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East Africa Famine: 'What we do is to save lives'

East Africa Famine: 'What we do is to save lives'

An interview with Ruth Okowa, National Director of SOS Children's Villages Kenya

"One of the saddest things in this situation is that it was foreseeable. The first signs were there as early as February and March, and even the UN warned that this would happen, but no one took action. Now the areas in the country with no rain are affected.

The irony is that many parts of the country actually get too much rain, but in Marsabit, where we are concentrating our work, water is scarce. SOS Children's Villages Kenya has decided to concentrate the work here because we already know the area and have a new Family Strengthening Programme there. This means that we are present in the community - and that we will stay there in the long-term. The emergency relief is a starting point, but we want to improve the situation so that we will not just see another crisis again and again.

We decided to act because we were told by community leaders that children were dropping out of school because of the famine. If the children don't have food in their stomachs they cannot walk to school and we find that their parents send them out to search for food. There has been no rain here for three years and there are no crops. The animals are dead and the people have no means of getting food. Normally the locals sell goats and other livestock to get money, but the goats have all died. We knew that if we did nothing, people would start dying.

East Africa Appeal ERP map We are communicating with the local community leaders and our intervention is planned to last for six months. But we will not just do that and then sit back and wait for the next famine. We want to implement measures that will help us prevent it. One of our priorities is to get water to people. There's no water to be had anywhere. The government has built a dam, but since there is no rain, it has no water. And it is not possible to make boreholes, the water is too deep down. Therefore we have financed a truck to move around and fill the water tanks. We have now filled the water tanks in the schools and we are also giving water to local families.

The families were trying to survive with 20 liters per week. This is not enough and we will provide them with an additional 50 liters. A family has an average of eight people. The families need not to eat from dirty plates and have just little water to wash themselves. Just for comparison: a toilet will easily flush out five liters of water each time… 

What we do is to save lives. We are not waiting until the media start reporting on children dying. We make sure that children get food and come back to school. Our approach is holistic because we give food, water and also ensure that children go back to school.

The next thing we will do is to conduct a baseline survey on the health situation of the children in the area. Then we can measure the impact. We will start with this in the next few weeks. One of our tools is the reporting system we already use for our Family Strengthening Programmes. We are going to improve the health situation of the children as soon as possible.

We know that children are coming to the medical centres with diarrhoea, malaria and skin rashes, and we are working to be able to provide medicine for the hospital, so that when they go there, they will get help. The problem is that the locals don't go to hospitals, and this is in itself a challenge. We already know that the health situation of children in the area has worsened a lot. We are a child care organisation and we should come and help in these situations. The need is unique."

How you can help

You can make a one-off donation directly to our Emergency Relief Programme in East Africa or take out a child sponsorship to help us to focus on the long-term welfare of children who have no one to care for them as a result of the famine.