brad brace

3/13/2006

'There's nothing to eat. The cows are finished, we have nothing'

Filed under: kenya — admin @ 5:38 am

THE sandy track through Kenya’s empty north is silent. Nothing stirs in the midday heat. Then a Nissan truck appears, carrying a human cargo across the bumps and ruts of the B8 towards the Somali border, and the road comes to life.

Tiny figures emerge from the bush, barely able to carry the old vegetable oil bottles that their mothers have entrusted to them. Women wrapped in bright cloths and wearing headscarves leave the shade of the acacia trees along the verge.

The truck shudders to a halt and a 100-litre barrel of water is retrieved from beneath the passengers crammed aboard.

With a minimum of greeting, the vegetable oil containers and jerry cans are filled and the truck is on its way again.

Fetching water is women’s work in this part of the world. But in parched northern Kenya — where a two-year drought is threatening to plunge the country into famine and change for ever an age-old pastoral way of life — fetching water means begging at the side of the road.

Bishara Muhammad, 40, hefts a half-filled bottle on to her hip. “There’s nothing to eat,” she says.

“The cows are finished, the goats are finished. We have no work, nothing. Even the camels are finished which means there can be little chance for us. Our only hope is the road.”

Her family’s 50 camels have been reduced to two. All the cattle are dead. Only a handful of goats survive.

Her husband and male relatives have led the hardiest animals over the border into Somalia in search of pasture. The women and children are left to fend for themselves.

“Our biggest worry is the children, getting enough maize for them,” Bishara says.

Around her, the other women and the stick-thin children slip silently away to wait in the shadows for the next truck.

The story is the same all along the track from Wajir to El Wak, a stone’s throw from Somalia. It cuts through a dusty land, where only termite mounds and leafless acacias grow. This is the epicentre of the drought in Kenya. About 3.5 million people need food aid to survive the year.

The aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières has determined that 20 per cent of children around El Wak are malnourished — well above the 15 per cent emergency threshold.

Across the Horn of Africa about 11.5 million people are at risk of starvation, according to the World Food Programme (WFP) of the UN. Five successive rains have failed, making this Kenya’s worst drought since independence, and the start of the March-to-May rainy season has made no impression. Aid agencies say that death rates will soar if the rains fail again.

So far the WFP has raised only $50 million (£29 million) of the $225 million that it says it needs to feed Kenya this year, and it says that it will run out of some essential foodstuffs, such as vegetable oil and pulses, by the end of the month. People living near the road to El Wak are getting used to the aid convoys travelling from the tropical south into the dry northeast. The trucks travel with armed escorts for protection against Somali bandits.

For centuries the people here have eked out a life as pastoralists, nomadic herders who follow their animals for hundreds of miles from waterhole to pasture. Aid agencies struggle to keep track of a mobile population that roams through Kenya and into Somalia.

“There is a constant problem with trying to move the food to the right places,” Peter Smerdon, a spokesman for the WFP in Nairobi, says.

It is also difficult to get food through northern Kenya to Somalia because of poor roads. “We have had trucks go missing for more than a week,” Mr Smerdon says.

The last stretch of road before El Wak is the worst. The hard dirt road becomes sand, sending 4x4s slipping one way then the other. Here you can smell the villages before you see them. A thick, sweet stench, like a rubbish dump, hangs in the air ahead of Gode. The carcasses of hundreds of cows, donkeys and goats lie in unnatural poses, rotting in the sun.

Some are fresh, their hides still brown or white. A donkey lies with his head twisted, chest heaving. Others are little more than a pile of bleached bones crumbling into the sand.

Gode is home to hundreds of “dropouts”, as they have become known, herders whose animals have died, forcing them to stay in one place.

Ibrahim Abdi Amoy, 50, arrived here with the youngest of his ten children last month. He still carries the gnarled wooden stick that marks him out as a man of influence. But the 45 camels and 50 cows that marked him out as a man of means are dead.

He says: “One time I was wealthy, but now . . .” He picks thoughtfully at his thin beard and looks around at the handful of surviving goats. He walked for three days to reach the relative safety of Gode, close to a borehole.

“Maybe there will be rain from Allah but, for now, maybe the NGOs will help us here with food and water,” he says.

One day he hopes to return to the lifestyle of his ancestors. “I don’t like to stay here in one place. I didn’t choose this.”

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