It is with much gratitude that I write this. My health is great, I have easy access to food, shelter and water -and is my life is not a direct risk due to environmental, political or alien factors.
The day before my grandmother passed, we spoke. It was her birthday. She told me everyone at the care home was upset with her because she wouldn’t eat, and then she said, “I’ll just live on love.” Those were the last words of wisdom she imparted to me. It was 2008.
My work in Africa ended in 2009 after multiple trips to South Sudan, Uganda and a one off yet paradigm-shifting trip to Kenya’s northern drought region – Turkana. Recently however, I was asked to get back in the ring to do a freelance investigative trip to Somalia. The proposed assignement: explore leveraging existing infrastructures to make primary health care services more available to their destitute populations. Like South Sudan, Libya, Syria and Yemen – the statistics are tragic. This most recent call was a reminder of a chapter in my life as Director of International Relations for Real Medicine Foundation – which seems long ago. But today, when I was spring water harvesting – and enjoying free access to clean water – I was reminded of those times, and thought to share the Turkana story and my photos, in particular as it relates to water.
Prior to my last visit to South Sudan to finalize the country’s (it wasn’t yet a country though) first four-year college of Nursing and Midwifery (JCONAM) , I arranged four short days in Turkana, Kenya to set up a food and water supply chain in response to news (a NY Times article) about the drought moving into its fourth year. Below is a slide show from that trip. It looked like the moon, with some trace green.- but for the most part everything was dead – tall trees, all the foliage, even the live stock had perished though some were lucky enough to be herded off prior to their demise. In a land where walking 14 kilometers to find an empty well was now common, the challenges both physically and mentally would likely have crushed anyone in the industrialized world. But what I found in the middle of nowhere was a “vivid people” – The Turkana. Yes, of course in need of more water and nourishment, but my sense was, not by all that much. They lived on so little, yet still pro-created, had beautiful skin, joint mobility, physical stamina (well beyond what we could imagine) and they could smile, laugh and sing – even after walking barefoot across thorn and stone-laden, hot earth under a scorching sun. This dramatically re-calibrated my understanding of what a “bad or challenging” day was. Again, humbled to a zero point quickly, which much of my work in Africa did.
The song in the slideshow is Kothbiro by Ayub Ogada – haunting and lovely. it was removed from this vid. but find it anyway.
“If their water intake was about 1/6 of that which we would consider necessary and their food intake (at the time I was there) was it two cans worth of USAID feed corn for a family every couple of days – what were they “living” on – how were they sustaining bodies let alone making new ones” – I asked myself repeatedly. This experience in particular pushed my envelop of understanding the dietary conventions of our time – is food merely a belief system? One of the men working with with me in Turkana told me he has one glass of water a day in the morning. It was about 110 degrees that day. Having been a non-dogmatic predominantly raw vegan for over 10 years, my experience with food and nourishment has drastically changed but this was off the charts and pushed the envelop toward Breatharianism or Sun Gazing for sustenance.
Groups emerged from the horizon, many carrying water containers or accessing those tied to the trees, Why have they chosen to stay? – There is nothing here upon which to survive. But it soon became clear. They had such a strong connection with the earth, the land itself – they trusted the cycle of life. They had community and above all, a faith so strong it erased any doubt that something larger than all of us played a role in their survival. Clearly, it wasn’t proteins, carbs or fats, 2000 calories and 8 glasses of water a day that sustained them- not even close. Was their faith (not necessarily religious) connecting them to life force energy. Like my grandmother, perhaps they were living on love. The love of mother earth. It certainly wasn’t food or water by our standards but rather an eloquent mystical balance between the people and the earth.
It was this experience that led me to phasing out of relief work – I sensed I didn’t belong there if I didn’t understand their world. Then new something about life i didn’t and I did not want to disrupt it. Sure they needed some intervention but, I would never forgive myself if my presence extinguished even a fraction of the mysterious grace upon which their lives rested.
A few months later, after being in Haiti just after the earthquake, I chose to step back from relief work all together. A story for another time. Much gratitude however for the opportunity to serve my brothers and sisters in Uganda, South Sudan, Nigeria,Kenya, Haiti and Sri Lanka. Always in the presence of angels.
For more information on the Kiryandongo Refugee settlement and Panyandol Health Clinic in Uganda, click here.
For more information on Lodwar and the Turkana Region initiatives click here.
Most of my reports with Real Medicine Foundation were from 2007-2010 – Sri Lanka, Uganda, Nigeria, South Sudan, Armenia, Haiti. I’m not sure if they’re still accessible through the site though. They may pop up on google searches. Real Medicine Foundation is an incredible organization with unmatched integrity. Presently they are working in some of the most challenged regions of the planet. You can check them out here. www.realmedicinefoundation.org.
Drumming is the only means I’ve found to adequately process the emotions created by these experiences and those stirred by my deep connection to these regions, which continue to face-ongoing challenges. I’m so grateful these events now have a voice through me, albeit a non-vebral one.