For one hour our car has been heading north, here in the most northern part of North Turkana, where according to official maps we should already be in South Sudan. Surrounded only by desert. Stones, dried up scrubs, sand and Parar – the vast, flat and sandy emptiness, where nothing grows but bitter, poisenous bushes– all this is North Turkana. The further we drive towards the North, the worse the situation seems to get, the worse the drought seems to …. I want to say „rage“, but a drought does not rage. It persists. It consumes. It eats its way into soil, sky and life. It has not rained for six months, this is a long period, way too long, and yet not as long as in 2011 when the rain paused for 18 months. The dried up soil has torn open into countless furrows. In the dams constructed to retain the rainfall, water levels are alarmingly low.
We keep seeing dead sheeps, goats, sometimes cows. A small flock of sheep runs across the „street“ as we approach, we slow down and then come to a stop, speechless, as a skinny trembling sheep falls down, and literally powerless remains on the hot sand. „Our animals are dying, look!“ a woman yells at us, holding the carcass of goat. „Our animals are dying and we are next.“ The sun is high up in the cloudless sky. Goats are drinking from the dam but collapse soon after, dying at the shoreline.
To support a food supply more independent of climate and emergency relief, the project „Furrows in the Desert“ is working together with local Turkana to teach them in desert agricultural practices. This way one can see more and more small family farms in the desert that – if the water supply allows – grow fruits and vegetables such as corn, okra, onions or watermelons. We frequently visit our new farmers on tours all over the North Turkana. Just like today.
We are at Helen’s place, a young woman and mother of six. Together with two elder women she cultivates a farm in the small village Koyasa. She is fortunate: the wind pump in her community gives sufficient water of good quality – this is far from being granted, since water here in the Turkana is usually very salty and too alkaline. Plus, now during the drought many watersources have gone dry. Proudly she presents her plants to us: Okra, onion and green gram are growing well. She manages to sell some vegetables to the close-by school on a regular basis.
Other farmers are worse off. Locust infestation, depleted water holes, defect pumps and hungry goats which enter the farm and destroy weeks worth of work within minutes, are some of the challanges the farmers here have to face. To keep the confidence and motivation for agriculture despite all these obstacles is exhausting, especially since cultivating land is a completely new and unkown activity for most Turkana, who are used to a traditionally semi-nomadic lifestyle. In times of drought many farmers choose to abandon their plot and take their herds up into the mountains in hope to find water and grazing lands.
Josop, the next farmer on our tour, is still there. Two rows of tired onions are growing slowly. „Mam ng’akipi“, no water, he mumbles. Martin knocks against the blue plastic tank of the irrigation system – the sound is light and hollow. The little water that the solar pump of his village provides is firstly given to humans and animals. Only if some water is left, a little bit of agriculture can be carried out. Six months of drought so far. What, if we still have 12 more to go?
We keep driving on dirt roads through the desert. Sometimes we allow people to jump on the back of our pickup and drive with us for a couple of kilometers. One rule only: „Discharge the weapons“ our teamleader says, the magazines of the AK-47s drop to the car’s floor and we continue our journey through the desert. Droughts and the fight for grazing lands cause violent conflicts between the Turkana and neighbouring tribes from Ethiopia and South Sudan. Right now the situation is calm, but the shepards are everwatchful.
We continue driving, long enough to listen to several albums from the iPod, loudly from the boxes of the jeep. Hot air blows through the open windows. In the last half hour, the landscape has become more hilly and yet stayed monotonous: Stones, dry scrubs and termite mounds. Kamuja, our driver, turns up the volume of his favourite song, even though he does not understand its German lyrics, „Glaub mir es wird regnen“. Believe me it will rain, it won’t stop soon. I know it will get colder. When will it stop? the band sings. It is the most paradox, the most unreal song for the situation around us, and yet maybe the one most fitting. In the far distance we can see some manatas – small huts built in a traditional way. Soon we will reach the next village called Kopotea.
Mary too has several challanges on her farm. The hand pump gives just enough water for men and animals. She manages the little water the best she can, tiredlessly cultivating at least a small part of her plot. Every day she harvests some okra and spinach for the children. They smile, proudly presenting their white teeth. „Ejoka?“ How are you? „Ejok, ejok.“ Good, good. „Nye ng’ache?“ Any problems? „Mam ng’ache“ No problems. And there she stands, carrying basically her entire possesions: a skirt, a cloth, several necklaces, a former oil can, now functioning as a water bottle; around her several children in torn-up, way too big shirts. No problems.
The transition from the semi-nomadic lifestyle to an agricultural one is not easy, we know that, and the drought, for sure, is not helping. The small farms have created the only green oases within the sheer endless repetition of stones and sand all around. Inevetiably they attract hungry crows, locust, bats, squirrels, even camels and thiefs. When the water tank remains empty for weeks, when precious seedlings get eaten by rabbits, and when one of only two of Ruth’s watermelons gets stolen, the most valuable help we can offer is not agricultural advice, but moral support. Believe me it will rain, it won’t stop soon. And when the rain comes, plants will grow in the mountains and rabbits will have enough to eat elsewhere. So far people here manage to hold on to this faith.
In the evening, we drive the last kilometers to our camp for the night, and I let the romance of the african desert take over. Now everything is peaceful and mildly golden: The sky and the stirred up dust clouds. The silouettes of the few trees, termite mounds and manatas. A small flock of birds launches into the sky as our car clatteringly approaches. Barefooted children run laughing at our side and wave. A few meters to our right a girl, maybe eleven years old, stands quietly and wisely. A couple of goats flee from our car and under a tree a group of elder men with many earrings and wooden sticks reside. The music from the speakers delivers the perfect soundtrack to this scenery. Nothing about life here is as romantic and perfect as it seems in this very moment. Like a movie, and yet: somehow it is also part of the reality here; and in this moment I want to believe in it.
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