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A sea change in a dry land

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With many parts of East Africa still ravaged by drought, water is a big issue for Australian Volunteer Deb Cox and her colleagues at Kenya Red Cross.

Caption: Deb Cox and Kenya Red Cross volunteers take advantage of a rare rainy day to plant trees. Photo: Kenya Red Cross/Deb Cox

After returning to Australia from a year of travel, I could no longer see myself working in a 9-5 office environment. I set about scouring the internet for opportunities to work in development overseas and found the Australian Volunteers for International Development program, where I applied for an assignment with Red Cross.

In what seemed like no time at all, I was on a plane to Kenya to begin a year of work as a Volunteer Coordinator with Kenya Red Cross in Isiolo, a town 285 km north of Nairobi.

My role is to help strengthen Kenya Red Cross' local volunteer program in a sustainable way. This involves updating databases, developing recruitment and monitoring systems and identifying training opportunities, all the while sharing skills and information with the volunteers to ensure that it can all be maintained long after I leave.

My arrival by road to Isiolo was a stark reminder that I was very close to the drought-ravaged regions that are currently featured in news clips across the world. As we crested a hill, the scenery changed from the lush greenery surrounding Mount Kenya to dry, arid, orange landscape as far as the eye could see.

A lack of rainfall is putting a huge strain on the people who live in this region. Farmers' crops have failed and pastoralists compete for grazing land for their cattle.

Much of the work of Kenya Red Cross volunteers is in direct response to issues created by the water shortages: distributing seeds to local farmers in anticipation of the coming seasonal rains; supplying food to schools to supplement children's diets; and developing water and sanitation projects in the surrounding rural communities.

On a personal level, water occupies a great deal of my average day. I transfer water into large containers (in readiness for the next water cut), boil and filter water for drinking and hand-wash my clothes in buckets. Recently, during a week-long period without running water, I learned that it takes a whole bucket of this precious resource to properly flush a toilet and also that I can wash myself with only five cups of water if I need to!

Each day I am re-evaluating the preconceptions and expectations I brought with me. I am continually amazed at how easy it is to mobilise the local volunteers. With a few hours notice, you can gather a group of smiling, willing people to go door to door in the blistering heat to disseminate information about an upcoming vaccination program, or to assist local school children to plant trees and promote environmental awareness.

I feel as though I am learning so much from those around me. I only hope that I am able to give as much in return and contribute to this vibrant and resilient community.