Waiting for rain in Kenyaby kenya on Jun. 14, 2011, under Life
June 14, 2011
Dispatch from Kenya
By Fred Roberts, St. Gregory Dean of Students
When we arrived in Nairobi a week ago, there was heavy cloud cover and a bit of mist in the air. The dampness encouraged me to think that it had been raining and the countryside would be lush with blooming crops to be harvested and thick grass for the cattle and goats. As we left the airport I tried to convince myself that the landscape looked green, even if it was a bit brown. In the far distance a tawny colored giraffe walked amongst the acacia, not quite as distinctive if the trees had been their usual green, but distinctive enough.
Kenya has two significant rainy seasons, around which all of the planting and harvesting depend. The ‘short rains’ begin in mid November and will last until just before Christmas. The ‘long rains’ begin in late March and will persist until late May. At least this has been the general pattern since anyone began paying attention, which was likely a few thousand years ago when Homo sapiens began cultivating.
As we know all too well in Tucson, some years are good, like last year, and some years are downright lousy, like this year. For those of us living in the U.S., a lack of rain may mean produce prices will go up, there is a heightened concern with forest fires and our backyard gardens may suffer. We can also ignore the shortage and still turn on the tap to our heart’s desire, watering our grass and making sure our swimming pools are full. This is a luxury we often take for granted.
Whenever I communicate with friends or co-workers in Kenya, the subject of the rains is always mentioned. This is an indication of how important rain is and the access to water. Most of the people living in this area are small-scale farmers, largely subsistence farmers. They grow what they need to live on, which can be quite comfortable when the rains are good, and the surplus is sold. The revenue goes towards school fees, uniforms and food items that can’t be grown or raised on the farm. The people here are quite resilient and if the rains are poor and the harvest meager, they get by with less. Maybe a cow will be sold to make up for lost revenue or a goat slaughtered to put meat on the table. Most households now have access to water that is piped to a spigot near each home. The water comes from a community reservoir further up the mountain, and it is regulated by the amount of water in the Naro Moru River. The first priority is for household use, the second being for irrigation. One may think that irrigation for crops would be the highest priority, but if that were the case the reservoir would be depleted rather quickly. So the farmers depend heavily on the rain for their crops to grow and hopefully thrive.
Forty percent of Kenya’s electricity is hydroelectric, meaning that full reservoirs are necessary for power to flow regularly. When the dams drop below a certain point, rationing begins. This means that electricity is restricted during the day, when people can at least see to work. Forget running the computers, printers and other electronics we have come to rely on so heavily. In the evening, the electricity returns, mainly to run the lights. Those with the funds can buy a generator to power their house or business during the day, but this is rare.
As we left Nairobi, the landscape began to look more brown than green. Dust kicked up from the dirt road left a brown cloud behind each vehicle. It was dry. I knew that the long rains had failed in the Naro Moru area, where we would be staying for the next three weeks, but as we drove on, I still had hope that there would be a decent amount of water in the river that runs through Batian’s View and it would be somewhat green.
While the April rains had lasted only a week, thus a failure, this was not the case for the entire country. Other areas received plenty of rain for normal harvests, which meant that food would be available, but costly. Only when the rains fail throughout the entire country is a disaster looming. While rare, this was the case in 1992, when there was no rain for eight months. Electricity wasn’t a concern for me back then because we didn’t have any, but used solar power instead. Water, however, was a problem. The community water was tightly rationed, and we had to pump water from the river into two 5,000-liter tanks every few days.
Fortunately we lived below Mt. Kenya, where it often rained at the higher elevations, thereby feeding the river near by. We were lucky. For many women, each morning meant a long walk from home with 20-liter jugs to and from the river. Four months into the drought, food aid was being given out to the needy in Naro Moru. This was often one of the most productive agricultural areas in Kenya, not so now. The population of the Naro Moru town dropped by 50 percent, as the local market had little to sell and fruit and vegetable buyers from Nairobi had left. There was no disposable income for a soda or a new school uniform, and shops began closing. In November, the rains began again, slowly at first, and by the New Year, the government officially declared that the short rains had been a success and the country’s hydroelectric supply was back to 100 percent.
These were a very long eight months, and many people lived through periods of near starvation, and some died. It was simply the reality of the situation in a developing country when there is a lack of a resource on which so many people depend. There isn’t much one can do but to remain hopeful and strong.
The road leading to Batian’s View was so dusty that we kept the windows closed so we wouldn’t choke on the dust. Batian’s View looked good, but not what I had hoped for. The students didn’t know any different, which was fine with me. I guess I’ve grown a bit motherly over this place over the years. The river had a decent flow, but it was still easy to hop across the rocks to get to the other side. I knew that the river would slowly recede in the coming weeks, and we would have to wait until late October for more rain. Maybe, just maybe, we would have a sprinkle now and again while the students were here.
On Saturday we were at Gitinga Primary School for our community service day. The clouds to the north looked dark and threatening, but they seemed to stay in place, not moving towards us. As soon as the work was done, however, it began to sprinkle and soon it was a full-on downpour. Everyone had big smiles on their faces, and a few women were putting their hands together as if a prayer had been answered. We gathered in several classrooms and the young Kenyan students gathered around the Americans, playing games or just talking. The rain continued through lunch and soon after we returned to Batian’s View, through what was now just a sprinkle. The road was thick with mud and we did a few impressive ‘fish tails’ that got the students’ attention.
That evening it rained again, this time as hard as in the afternoon. The pounding of the rain on my tin roof was like music, even though it did wake me up. The next day while we were at Sweetwaters, it rained again in Naro Moru, though not as much at Batian’s View. Any rain, however, was good for me. Yesterday at 4 p.m., the skies opened up and we were hammered for a good 40 minutes, this time with hail as well. As quickly as it came, it stopped and the sun came out at a low angle through the lingering dark clouds. I strolled out to the road and on either side were little rivers rushing down hill. The river was a good two feet higher and roiling along. The Naro Moru River runs into the Ewaso Nigro River about 30 miles downstream. This is the same river that goes through Samburu Game Reserve, where we will be next weekend. In Samburu, everything revolves around the river, whether it is flowing or not. I had a feeling that for our visit the water would be there.
The rains of the last three days are an anomaly. While everyone welcomes the moisture and the return of some green in the grass and shrubs, this will do little for the crops. The corn that was planted in April has already died. The potatoes and beans will survive, but the harvest will be poor. The reservoir will be full for quite a while, which secures a reliable source of drinking depends on the weather, whichever way it blows. This year no one will starve, hopefully there will not be a need for food aid, and come October the fields will be prepared again for the second crop of potatoes and beans. The corn will have to wait until April as this area only yields one corn harvest each year.
The past few days have been wonderful and I know it won’t keep up water for the area, which is important. This has not been the best of years for rain, but it is a far cry from a drought. People here are not worried, and realize that their livelihood for much longer, if at all. For now, the landscape is a much deeper shade of green, the river is full, the new growth of grass will fatten the livestock just a bit more. This is enough to bolster the hope of the community to persevere through what will be a drier season than normal.