Kenya is on the brink of its own disaster

While the situation in Somalia deteriorates, millions of its neighbours are at risk of malnutrition

Emily Dugan
Thursday 03 November 2011 19:18

The small harness hanging from the branch of an acacia tree looks much like the baby swings used to cradle infants around the world. But slumped against its straps is no bouncing, chubby toddler. Instead, there lies the listless frame of a child brought close to death by hunger.

The harness is hooked to a set of makeshift scales – and the weight reading for two-and-a-half year-old Ekure Nachukuli signals a grim future if she is not helped quickly. At 12.5kg, with spindly arms, belly protruding and every upper rib showing, she is in a state of severe malnutrition.

Ekure is one of 385,000 malnourished children in northern Kenya, who, together with 90,000 starving pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, are caught up in a catastrophe. While the world focuses on Somalia and the starving refugees pouring across the Kenyan border, Kenya is on the brink of its own famine, with 3.5 million people at risk of malnutrition.

These are the forgotten victims of the worst drought in more than half a century, which has swept its way through the Horn of Africa, driving some 12 million people towards starvation in a slew of countries including Somalia, Djibouti and Uganda. Charities say more aid is needed to cope with the crisis across the region.

In Somalia, the first shipment of food since the official declaration of a famine just over a week ago arrived in Mogadishu on Wednesday. The UN says it still cannot get aid to more than two million people who are unable to flee the country's south – territories controlled by the al-Qa'ida-linked group al-Shabaab.

In Dadaab, near Kenya's border with Somalia, almost 400,000 people are trying to make a home in the camp, which is at nearly four times its intended capacity as thousands more arrive every day across the border. The scenes there are now familiar to viewers, readers – and charity donors – around the globe.

But in the remote north Turkana district there are no convoys of UN Land Cruisers, no expansive compound full of willing charities and no global sympathy. Acute malnutrition in Turkana, near the Ethiopian border, already afflicts close to 38 per cent of the population: to declare a famine that number needs to top only 30 per cent. But the region is so out of the way, so remote, that it is hard to confirm the other terrible statistics that meet the international yardstick for famine. The government there insists no Kenyans have yet died in the drought, but the truth is that it doesn't know. In Turkana, even the death rate is uncertain.

Unlike in Dadaab, nine hours' drive from Nairobi, Kenya's hungry are out of reach, scattered across an isolated region more than 24 hours away from the country's capital. Some 37,000 people – most of whom are going hungry – are spread across Kenya's largest district: 35,000sqkm of harsh, inaccessible land.

Here, you drive for up to 10 hours along rocky dirt paths without seeing a single drop of water. Cracked earth and lines of grey dust lie where rivers once flowed and only brittle thorn bushes and greying acacia trees grow. Emaciated figures – once proud herders of huge numbers of livestock – slump by the road trying to sell scraps of charcoal to passers-by that never come. Their last resort in times of hunger used to be the berries on the trees, but these disappeared three months ago. Even the camels – unable to cope with the hunger and thirst – are dying now.

Ekure is one of a lucky few. She is being measured in a clearing in the isolated settlement of Nakapelewoi, Turkana north, where hundreds of starving children are being checked and given food by the health charity Merlin. When the mobile clinic arrives, more than 200 people – many of whom had waited for hours in the heat after long walks – burst into song. The settlement is on a rocky unmarked track that is itself about eight hours' bumpy drive from Lodwar, the nearest proper town. This is only the second time this clinic has come to Nakapelewoi and people are still in a state of desperate need.

Like most in Turkana, Ekure's parents rely entirely on keeping livestock to sustain themselves. But no rain has meant no pasture and no hope for keeping their herd.

The little girl is the youngest of Etokoit Nachukuli's eight children. "My husband had 40 donkeys but all of them are dead," explains Etokoit, her face creased with worry. "He also had 1,000 goats and now he has 10. All we can eat now are wild berries, but even these have gone now – the last time we saw fruit on the ekalale tree was last year."

