Eye witness account of drought stricken northern Kenya

Looking down past the wing, it gets drier and drier as we fly north from Nairobi to Lodwar, the biggest city in Turkana, the region of Kenya where drought has brought thousands of nomadic pastoralists to the brink of survival. Farmland gives way to a parched rocky landscape where withering temperatures, lack of water and a scorching sun have wiped out the herds of cattle that the Turkana people depend on. Their traditional lifestyle of leading their herds to find pastures and water holes is becoming close to impossible. Malnutrition is widespread across the region.

During this emergency, Mary’s Meals, working with the Diocese of Lodwar, is reaching almost 4,000 children in the most isolated and remote parts of Turkana, providing a daily nutritious meal of maize, beans, rice and vegetable oil in 35 community based nurseries. A further 6000 children have been receiving Mary’s Meals over the last 6 weeks as a response to the humanitarian emergency that is affecting many parts of East Africa. For most of these children, this is the only meal that they are eating each day.

Early the next day we begin the journey to the north of the region, where we will visit communities on the Ethiopian and Sudanese borders. Peter is moving north with his family to be the new teacher at one of the most remote nurseries, Nakinomet. As there is no public transport, our visit to the north offers a welcome opportunity to bring their belongings. As we cross the first dry river bed, Peter tells me that unexpected rains had fallen last week, but these were a false hope as they petered out after three days. Before this, there has been no rain since last November. Climate change here means longer and more severe droughts, higher temperatures and the unpredictability of the seasons.

A small child stands on the horizon watching over a herd of goats. Turkana children also traditionally follow the herds with their parents, collecting wild fruits to eat and occasionally eating the meat, blood and milk of the family’s animals. As the herds have perished, thousands of Turkana children have succumbed to malnutrition as their families scoured the dry scrub-land looking in vain for water and pastures. Over the next three days we will see no cattle, only a few goats and camels.

We visit 8 nurseries as we travel north and in each community we meet with the children attending the nurseries, their parents and the village elders. Peter translates from Turkana. The communities are closely involved in the running of the nurseries and we see that they have built classrooms, store rooms and shelters using local materials. Mary’s Meals’ programme is meeting immediate needs by providing enough food to prevent malnutrition but is also enabling children to receive an education and the teachers work hard to prepare them for entry into primary school.

Most of the communities tell me that Mary’s Meals is the only daily meal that the children will receive. In some of the nurseries, over the prolonged drought period, the numbers of children has quadrupled. In Kotopia Nursery which opened in June, Alice, a mother of 8 tells me – ‘Before, the children were not eating anything for days. We would give the weak ones milk but we have no cattle left now. Even the wild fruit trees had stopped bearing. We had absolutely nothing. Our children’s lives have been saved by the nursery. Before they could only sleep, they were dizzy, weak and sometimes fainted. Their skin was coming out in sores, and their hair was turning brown; they had all the signs of starving. We had to look for help and walked here. Now we see all of our children getting better. They get enough to eat and finish nursery happy, and ready to play and help us gather firewood and get water’.

Peter explains that drought has not been the only reason for the loss of herds. Neighbouring tribes from Sudan and Ethiopia regularly cross the border in armed groups of more than a hundred men to raid the Turkana herds. As we approach Nakinomet, we see a group of armed Turkana men patrolling the area.

Recently a series of violent raids took place and as people fleeing the violence added to those who had already lost their herds to hunger and thirst, the numbers of children attending the nursery increased from 260 to 870.

The Turkana people are praying for rain in October and hope that they can gradually recover their herds. They know that climate change is making their traditional livelihoods more and more difficult and they are beginning to adapt with the support of the Diocese by beginning to plant crops. They are also encouraging their children to gain an education so that they will be better prepared for the challenging future that faces them. In the meantime, the children in the Diocesan nurseries depend on Mary’s Meals for their survival.

Chris MacLullich, Programmes Officer for Mary’s Meals

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