Of relief measures and a wedding

by Katja Weber, Steffen Richter,  2012/03/05

Since August 2011, coordiantor Katja Weber has been working for humedica in Nairobi, where she coordinates above all relief goods distributions in various different regions of the large country. The issue of logistics often plays an important role in her working routine. In this interview she describes the challenges of living and working on the African continent and tells us about her African wedding.

Katja, you have been living and working in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi for several months now; what is the situation like at the “Horn of Africa” and what are the tasks of you and your team?

Although the German media publish only few reports about the drought disaster at the moment, the situation still remains critical. The last wet season brought far too little water once again, harvests were meagre and definitely insufficient for the small farmers and cattle farmers to provide for themselves.

In July 2011 a relief flight containing several tons of food arrived in Kenya. Photo: humedica/Florian Klinner

There are still about 3.75 millions of people in Kenya who are suffering from hunger. For the entire Horn of Africa, the number amounts to a total of more than 12 million people. However, there also is some good news: the number of acutely undernourished persons in Turkana, in the North of Kenya, has decreased drastically.

This can be attributed to the effective work of numerous relief organisations. For example, humedica has distributed various tons of special food in this region. This is our most important task: distributing food – both imported high-calorie bars or infant food, and local food such as corn, beans and oil.

We are also running a programme in the framework of which we provide lunch to children at school. For most of the children this is the only meal per day. For these schools we furthermore bore deep wells, so that in future they are less dependent on the rain.

In the framework of your work, you are also frequently faced with the issue of logistics. Conditions on the African continent are generally considered to be a rather casual chaos with only little structure to it; how do you resolve smaller and larger logistic tasks despite these often difficult circumstances?

With loads of patience! But I must admit that sometimes it is incredibly hard to accept that things aren’t done with the German speed and efficiency I am used to. For example the container remains for a longer time at the port of Mombasa for whatever reason, then there is some problem with a stamp on the documents – although there has never been a problem with earlier documents.

Or the truck doesn’t start on time at the logistics company and gets stuck in a traffic jam. Then it arrives at the ware house and the driver realises that he hasn’t brought any assistants to load the goods, then everyone counts wrong several times and my lists are no longer correct. But on the other hand there also is the fascinating other side of the coin: in Africa everything can be resolved somehow and organised in the short-term. Hakuna matata! (Note: “Don’t worry!”)

What logistic work has the humedica team actually done since your arrival?

Well, I could start with listing the number of transport means at our disposal: cargo planes, container ships, trucks of different sizes, helicopters, pick ups.

humedica was supported by Heli Aviation who offered their air services. Photo: Heli Aviation/Jan Grabek

And then there are the people who carry the donated food packages home, balancing them on their heads or shoulders.

The largest problem in the country is the lack of infrastructure. In the remote areas, where the drought was worst, there are no paved roads. And when the rain set in, the sand and dirt roads turned into mud ditches.

However, we had made our preparations: our shipments had been taken the people before the rain set in. In emergency situations and in order to help those affected who could not even be reached by off-road vehicles, we used a helicopter.

This is how we have distributed about 123 tons of food from Germany and about 150 tons of local food since last August.

What is your opinion regarding the immediate and remote future of the starving people at the numerous refugee camps and in the region in general?

This is a difficult question. In the sort term, above all people living close to the border to Somalia and in Somalia will be affected worst, because relief organisations had to withdraw their employees due to safety reasons.

Apart from that, a lot depends on the next wet few seasons. We need to bridge the time between now and a hopefully plentiful harvest after the rainy season. To put it in a nutshell: during the next few months we will still need to provide the people with food.

And then the important questions are: how can we prevent such a famine disaster from happening again? How can the people provide for themselves also during dry periods? There is no simple answer to these questions.

What kind of tasks will humedica take on and what are the current needs of the people? Do donations (in kind) make sense at all at the moment?

We will stick to our main task: distributing food. In places where preconditions are appropriate, we will certainly also assess the possibilities of implementing measures that will not only contribute to relieving people of their current misery, but also offer them long-term perspectives. For example we could bore more wells.

Donations in kind from Germany are a rather problematic topic. There are some products that can simply not be bought here and in this case people are grateful for donations in kind. As long as the goods are approved of in Kenya – the distribution of milk powder has in the meantime been prohibited by the government.

Special products, like the high-calorie bars, can only be imported. But on a whole, purchasing local food makes more sense: because we support the country’s economy and the people receive the kind of food they are used to.

Next week you will celebrate your wedding in Kenya; what is the difference between an African wedding and a German wedding and how do you feel?

We’ve already celebrated the purely Kenyan part of our wedding: we visited my husband’s home village together with my parents.

The newly wed couple of coordinators, Katja Weber and Joshua Ogola, at their wedding celebrations in Nairobi. Photo: humedica/Susanne Merkel

There, the traditional handover of the bride price took place: now my father is proud owner of several cows! However, he decided to leave them in Kenya; they wouldn’t have liked the German winter anyway.

And a few days ago we celebrated our church wedding in Nairobi, with a colourful mix of Kenyan and German traditions. We had really been looking forward to this event and we had a wonderful celebration and an unforgettable day! After all the nervousness and excitement before the wedding, we are now absolutely happy.

Dear Katja, thank you very much for the interview and we wish you all the best!

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