Famine in Kenya: The rains have finally come, but for many it's already too late

The worst drought in decades has brought the tribal peoples of north-east Kenya to the brink of starvation.
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The Independent Online

On the day that the long overdue rains finally poured on the drought-hit village of Kalacha, some 80 miles from the Kenyan-Ethiopian border, Adhi Kulu took off her rubber flip-flops to stop herself slipping in the mud and knelt down to thank God for giving the rain. But as she paused under an acacia tree 12 miles along the road she'd walked from her mud hut to collect water, she knew in her heart that the rains had come too late to help her family. What was left of it.

The damage was done. Except for four goats, all her animals had starved to death. The grandchild she carried on her back was seriously ill through malnutrition. She feared that he wouldn't survive more than a few weeks. The worst drought in living memory had destroyed everything important to her. This, she concluded, must be God's will but it puzzled her. "I don't want to blame God," she says. "But never before has it not rained for such a long time; nor have the winds been so hot and dry. This famine is the most terrible disaster for us pastoralists. Nearly all our animals have died. I fear we will die of hunger next. Now even if the grass grows there'll be no animals to feed. It'll be left for the caterpillars."

Adhi Kulu is one of north-east Kenya's pastoralists, a group that has been brought to the brink of starvation after a devastating drought reduced the region - which stretches into Somalia and Ethiopia - to a sand pit. This vast wasteland, home to three and a half million pastoralists and their animals, is so remote and neglected by the government that people describe travelling south as "going to Kenya".

Adhi and her neighbours are often referred to as Ethiopians, whom they strongly resemble, with their long, lean bodies and fine featured faces. This is, however, considered pejorative. A leading pastoralist, Daud Tamasot Arakhole of the local NGO Community Initiatives Facilitation and Assistance (Cifa) explained why. "Kenyans from down-country think we are something less than human beings," he said. "They refer to us as 'other tribes'."

Certainly these pastoralists look different; the women magnificent in brilliantly coloured sari-style dresses with endless beads and bangles; the men in white turbans, striking against this harsh and arid desert expanse. However they look, whatever they're called, Adhi and her people are on the brink of starvation, and their pastoralist way of life is threatened with extinction. As the long rains finally begin to fall after a five-year period of virtually no rain, it's feared that this, the worst-hit area of Marsabit and Moyale, will become a graveyard.

Despite a food-for-work programme organised by Cifa in partnership with the international NGO Concern Worldwide to clear the land of rotting carcasses, the red stony earth that stretches from Adhi's feet towards a clump of thorn trees is strewn with bleached animal bones and more recent victims of the drought. Cattle were the first to weaken and die; now most of the goats and sheep are reported dead. Today, even the camels are dying - a bad omen in itself, say the pastoralists.

Around 50 people are reported dead from starvation in this area. According to official statistics nobody has actually died of hunger in the tiny village of Kalacha where most women and children live while the men herd the remaining animals in nearby satellite camps. But at the village meeting, where I first met Adhi, a head count of severely malnourished children, stick-thin nursing mothers and the frail elderly of Adhi's neighbours revealed uncomfortable evidence that several of the vulnerable fragile members of this community were about to succumb to a cluster of hunger-related diseases.

Starvation is not, itself, a direct cause of death but it can weaken resistance to tuberculosis or malaria, which then usher in the final executioner. Starvation also brings on anaemia, with the baffling symptoms of severe wasting as well as swelling of limbs. Ilo Jarson, a 30-year-old pastoralist, told me of her 60-year-old neighbour whose legs had swollen so much she could no longer walk. The rest of her was weak and skeletal from severe diarrhoea, and so she wasn't expected to last the week.

Then, there were the men. Everywhere you went in Kalacha, people told lurid tales of suicides and attempted suicides, of men being cut down from thorn trees, demented with grief and shame, having lost the animals they'd tended since birth, like an extended family, to the drought. They'd hanged themselves, the stories all went, rather than return to their villages and tell their families they'd lost all means of livelihood.

Daud relates how he worries when he sees pastoralists without their canes. "Their sticks are for looking after the animals," he says. "So you can say that the pastoralist's stick represents hope. But if pastoralists throw away their sticks that means despair."

