Just west of the Somali border and equally south of Ethiopia’s Ogaden, you’ll find one of the most brutally harsh regions of open desert within Kenya’s vast northern territory, yet it’s called home by nomadic tribes from all three countries. For unrecorded generations the Gabra, Turkana, Borana and the Somali, all pastoralists, have roamed this desert floor in search of water and pasture for their animals and to enjoy a humble way of life handed down thru the ages. The pastoralists’ world revolves almost entirely around the life cycle of their goats, sheep and cattle, which without rain and green pasture lands for the herds to feed, would simply disappear. Their way of life and the ability for life to be sustained in this desert land, is being brought under sharp scrutiny by tribal elders, NGOs and the government. It’s been suggested that their way of life as nomadic tribesmen may soon be over, soon to be shared through stories to their children and viewed as by one and all as a legend.
If this remote region didn’t provide enough problems for Sarah, a 39-year old Gabra woman and her people, Torbi’s place in history was made secure by what’s become known as the “Torbi Massacre”. On July 12th 2005, in the early morning hours around 6-a.m. a militarized group made up of hundreds of armed raiders, who in an argument over water and grazing rights in this arid region, descended on the sleeping village and attacked the primary school and the Gabra people while they slept. By noon, 66+ innocent people, including 22 children still dressed in their school clothes, were dead and with the last crack of gunfire, the hopes and dreams of mothers, fathers and the village of Torbi…were destroyed. Roba, Sarah’s husband and headmaster of the primary school, is a gentle man who speaks English, who with his head bowed and in a hushed voice, his eyes beginning to water, reflected clearly on that infamous day…motioning to notice the pock marked signs of bullet holes in the walls behind his desk at the school.
Such tragedy, in losing a child or a beloved family member, would be enough for most of us to stop living. However for Sarah, leader of the Thagado Women’s Group, she has focused her life in service to her family and to the community with a heart as big as the desert itself. She runs her household like a captain of industry, maintains a small kiosk on the main street, cooks around the clock feeding her children, hauls wood as she’s done since a child, tends her flock, plays an active role in the “PTA” at school and looks after travelers who stumble into their guest house at all hours of the night, a welcome albeit stark desert outpost, who seek a safe place to cool down from the desert heat.
Sarah came to Torbi after she was married to Roba, and tells me, “instead of the deforested landscape you see today for miles around us, 20 years ago not many people had settled there yet.” All you could see were forests of green trees and wild animals with a much cooler temperature than it is now. Water was very hard to come by with no active bore holes nor ponds, so she would have to try and catch a ride, and at times walk the 50 kilometer round trip journey to fill jugs with precious water to sustain her family. Today though everything has changed. While they know how to collect water in catchments and in ponds, the drought has drained them of all of the water they had with the only source coming from a cistern they have to pay for. Windswept due to deforestation, Torbi has grown considerably over the years and so the trees have been cut down to make room for the settlement and firewood, with the wild animals who used to roam in the forest, having long since disappeared. Her voice trails off as she stops to consider these changes taking place all around her, much out of her control and so she worries about their future.
She shares that “while she seeks God for answers, she feels God’s hand in all of this yet she doesn’t understand why this is happening to her and her people – with the animals dying life will completely change for us as pastoralists and this is bad, because if all of the animals die, people will be left without anything to eat, people will be so poor and will continue to borrow…having to depend on relief food and nothing else because they depend on the animals to sustain themselves”…“with animals the need for relief food would be seasonal and not a permanent condition”. This is the looming question in this part of the world.
Many are pointing fingers to lay blame for the current crisis and ask openly if it’s a natural disaster, one where the government should step in to help, or one that is manmade due to a lack of disaster planning. All of us gathered around the small table agreed that while there’s plenty of shared responsibility to go around, the mother of a hungry child isn’t concerned about the who, how or why, only that the death of a child may be avoided with action today – letting better minds figure out the best way to manage resources for the future. While I could fill these pages with colorful adjectives, cultural insights and my view of the world, I believe we need to balance entertainment with the immense issues in play, in global communities like the drought zones of northern Kenya. To ignore this would be to deny that people like Sarah are still out there long after we’ve left town, trying to survive each and every day without enough clean water to drink, enough food to eat or the ability to enjoy an inalienable right to live life safe from harm. So on this journey together, let’s try to understand each other a little bit better and maybe along the way, we’ll discover it’s not only Sarah who is transformed – but quite possibly it’s you…and it’s me.
–Rodney Rascona, 2011 Lucie International Photographer of the Year: Deeper Perspective