To many who visit, East Africa appears as a paradise: pleasant weather, abundant wildlife, plentiful trees and blooming flowers throughout the year. Yet this region is also home to vast stretches of arid and semi-arid land, where obtaining sufficient water for crops, livestock and households is difficult at the best of times and impossible at the worst. The threat of hunger is perennial and ever present. Water availability is always at a premium. Life is always precarious, rendered more so by the threat (indeed, the virtual certainty) of major periodic droughts. For the Wakamba communities in Kenya, sand dams and dry land farming techniques are a response to those threats. In addition to meeting immediate needs of their community, these strategies illustrate the value of a shared commitment by local community groups to addressing their collective crisis and the local ingenuity and innovation available to mount an effective response.
The devastating droughts in the 1970s created desperate conditions in several different regions of Kenya. As community councils of elders in the region of Ukambani in Kenya considered disaster mitigation possibilities, the idea emerged from a local engineer to harvest water in structures called sand dams, allowing the use of stored water during the dry seasons. To the surprise of many, these sand dams proved highly effective. Yet the success of sand dams is not just one of innovative engineering. For Utooni Development Organization (UDO), the more profound lesson for community resilience and disaster mitigation is the spirit and flexibility embodied in community self-help groups.
For the Wakamba, the present ethos of self-help groups is deeply rooted in their historical-cultural traditions. Despite the disruption of many indigenous practices in Kenya beginning with colonial intervention, Wakamba communitarian traditions have persisted. In the indigenous mwethya—work group—individuals are seen as broadly obligated to the larger community from birth and throughout life. These individual obligations fit into this culture’s system of communal response to new influences, whether environmental, religious, economic or cultural. The communitarian nature of the mwethya provides the local foundation for the formation of self-help groups, the key local structure by which sand dams are built and managed.
Engaging communities to realize their own agency in finding solutions has long been a vexing problem in development. To this end, the self-help group model of development mandates the identification of local resources and ability to organize within a community as a prerequisite to any other work. In practice, members cooperate to form a governance structure and evaluate their particular community’s capacities and needs when proposing to work with UDO in the construction of sand dams. They also receive inspiration through interaction with other community self-help groups, which helps support continued creativity and motivation. To this end, UDO has found that local resources are often undervalued without the benefit of seeing through others’ eyes. After meeting another self-help group or participating in an exchange visit, community members more easily realize the value in their own communities.
As successful as these initiatives have been in mitigating against droughts, this type of communitarian work is not without its challenges. Groups have been accused of exclusivity by non-members, a sentiment that causes social tension and risks the possibility of conflict. Moreover, in some disaster situations, desperation among community members prevents, at least in the short term, full participation in community-wide visioning or work projects: rather than focusing on the group, some heads-of-household feel obligated to ensure the survival of their nuclear families using strategies that help themselves at the expense of others.
However, notwithstanding these challenges, communities continue to work together with an obligation that is felt across time and place. Through this collective endeavour, life is made more fruitful and disaster situations more tolerable for individual families and entire communities. Over the decades these community groups have served as powerful disaster mitigating influences. UDO and other agencies, both locally and internationally, facilitate training and sometimes provide resources, but the heart and soul of these self-help groups are the community members themselves. They identify needs and solutions in their communities, provide labor for work projects, pool funds to sponsor projects or investments, bank seeds for future use and come together to build and then manage water harvesting infrastructure, such as the hundreds of sand dams in Kenya.
Today the pernicious onset of climate change has increased the frequency and intensity of droughts and led to general climatic uncertainty for small-holder farmers. These weather patterns have turned planting and care of crops into guesswork, while never-before-seen early morning frost and new diseases present unknown challenges to food security. The resulting poor harvests leave farmers unable to feed their families, pay fees for school or save seeds and make plans for upcoming seasons. Some are forced to abandon families, farms and their communities, seeking opportunities for casual labour elsewhere. Others, still, engage in cash-generating, and environmentally harmful livelihood practices, such as making bricks and charcoal. At present, sand dams and other water harvesting and retention technologies remain a viable solution, but in the wake of such extreme climatic changes, there will be a need for continued adaptation and innovation for new preventive measures that make survival possible. Yet despite the uncertain future for these communities, the one certainty that UDO has learned is that self-help groups will be an essential part of an effective response.
Kevin M. Kamuya is the Chief Executive Officer of Utooni Development Organization (UDO) based in Machakos, Kenya. UDO is a winner of the 2014 UNDP Equator Prize for sustainable land management in Kenya. Rand Carpenter is Co-Representative for Mennonite Central Committee in Kenya.
Learn more by reading the fall issue of Intersections – Community-based disaster managment.