Dr U Aye Maung, an emergency response health manager for Merlin, said aid is more focused on the refugee influx in Somalia; Turkana is not taken care of. The malnutrition rate here is one of the worst in the world. The death rates could be huge. We have no idea, because we get records only when they come to services."

Even now that the government and aid agencies are waking up to the problem, terrible and non-existent roads make delivering aid painfully slow. The supply chain is so unreliable that even the health facilities run out of food.

"There is no food security," says Ignacious Imoni, a nurse from Kaaleng, a small health centre that, despite being 22km away, is an hour's drive from Nakapelewoi due to the lack of roads. "It is just drought in, drought out; drought in, drought out."

Mr Imoni is currently the only health worker serving this area, and he has to leave queuing patients at the clinic to reach the desperate crowd gathered in Nakapelewoi.

Even those lucky enough to have medical facilities near by are not safe. Theresa Apua lives with her eight children in a hut just below the Kaaleng clinic. Her second youngest, three-year-old Erogo, is receiving Plumpy'nut – a fortified food supplement designed to promote rapid weight gain – having got to a state of severe malnourishment. His ripped T-shirt exposes his bony sternum and distended belly. Until they degenerate to this degree the rest of the family cannot be helped by the clinic. They have to wait and hope that more food comes.

Oxfam and the World Food Programme are increasing food distribution services here, but Theresa is worried they may come too late. "The last time relief food came here was in May. That ran out 20 days ago. Since then we've had nothing."

Her husband, Longoli, who has two wives, left Theresa for good in April after seeing that all his cattle there had died. Inside Theresa's hut, a perfect dome made from latticed twigs and scraps of cardboard, the wooden stand for the family's food lies empty.

In Lokitaung stabilisation centre, seven acutely malnourished children lie on beds with their mothers. Many of them were so famished themselves they could not breastfeed and had to watch their babies waste away in front of them.

Akaale Ekata, 23, clutches her frightened-looking daughter Emoni Lokiriba, who is nine months old. Now that she is receiving supplementary food Emoni should be safe, but with another three under-fives back at her home far away, Akaale is worried that she may have risked three children to save one.

"They are also sick and I'm really worried. I don't know how they are surviving because I had to leave them to come to hospital. Their father has gone to Kibish in search of more animals, so their grandmother is looking after them. She is very old and I'm worried she will not manage to find any food."

All the hunger is leading to growing anger. In Nairobi especially, Kenyans are livid at what they believe is government inaction: hate groups have appeared on Facebook denouncing the government spokesman who said nobody was dying.

The country should be one of the most prosperous in sub-Saharan Africa. An opposition leader, Paul Muite, describes the situation as a disgrace in this weekend's newspapers: "It is a total mix-up of priorities, if some areas can have plenty of food going to waste while others are starving."

Others, frustrated with the human disaster taking place in their backyard, have launched a funding drive with the local Red Cross, called Kenyans for Kenyans.

If all were not enough, conflict between the Turkana people and Ethiopia's Merille tribe across the border is exacerbating the crisis: the Merille have attacked Kenyan families and stolen their livestock. In May, 40 Kenyans were killed in a single attack in Todonyang and reports suggest that more than 8,000 animals were taken by raiders in that month alone.

Tomorrow, Kenyan and Ethiopian authorities and local leaders hold peace talks between the Merille and Turkana people in Lokitaung.

But this will be of little consolation to Rosryne N'gamom from Meyan near the border. She had to watch in horror as two of her sister's orphaned children, whom she looked after, were hacked to death by a Merille's machete. "They took all our herds and then they killed our people," she shouts, clinging to her 10-month-old who is being treated for acute malnutrition.

The specific circumstances which led to her own food crisis are more brutal than most, but the end result is all too familiar, spreading like a contagion across Turkana. For Rosryne, the loss and the slide into famine are almost too much to bear: "We used to have almost 100 cattle. All we have now is hunger, hunger, hunger."

