“I tie rope around my stomach,” says 70-year-old Ayapan Aribokin, “and then I drink hot water. That is how I cope with hunger.”
Ayapan, a great-grandmother living in the village of Pargati in north-west Kenya, used to consider herself rich. Eight years ago, her family owned 2,000 cattle. Today, after a series of devastating droughts, they have none at all.
“We used to have all the good things of life,” she says. “We had milk and meat, and we could make money from selling our livestock. But since my husband died, we have lost all our animals through drought and cattle rustling. We have no spare clothes, no shoes, nothing.”
Ayapan now lives in a tiny hut built from branches, cardboard boxes and old plastic sheets. She’s a quiet, dignified woman, who only comes alive when she talks about her husband: she launches into a flamboyant impression of him, waving her arms around and putting on a high-pitched voice that makes everybody laugh. Then she’s quiet again. She can’t imagine what he’d make of her life now.
“My family relies on relief food,” she says. “If it’s not delivered, we sleep hungry.”
Delivering food to Pargati is not an easy task. To get here, you have to drive for six hours along a bumpy, rocky road that’s virtually impassable even in a 4x4. The road crosses dry riverbeds and dusty fields, ruined by years of failed rains. You can drive for hours without seeing another car.
This is the journey that Cleophas Maragia and a team from the local Catholic Diocese make every three weeks, bringing maize, beans and oil funded by our Catholic community in England and Wales.
Cleophas says: “On a distribution day, we get up really early, at 3 or 4 in the morning. That means we can make it here by 10 or 11. The road is incredibly bad, and we often get stuck. Then we have to get out and push the trucks. It’s incredibly hot. The distance and logistics keep a lot of other agencies away from here. What motivates us is the need of the people.”
One of the first things you notice in Pargati is how few young men there are. Because of the drought, many have been forced to travel far away in search of water and pasture for their animals. Women, children and older people have been left behind.
Across East Africa, pastoralist communities, which rely on livestock, are in a similar situation. Hundreds of thousands of animals have died in the last year alone. While the men travel far and wide to keep their animals alive, people like Ayapan are left destitute. To make matters worse, the drought has re-opened traditional conflicts: faced by desperate needs, communities fight over water, pasture and the few remaining livestock.
But the overwhelming impression in Pargati is of a friendly community who stick together through thick and thin. Children run around near the church, playing piggy-in-the-middle with a homemade ball. Women set off together to gather firewood. People share what little they have.
When Cleophas first came to Pargati, he was struck by the community’s resilience. “I couldn’t understand why the kids looked okay but the adults were so thin,” he says. “Then I realised it’s because the adults had been sacrificing themselves. They wouldn’t eat for two days, because they’d rather give food to their children.”
Ayapan may tie rope around her own waist to fight off hunger, but she does everything she can to ensure the children she supports don’t go hungry. Lotieng, her great-granddaughter, says simply: “My great-grandmother gives me everything.”
No-one here thinks that food aid is a long-term solution, and while I’m in the village, Cleophas helps to fix the village’s borehole, which supplies clean water. Soon the Diocese plans to deliver a large rainwater tank. With a consistent water supply, it may be possible for people here to grow a few vegetables.
In other parts of Kenya and Ethiopia, CAFOD projects are having great success in helping pastoralists to keep their animals alive or to find new ways of making a living. But for now, in this forgotten part of the world, the compassion of Catholics in England and Wales is helping Ayapan and her family to survive.
“I am very grateful to all those who support us,” says Ayapan, with her arm around her great-granddaughter. “I remain hopeful, knowing that I’ll be able to last until the next food distribution... I believe that God can do miracles and that things will get better. That’s what keeps me going.”