Tribesmen drive cattle into streets of Nairobi as drought hits pastures

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The Independent Online

Nairobi's city centre has clogged up with an unusual kind of traffic as hundreds of Masai herdsmen drive their cattle into town to escape the drought that has dried up most of their usual grazing grounds.

The city's grass verges, roundabouts and playing fields are filled with hungry-looking cows and goats, tended by teenage boys wearing traditional red robes over dusty synthetic trousers.

It is an annual sight. The Masai have always considered Nairobi to be an essential part of their traditional grazing routes - the name of the city itself means "place of cool waters". In the dry season, hundreds of herdsmen leave their villages and drive their animals to the city, often walking for several days.

Some years, the migration is a political statement to remind Kenya's urban elite that the Masai still exist and that they are staking a claim to the city, where a high altitude and generous rainfall combine to provide year-round greenery. But this year the move is one of desperation. Deforestation, poor food management and bad roads have combined to destroy pastures across the country.

The cattle that have been driven into the city are skeletally thin after months of drought, and thousands of animals have died of starvation across the country. Pastoral communities across Kenya measure their wealth by the number of cows and goats they own, and these deaths have hit the community hard.

"There is no way to feed our animals and without our animals we are beggars. We come here to give them even a little food and hope they live," said Peter, a herdsman on a busy roadside.

On New Year's Day, the Masai tried to gain access to the rolling lawns at President Mwai Kibaki's official residence. They had reason to be hopeful. In past years, Kenya's then president, Daniel arap Moi, had opened the gates to the Masai, calculating that the goodwill gained by such a gesture would more than compensate for the destroyed turf. Mr Kibaki has proved less willing to allow the Masai cows to eat his garden.

"The Masai are not made to feel welcome in Nairobi," said Steve Wathome, of Christian Aid, which is trying to persuade Masai communities to move into farming and reduce their dependence on livestock. "Motorists complain that they block the roads with their traffic, but no one cares about them or bothers to think where they sleep at night or how they eat."

Other lesser-known pastoral communities, such as the Turkana in northern Kenya, have also been hit by the drought. Tribes in neighbouring Somalia, Djibouti and Ethiopia have lost animals to the drought that began when the rains which are meant to fall between October and December never arrived.

Across the Horn of Africa, some 5.4 million people are estimated to be in need of food aid to tide themselves over the next few dry months. The UN's World Food Programme has appealed for funds to help those most in need, although the Kenyan government has admitted that it needs to make its own food distribution systems more efficient and stop relief food being stolen.

Klaus Toepfer, head of the UN Environment Programme, said:"Drought is no stranger to the peoples of east Africa. It is a natural climatic phenomena. What has dramatically changed in recent decades is the ability of nature to supply essential services like water and moisture during bad times. This is because so much of nature's water and rain-supplying services have been damaged, destroyed or cleared."