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For the last 3 years, severe drought has devastated the economy in the Kenya’s Marsabit district, resulting in failed harvests and shrinking herds of livestock. According to one government official, The International Red Cross determined last year that 45% of the population there was food insecure and in need of relief food. And since the rains failed again this year, they have increased their targets to support 80% of the population.
But those are just the statistics. Let me introduce you to one person who made the drought in Marsabit much more tangible for me.
Barwaaqo is 6 year old orphan living with her 3 siblings in her grandmother’s house. Her family is so poor that even if they received relief food, they would have trouble buying the necessary firewood and oil to prepare it. The government provides water cheaply, but rations the supply to a few containers a month for each household. The rest of the time, it must be purchased at often exorbitant prices.
The lack of water and food leads to other problems for Barwaaqo besides hunger. Bathing and washing clothes are rare privileges, and the lack of sanitation makes her susceptible to jiggers, tiny mites that live in the dust and burrow into feet and hands. Everyone in Barwaaqo’s family is infected. That means they don’t go to school or work because walking is painful.
When Barwaaqo’s family heard through a social worker at Gospel Outreach Assembly church that someone had prepared a free meal for them at the pastor’s home, they showed up timid and unsure what to expect.
It was at this meal that I met Barwaaqo for the first time. I traveled across the country to Marsabit with Martha Mude, a member of my church in Nairobi who had collected clothes, medicine, and food to help needy families in her hometown during the drought.
On my first day there, we fed 34 people referred to us by the church social worker. When we washed their feet and hands before dinner, we discovered the jiggers and invited them to come back the next day for medicine and more food. We weren’t sure how to start a sustainable feeding program, but with the stock we had, meals could continue for at least a few weeks.
Over the course of the four days I stayed in Marsabit with Martha, I started to recognize Barwaaqo’s recurring face in the crowd of children who came for meals and baths. She usually arrived with her siblings earlier than the rest, and gradually they became bolder in interacting with those of us staying in the pastor’s home.
It was clear that the food and the attention they received were having an impact. None of them talked with us the first day, but by day three, they were running around with smiles on their faces asking us to hold them. Both their energy and their dignity were restored.
On the final day of my visit, I witnessed a real transformation in Barwaaqo and her family. We decided to give them full baths, new clothes, and jigger treatment in the morning before lunch. Barwaaqo was the first to undergo the bathing process, and she patiently let herself be passed from woman to woman without even making a sound.
After it was all over, and she walked outside in her new outfit, she was absolutely beaming. For about 10 seconds she hardly moved for fear of getting dirty again, but it wasn’t long before she was flitting around the yard watching her brothers and sister get cleaned up and receive treatment for their jiggers.
Then she discovered the mirror inside the house. I found her staring at her clean hair and glowing skin for minutes at a time. She would giggle, run outside with the others, then come right back to stand in front of the mirror again.
When I agreed to go on the week trip to Marsabit, I knew we weren’t going to solve the water crisis or even find a way to make destitute families more self-sufficient. But I had no idea the incredible impact we would make in this one family’s life. Barwaaqo’s youngest brother summed it up as he repeatedly dunked his hands in a basin of medicated water, just so he could be extra sure to get rid of all the jiggers; with a smile he exclaimed, “I’m being healed!”
And the healing is still happening. Martha’s plan is to establish a more permanent care center so she can continue providing food and treatment for Barwaaqo’s family and others in the neighborhood. Once they are healthy enough, all the kids will go to school.
After returning home, I learned that Barwaaqo’s name means “oasis” in her language, and I loved the picture it brought to mind. In the middle of a very dry land, she unexpectedly found food and water and hope. And in the face of daunting problems like drought and hunger, I had discovered the promise in the gift of a clean start, the joy of unlocking the potential in a girl called Barwaaqo.
- Praise God for the rains that have finally started to fall in Marsabit district! Pray they will lead to plentiful harvests.
- Take a day to see how much drinking, cooking, and cleaning you can do with only 20 liters of water. Don’t forget to factor in flushing the toilet!
- Help sponsor a jigger eradication program in Marsabit to treat and prevent the spread of jiggers in affected households. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
About the Author: Jessica Shewan is a journalist with World Next Door. She graduated in 2009 from The University of Evansville with a bachelor's degree in History. She loves making new international friends and is passionate about seeing the global church pursue justice and peace!