Kenya's farmers battle for life as black market hijacks aid

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The Independent Online

A loud banging noise woke the Italian missionary at Maikona, a small Kenyan town near the Ethiopian border, just before dawn last Friday. At his door Father Pererino found a group of worried men carrying a barely conscious 16-year-old boy suffering from deep, bloody wounds on both legs.

A loud banging noise woke the Italian missionary at Maikona, a small Kenyan town near the Ethiopian border, just before dawn last Friday. At his door Father Pererino found a group of worried men carrying a barely conscious 16-year-old boy suffering from deep, bloody wounds on both legs.

The schoolboy had tried to kill a hungry lion with a spear when his donkeys came under threat, the priest heard as he loaded the groaning lad into his Land Rover for the bumpy, three-hour drive to hospital. The lion was killed, but the boy was badly mauled in the tussle.

"Such attacks are not usual," mission nurse Helen Halaku said later, "but you see how dry it is here now - that is the reason."

Man and beast are desperately battling for life in the parched dustscape of Maikona. The last time it rained in the remote, northern town - during the El Niño floods of 1998 - there was too much water. Not a drop has fallen since then.

The colour green has become a distant memory to the townspeople. A fan-oven wind blows day and night, sucking moisture from the skeletal trees, some of which have fallen over and died. Dust devils - mini twisters that can stretch hundreds of feet into the air - dance through the town.

The larger devils even knock down dwellings, as Rachel Savage, a nurse with the British aid agency Tearfund, found out last week when her tent was uprooted and flung upside down - while she was inside.

Drought has come to northern Kenya many times before, but rarely like this. Before, the heatwaves would last a few months, maybe a year. Then the rain would come and carpet the dusty plains with grass. Not any more.

On a plain north of Maikona, Kocha Duba, 30, squats on a pile of rocks while his wife collects their food ration. He used to bring his 30 camels to graze here but now the grass has withered to straw and a plain of black lava rocks stretches as far as the eye can see.

Half of his herd have died - 12 from thirst and exhaustion, two ravaged by lions. Those left are just skin and bones. "If they die we have no hope of surviving," Duba says.

The drought has brought the ancient economy of the nomadic Gabra and Borana tribespeople, which hinges on the trade of healthy animals for milk, meat and money, to its knees. Across northern Kenya, farmers such as Duba have reported losing up to 70 per cent of their livestock. Goats that once fetched 1,000 shillings (£9) are now barely worth one-tenth that much.

"These people have become like their camels - they go for days without drinking water," says the Tearfund co-ordinator Catherine Oluoch.

Months ago the Maikona herders started pushing north into Ethiopia, where it has rained, in a desperate search for grazing. But reports are filtering back that some have been raided by local bandits and lost all their animals.

"Even the 1984 drought wasn't this bad," says Tuniti Duba, a wrinkled 96-year-old in the neighbouring village of Kalacha. "In our culture we look into the stomach of a slaughtered animal for signs of rain. Now we see nothing."

She had not eaten for several days because the grain distributed by the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) is too tough for her stomach after a lifelong diet of milk and meat. "It gives me heartburn all day," she says. WFP will be introducing new rations of the softer corn-soya blend next month.

On the other side of Kalacha, Dalcha Godana, 67, sits cross-legged outside a modest hut, hand-weaving a straw mat. Her son, Bonaya, is Kenya's Minister for Foreign Affairs and one of the most powerful politicians in the country.

She agrees that the drought is terrible. What can her son do about it? "That's the government's business," is all she will offer. The Kenyan drought now threatens more than three million people with starvation, making it the second most serious in the region after Ethiopia, where 10 million people are threatened. An increasingly frantic chorus of appeals for aid has, however, met with a sluggish response from the international community. WFP appealed for $88m in emergency aid last June but so far only about 40 per cent of that figure has been pledged, forcing the food agency to cut rations by 30 per cent.

The WFP executive director Catherine Bertini is due to arrive in Kenya today to try to drum up international interest in the crisis.

International donors are reportedly reluctant to commit money to one of the most corrupt countries on earth. When the first emergency aid was sent to northern Kenya earlier this year, sacks of grain disappeared from official stores only to reappear later at down-country market towns. And the murder three weeks ago of American priest Father John Kaiser, an outspoken social campaigner, resurrected fears that powerful figures act without fear of the law.

But political machinations mean little to the millions of Kenyans watching their crops wither and their animals die before their eyes. If the rains they are praying for don't materialise before December, they fear that they will be next to go.

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