Traveling again. I’m racing along the tarmac in a taxi with James, a 17 year old back at Pepo for a break from Secondary school. To my right is Goolo, the cab driver. Not a word had been spoken in 20 minutes. We all know the deal. We’re headed to Kambi Garba.
Part of what I’m doing at Pepo La Tumaini is helping to fill in the gaps in their capacity. In this case they need photos. APHIA II EASTERN, the East Africa branch of USAID, has required photos for all the children they give Antiretroviral Aids medicine to. A seemingly small demand, except Pepo doesn’t have a camera. Nor do any of these 899 children have photos available. 28 are registered in Kambi Garba. Not bad I thought.
This is my third trip to Kambi Garba in four days. It’s a small dusty dry village with nomadic tribes. Thorns tangle around dirt yards, hiding dilapidated shacks and the occasional camel. Residents are largely Borana, Somali, and Turkana. None of whom have the friendliest history toward one another.
The first journey resulted in five photos of registered children and 15 photos of children who have been orphaned since the registration list was made. Some street kids threw rocks at us while we got a tour of the local water sources.
“Trash water” Sarafina Kamaro calls it. She’s a community Elder and our contact in Kambi Garba, “Look, it’s full of trash.”
It is. Isiolo river travels through a military base, several villages, then town before here. The water has a stink to it.
“We drink the water, then we get sick. Stomach aches.” She goes on.
“You don’t’ boil it?”
“No,” she answers looking back at the mile walk to her home.
She takes us to a small spring in the side of the river. It’s tucked away in a rocky hole only small enough for a small water bottle. A young girl of about 8 sticks her hand in the hole fills the bottle and empties it into a 10 liter jerry can weighing about 30 pounds when full. It takes awhile.
A day later, the second trip resulted in four photos. Only one of them from the register.
I’m remembering all this when the cab swerves to avoid a herd of goats. Goolo doesn’t flinch. He just turns up the radio. Somali music, I’m thinking.
About 30 minutes after leaving Isiolo town we arrive at the end of the tarmac. This is where the road ends in Kenya. From here it’s dirt roads all the way to Somalia. Small buses shoot like bullets out of the desert leaving dust like vapor trails.
It reminds me of a friend in the U.S., a Somali refugee. He told me with a chuckle, “After the soldiers had killed my family I walked to Kenya. Then they told us to leave. So I walked to Ethiopia. When it got bad there, I walked back to Kenya. You can never take a car! You’ll get shot!” He had the biggest grin on his face.
But the present is different here and construction has begun again on the tarmac. Large hills of gravel and sand loom over a newly leveled path fading into the distance. Children wave from atop the mounds. The Kenyan government is extending the road to some nearby tourist destinations, safari parks and the like. For a while longer, the road still ends in Isiolo.
James and I get out of the taxi and pay Goolo. He nods and speeds away.
We go down some small dirt paths off the main road. They wind to and fro. The thorn fences rise and create a tunnel over us. We have to walk in single file.
“They are called Panya routes. We are panya here!” James lets out with a smile.
“Panya?” I ask.
“Rats! We are rats.”
A tattered looking woman stands roadside as if waiting for us. We ask her for directions and she takes us the rest of the way. Sarafina’s home is a bit of an orphanage. Five women saunter about doing various chores and tending to children. There are near 20 children in various states of disarray. A good number of the Kambi Garba youth are in school, but these children are simply around. They range from 6 months to 10 years. We exchange greetings and start going over who is left on the list.
Selina Nawatan: Nomads School
Shadrak Ekidor: Moved to a different district
Zainabu: Lives in Shambani
Christine Engngiri: Lives in Shambani
Lokale Goko: New Life School
Akuta Ngoko: Has gone on a journey
Kebo Akwara : unknown…
10 more are living in Shambani, a small village just across the river.
“Can we go?” I ask.
The yard erupts with chatter. Women with babies on their backs and hips, old grandmas who can barley walk, a drunken woman from the street jumps in the fray.
“They will not take us,” James translates. “They say the people there are so much for money. They say to forget the children there and just take care of the ones here.”
As I surmise and later confirm with the Chief of the area, Kambi Garba and Shambani have a long standing grudge. No one is clear why, but I’ve grown to suspect water issues. Whatever the problem, they’re not taking or letting us go there.
“Wait here,” Sarafina lets out then runs off leaving us with a drunk woman demanding I take her photo.
James and I guess it’s another illegal alcohol raid. Walking through Isiolo town this morning, we caught glimpses of some police raids at some local changa huts. Changa being the Kenyan equivalent of moonshine. It’s cheap and poisonous. I know of at least one person who used it to commit suicide.
We eventually make our way to the confusion. Someones cut a camel with a machete. A Turkana man has slashed the leg of an eight-foot camel. There is an angry crowd and some official looking individuals. The camel sits on the ground bleeding. Another stands by its side chewing lethargically. Three weeks later I find out the man who slashed the camel meant to feed his family with it.
A child from the list is at the scene. Another picture taken and name crossed out.
Half an hour later, James and I are walking down the tarmac. We’re heading to New Life. A primary school a kilometer outside of Kambi Garba. We need a photo of a single attending student. The sun beats down and we share a water bottle.
“So what are you doing after school?” I ask.
“Where or what?” James responds.
“I’d like to be… a doctor or a journalist. Yes, I’d very much like to be a journalist!”
My ears perk.
“Yes. I’m even secretary in the journalist club at school. I love it very much. …I’m very interested in people from everywhere. Ai, those journalists get to know things. They are always so very busy with the world!”
After another ten minutes we reach New Life School. The gate is chained. Dried plants line the fence. Inside it’s a ghost town. Dusty and empty.
“You. Is the school open?” James calls out to a child milling about near the road.
“Closed,” the kid responds.
“Closed for everything?” I ask.
Sarafina explains she’ll arrange with the child later. We then find out the ride we expected isn’t coming. And we haven’t enough for a taxi or bus. It’s about a eight kilometer walk back to town. We’ve hitchhiked before, but it’s just police and army vehicles today. Not ideal.
A little ways down the road a hulking tour bus rolls by. It’s a 12 wheel, 20 foot high, yellow and green vehicle. More commonly used to help the army traverse rivers. The tired looking tourists look down from a high.
20 photos down 879 to go. I know I’m not going to finish taking the pictures. And I know Pepo won’t either. The occasional volunteer might have the camera and the time. Each of the 899 children need a daily activity report as well. That’s 899 pages a day from a largely illiterate community.
James and I walk past the construction at the end of the road and back towards town. We spend most of our time talking and dreaming of cool milk or water. We go back and forth about whether soda is good for quenching thirst. But neither of us really care what we’re going find in town. Really anything would do.