x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Millions face threat of famine in Kenya

The starving masses rely on imported food that is now out of reach because of soaring fuel and commodity prices.

Villagers in Tangulbei in Kenya collect drinking water from a lake.
Villagers in Tangulbei in Kenya collect drinking water from a lake.

TANGULBEI, Kenya // The last time it rained in this village in northern Kenya was 11 months ago. The flat-topped acacia trees that dot the dusty landscape are brown and withered. The creek that normally flows past the village has dried to a trickle of mud. An hour's walk away in the hot equatorial sun, the village waterhole is a mud puddle. The layers of mud read like recent history: different shades of brown reveal the high water line, when water was abundant, and how the water level has shrunk. Now only dry, cracked earth rings the perimeter.

Goats take long drinks of the mocha-coloured water. Women with colourful beaded necklaces, dusty dreadlocks and babies tied to their backs dip jerry cans into the water. Flies and mosquitoes buzz on the surface. "It has a bad taste and it smells like urine from the cows," said Chepuranyei Nguraliyat, who was taking a drink. "It makes me sick sometimes, but there is not any other water. We feel thirsty from the heat."

This is what severe drought looks like. Lack of rainfall in northern Kenya, southern Ethiopia and Somalia has caused a humanitarian catastrophe that some aid officials say could become as bad as the 1984 famine in Ethiopia. More than one million people died in that famine, which prompted the Live Aid fund-raising effort by musicians led by Bob Geldof. "People have nothing to eat. The response, if any, is very slow, and we are worried people might die if action is not taken immediately," said Dinah Nyorsok, a programme co-ordinator with Action Aid, the only relief organisation in Tangulbei.

The Famine Early Warning System Network, an organisation that provides information about food security conditions by tracking weather patterns, said in a report that last week's isolated showers across the Horn of Africa were not enough to stave off the drought. "While these isolated rain totals should help to alleviate dry ground conditions, there are other areas that are experiencing severe dryness since February," the report said. "A continued absence of June-September rains is likely to compound the effects of consecutively failed rain seasons for some local areas."

The United Nations said 14 million people in the Horn of Africa were at risk of famine because of the drought, conflict and rising food prices. "Large areas of the Horn of Africa, including parts of Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Uganda and Kenya, are now in or rapidly sliding towards a humanitarian emergency and we believe there are something like 14 million people now in urgent need of food aid and other humanitarian assistance in the coming months," John Holmes, the United Nations' humanitarian affairs chief, said last week.

The seminomadic Pokot people of this region depend on their livestock for sustenance as well as for a source of income to buy imported foods, like corn and rice, which do not grow in this dry environment. Recently, the pasture land has dried up. Many cows have died. The surviving animals are emaciated; their ribs poke through loosely hanging flesh. Some herders have taken their animals hundreds of kilometres in search of green grass, leaving the women and children behind in the village.

"Some families have already lost part of their livestock," Ms Nyorsok said. Rising food and petrol prices around the world have meant that the imported food is also out of reach. "A 90kg bag of maize is now going for 4,000 shillings (Dh219), double the price it traded only a month ago," said Irene Lopakale, a clinical officer associated with Tangulbei Catholic Church. In Kenya, 1.2 million people are at risk of famine because of the drought, including more than 15,000 people in the Pokot region alone, according to Action Aid.

"The drought is very extensive," said Yusuf Lomena, a community resource official with Action Aid. "At the moment, animals are dying. People are eating birds, lizards, whatever they can find." Some people have started eating the sap from the acacia trees. "It holds the stomach so at least you don't feel hungry," said Cheponarewo Ngolekeny, chewing a mouthful of crystallised sap. On the edge of the village, women forage for wild fruits that grow on the hearty sorich trees in this harsh environment. Sorich is the name of the tree and the fruit in the Pokot language. The tree is similar in appearance to the acacia. Pokot women do most of the labour while the men tend to the animals. A dozen women sit in the shade of the trees and prepare a labour-intensive meal of the sorich fruit, which has become a staple in the absence of any other food.

The women crack the shell of the grape-sized fruit, dry them and boil them in the only water they have available to them: the acidic brown water of the village watering hole. As the fruit boils, a white foam rises. This is the bitter poison being released. The women pour off the foam and keep boiling until there is no more foam. The boiling takes eight hours and provides a family with one meal. When it is ready to eat, the fruit has the consistency of boiled peas.

"We only eat this because we don't have anything else," Mary Ngolenyang said. "When we exhaust the fruits around here, we go farther to look for them. If we were to run out, God only knows what will happen." @Email:mbrown@thenational.ae