By Masha Hamilton
Sunday, March 12, 2006
A widespread drought has East Africa in its grips and aid agencies warn that food supplies are running short. Among the nomadic herders of Kenya, women are the hardest hit as men leave them behind to search for food and water.
BORALGY, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)--Amina Ali gestured at the cloudless sky, her voice rising in anger as she recalled how the region's worst drought in a generation wiped out her entire herd of 40 goats, leaving her to face her final years with no milk, no meat, no means of support.
"We are forgotten people," she said, sitting on the dusty ground beneath a searing sun in Kenya's remote North East Province, a string of prayer beads around her neck. "I am 80 years old. I had nine children. Now what can I do? Sometimes food aid arrives, but the young people grab it first. So I go hungry, often for days."
Ali is among the area's estimated 3.5 million people suffering from what has been declared the worst natural disaster to hit Kenya since at least 1971. If the long rains of March to May fail this year, and international aid runs out as officials warn, the drought is likely to spark a humanitarian catastrophe throughout the Horn of Africa.
Women and children are by far the most vulnerable to dehydration, malnutrition and death. Typically, women tend children and fetch water while men look after the herds, said Betty Kweyu, a project officer for emergency operations in Kenya for CARE, the Atlanta-based humanitarian organization. Because of the drought, men and their herds are walking--sometimes more than a hundred miles--toward population centers, either to sell the cows or to allow them to eat from town garbage heaps.
"The women and children remain behind--without milk, without water, without meat," Kweyu said in her office in Garissa, a town in northeast Kenya.
Up to 60,000 children and women in the affected areas are malnourished, according to a recent UNICEF report. At least 40 people, nearly all women and children, have died of drought-related malnutrition and associated illness since December, government officials say.
"The rate of malnutrition (among women and children) is high," Kweyu said. "But it is difficult to document because it is usually not recognized or treated, except when someone has finally reached critical condition."
Afi Mohammed Farah is among those who left his 10 children and four wives at home when he set out from the desolate Galmagala region near the Ethiopian border and walked 150 miles to Garissa to participate in the weekly livestock market. Because ribs jut out beneath the hides of most surviving cows and the sellers are so clearly desperate, it has become a buyer's market. A year ago, Farah had 3,000 cows and could sell each for the equivalent of $175; now he has only 50 left and they are going for as little as $5.
"According to my head, this is the worst drought in 60 years," said a bleak Farah as he leaned against his walking stick in the busy outdoor market, where small fires burned as buyers prepared to brand their day's purchases. He was worried about the family he left behind; he, at least, was able to drink cows' milk daily.
In a grass hut about eight miles from Garissa, Nimo Hassan sat with her 2-year-old and her day-old newborn. With no livestock or water around, Hassan depends fully on her husband. With a newborn, she can't even leave to beg. In these cases, while the men wander off for days or weeks in search of grazing land, the women wait for food aid or the return of the men.
The drought is taking a toll on education. Government officials have sought to boost school attendance in the northeast, where illiteracy rates run as high as 85 percent. Many bush schools, drawing children from several miles away, offer as enticement a simple lunch; maize is a repetitive favorite.
But lunch is not enough to keep children in classes when families find they must move.
"Today we have about 460 students in school, but we've lost as many as a hundred students due to the drought," said Kofa Wayu, the head teacher at Boralgy's school. "The parents have to go look for food and they don't want to be separated from their children."
Because the drought is so widespread, many find that wandering is not the best strategy and are reluctantly relinquishing their nomadic lifestyles, moving in from the bush and settling in small centers near villages where food aid might arrive. Typically, the men go first and once they have built a grass hut, they fetch their families.
But even for those who settle, the United Nations' World Food Program has warned it will begin running out of cooking oil and other staples at the end of March and cereals by the end of April.
Individuals like Shakil Jaffer have stepped forward to help supplement international aid efforts. Jaffer owns a Garissa gasoline station, but spends much of his time these days collecting and distributing food aid to desperate regions hours away.
"This drought is like someone wringing their necks," he said from his office at the gas station. "Seeing this suffering, how could we just stand aside and wait for others to help?"
Jaffer keeps detailed records of where, when and how much food aid he distributes because corruption is a significant problem. Recent police raids on Garissa food shops showed some of those responsible for distributing international aid were in fact stealing and selling it. The region's district commissioner was suspended in January while corruption is being investigated.
Jaffer has devised a system of visiting a small group of homes, using women and elderly of both genders to help distribute food cards so he can most accurately calculate the level of need, and then returning several days later with truckloads of provisions. But often, food is not enough. "Sometimes I bring them maize, and they say, 'Shakil, give me water'," he said.
Even when she can get food aid, Ali, at age 80, has trouble eating the maize that is the primary offering because she has lost a number of teeth. Sometimes she walks six miles to the only nearby town to beg, but she survives primarily on the few shillings earned by one son who goes into the bush to gather firewood and then returns every couple of weeks to sell it. It is a grim existence.
Ali loved her childhood and the life that she once shared with her young children. For all its harshness, she found beauty in the nomadic lifestyle. "I had my animals, my milk and meat," she said. "My children looked after the herds. It was the best life. Now all that is gone. Now I have no freedom."
Masha Hamilton, http://www.mashahamilton.com, is a journalist and novelist who traveled to northeast Kenya to research her next novel, "The Camel Bookmobile," to be published by HarperCollins in April 2007.
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