In a satellite camp, about 15 miles from Kalacha, an old man grabbed my hand and began telling me his name was Hakilhe Torre. He wasn't sure of his age: maybe 70 years old, maybe 80. In his white turban and loin cloth he looked like an ancient prophet declaiming in the wilderness. But his message is contemporary and apocalyptic. "I am a pastoralist," he said. f "But now I have no animals left so maybe I should say I used to be a pastoralist. What is certain is that I no longer have any hope. I have thought of hanging myself but I've been told not to hang myself because God will think that is bad. God is responsible for this drought; but the drought is killing us pastoralists."

Ask Adhi or Hakilhe why they are facing drought and famine and they reply that it must be "God's will". In the First World, there are plenty of fingers pointing at Man as the creator of climate change. But climate change isn't the only reason Adhi and Hakilhe are starving. This part of north-east Kenya is so remote and inaccessible it's been serially neglected by governments going back to British rule. Lack of development or decent roads to export the animals down to Nairobi or to drive in help for emergencies have compounded the problem. And now, a witches' brew of inter-tribal banditry, cross-border gun toting and cattle-rustling bandits from Ethiopia and Somalia have all helped push things towards disaster.

Like pastoralists the world over, these north-east Kenyan nomads have found themselves edged out of the land they have traditionally considered theirs, by agricultural-dominated governments, fatally restricting them to an increasingly small, arid environment. Forced to compete for depleted grazing and water resources, the once spear-carrying herdsmen have now acquired AK47s to defend their livelihoods. Last summer, on 12 July, the Borana tribe attacked the Gabbra (Adhi's people), after fighting over a disputed water point, which used to belong in Gabbra territory. The Borana killed 60 people, including 25 schoolchildren, in what is called the Turbi massacre.

Now, by coming too late, the rains have exacerbated the problems the pastoralists face. On the night before we met for the second time, Adhi's tiny mud house was damaged by the downpour, while outside many of the surviving animals stuffed themselves so violently they'd died, their starved bodies unable to cope with the quickly sprouting new grass.

Adhi, who is 75, has eaten only one daily meal of maize in the last week, and that she's had to beg from neighbours. She worries about what will happen tomorrow. Years of hardship and tragic loss are etched in her face, and seem to have caused her body to buckle under the weight of these burdens, so that it is now in a permanent stoop. Tied to her back is a wheezing bundle, her grandson, Guyo, who cries when he's awoken from his sickly sleep. His distended tummy, white-ringed eyes and reddish-tinged hair indicate he's severely malnourished; his hacking cough and dripping nose that he urgently needs medical care. He is three years old but he's so skinny and small he looks less than one. He spends most of his days on Adhi's back because his mother, the wife of Adhi's (now deceased) elder son, works as a maid in a hotel in the nearest town. "Guyo needs milk and soft foods like chicken," says Adhi. "But recently, I've only been able to give him maize, which he sometimes vomits. I don't think he can survive."

After more than five years of hot, dry weather and severely decreased rainfall, many young adults like Adhi's two sons left their pastoralist villages to find poorly paid menial work in faraway towns and cities. Like many pastoralists of their generation no one in the family can read or write. Both sons are now dead, the younger from malaria. The elder, Guyo's father, left home eight years ago, to work in Nairobi as a nightwatchman. He, too, is dead, of a "mysterious" illness. Until recently he returned home regularly to see his wife and give his family a little money. On his last visit home he'd built his mother the little mud hut that has now been partly destroyed.

"This drought has really lasted for five years," says Adhi, whose troubles began some years ago when most of her cattle were stolen by bandits from Ethiopia. "We Gabbra are peaceful, but the government has taken some of our water points and given them to other tribes. Why didn't the government consult us, the local people, before deciding our water points. Why don't we have proper roads? Why have they left it so late to try and help us?"

Increasingly beset by corruption scandals, President Kibaki's government has been criticised for being so slow in sending in aid. Today, however, the Kenyan people, along with the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) and international aid agencies like Concern Worldwide have been generous with their help. On 10 April, a delegation of Kenyan government officials, including six leading MPs, flew to Marsabit, not in fact to organise long-term relief for Adhi and the other pastoralists, but for peace-keeping talks in the area. The great hunger has exacerbated the deep divisions between the local tribes. But the Kenyan MPs never made it to Marsabit. Their plane crashed as it tried to land in cloud, killing 14, including, most significantly, the cabinet minister Dr Bonaya Godana, the official deputy opposition leader, himself a Gabbra and the pastoralists' leading representative.

