We are on our way back to Nairobi after spending the past week in the Samburu region of north central Kenya. Located about 230 miles north of Nairobi, Samburu covers a semi-arid area of about 8,000 square miles (21,000 square kilometers) and has a population of about 150,000 people. The Samburu people are related to but distinct from the Maasai who live in the southern portion of the country. They share some similarities, including their primary profession as herders and their colorful dress and jewelry. Samburu herds include cows, goats, sheep and camels. Their economy is based on the barter system, raising and trading livestock rather than currency, so their herds are very important to them.
While in Kenya we decided that we wanted to learn more about the work that non-profits are doing to improve people’s lives. One major issue in Africa is the lack of safe drinking water. Clean water scarcity affects many countries globally but Sub-Saharan Africa has the largest number of nations with this issue. There are great organizations that are working to address this problem. One of these is a U.S. non-profit group, called the Samburu Project. Founded in 2005, The Samburu Project has drilled over 40 wells to provide clean, safe drinking water to 40,000 people within Samburu. Our daughter, Lauren, has been an unpaid intern in their Santa Monica, California, office for the past year. During our time in Samburu we paid all our own expenses, including transportation to and from Samburu, our hotel accommodations and gas for transportation around the region.
To reach Samburu from Nairobi, we traveled as the locals do, by matatu or mini-bus. These are vans that have up to 14 seats. We needed to take two matatus to get to Samburu, so to make the first five hour trip from Nairobi to Isiolo, a city in central Kenya, we paid a little extra to ride in a smaller eight seat vehicle. Even with the extra cost it was only about $9.50 USD per person. We sat in the back of the matatu and the ride was comfortable enough though, after almost five hours, we were happy to get out and stretch our legs.
After we arrived in Isiolo we asked around and quickly found the matatu transportation to Archers Post in southern Samburu. The vehicle was a 14 passenger minivan and we got the last two seats in the back. We got in and had to put our bags on our laps. Even though the matatu was now full, people kept piling on and we soon had 19 passengers, plus the driver, crammed inside the vehicle. It was midday and hot so we pried open the window next to us to get some air as we watched the driver haggle about his payment with the man who had collected everyone’s money. We are not claustrophobic but the matatu could not leave soon enough as we were pinned down with our luggage and already could not feel our legs. Fortunately we left soon after and the 20 mile (35 kilometer) trip took about 40 minutes. We were so happy to get out of the matatu when we arrived in the small town of Archers Post!
Here, we were picked up by Samburu Program Manager Lucas Lekwale, and were driven on a 30 mile (50 kilometer) dirt road to the remote town of Wamba (population 4,000). Wamba is at the end of a road and has one main dirt street. We felt very much off the tourist trail here! The Samburu Project office is in Wamba and it was a good base from which to visit the wells that have been completed. We spent the first part of our visit journeying to several of these operational wells. To reach these wells, we turned off dirt roads and drove through bushes on barely marked tracks. At each stop, we compiled independent visitor reports that recorded the well’s condition and took pictures and video. These assessments were supplied to Peer Water Exchange. At each well we also were able to meet and interview people to determine what a difference the existence of clean water has made.
As we visited the wells Lucas provided us with some additional background on the application and drilling process. The Samburu Project works directly with the people of Samburu to address their identified needs. Communities that desire a well must complete an application. Once the well is accepted, the community works alongside The Samburu Project and a hydrogeologist to select a location for their well. The wells are typically drilled at depths of about 230 feet (70 meters) and wells are strategically located next to dry riverbeds so that seasonal rains recharge the aquifers (underground water source).
Each community, represented by a women’s group, signs a contract agreeing to specific conditions and responsibilities. These include clearing the area for well site construction, collecting and delivering materials, such as sand and concrete, and participating in maintenance, hygiene and sanitation workshops. A fund is also created and contributed to by community members to fund ongoing well maintenance. A typical well costs about $15,000 USD to complete.
Each well we visited serves at least 1,000 people so there was always activity when we were there. We spoke with women who were getting water, as well as village elders. Before the well was in place, women had to walk up to eight hours a day, several times a week, to fetch water. Because the water that they did use came from rivers, cleanliness was suspect. With the well, women have more time for their families, children are healthier, school attendance is up and there is more sense of community as settlements (or ‘manyattas’) can be located closer together. We saw some evidence of this community in two places we visited. Because of the well, schools had been established nearby, under trees. At one of the wells, a schoolhouse was being built a short distance away, by the Kenyan government, to replace the outdoor school.
We also visited a community that does not yet have a well. There, we picked up Moses, the chief, and Mary, one of the village women, and drove with them toward the river, which is currently their main source of water. Women like Mary walk about 18 miles (30 kilometers) round trip every other day with their donkeys, to fetch 40 liters of water from the river. We walked the last two miles to the river with Moses and Mary in the hot sun and then talked to them about their hopes for a better life that a consistent and clean water source would bring. They longed for some of the things we had seen with those people who had wells: better quality time for women, healthier children, and greater attendance at school. Lucus told us that there are over 50 well applications that are waiting for funds to be built.
While in Wamba, we also visited two schools and spoke to the 6th, 7th and 8th year classes about our journey. Each school had about 1,000 students with fairly equal numbers of boys and girls. Because the school teaches in English, we had some great dialogue with the students. We received questions about the education system in the United States, as well as several inquiries about our upcoming presidential election. In speaking with the head masters of each school, we learned that about 10% of the students are orphans (stemming from HIV/AIDS) and there are challenges to cover school fees, uniforms, and meals. If anyone is interested in learning more, contact us, and we can put you in touch with these schools.
By the end of our sojourn to Samburu we began to appreciate the role of clean water in making such a difference in the lives of this population. We were so fortunate to be able to meet people and understand this first hand. It was a great eye opener and we felt very humble to do our small part in preparing the visitor reports and communicate the great work that is going on here.
After a couple of days in Nairobi, we will take a short flight north to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We will spend the next three weeks visiting many cultural and historical sites, as well as completing our next trek.