Helena Christensen speaking to Josephine Kanini
Oxfam Ambassador Helena Christensen speaking to Josephine Kanini in Mukuru, a slum in southern Nairobi. Josephine benefits from an Oxfam-supported program that helps women start their own businesses.

What I learned from meeting women in Kenya

7 March, 2012 | GROW, Gender Justice

I have just returned from my third trip with international humanitarian organization Oxfam. This time we visited East Africa where I met Elisabeth and Josephine.

Elisabeth lives in Lokore, Turkana (red), Josephine in Mukuru, Nairobi (blue). Larger map

Elisabeth lives in rural Turkana, in the north of Kenya – one of the many regions in the Horn of Africa that have been affected by the severe drought that has put the lives and livelihoods of over 13 million people at risk.

Josephine lives nearly 600 kilometers south of Elisabeth, in Mukuru, a vast and impoverished slum in Kenya’s vibrant capital city, Nairobi. Mukuru is one of the largest slums in Kenya, yet it does not sit far away from Nairobi’s luxury apartments and shiny cars.

The lives of these two women have changed dramatically over the past years as they have faced a double shock: unpredictable weather and spikes in food prices. Whether or not they can provide their children with two solid meals a day is out of their control.

Women could hold the keys to solving global hunger

As is often the case in poor areas, many of the women I met are responsible for feeding their families and, when times are hard, sometimes women go without food to allow their husbands and children to eat.

On my previous trips with Oxfam, we visited Peru and Nepal, where I met and took pictures of other women struggling to cope with the impact of global warming. This time, I wanted to go to Africa and try to understand better how it can possibly be the case that climate change determines whether a mother can send her child to school and put food on the table.

What is clear to me now is that if women are given a voice and equal standing in their communities, they could hold the keys to solving global hunger. Women produce up to 80 percent of food in some poor countries yet they are less likely to own their own land, often toil the least productive areas and receive little financial or agricultural support. The world needs to invest more in women farmers and pastoralists.

Elisabeth walks 12 km every day

Helena Christensen sitting among Elisabeth Akauimon Amodoi and her family

Helena Christensen with 48 year-old Elisabeth Akauimon Amodoi and her family in Lokore, in drought-stricken Turkana, northern Kenya

Take 48 year-old Elisabeth from Turkana as an example. She used to be a pastoralist, a nomadic farmer. She depended on her camels and goats to feed her eleven children and grandchildren. But all the animals died in the drought.

Now her family depends on what she makes from selling charcoal, and emergency aid. She is tiny and looks weak, but she walks 12 kilometers every day to collect the charcoal and sell it in a village nearby. She cannot afford to pay for the bus ride. The price of fuel has sky-rocketed. Whenever the price of the food goes up, she is forced to pull her younger children and grand children out of school – and the price of maize and beans has doubled over the past year. She can now only pay for her oldest son to go to school.

“I’m struggling to make sense of what is happening,” Elisabeth told me. “Just ten years ago, everything was green. We had plenty of milk and meat thanks to our goats and camels. Now it’s all dry. The lack of water is making our lives harder and harder. I’m worried about my little ones.”

Josephine: taking care of 13 kids in a slum

Little boy in Mukuru

Little boy in Mukuru, in southern Nairobi, Kenya – one of the largest slums in East Africa. Photo: Helena Christensen/Oxfam

Early morning, while Elisabeth is still sleeping in a tiny hut with her six grand children, Josephine wakes up at 5am in Mukuru slum, on the other side of Kenya, to collect charcoal and cabbages. This slum in southeast Nairobi is home to several hundred thousand people – it is hard to tell exactly how many people live there. Large families are crammed into tiny corrugated iron shacks to survive. Hundreds of kids are running around barefoot. It’s unbelievably hot there.

Like Elisabeth, Josephine was also a pastoralist. She had to move to the big city and abandon her life in her home village so that she could provide at least one hot meal a day to the thirteen children she takes care of, some of whom are orphans. Oxfam is helping Josephine and other women like her to start their own businesses, helping them build back their futures. Some of these women are also HIV positive and in real need of support. The high level of poverty puts basic health care and education beyond reach.

Climate change affects women's lives

As a mother, I cannot imagine myself being so unsure about my son’s future and having to worry about where his next meal is coming from. These women have so much to struggle against every day just to provide the basics. They carry a huge burden as their children, families and entire communities depend on them heavily.

There is enough food in the world for everyone, but one in seven people go to bed hungry every day and the vast majority are women and girls. It is on occasions such as this, International Women’s Day, that I ask myself: How can this still be happening in 2012? What can we all do to make some radical changes that will resonate in a positive way? The link between climate change and the drastic changes in the lives of these women is all too obvious. The negative effects of global warming are spreading, not just like tiny rings in the water, but as giant waves across the entire world.

Thankfully, the future is not set in stone. An alternative world is possible, if we transform the way we produce and share food. Maybe it's naive to think this could actually happen. Maybe most people feel the situation is more or less hopeless. I believe that there are enough people who really care about the world and the people who live in it, and who are prepared to make some fundamental changes to fix the broken food system and ensure everyone has enough to eat. We are many who are more than ready to be part of this, and we urge world leaders to take the necessary steps. We are ready to support, if they will just go ahead and lead the way.

This blog has also been published by The Irish Times and other websites.

Read more

Video: Oxfam Ambassador Helena Christensen visits Turkana, Northern Kenya

International Women's Day 2012

East Africa food crisis

Helena Christensen's work as an Oxfam Ambassador

Oxfam's GROW campaign

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