Talk of drought takes Kenyan native Peter Kimeu back to his childhood, to his memories of living with hunger when the rainfalls failed in East Africa. Today, Kimeu works for Catholic Relief Services to alleviate poverty and the hunger of others. He will be in the United States this month to share his story and the stories of those he met recently while visiting CRS’ programs in Kenya and Ethiopia.
East Africa suffered a severe drought last year and millions are still feeling the effects and need assistance. Kimeu got a first-hand look at how people are faring today, and what CRS, in partnership with the local Church, is doing to bring food, water and other aid to those in need.
Q: What is the situation in East Africa today? Is there still a drought and how are people still affected?
Kimeu: There are about 9 million people still in need of assistance in the Horn of Africa, including Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. The crop that was expected recently failed because the last rains weren’t good. There are many people who have harvested only a little, which is not going to last them more than a month. Very soon, the little food that’s available will be consumed, and we’ll be back to square one, unless the humanitarian response is ramped up. The next rains – the short rains – are expected in October, meaning the next harvest won’t be until February of next year. That’s a long time to wait for food.
Q: You recently traveled throughout the region, meeting with people and witnessing the work of CRS. What did you see?
Kimeu: I recently visited Dadaab in northeast Kenya, the world’s largest refugee camp, where 465,000 people from neighboring Somalia live in difficult conditions, including 160,000 men, women and children who arrived just last year after they fled famine and conflict in their country. There were people still arriving while I was there. In the camp, CRS works to improve living conditions by establishing sanitation facilities and hand washing stations as well as training residents in various jobs — from caring for the elderly to managing the disposal of trash and cleanliness to prevent the outbreak of disease.
Q: How is CRS helping communities in other areas of Kenya and Ethiopia?
Kimeu: CRS is also assisting host communities – Kenyan families outside of the Dadaab camp also suffering from the drought – to make sure their food needs are met so conflict doesn’t break out with people receiving assistance in the camps. In Ethiopia, I saw that CRS helps people build latrines and supplies clean drinking water as well as water that can be used for animals and irrigation. CRS also gives animals to those who have lost their herds. I also met with women engaged in bee-keeping enterprises for honey production and saw a small tool making operation, where wheelbarrows and plows were produced for local farmers. All of this helps people survive when the rains do not come.
Q: You experienced hunger yourself when you were a child. How do you feel when you see hunger today?
Kimeu: Anytime there is drought, I know that it’s time to tighten my belt. That thought is on my mind right away. It reminds me of the number of times I went to bed hungry. I remember this every time I look at the eyes of a hungry child. When I see animals die because they have nothing to eat, I know the next time it will be a human being. In East Africa today, I met people who hope that things will get better, that God will guide them. It’s incredible to see their hope: even when their livestock are dying from the lack of food, they are still hopeful their future harvest will save their own lives.
In September, 2011 The New York Times published Kimeu’s essay, “Remembering a Hungry Childhood”. He wrote: “Hunger is an unforgivable disease because it is the easiest one to cure. It is devastating to wake up in the morning and look east, west, south and north and see that there is nothing green that you can chew.”
To schedule an interview with Peter Kimeu, contact Susan Walters.