Portraits of the Drought: Mwambia

– Bryce

Photos and Video by myself and the Trainers of Trainers, my student group at Wind of Hope.

Isiolo, Kenya sits in the Kaisut desert in East Africa. The area as a whole is currently going through the worst drought in years. Water and food relief have become precious commodities and tribal conflict a regular fixture on the news. I’ve done my best to convey the following within this context.

Mwambia Kiunga, a spoon carver in Isiolo, Kenya.

Mwambia Kiunga, a spoon carver in Isiolo, Kenya.

Mwambia sits in the sun waiting. He shifts his toes in his sandals and wears a faded Muslim kufi on his head. A tired looking brown jacket covers his small frame while his kneecaps poke from behind his trousers.

He’ll tell you he’s 100 years old, but he was born in 1930. His home is a small wooden shack about 3 kilometers from where he’s currently sitting at in the Wind of Hope (WOH) community compound. He enjoys telling war stories and is originally from a good sized town about a 45 minute ride south, called Meru. It was a town of local shops and farmers which have recently given way the Kenyan equivalent of Walmart: Nakumatt.

Looking at him it’s a bit difficult to dispute his claim of 100. He already looked older than Africa when I first met him three years ago. Not much of a dent in his time frame, but his smile of recognition tells me it doesn’t matter. We’re here together again in Isiolo.

We shake hands, smile and try to work up a conversation through my broken Swahili. “Yes, I’ve returned. I’m happy to see you as well. It is very hot. You’ve walked all the way from your home today? How is your home? “ His smile is cheerful, but his eyes are a bit far and watery. Something’s on his mind.

Mwambia is a bit of an indicator here at WOH. When things are well, such as when the HBC (home based care for people living with HIV/AIDS) food distributions are arriving on time (or at all), he can be seen walking near town selling his hand carved wooden spoons. When times are bad, he’s usually sick and bed ridden. A year ago we had to break down his front door to save him from an accidental self-imprisonment. He hadn’t eaten in 3 days and was too weak to unlock his door for help. The amount of clothes he’s wearing makes me think of this; jackets upon jackets when the sun is blazing. His body can’t handle much.

It’s because he’s an indicator that his presence here today has attracted attention. Khadija, the Program Director, and a few others come and sit around us in a circle. He opens up immediately.

For the past week thieves have been coming into his home and stealing his food distributions.

“Everything,” he explains, “my food, my flashlight, my blankets. They’ve come and taken them all.” he pauses, shakes his head and narrows his eyes to the sun. “They are too strong. And they say they will come back. They say: We will come back again and again.”

He goes on for another ten minutes giving details that are not translated. Needless to say his audience is fuming. Angry words dart back and forth. “To where? …took it all? You haven’t eaten in five days? You know who they are? Your neighbor? We know that house. It’s not far at all.”
Before long the group splits. The two men, Nassir and Rojeb shake their heads and wander off in thought. Khadija storms off into the compound and back out again.

“Imagine,” she starts, “they steal from him! What does he have?”

My answer would be a few plastic water containers, a beat up wooden bed frame with a blanket, some rocks for cooking on, a pot and a photo of him with his son taken some 13 years back.

Khadija holds a hand to her chest as if quailing a fire, then goes on.

“They have even come in while he was having an asthma attack. What can you even do? Taking from an old man like that. They just come and take it from his hands. What can he do? And now that they know he gets food relief, how can we stop it?” She pauses and looks away from me, “But it is also because of starvation… This is a very bad signal. When people are like this, they can even start killing each other for food. You know not long ago a lady was killed for an avocado.”

Mwambia's home in the Bula Pesa neightborhood of Isiolo.

Mwambia's home in the Bula Pesa neightborhood of Isiolo.

Ten minutes go by and I’m sitting next to Mwambia again. He’s being put together a care package. Some rice, beans and spinach. To my left is Nyla, she seems overwhelmed by the situation isn’t saying much.

“It’s very bad. I’m sorry.” I say to Mwambia.

“It’s in God’s hands,” he responds.

Lunch is ready and my conscience is starting to nudge me because of it. We all get plates of warm corn boiled in salt and milk. Mwambia refuses his and pulls down his bottom lip to show teeth worn to the gums. We quickly get a few bananas and some porridge which lights him up.

The three of us sit for awhile eating. It’s a bit difficult. I feel like I should hide my shameful plateful, but I can’t exactly not eat. Beside me, Nyla is silently dropping tears into her plate.

Mwambia finishes the porridge and eats a single banana. He puts two more into a torn plastic bag, diligently wraps up the fruit and hides it away in the folds of his jacket.

“You don’t want more to eat?” I ask.

“I’m full. If I eat too much now…” he makes the universal sign for throwing up.

It’s not long before Khadija appears again. I’ve seen her this way before and I fear for whoever is in her way. She starts to gather a small posse; two men and two women.

The ambulence leaves the compound. (Photo by Mohamed Adan)

The ambulance leaves the compound. (Photo by Mohamed Adan)

“They come at night? We’ll be there at night. It has happened five times. It must stop,” she says to Mwambia. She fires up the ambulance and everyone piles in. “We know where they are. We’ll find them, throw them in the back and drag them to the police station.“

She sticks the engine in reverse and plows out.