Give a day's pay for Africa

As a result of the worst drought in 60 years in parts of East Africa, more than 10 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and the newly-formed Republic of South Sudan are in need of food, water and emergency healthcare. Almost 400,000 people – roughly equivalent to the population of Bristol – are living at Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. The situation will get much worse without immediate, substantial aid.

Last weekend, The Independent on Sunday asked its readers, their friends and families, to join its senior staff and each pledge one day's pay to charity. Donations totalling thousands of pounds have flooded in, with 70 high-profile figures from the worlds of politics, sport, media and religion among those backing the campaign. They include Jemima Khan, Richard Dawkins and Man Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson.

British Number One women's tennis player Elena Baltacha said the situation in Somalia was heart-wrenching. "I guess it makes us all realise how lucky we are and how much we take for granted," she said. "I think The Independent on Sunday's campaign to persuade us to 'Give a day's pay for Africa' is a great way of raising money and awareness of this terrible situation. If as many people as possible take part it could make a big difference."

Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the Labour party, said: "There must be urgent and increased action to prevent lives being lost. When people are suffering we all have a moral duty to do what we can to help."

To join our 'Give a day's pay for Africa' campaign, go to All donations are welcome – to give £5, enough to buy high-energy food supplements to save five children a day, text INDY to 70000. And spread the word on Twitter using the hashtag #Giveadayspay

They joined – how about you?

Jonathan Agnew, BBC Test Match Special presenter; Heidi Alexander MP; Lord Avebury; Willie Bain MP; Tristan Baker, theatre producer, The Railway Children; Elena Baltacha, British No 1 women's tennis player; Greg Barker MP, energy minister; Sir Peter Bottomley MP; Chris Bryant MP; Rev Stuart Burgess, chairman, Commission for Rural Communities; Paul Burstow MP, health minister; Vince Cable MP, Business Secretary; Max Clifford, PR consultant; Sarah Darwin, great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin; Richard Dawkins, academic; Esi Edugyan, author; Rev Jonathan Edwards, General Secretary, Baptist Union of Great Britain; Yvvette Edwards, author; Tim Farron MP Lib Dem deputy leader; Andrew George MP; Helen Goodman MP; AC Grayling, academic; Kate Green MP; Bonnie Greer, author; Olly Grender, Lib Dem pundit; Harriet Harman, deputy Labour leader and shadow international development secretary; Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill; Baroness Hughes of Stretford; Howard Jacobson, author; Cathy Jamieson MP; Jackie Kay, poet; Barbara Keeley MP; Stephen Kelman, author; Jemima Khan, campaigner; Lord Knight of Weymouth; Tony Lloyd MP, chairman, Parliamentary Labour Party; Naomi Long MP; Caroline Lucas MP, leader of the Green Party; John McDonnell MP; Ian Mearns MP; AD Miller, author; Nadifa Mohamed, author; Penny Mordaunt MP; Ian Murray MP; Sheryll Murray MP; Pamela Nash MP; Sarah Newton MP; Fiona O'Donnell MP; Brian Paddick, ex-Met officer; Neil Parish MP; Alan Pascoe, former athlete; Lord Naren Patel; Lord Andrew Phillips of Sudbury; Alison Pick, author; Rt Revd Anthony Priddis, bishop of Hereford; Mark Robinson, co-founder of Sandlanders Football, a network of community-owned African football clubs; Jane Rogers, author; Amber Rudd MP; Stuart Semple, artist; Lord Shipley; Andrew Slaughter MP; Julian Smith MP; Caroline Spelman MP, Environment Secretary; Michelle Stanistreet, National Union of Journalists General Secretary; The Right Reverend Nigel Stock, bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich; DJ Taylor, author; Lord Taylor of Goss Moor; Glenn Tilbrook, musician; Keith Vaz MP; Graham Watson MEP.

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