The politicians may 'eat like gluttons' but Kenyan people face starvation

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The Independent Online

The arid plains of northern Kenya are full of Turkana tribesmen walking a hot, dusty 50 miles to town, to sell a goat for a few shillings to feed their family. The price of livestock has tumbled since the rains failed; there is no grass to graze the animals, and many people want to sell the little meat they have to buy grain and vegetables. Hundreds of thousands of people already subsist on just one bowl of maize a day. If the rains fail again, they will starve.

The arid plains of northern Kenya are full of Turkana tribesmen walking a hot, dusty 50 miles to town, to sell a goat for a few shillings to feed their family. The price of livestock has tumbled since the rains failed; there is no grass to graze the animals, and many people want to sell the little meat they have to buy grain and vegetables. Hundreds of thousands of people already subsist on just one bowl of maize a day. If the rains fail again, they will starve.

This is the other side of Kenya, a world away from the corrupt politicians who, Edward Clay, the British high commissioner, says "eat like gluttons ... and expect us not to care when their gluttony causes them to vomit over our shoes". These are also the people who will suffer the most if international donors hold back aid.

Last week, as Kenyan politicians expressed outrage at Mr Clay's strong language, President Mwai Kibaki made a desperate plea for international aid to save three million Kenyans from starvation.

He warned that Kenya, considered to be the most developed country in east Africa, needs 156,000 tons of food costing $76m (£51m) over the next six months to avoid famine. More than half the people affected are schoolchildren. "It is against this background that my government is appealing to all our friends to come forward with assistance to support our national effort," President Kibaki said.

Kenya still relies heavily on international aid to provide its people with the basic services that hold a country together. Most of the aid is needed in the remote Turkana district, where half the 1,500,000 inhabitants are near starvation.

The droughts and food shortages are already destroying the region's social fabric. As the few watering holes dry, the nomadic Turkana tribes fight neighbouring tribes from Sudan and Uganda for access to drinking water for them and their cattle. Guns from Sudan are easily found, and cow-herds casually sling Kalashnikovs on their shoulders as they search for drinking water. Government ministers rarely visit the region to see the problems, and even the police prefer to stay out of the inter-tribal skirmishes.

"Food shortage and drought is responsible for every problem up here," said Alex Losikiria, a project leader of a Turkana community organisation. "When the Turkana are faced with famine, they must go hunting for food and water. The government does not help us fetch them, but guns do."

Aid agencies say they must act fast to stop humanitarian and security problems becoming even worse.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has emergency plans to feed two million people in the worst-hit areas until January.

Oxfam is distributing food in the Turkana area and will expand operations if the situation worsens. All the agencies warn that they need more funds. The WFP already needs an extra $10m (£6.8m) to continue its existing school feeding programme, which ensures the poorest children get at least one meal a day, and says it will need yet more cash.

"Grain reserves in Kenya are at an all-time low, and the situation is expected to worsen in August and September," a Nairobi-based Oxfam spokes-man said. "Even if the rains return to normal, it will take people time to recover from this state of starvation." Within all the chaos, there is a sense that the government could easily have done more to prevent this crisis. Food aid is usually passed directly from donors to non-government organisations that distribute it directly to the needy, but the corruption that so incensed Mr Clay has made even their job more difficult.

"People in the north are constantly malnourished, and every few years, a drought tips them over the edge," Peter Smerdon, a WFP spokesman said. "If the government had more money, it could do more to guard against it, maybe improving roads so food could be distributed more easily."

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