My First Thanksgiving…in Africa

I was up before dawn to meet the other visitors outside the district health center. The district medical officer (a German doctor) was taking a group of provincial governmental officials on a tour to see how the Ministry of Health system was working in this remote part of northeastern Kenya. As the newly arrived Peace Corps volunteer assigned to work on nutritional problems, I was invited along.

We left before everyone else was up. I had crept out of my temporary quarters without eating breakfast; I didn’t want to disturb anyone. I also didn’t carry any food and water with me, not yet experienced enough to know you should always be prepared when traveling in remote areas.

The day grew long and very, very hot as we traveled from health dispensary to health dispensary. We didn’t know it then, but this semi-desert part of Kenya was at the beginning of what became known as the Ethiopian drought of the 1980s. This sparsely populated area was home to the Boran tribe, nomadic herders who survived on their camels and goats.

We found the dispensaries to be staffed with one or two health assistants, who had a minimal supply of drugs to treat the local population for a variety of ailments, often malaria. The health dispensaries didn’t have electricity or a water source; so the assistants had to haul water for long distances. Needless to say, we didn’t drink any of their precious water and shared with those we met the few cookies and snacks others in our group had brought along.

At sunset, we arrived at a district town and drove up to the health center. I remember very clearly running to the large water tank in front of the health center and putting my head down under the faucet to drink my first drink of the day. I was parched and the water tasted sooo good.

As this town got few visitors, our group received a lot of attention. A big dinner was prepared in our honor, starting with the slaughtering of a goat – about 6 feet from where I was sitting. It was the first time I had ever seen an animal slaughtered. Needless to say, by the time the food was ready to eat at about 9 p.m., I had pretty much lost my appetite. I picked at a few pieces of meat from the communal plate. Someone commented that Americans didn’t eat too much.

That was my first Thanksgiving in Africa – with little food and no water all day.

Years later, I often thought it was good to experience a day of forced fasting as a point of comparison for my decades of over-consumption on Thanksgiving. Working with ChildFund helps me appreciate just how much I have and how truly difficult it is for the many millions of children and families who go without.

As with many things, life lessons are difficult to see or appreciate in the moment. But they are always good to remember.

Yes, signs like this can make Americans smile. But, in truth, clean water and sanitation are serious issues, and it’s great to see countries around the world placing emphasis on the health of children.
Join me in observing World Toilet Day and read more about our work in today’s ChildFund blog.

Yes, signs like this can make Americans smile. But, in truth, clean water and sanitation are serious issues, and it’s great to see countries around the world placing emphasis on the health of children.

Join me in observing World Toilet Day and read more about our work in today’s ChildFund blog.

If you take a look at the quality of water they use for drinking you can simply shed tears because it is all muddy and not fit for human consumption.
A youth in ChildFund’s Zambia programs, reporting on the conditions of a family in her community
Water, Walking and School

It was very hot and very dry – probably in the mid to upper 90s as usual. We had been walking for several hours without anything to drink. The local “taxi” in this remote part of northeastern Kenya where I was a Peace Corps volunteer had run out of gas. There were two options: wait by the side of the desert road and hope that another car would come by before nightfall, or start walking. I chose to walk with the men but the other women – mothers with children – opted to wait.

After a while, out of the desert bush, came a camel herder. His camel was loaded down with gourds carrying water and he offered us a drink. I hesitated when it came to my turn. I was thinking, was this water safe to drink? Would it make me sick? If I passed it up, when and where would my next drink come from? My thirst got the better of me – so I drank the water. I remember it tasting somewhat smoky. The locals burned the inside of the gourds – the thinking was that the smoke would help preserve whatever liquid the gourd carried.

Worldwide 783 million people lack access to safe drinking water. What we take for granted is still a luxury for many people who live in poverty. Drinking dirty water has obvious impacts on health and is a major contributor to diarrhea, malnutrition and even death in young children.

What is less well-known is the connection between water and education for children, particularly girls. In many poor families, it is the responsibility of girls to collect water each day. When girls have to walk miles to fetch clean drinking water, or sometimes any water, that job can keep them out of school and at home, supporting their family. In an Ethiopian village a few years back, I was admiring a new water system ChildFund had installed. An old woman told me the best part of this system was that her granddaughters could now go to school rather than spending their day carrying water as she had done as a child. She cried when she told me this.

As for my adventure in Kenya, we arrived home in my village long after sunset, having walked the last several miles in the dark. Another car was sent out to pick up the women and the children. The good news — I didn’t get sick from drinking water from the camel herder’s gourd. The even better news -– my local reputation rose. Instead of viewing me as a naïve young kid, people started thinking of me as one tough woman because I chose to walk home.

Elizabeth and her family travel to fetch water in Nzaui District, Kenya. The family lives four kilometers from the nearest water source. Due to the rugged terrain it takes them at least five hours each day to make the journey and collect it. Photo: Jake Lyell