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.