Life in the Desert

This is post 4 of 10 in the Broken:Beautiful series.                             

Blood:Water Mission has been working in a Kenyan region overlooked by governments, charities and markets. The Marsabit district is in the northern part of the country, sitting close to the border of Ethiopia. It is a landscape that is difficult to explain because it is a place of such extremes.

It’s not just hot, it’s oppressively hot.

It’s not just dry, it’s earth crumbling dry.

It’s not just poor, it’s extremely poor.

As you fly above the region, the land looks like the surface of Mars, or the Moon, not Earth. You can see spontaneous twisters of sand, dust and heat dancing across the barren landscape. You can feel empathetically thirsty just from looking at the vast desert. One man I know from Marsabit, named Yegon, says, “Welcome to Marsabit. There is life in the desert.” It’s hard to believe that people live here. But they do, alongside their camels, donkeys, and goats.

I remember the first time I came to visit Marsabit. I was amazed by the nomadic communities who travel days to find the remnants of vegetation for their animals to eat and to live, searching anywhere they could find water. It was nothing like Isaiah’s vision where all is well, peace prevails, and each has enough.

Last year, I brought some of our donors to come with me to Marsabit and see the work. We landed on a dirt airstrip in a place that felt like The Middle of Nowhere and traveled to one of the schools where we have worked. Prior to the visit, we had played up the wonderful water work we were doing in Marsabit. We told these donors about the rain catchment tanks, the oasis, and the boreholes. We were excited to show them the good work when we visited Torbi Primary School. The children greeted us with songs about water and recited poems about AIDS. At the end of our visit, we confidently walked to the water tanks to proudly take pictures. But the tanks were dry. You could turn the tap, but no water would show. Marsabit was suffering a severe and unexpected drought for more than a year and the storage had run out. All was not well.

We then drove to the site of the dam that has been constructed. As we walked up the hill, a goat was lying on the dusty sand, dead from dehydration. The ground below that was supposed to be filled with water was instead a cracked and crumbled prune of a landscape. We arrived at the rehabilitated borehole that we supported. More than 7,000 animals were coming to drink from this borehole because the water intended for human consumption was the only source there. The animals are the livelihood of our Marsibit friends, so now the people and the animals are competing for the same water source. Mothers, fathers, babies, and animals are continuing to fight the long defeat of a life with no water, which really doesn’t leave much of life after all.

I wished that the picture would have been different for our visitors, I longed for a world where provision justly meets need. Instead, we were hit by the reality of how hard it is to live in a place such as this, and how difficult it is to provide support to these communities. Had we failed in our attempts to serve our friends with water? It sure feels that way. It is humbling to realize that in places like Africa, the laws of Return on Investment just don’t translate. The forces of nature are beyond what most can comprehend. It can cripple even the strongest, most capable person.

As Americans, we are indoctrinated with a can-do attitude about almost anything. But there comes a point where human capability meets its threshold and you get a glimpse of the real truth about what we can and cannot do. We can raise all the money we need, mobilize the communities with excellent methods, train in best practices of hygiene, build solid latrines and construct fool-proof rain tanks.

But we cannot make the rain come.

We just can’t.

We are simply a part of this work, but ultimately, we are dependent on God to renew and restore the world.

I find myself asking if Yegon was right or if he was impossibly optimistic. There is no environmental mercy in a place like Marsabit. It’s a place that will make you question Isaiah and his vision. What is the eventual pay-off of hard work? When will men, animals, and the land be reconciled? Where is this God who hears his people? Is there any sensibility in hope? If I’ve learned anything about Marsabit, it’s that only the strong survive. That is the only life you will see in the desert.

In the midst of these questions, the empty tanks remind us all that water, whether from above or below, is the provision of God. And we remain faithful to the work, a shadow of what it means to be faithful to live in hope for a New Jerusalem even in the midst of such a drought. And looking closely, we see little bits of it coming. Certainly, life is hard when there is no rain. But if we pay attention, we are witnesses to the dignity, the hope, the community ownership and endurance that are empowering communities to work together to overcome these hardships. They are mastering a kind of emotional and psychosocial poverty that stands in the way of Isaiah’s vision.

We hoped that our visitors would understand the complexity of the work that we do here. I think they came away with that. I also have been reminded of it. I think we all come away with a deep cry inside us that the rain will come. So we get on our knees with our friends in Marsabit and pray deeply and desperately to God that the gift of water might be brought to this land.