“I believe in the living God.” The Bishop of Marsabit repeated this several times during our brief courtesy visit. Most strikingly, at one point he said “I believe in the living God, and I trust no one will die of this.”
I met the bishop while on a visit to Northern Kenya. Marsabit is the largest of Kenya’s forty-seven counties, but sparsely populated and therefore politically marginal. It is part of a region in East Africa currently experiencing an extraordinary drought, the worst in living memory—worse even than the drought that brought the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s.
Most of us haven’t heard much about the crisis affecting Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Northern Kenya. This is partly because their governments don’t want to declare a famine—it’s not a good look for them. It is also because NGOs struggle to draw media attention to a slow-onset disaster, especially at a time when humanitarian interest has been so focused on Ukraine. In the past, one might have brought celebrities into a situation like this, and media interest would follow, but concerns about “white saviorism” have blocked that strategy. Since the ’80s, communities in the region have developed their resilience, their capacity to survive difficult conditions, but the extraordinary severity of this drought—widely considered a consequence of climate change—has pushed past what they can manage. The effects of climate change, in other words, have wiped out progress made over four decades, and left the people worse off than before. It’s a grim situation, and an absolutely unjust one. It is also very frightening.
I was visiting Marsabit with the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD), a British Catholic development agency, but I am a theologian rather than a development specialist. Perhaps this is why I found myself wrestling so much with the bishop’s words: “I believe in the living God, and I trust no one will die of this.” That no one will die seemed to me, unfortunately, extremely unlikely. And yet I sensed that there was something right in what he said. To hear him affirm his trust was, I felt in some obscure way, to be taught something of what faith itself means.
Before stopping off to see the bishop, we had spent much of the day touring an extraordinarily parched and dusty landscape, almost a moonscape. Again and again we’d seen the bodies of dead camels and donkeys. There’s something haunting in the sight of a camel that has perished from drought. Across the day we’d met several groups of pastoralists, and heard their stories, their anxiety, their sense of shock. In losing their animals they have lost their source of milk, meat, cash, savings, and employment. What can you do when the herds have all died?