Wrinkles. They were folded all over her face and breasts. Her chest was bare and she didn't care. No one cared. Dangling around her neck was a set of nearly two dozen necklaces that were enjoined together. The bead necklaces, which were black, green, red and blue covered her entire shoulder and part of her upper chest. But the wrinkled breasts were fully exposed yet it didn't feel like she was exposed.
I smiled at her but she didn't smile back even though she was looking straight at me. My green safari shirt had photos of zebras and giraffes emblazoned on it. It was dripping with sweat. I reached out my right hand in greeting but hers remained by her side. Her face remained expressionless as her bead necklaces dazzled in the hot sun. Again, I flashed my famous warm smile but the only thing that she was flashing were the beads and breasts. Her old, wrinkled face remained completely expressionless. Her eyes... I looked at them closely and realized for the first time that she was blind.
I was deep in the desert land of East Pokot meeting with almost a hundred residents. Many of them were elderly. Even the young looked elderly, thanks to the hostile environment. Although we were meeting below three huge thorn trees, the sun was raining down mercilessly on us.
The meeting had been organized by my friends Carol, Steve and Ann from the Kenya I Care initiative. We had zero funds to offer the Pokot people but were working on a documentary that we hoped would assist us in fundraising for food security projects in the area.
What an area! Hot, dry and rocky. I was sitting on one of the small three-legged stools that also doubles up as a pillow. Next to me was Omari and Lomada, our two young hosts who were also interpreting for us. Carol and Ann were sitting with a group of women on the rocky ground. They were both smiling and looking completely at home. Ann was a vivacious and upbeat girl while Carol was a silent, dark, smiling beauty. She was a professional potter and saw beauty even in the hostile desert.
'Don't you just like the random formation of those rocks,' she had told me earlier as we walked to the meeting venue. It takes a creative like her to see beauty seated right in the middle of a searing hot desert.
I was about to give my speech and was going through it in my mind. We are your friends and will stand by you all the way. God has blessed you with land. It may be dry but it is still a blessing from God. We shall help you to find ways of turning this dry land into a blessing. The sun chose that moment to unleash particularly hot rays. My green safari shirt was soaked in sweat.
I could hear clapping and for a few moments, I joined in the clapping before I realized that I had just been invited to address the gathering.
'God has blessed you with land,' I began and cleared my throat, 'it may be dry land but it is still a blessing from God.' I would pause after every few seconds to allow Omari to interpret. We were both pacing as we talked, locking eye contacts and pausing for effect.
I looked again at the blind lady and paused mid-sentence. Omari looked at me expectantly, waiting for more words to tumble out of a dry mouth. I saw beneath her wrinkles and felt that she was sad and hungry. Her drooping shoulders gave the impression of someone so weak that she could faint any moment. As I gazed at her, a feeling of helplessness and despair began to wash over me. I felt bad that I was giving her hope for tomorrow when she needed urgent help today. She couldn’t boil my hope over fire and eat it for lunch.
Tomorrow will be better. I had said several times in my speech. But would she live to see that tomorrow? The truth is that my life was comfortable while hers was desperate. I ate three meals in a day while she was lucky if she ate one. Yet there I was, telling her to hang in there because tomorrow would bring relief. Omari looked at me, his eyes brown and expectant for more words of wisdom and hope. I wasn't looking at him as my eyes were brown and sorrowful as I continued looking at the old blind lady.
Is it right to promise you a heaven tomorrow while doing little to address the hell that you are in today? I felt like slapping myself because it occurred to me that this is exactly what I was doing at that time in that dry land. Oh God, please help me. I said a silent prayer. I have always felt that the practice of religion sometimes hides and undermines the essence of God. We practice religion in the same way we practice hygiene, with mere habit and sheer indifference. In this regard, our religious practices sink to the same level with our hygienic practices like brushing teeth and taking showers. We forget that it is about the essence of God. God, our loving creator is concerned about our yesterday, today and tomorrow, not just a far-off eternity in heaven.
Oh God, I prayed on as my long pause started making Omari nervous, please help me to give this precious blind lady some heaven today, and not just talk to her about the heaven that awaits her tomorrow.
It has been thirteen years since this 2007 visit to East Pokot, my first ever to the region. Nothing much has changed there. If anything, things have gotten worse because rampant insecurity that has bedeviled the region since then and left scores dead. Even more lethal than the bandits and cattle rustlers who terrorize resident in the area is the ever-present drought and famine. Whereas the bandits lurk in the shadows, hunger is always in full display.
East Pokot’s dryland is part of approximately 66 per cent of land across Africa that is classified as desert or drylands. As a result, 45 per cent of Africa’s population lives in drylands. These fellow Africans are constantly hungry. Food, a basic human right, is a distant luxury for them.
Hunger is a far-worse challenge for Africa than coronavirus. A study by the African Child Policy Forum (ACPF) revealed that almost 60 million children in Africa do not have enough food. Consequently, nearly half of all child deaths in Africa stem result from hunger. This is not a convenient truth because it perpetuates the image of Africa as a ‘poor continent.’ It’s a reality that we have to deal with. That old, blind lady that I met in East Pokot, together with millions across Africa, need the dignity of livelihoods and food today, not in some distant future.