5 hours later, later the vehicle pulls back into the compound. It’s missing most of the posse. Khadija climbs out looking like she’s carrying a fifty pound weight on her back. Nyla catches Khadija as she heads inside.

“Did you find the thieves?” she asks.

“Yes, we found them.” Khadija responds softly with a tone of dejection. She takes off her shoes and heads inside.


Around 9pm we finally get the rest of the story. Khadija is sitting on her living room couch. The dim turquoise of the solar lights cast a tiring tone on her and small shadows creep out from corners reminding us that it’s night now and Mwambia has long gone home.

“Who are we?” she starts, “This afternoon, we had looked at Mwambia and imagined: I don’t want someone to do that to me when I’m old. So we got there ready for a fight with young strong men. Rogeb was angry. But when went in the home of the thieves what we found was a family of five. These children with swollen bellies and tiny legs. The mother’s breast was just skin with a baby on it. The man sitting by the door was so weak he couldn’t get up. He just looked at us and shouted, ‘Khadija! You’ve come! We stole the old man’s food. Have you brought us some more?”

She shifts uncomfortably in her seat and continues, “We were so ashamed. Rogeb said nothing. He walked in circles like he didn’t know us… he had no words. We asked them where the old man’s belongings were. They replied that they sold them for food.”

“We said, ‘where is the blanket?’”

“’We sold it,’ he said.

“I wish you knew how much for, Bryce. It was for 40 shillings.”

“That’s about 50 cents,” I say to Nyla, “Enough for about half a kilogram of rice or 6 bananas.”

I watch Khadija adjust her skirt again as she goes on. Her left middle finger can’t bend due to the ligaments being severed during an attempt on her life. She’d caught the machete blade in her hand. She doesn’t strike me as someone who is easily caught off guard.

She goes on, “The man said, ‘Why should we leave food when there is food there at the old man’s. I will steal as far as I can walk and that is as far as I can walk.’

“We didn’t know what to do, so we went to town to buy food and brought it back. I tell you, they were down on the ground eating. Rogeb had to shove food in the man’s mouth and help him because he was too weak to chew. And then, there were people coming to their gate saying, ‘let us eat with them!’ It was crazy.”

She paused for about a minute before going on.

Mwambia Kiunga recieving a Ramadan food distribution from Salim Yassen.  (Photo by Salat James Sunday)

Mwambia Kiunga recieving a Ramadan food distribution from Salim Yassen. (Photo by Salat James Sunday)

“Sometimes to the local people, they think our community project manages everything: AIDS, turmoil, food. It’s not so good. We cannot manage it all. How do you choose who gets food? I’ve seen a baby sucking a dead woman. How do you choose? …but at least it’s not as bad as 1984. God should not let us see that again. That wasn’t drought. That was death. People couldn’t even fight. They just sat and glared at each other. They boiled hides to eat. You could not find a rat anywhere.”

Without warning Khadija’s cell phone rings, erupting her ringtone into the room. It’s playing the Elton John song, Sacrifice.

It’s a human sign… when things go wrong… when the scent of her lin-

Khadija silences her phone and looks at her caller ID. It’s Esha, the woman managing the health clinic. She was also at the home today. Khadija discards the call.

“She’s been calling me all night,” she says, “asking me what to think. What to do with herself now that she’s home. She’s saying, ‘you’ve been here long. You know.’ But surely, who am I? Why do I know? I can’t tell anyone what to think. I just tell her, ‘You do something positive. You sit with your children and appreciate them. You create something. You make something good with what you have. What else can you do? I’m not God.”


Isiolo river some 30 kilometers from town.  Until recently, this area was the main water source for nearby villages and wildlife.

Isiolo riverbed some 30 kilometers from town. Until the current drought, this area was the main water source for nearby villages and wildlife.

Two weeks later, I’m in a cab with a driver named Abdi. He’s about my age and has family who were relocated from Somali refugee camps to England and the United States. He tells me about how he had lived in the UK for a year posing as his sister’s husband, but was found out and sent back. He’s now been in Isiolo for three months.

“London wasn’t so good. It’s was too cold. I’d find my death there,” he says.

We pull onto the main road. Bikes and hawkers pulling carts of water dart out of our way. Up the road a beaten up semi-truck pulls out of a gas station. Under its flapping brown tarp are a few hundred 50kg bags of soy and wheat powder. On each bag is the red and blue USAID food relief emblem. It reads: From the American People.

“Where are they going?” I ask.

“They are headed north to Wajir. Some 200 kilometers. It’s very far. The drought there is so bad,” Abdi responds.

He jerks the cab off the road to let 2 eight-wheeled military vehicles pass. Their engines seem to be the only real noise in town today. It’s hot and everyone is moving a bit slower than usual. Dust billows across vegetable stands and into the cars windows. Not a single bit of shade has been left unoccupied. The cab hops back on the road.

“It’s quiet here today,” I say watching a herd of goats pass by.

“Yes,” he says, “it’s very hot and the town is quiet. We’re all starving and no one wants to talk about it.”

To read more of my stories from our projects, check out my personal blog at:


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