“Hope of Africa” risks drying up


By Fredric Gluck

This year a drought has crippled Kenya, threatening the relatively stable country with large-scale famine and death. Here, Fredric Gluck, from Care of Creation, an environmental mission organization working in Kenya, explains the environmental history behind the crisis, and what can be done to heal the land.

Kenya is a country on the brink.

At one time, Kenya was one of the countries that could be considered “the hope of Africa.” Now, many are saying that Kenya is in a dangerous downward spiral toward a slow death. In fact, some might say that if you want a picture of Kenya in ten years, all you have to do is look at Haiti.

Craig Sorley, Director of Care of Creation Kenya, a mission organization dedicated to awakening the church to its responsibility in environmental stewardship, put it this way in a recent update from Kenya:

…[L]ast year the nation faced the terrible events of the post-election violence. Churches and homes were burnt to the ground, over 1,000 people were killed, and several hundred thousand, fleeing the violence, became refugees within their own country. Unfortunately, to add to these difficult situations, 2009 arrived with another set of hardships. On top of the impacts of the global economic crisis, Kenya has suffered from another serious drought this year. The poor harvests of 2008 (due to the political upheaval) combined with this year’s drought, bringing devastation to many communities. At one point the government estimated that more than 25% of the nation (10 million people) faced severe hunger. Many people died along with thousands of livestock before relief supplies could be delivered.

What happened?

As in every county, there is no single reason that change comes about, but rather a combination of factors. In the case of Kenya, a “perfect storm” of social unrest, politics as a business, and environmental degradation contributed to Kenya’s current crisis of drought and famine.

Social unrest: The 2007-2008 presidential election in Kenya re-ignited something that we in the West don’t quite understand—the concept of tribal politics. This issue is so deeply embedded in Kenyan culture that people are willing to fight one another over their tribal heritage, and those conflicts unleash injury on the land and suffering on its people.

Politics as a business: I once asked an associate of mine, who has lived in Nairobi for some time, to describe Kenyan politics. He answered that government officials in Kenya often regard their responsibilities as business. They see politics as a way to earn a living, and, given a choice, they will make decisions that either help them earn income or stay employed. With this attitude prevalent at the highest levels of government, many of the country’s needs are set aside for personal gain.

Environmental issues: The environment plays a huge role in the day-to-day lives of Kenyans. For those who make their living off the land (farming or raising cattle), a regular rainfall, good soil, and the availability of wood (which is processed into charcoal for use as a fuel) are as critical as the availability of a supermarket is to us.

If the environment changes and these necessities are not available, families cannot feed themselves. This, in turn, leads to more social unrest, and people move from where they are to other places in the country that they feel are “better.”

A Rural Existence

Farming and ranching are deeply traditional and prevalent occupations in Kenya. The Foundation for Sustainable Development says that 75 percent of the Kenyan workforce is engaged in agriculture. Compare this to the US, where less than one percent of our population is employed as farm workers or laborers.

The typical Kenyan farmer lives in a rural area and farms a small plot, growing enough to support the farmer’s family, with some produce left over to sell to others. The land is planted in maize (corn) or beans—both considered food staples in the Kenyan’s life.

The farmer does not have resources to purchase extra seed or fertilizer for the land, but as the environment changes and less rain falls, the need for the farmer to keep up production does not go away. The farmer tries to increase yield by buying and applying more fertilizer on the land, or, as one crop fails, spending what would have been “profit” on additional plantings.

This struggle to keep up production is especially difficult given Kenya’s current epic drought, when it rains just enough to get a crop planted and sprouted and then the rain stops. When this happens, the only option a farmer has is to plant again and hope for the best, or resort to other ways of earning money—often by harvesting trees (usually from protected forests) and making charcoal to sell to city-dwellers. This cycle of declining land productivity, deforestation, and poverty is a direct result of the declining condition of the environment.

Those in rural area who do not farm may keep cattle. These cattle graze on land that is owned by a family or tribe, and depend on rain to keep pastures producing grass. As the environment changes and the grass dries, cattle die and ranchers either move their cattle onto other land or resort to violence, as a recent Associated Press article reported:

“A prolonged drought has driven millions of Kenyans to seek food aid and has exacerbated tensions between the tribes in an area already awash with weapons from conflicts in neighboring Uganda, Somalia and Sudan.

The raids are a key way of replenishing cattle herds depleted by the drought, and are also linked to political struggles and feuds between ethnic groups.”

When the environment suffers, the nation that depends on it suffers as well.

What To Do?

We, as believers and fellow Christians to at least 80% of rural Kenyans, have to ask what we can do.

First, we can pray for the hearts of Kenyan leaders (many of whom are followers of Christ). It sounds simple, and it is, but it is also powerful. It is fundamental to getting people to look at God’s world and say “this is not the way it’s supposed to be.”

Second, we can work on caring for creation. This is a huge responsibility, but it is something we can do here in the US, as well as something that we can do with and for rural Kenyans.

Environmental missions projects aim to improve people’s lives by teaching responsible farming practices, water conservation, and tree planting, as well as creating an awareness of the value of place and good stewardship. By supporting this type of missions, we can be co-laborers in helping improve people’s lives.farming-gods-way-maize-kenya

The “missions” part of environmental missions is crucial. The “missions” part is teaching that the Gospel calls us to creation care because this world was created by God, and we honor God by caring for the things he created.

As part of that caring, the farmers who work with Care of Creation, Kenya, are learning how to “farm God’s way.” Farming God’s Way (FGW) recognizes that God created the world and its resources, and, if these resources are used with his wisdom, they can sustain us as they were made to do.

Farming God’s Way is a sustainable and restoration-focused agricultural method that does not rely on plowing or tilling, but recycles organic material as cover mulch, thereby protecting and improving soil, while dramatically reducing the need for commercial fertilizer.

Farming God’s Way naturally preserves moisture and nutrients so that in times of drought, what little rain falls soaks into the soil and does not evaporate. Under these practices, soil nutrients continually replenished and the soil is protected from erosion and made more viable for supporting crops.

During the recent drought, our FGW plots of beans and maize in Kenya have struggled, but in general are producing better than plots farmed in the traditional way. As one of our staff members in Kenya recently wrote:

“Some people commented to the lady who’s our FGW plot caretaker, [and] she had to plead with them [because] they said, ‘Take care because soon someone, if not one of us, will harvest your green maize because it is the only one around’.”

Finally, we can all try to understand that what we do here in the US with regards to consumption and environmental stewardship has an effect on the land and human lives of Kenya. In this globalized world, the condition of the environment, and the need to care for God’s creation, are no longer issues relegated to somewhere “over there.” Kenya, with its continuing spiral toward unrest and hunger, represents a small, sad, and critically important chapter of the whole story.

Any injury to creation, even if it takes place in one country, still affects the environment of the entire planet. That includes Kenya.

Fredric Gluck is the staff support and program director for Care of Creation, a Christian organization that focuses on creation care and environmental missions. An avid cyclist, teacher, web-guy, writer, and amateur photographer and gardener, he lives in the extremely bicycle friendly city of Madison, WI.

For another good look at the background and status of Kenya’s current crisis, read “Lush Land Dries Up, Withering Kenya’s Hopes” from the New York Times.


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