An appalled Kenya was plunged into official three-day mourning, with the national flags flown at half mast in Nairobi, as former president Daniel arap Moi joined President Kibaki meeting the coffins flown back from Marsabit to Nairobi. f

With its shockingly high death toll, the Marsabit air crash suggests something of the complexity and profundity of the major problems in this area. The famine that threatens the pastoralists is distinctive to other African famines; not only are people's and animals' lives threatened so too is a traditional way of life that has existed for thousands of years.

The world's authority on famines, the Nobel prize-winner Amartya Sen, argues that famines do not occur in functioning democracies where elected governments make it their business to prevent such humanitarian disasters. The frail, elderly and vulnerable small children, such as Adhi and her grandson, are always the first to succumb in times of severe shortage in almost any country in Africa. What is unusual is what happens when hunger affects hardy, fiercely independent people, like the pastoralists.

Ilo Jarso draws her red veil tightly around her skinny taut body, as she squats in Kalacha's village square. A feisty, attractive woman, a single mother, you get the sense that Ilo now sees her life as a series of extreme negatives and diminishing numbers.

Once she had three camels, ten donkeys and 500 shoats - a generic term for goats and sheep. Now all she has left is five goats and a donkey. She used to take her animals to market in Nairobi, for about £400, once every year. Now she wonders if her pastoralist way of life is over. It is two days since she ate anything at all.

Hunger at its most severe, says Ilo, invades every part of your body and your mind. Sometimes it creeps through your limbs leaving you so weak and dizzy, you can't do the most essential tasks - collecting water or firewood. At other times, it affects you more lethally so that your mind is full of desperate thoughts.

Ilo chews vigorously on a small piece of bark, and pulls her cloth around her tightly. At times, she says, when her stomach is particularly distended from hunger she'll tie a belt tightly around herself. The effect, she says, isn't just to pull in her stomach, but it has the benefit of easing her hunger pangs for a short time.

Ilo would never consider suicide, unlike many male pastoralists she knows who are plagued with "black thoughts". Women pastoralists don't do suicide, says Ilo. Ilo refuses to indulge in any self-pity. "There are those far worse off than me," she says pointing at the row of women sitting in the shade of the village's main meeting house. The group comprises the elderly, pregnant and nursing mothers, their bodies all weakening though lack of appropriate "good, soft" food. "I have seen old people weakening, their bodies swelling and dying," she says. "But I am relatively healthy. I don't want to blame God but this drought has become a serious disaster."

On her third day without food, Ilo's fast is broken with Cifa's food distribution. While pastoralists loathe hand-outs, Cifa's food aid is not only a life-saving operation but it is also saving good cultural practice. Restocking, says Concern, is being planned, which would save f lives as it simultaneously salvages cultural dignity and tradition.

And today, in the centre of Kalacha, Ilo, Adhi and the other women sit waiting for their number to be called. The food is distributed exclusively to the women because it is recognised that the men's ideas of sharing could include giving the food aid to their girlfriends, and using maize corn to make local brew. Male pastoralists who survive their "dark thoughts" during famine clearly have an irrepressible human desire to make whoopee.

"I am glowing with the thought of food," beams Ilo when her turn comes for her beans to be measured.

Several children are foraging on the ground for stray beans and kernels of maize that have fallen from sacks. Meanwhile the women wait, some with wheelbarrows, some without, to porter home the carefully weighed amount of beans, maize and corn oil, enough to provide one meal a day for a family for a month.

Three days after the food distribution, as we said our goodbyes to the villagers of Kalacha, we were distracted by a crowd of excited people arguing by the butcher's which doubled as the slaughterhouse. A man had been caught in the act of selling a camel he'd stolen to the slaughterhouse by the camel's owner. The injured party was also the thief's uncle. The thief was the father of three year-old twins who were starving, he pleaded, which was what had driven him to theft. But the camel's owner was outraged and had been about to try to kill his nephew when the village elders intervened.

In their accumulated wisdom, the elders judged that the camel should be slaughtered and divided equally between nephew and uncle. It was a judgement of wisdom and compassion that recognised the value of a camel in life and death, as well as the plight of the thief. But it was a one-off; there weren't that many camels left to steal now.

Last month, President Kibaki ordered a one-day public holiday so that Kenya's citizens could pray to God, Allah and the ancestral spirits for better fortune after the drought, the plane crash and the other disasters.

But Adhi's needs are more immediate and pragmatic. "Were it not for the relief food," she says. "We would surely be like our animals; we would be carcasses lying on the ground."

Concern Worldwide is working with partner agencies to provide assistance in drought-affected regions of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. To donate to the Horn of Africa Emergency Appeal, visit www.concern.net or call 0800 410 510