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Longed-for rain comes too late to save the day in northern Kenya

21 April 2023

Damian Arnold meets Professor Joseph Galgalo, the bishop leading the Anglican response to the crisis caused by a four-year drought in northern Kenya

Tom Price/Tearfund 2023

The livestock pen where Dollo Arbale Wako, 20, and his mother, Jillo Wako, 40, used to keep their herd of 150 cattle. At the time of photographing, only two cattle remained, and were near to death.

The livestock pen where Dollo Arbale Wako, 20, and his mother, Jillo Wako, 40, used to keep their herd of 150 cattle. At the time of photographing, on...

THE Assistant Bishop of All Saints’ Cathedral diocese, based in Nairobi, Professor Joseph Galgalo, sighs when he is asked about the drought in northern Kenya. “This is very personal for me,” he told me last month. He is director of the country’s Anglican Development Service (ADS) and has been co-ordinating the Church’s relief effort in the region.

Professor Galgalo is from Marsabit. As a young cleric, he ministered to the far-flung communities in the semi-arid region close to the border with Ethiopia, where people are now starving. “These people are very proud, resilient, and fiercely independent. To see them so battered and reduced to begging breaks my heart,” he says.

Tom Price/Tearfund 2023The Rt Revd Professor Joseph Galgalo

The long-prayed-for rains arrived in Marsabit at the end of last month, too late for the livestock. The 14 pastoralist tribes in the region of nearly half a million people have been herding cattle for centuries, but have lost their livelihoods as a result of the four-year drought that has killed some 80 per cent of their cattle. Animal carcasses, stacked at the side of villages, have become a common sight.

Now, in a surreal turn of events, the pastoralists have been evacuated from their homes after heavy rains failed to penetrate the baked-hard soil and flooded their villages. On top of the indignity of having to beg for food, they are now displaced.

“Short, heavy rains have been more destructive than helpful,” Tearfund’s disaster-response lead, Elizabeth Myendo, says. “They have caused flash floods in most places that have not had rain for more than four years, and are leading to more livestock deaths. The ground was so parched that it has been unable to absorb the run-off water. More than 800 households have been displaced by floodwater, and many roads made impassable.”

Professor Galgalo was born in the county town of Marsabit, which has a largely Muslim population. His father converted to Christianity, and Professor Galgalo was a teacher before studying for the priesthood at Selwyn College, Cambridge, in the 1990s. He asked to be posted back to Marsabit after ordination and gaining a Ph.D. in theology, and started a school there, raising £50,000 by helping to organise a sponsored walk from Cambridge to Oxford. “It is a beautiful school,” he says. He went on to travel through the county, establishing centres of evangelism.

As a vice-chancellor of St Paul’s University, Limuru, he oversaw a trebling of students and academics, and was appointed an assistant bishop in 2021. He has proved just as resourceful at the ADS, in responding to the failure of six rainy seasons in a row in many parts of Equatorial East Africa, which has left an estimated 26 million at risk of starvation, including 4.3 million in Kenya.

Partnerships have been set up with the international Christian relief agency Tearfund. Further support is given by the US-based Anglican Relief Development Fund; DKH, a humanitarian agency of the Protestant Churches in Germany; the Reformed Church in the Netherlands; and Anglican Aid Australia. Kenya’s five million Anglicans (out of a population of 50 million) have also helped to raise funds.

The immediate objective has been to feed the starving. The stomachs of young children are swollen as a result of kwashiorkor, in which fluid builds up under the skin. Pregnant women are anaemic, and the elderly have high blood pressure and often faint. Hundreds of people are reported to have died of starvation in the past few months.

The ADS is transferring a monthly payment of 8160 Kenyan shillings (£53) to the most vulnerable households in Marsabit County to buy food; but the price of staple goods, such as rice and maize, has doubled. Water-trucking is helping to replenish dried-up boreholes, but many people are in desperate need of medical care. “Mobile health clinics are an absolute priority. Urgent aid is needed to help the elderly and lactating mothers,” Professor Galgalo says. “Sometimes, I feel so depressed, talking to the government, because they drag their feet.”

The United Democratic Alliance government, led by William Ruto, came to power in August 2022 in a disputed election, and Professor Galgalo has been lobbying it to support education. “People would sell a cow or a goat to send their child to school, but that capacity has been taken away from most families. Our message is that no child should be left out of school.

“The government has made positive noises, and we hope that it puts its money where its mouth is. If children don’t go to school, they will not make a contribution to society. It’s very painful to think of the loss of a generation.”

In 2020, Professor Galgalo was awarded the the Cross of St Augustine for Services to the Anglican Communion by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The drought has been caused by a change in weather patterns stemming from a persistent La Niña event, leading to drier-than-normal conditions. “With the climate crisis, it will only become worse, going forward,” Professor Galgalo says. “We have been involved in long-term resilience-building. We need to work with indigenous knowledge in terms of adapting.”

He wants to develop safe corridors of irrigated land where pastoralists can take their animals, and is testing four areas (Larisa, Adjdo, Quale, and Kalifa). There is talk of developing co-operative ranches where the pastoralists would pool their resources and sell cattle to the government.

“The pastoral way of life is under threat as never before. They no longer have large open lands to graze their cattle on. There has been so much encroachment from corporations, buying land and locking the people out. We have to look at alternatives if they are to depend on livestock in the future. It can happen, but it will take a lot of social engagement.

“Their way of life is very simple and very beautiful. We are preaching a message of empowerment to encourage people to use their talents and intellect for the good of the people. It’s very difficult to give encouragement in a desperate situation, but I would say to them that they are not alone: there is hope.”

Damian Arnold travelled to Kenya with Tearfund and the Anglican Development Services.


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