Independent Woman

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Scarlett Johansson reports from the arid desert of Kenya

Published 06/11/2011|13:20

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Oxfam ambassador Scarlett Johansson

A woman is raped in front of her husband, who is too weak to help, another is forced to leave her disabled child behind in Somalia because she has to carry her young baby. Oxfam ambassador Scarlett Johansson hears the tales of a city of half a million people with no privacy, no doors to keep you safe and no police.

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But she also finds inspirational kindness and humanity in Dadaab, the biggest refugee camp in the world, a Kenyan purgatory that awaits those fleeing Somalia.

Standing on top of the water tower at Dadaab, you find yourself looking out over a barren, arid plain covered in hundreds of thousands of tents, stretching as far as the eye can see.

The world's biggest refugee camp now holds over 450,000 people, with up to 1,500 more coming in every day, and even when you're there, taking it in with your own eyes, it's impossible to really take in those figures. Between the tents, people are walking to and from the water stations or simply wandering from tent to tent, hoping to find family, or people from their local communities.

Again and again, as I talked to people in the camp, they stressed how much they'd love to be able to work, and earn money to support their families. People are certainly willing, but there's absolutely nothing to do. There's nothing for anyone to sell, nowhere to grow anything. It's almost like purgatory, in a way. People are just in limbo, waiting for the rains to come, for the political climate to change.

Dadaab is in the north of Kenya, close to the border with Somalia, in an area that is currently suffering its worst drought in 60 years. The camp was originally set up in 1991 to shelter people fleeing from conflict in Somalia, and was designed to provide temporary shelter for 90,000 refugees.

It has now grown into three separate camps, with additional refugees camping informally on its outer edges. It's hard to describe how bleak the landscape is here, how barren. Flying into the area, all you see is dry desolation. And then you come upon all these hundreds of thousands of tents in the middle of absolute nowhere, and you just can't believe how anybody could settle here. There's nothing, absolutely nothing. Everything has to be flown in. All of the water has to be drilled from deep down. And there's no relief from the sun, all day. It's unbelievably hot, and the heat is inescapable. There's no shade -- it's hotter in the tents than it is outside.

So people are mostly just sitting around, waiting, or walking long distances from tent to tent. It's relatively quiet there. You don't really have the same kind of sights, smells and sounds I've experienced in slums I've visited before. There's no food cooking, no vehicles, and no smell of waste, because all of that is being well managed. It just seems to be a lot of people kind of in limbo, waiting.

I first heard about Dadaab in an article I read in the Wall Street Journal. It was the sheer scale of it that struck me: I couldn't believe the numbers of people living there. I thought Oxfam must be involved, and, sure enough, of course they are. They've been doing water sanitation, building latrines, drilling boreholes, laying pipelines, and building tap-stands and really doing what they do best there.

We met a woman who had been in the camp for about a month. She had come with her husband and her three children, and her husband was very ill. Of course, there's a real lack of security in these camps, and she was raped in the middle of the night. Her husband was there, but he was in a fever, and too weak to help. What you have to understand is this is like a city, with half a million people all pressed together, no privacy, no doors you can close to keep you safe, no electricity or light at night and no police patrols.

I also met a woman who had just arrived at the reception area with her five small children, but she had to leave her disabled child behind in Somalia to carry her youngest baby, who was seven months old. She had to leave her husband behind as well, because she had to leave so quickly. She was dazed when she was telling me this, almost without emotion. She was just in shock, I think, from everything that she'd been through. She had been walking for 15 days, and was totally bewildered. She had been a pastoralist -- a farmer who cared for livestock rather than growing crops -- and, until the drought, she had been able to support her family. And with the political conflict and with the drought and all her animals dying off, she had to make a choice that no one should have to make, and leave one child to save the others. She had no idea what his fate would be.

I met all sorts of people there: people who were literate, educated, who spoke good English, who were really just victims of circumstance. Some were angry, frustrated, but most just seemed dazed. Women are in the majority there. A lot of the men have died in the conflict, and many were left behind to care for dying livestock or to try to find some other solution as their wives and children fled for safety.

