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The hole in the ground

August 11, 2011

Written by Kari Costanza

It was the hole in the ground that got me. It was as deep as it was wide. It was carved, bit by bit, into brick red earth by men yielding shovels and farming tools. The hole didn’t have to be too big—just 4 x 4. It was for a child.

Drought refugees at Dadaab Refugee Camp, Kenya.

A drought refugee at Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya digs a hole for a grave. Photo by Jon Warren

His name was Ibrahim and he was 3. Ibrahim had come from Somalia with his family seeking shelter, food, water, and medicine. They had arrived days before at Dadaab in eastern Kenya—the world’s largest refugee camp. Ibrahim died at a clinic just as Dadaab was registering its 400,000th refugee—most from Somalia—70 percent of the new arrivals due to drought. We met Ibrahim’s aunt on the windy plains of the camp and she told us about Ibrahim.
“He couldn’t survive the journey,” she said.
As she spoke, she struggled to make a tent out of sticks she would then cover with borrowed cloth and burlap sacks. She worked alone. Her husband had gone looking for water to wash the small child’s body.
I have covered drought and hunger in Kenya for 5 years now. In March 2006 I reported stories of children who couldn’t go to school because their household crops had failed. That meant there was no money for uniforms or anything else. Girls were being married off early by their families who in turn received a dowry and had one less mouth to feed.
The stories moved me. The families were so frustrated with the land and the weather in East Africa. They had seeds, but knew planting was futile. And the children were suffering. Hunger was destroying their hopes for the future.
In October 2008, I lived with a family in Turkana, Kenya, today one of the worst-hit areas in East Africa. But even then it was bad. The land was barren. Livestock, worth its weight in gold to pastoralist families, had died. I ate what the family ate for five days—relief supplies that amounted to about a cup of food per day. I wanted to see what hunger felt like.
Not having enough food sapped me of strength and curiosity. I could do little more than sit in the family’s hut all day, shielding my skin from the scorching sun. The story had to come to me. I was too tired and weak to find it. My energy sapped, I saw hunger in a new way—as a killer of the things inside a person—the will that enables to one persevere.
I am back in East Africa three years later to cover a drought that will not seem to end.
Drought refugees at Dadaab Refugee Camp, Kenya.

Kari sits with drought refugees at Dadaab Refugee Camp, Kenya. Photo by Jon Warren

I went back to Turkana last week where World Vision is feeding malnourished children nutritious Plumpy’Nut and providing food and water for their families. The situation is worse than before. I tried to make eye contact with some of the 500 mothers waiting for food in scant shade. But the light had gone out of their eyes. They had no interest in interacting. The drought had finally taken its toll on their steely spirits.

The Turkana mothers’ apathy was distressing but it was the hole in the ground at Dadaab refugee camp that did me in.

Traveling from the camp to a room where I slept in a bed instead of under a tent made of sticks, I thought about that hole and the child, Ibrahim, who would be tenderly placed inside. The brick red dirt would be replaced. His grave would be topped with thorn bushes to keep the wild animals from desecrating his body. Ibrahim’s child-sized mound of earth would join the fresh graves of two other children buried that day in the makeshift cemetery.
Rumbling over the rutted roads, staring out the window at dry land littered with cattle carcasses, I thought about that hole.
And how its size so perfectly matched the empty space inside me.
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