. If the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us anything, it is that true neighbors go the distance.


Massive amounts of rain fell on Kenya in November and December of 2006. "There will be enough food in Kitui and neighboring districts," Haron Wachira wrote.

"In Turkana," John Kisimir wrote, "floods literally swept off farming communities along the River Turkwel. The rains have not subsided yet. Feeding is still going on."

Tim Stafford is a CT senior writer.

Related Elsewhere:

World Vision and the BBC's section on famine in Africa have resources on famine and aid to famine-prone regions.

USAID keeps track of what countries are experiencing or at risk for food shortages.

Other Christianity Today articles on famine include:

On the Edge of Famine | Politics hinders aid to 11 million East Africans. (June1, 2006)
'I Never Thought I'd See Anything Like that Again' | A famine worse than that of 1984 threatens Ethiopia (May 1, 2003)
Redeeming Sudan's Slaves | Americans are becoming instant abolitionists. But is the movement backfiring? (August 9, 1999)
Famine Toll Exceeds 1 Million | More than a million people have died in North Korea during three years of floods and drought. (October 26, 1998)
Editorial: North Korea's Hidden Famine | The poor and the weak should not have to starve due to the policies of their government. (May 19, 1997)

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