At the reception area, we saw new people coming in, often after walking for weeks with little or no food or water. They looked dehydrated, malnourished, covered in dust and filth, and just absolutely desolate. You could see that the parents had obviously given up food and water for their children first, and some of them were barely able to walk. They were just hollow and gaunt.

What gave me most hope were the many people there who have adopted orphans. These are people who already have five or more children of their own, but still take on two or three kids who were left with no parents. That's an unbelievable act of kindness and humanity, and it's so inspiring. It's not like there's more to go around, or you get bigger rations. You're really just taking food out of your own mouths to feed somebody else.

Staying in the Oxfam compound that night, I felt so fortunate. It was quite basic, but still a huge respite from the camp. When you experience something like this, you become so grateful just to have bottled water, to have a meal, to have a flushing toilet and a running shower. And some privacy -- because that's something no one has in the camp. Some of the people working for NGOs there are amazing -- I met people who have been in Dadaab for 11 years. They're so dedicated. It's impossible to describe how touching that is.

The next day, we flew on to Turkana, to see how the drought is affecting poor farmers in northern Kenya. It's still pretty arid there, and although occasionally you'll see a goat-herder or a few camels, many of the animals have died now and it's pretty desolate there. Of course, these people aren't refugees, so there are strong communities, villages and settlements. But there's just as much poverty, and the climate is roughly the same. It's so hot, and so dry. A lot of the people we met had been nomadic over many generations, moving around to take their livestock to food or water. But because of the severe drought their animals had died off, or they were victims of cattle raids. So their livelihoods had been taken away from them, and they were now living in settlements, and learning how to cope with this new lifestyle.

Oxfam was providing grants, giving them seeds and tools, and teaching them the skills they needed to grow food instead. People have created these amazing gardens, growing kale, spinach, peas, and all kinds of stuff to eat. Oxfam was teaching them how to irrigate the land properly, and they're working seven days a week carrying buckets of water uphill from the dry riverbeds to their gardens. They dig holes into the riverbed to reach water, and it's very labour-intensive. But Oxfam is now working on a project whereby they will have a trickle-down system, which means that water will run into the kitchen gardens, and drill down for a more regular water supply.

Seeing these thriving gardens was very profound to me, and incredibly touching. It was such a relief from what we had just seen in Dadaab, which was all about responding to an emergency situation. This was a more long-term and sustainable solution, and the difference between the two was just epic.

But emergency work was needed here too, because of the drought. Oxfam is working with the World Food Programme to provide two grants to each household, equivalent to $60 (?43)-- just 60 dollars! That's to last for six months. The idea is that the money will then recirculate within the community and stimulate the local economy. Rather than give people food, it enables them to buy it, keeping local traders, fishermen and the few farmers who have managed to grow crops in business. Then when the rains do return, the community will hopefully be able to recover more quickly.

From when we were kids, we saw commercials saying, "Give a dollar a day -- it makes a difference", and perhaps people have become jaded. But this is a crisis the like of which we've never seen before. This drought will affect more than 13 million people in East Africa. And the thing is, it is preventable: there is enough food in the world for everyone. People should be calling on their governments to provide aid. It's not just about donating money -- of course that is important for immediate relief, but it's also about citizens demanding that their governments commit to these issues, and help take preventative measures. We knew this drought was coming, and there were things that could have helped, yet nothing was done to prevent the scale of the disaster.

It's inspiring for me, as an ambassador for Oxfam, to be able to really see the scope of what's going on, to see the problems and the solutions first-hand. This is an organisation that keeps its administrative costs low, yet which is so effective, efficient and responsive. That's why I love working with Oxfam, and why I'm happy to draw attention to its work.

The memories of this trip will stay with me for a long time. When you meet people in these kinds of desperate situations, you have that moment where they're so incredibly vulnerable and sharing their story, and you always feel, "That could easily be me." We're all the product of our circumstance, and it's just really by chance, by pure luck, that some of us were born in societies where we're able to have a hot shower, where we have rights for women, where we aren't in a state of war, or constantly struggling to find our next meal and feed our children. But it could just as easily have been any one of us.

Oxfam Ireland has launched an emergency appeal for East Africa. You can help save lives by donating to Oxfam, tel: 1850 304-055, or see www.oxfamireland.org, or visit any of Oxfam's 50 stores around the country

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