Thursday, March 30, 2017

Water, Water

Flying into cooler Nairobi from Mumbai is such a relief, even for a few days. The best part of Nairobi, I think, is the weather, because let me tell you, traffic frustrations will take my life, in one form or another, should I choose to stick around for any length of time. I thought it was Mumbai that has the worst traffic gridlock in the world. Nah. Nairobi it is. Going to and from the airport is nerve wrecking, especially the fear of missing a flight. The traffic police make us wait almost an hour to clear a single interchange, and I can do nothing but seethe and sweat in silence.

I am in Nairobi to render Beta Charitable Trust / Comfort Aid International donor aid to the starving masses through CHEPs, the local Kenya NGO we partner our relief efforts via. I want to go to Wajir, near the Somali border, where the want is desperate, but last minute security constraints make this not feasible. Joining me in this endeavor is CAI Africa representative, Murtaza Bhimani and our mutual friend, Mushtaq Fazal from Dar es Salaam. The musaafer khaana at the beautiful Jeffery Center is where we head to the first night. These are basic digs, and a little worn out, with raggedy and wobbly furniture making basic tasks a bit perilous.

The next morning, for fajr salaat, there are no more than five people present, and us three visitors. It’s a pretty and well-maintained center, with beautiful Iranian Qur’anic calligraphy adorning a vast expanse of one wall. Hard I try, but cannot read what the ayaat says, so hell-bent is the artist in conveying Allah’s beauty rather than His message. Batty, no, how we ape others blindly? Nevertheless, it is nice to worship in a serene and pretty environment. We take to the excellent Jaffery Sports Club next door afterward, walking/jogging. Set up to resemble an English county backdrop, the struggling green of the cricket field immediately puts me in a nostalgic mood. I used to open bowling for Popatlal Secondary School on similar turf. Ahhhh, where did the years fly?

The flight to Malindi in the south later that day in an ancient refurbished Jambo Jet is uneventful, if steamy; the contrast in temperatures is startling. The tourism industry in Kenya is in the doldrums, so I have been able to secure accommodation at the Africa House Resort, a picturesque boutique hotel with no more than seven distinct rooms for a steal; we relax for our feeding program tomorrow.

Malindi is in the midst of a downpour the next morning, a blessing and a curse. The water is needed desperately by the starving farmers, but our task of distribution may prove to be dicey. We are picked up by the CHEPs team and head out to the rescue; a government borrowed 20-ton truck full of food grains and high-protein, high-calorie biscuits trailing us.

The going is initially fine; the brown vegetation already has shades of green. But this is short-lived, and the terrain turns brown and barren soon enough. Raggedy children, noses running with frenzied flies making merry on the snot, line the roadway puddles left by the rains, scooping muddy water into battered buckets to carry home. We offer cheap lollipops to them; they approach us warily, the conflict between fear and want clear on their faces. The desire for sweet sugar wins and they grab the treat and scamper. The experience is heart-wrenching, to me. The land is barren, there is very little or no water anywhere and herds of thin cattle and goats scatter and rob away the remaining nutrients from the swirling topsoil. 

The four-wheeler I am crammed in is constrained, seating seven, and mighty uncomfortable, my running leg injury resurfaces with painful cramps. I curse the hurt and shut up; the people I am here to feed are much worse off, either walking or squatting, waiting for relief from hunger and thirst. We stop by a tiny frazzled duka, selling stuff I used to, as a teenage dukawallah in Tanga. It has Coca-Cola in bottles, Murtaza Bhimani’s dream drink. It also has roasted karanga. Coka in a bottle and roasted karanga. Ah, a deadly but potent and intoxicating cocktail. He orders some. Me too. Mushtaq too. The coke is lukewarm, at best, and the karangas are mostly rotten and taste awful. Bummer.

The actual distribution to the starving remote villages is both taxing and heartbreaking. It is the children that affect me the most. Thin and scruffy, their faces etched in lines of hunger and despair, they sit under a scrubby struggling thorn tree and wait for the handouts we distribute to their parents. The fiery sun above is furiously relentless, evaporating any trace of moisture; even the inside of my nose feels singed. Unlike the rice and beans we distribute, the ready-to-eat sweet biscuits will provide instant nutrients and vitamins for these kids; this gives me some solace. At least the mothers will not have to source for water and fuel to cook the other stuff.

We offer zohr / asr salaat at an unfinished mosque where the village chief profoundly thanks us, pleading for aid in completing the place of worship. He laments that times are hard, alhamd’Allah, water is scarce, alhamd’Allah, food is insufficient, alhamd’Allah, our cattle are dying, alhamd’Allah, our children are withering away, alhamd’Allah, please help us complete the mosque…

At the next village, the chief has lunch ready for us; goat meat stew and rice. It’s basic but yummy, since we are hungry. His lament is a repeat from the last one. He asks for toilets and water wells. We continue the food distribution after lunch but the bigger problem here is crowd control more than anything else. A sandstorm kicks up, almost blinding my eyes with the fine sand it swirls around. It’s not easy handing out twenty tons of food in one day and we are still left with plenty to give away, so we head towards the third village; daylight fading fast. Here, we pile the food in rows while women line up. We gather four village elders and inform all the people that the food will be distributed by their leaders amongst all equally. We retreat to village number two just in time for magreeb.

The return home is torture. Exhausted, both mentally and emotionally, I drift between slumber and wakefulness, the road and leg injury making any ease impossible. It has rained closer to Malindi, making the vehicle slip and slide in the muck. Seventeen hours after we departed the hotel, we return depleted and are asleep after a quick shower to rid the sweat and grime collected during the day. We are to repeat this process the next day in another part of the drought affected areas of Tana Region but logistical challenges delay the start until 11 AM; I make a snap decision to let CHEPs staff handle the rest of the distribution. A further delay or mishap today will jeopardize the rest of our plans. All three of us head to Mombasa instead, further south, some three hours by car. I haven’t paid respects at my father’s grave for quite some time.

Although I did not witness the dramatic starvation and deaths so prominent in the press and social media, there is no doubt the drought situation is grave and help is needed. Continued food distribution, however, is not sustainable, in my opinion, unless undertaken at a macro level and a massive scale. Comfort Aid International has initiated construction of two public toilets in one village, and to dig five water wells in areas where sweet drinking water is available at deep levels.

We did our part; acceptable to Allah, insha’Allah.

View photos of our trip here.

No comments: