/ 29 March 2006

Eating shoots and leaves

Kenya’s Parliament reconvened amid the usual grandeur and opulence that accompanies the occasion. While the rulers sated themselves with a sumptuous dinner and stroked one another’s egos with speeches overflowing with praise, Betty Tom lit a fire 400km away at Orongo in western Kenya and gave thanks to God.

The widow prepared a meal of leaves she had collected, as her three young sons watched with wide eyes. “I am happy today because a neighbour has given me chicken bones to put into the soup,” Tom smiled.

Orongo is near fish-filled Lake Victoria. Logic says there shouldn’t be hunger here. But in the eye of the most devastating drought and famine in Kenya since the early 1970s, logic is dead … along with millions of animals and an unknown number of people.

“Fish is too expensive and our crops have failed because it was so dry for so long. Then the rains came and we planted, but the water was too much and it washed away the seedlings,” Tom lamented.

Oxfam describes the drought and food shortages as Kenya’s worst humanitarian crisis since the country’s independence from Britain in 1963. Hundreds of Kenyans died in the famine of 1971/72, but the present situation has the potential to be “far more serious”, said spokesperson Douglas Keatinge.

The charity estimates that at least 11-million people are facing starvation in seven countries in the East Africa and Horn of Africa regions, and almost four-million in Kenya alone.

Yet, in Kenya, famine exists alongside surfeit. Even as drought has laid waste to the land, Kenya’s commercial farmers have grown hundreds of tonnes of fruit and vegetables to supply supermarkets in the United Kingdom. The country has maintained its status as Africa’s primary exporter of fresh produce to Europe, while the hunger at home has intensified. Wild berries, roots and leaves are all that sustain thousands. In the deserts, people survive on insects, scorpions and faith.

Local economies have been destroyed. Pastoralists in northern Kenya, who depend on their animals for their livelihoods, are being forced to slaughter or sell the beasts.

“Only God can save me now!” shouted Uddin Safir at a cattle market at Isiolo in northern Kenya, as he mourned the loss of his beloved livestock.

In November last year, Safir joined a caravan into Ethiopia in search of pasture and water. He took 38 cattle. He returned earlier this month with two. “I used to get almost 6 000 shillings for a bull. Now, I have sold my last two bulls for 400 shillings (about R30) each,” Safir told the Mail & Guardian.

Animal carcasses litter landscapes. But no one knows exactly how many people have died and many affected areas are inaccessible. Government spokespeople are adamant that only “about a dozen” Kenyans have so far succumbed to famine. But no one believes them. Certainly not aid workers and those who have survived this long.

“I do not understand why the government says such a few people have died; it is a lot … we have buried many bodies,” said Zulekha Mohammed, alongside a dry borehole in Mandera district near Kenya’s border with Somalia.

“Seven people have died in Wajir district alone over the past week, so how can it be just 12 dead in the whole country since last year?” asked Safir.

The World Food Programme is rationing dwindling food supplies to 230 000 Sudanese and Somali refugees living in camps in Kenya, and expects this food to run out in May.

Across the region, which is home to 100-million people, conflict is erupting as people battle for scarce resources. Bandits are once again roaming the arid lands, necessitating armed convoys for supply trucks.

The head of Oxfam Kenya, Gezahegn Kebede, forecasts that the crisis would lead to “conflict not seen for the past decade … Many people will be killed unless aid to the affected areas is not stepped up”.

The Catholic Church considers the drought and famine as much a humanitarian as a social catastrophe, accusing Kenya’s government of neglect. Father Paul Healy, of the Kitui diocese, says the hunger has been exacerbated by a “grossly inadequate” response by the state and has led to school dropouts, child labour, forced early marriages and HIV/Aids infections. “People are being forced into a way of life they don’t want by an endless cycle of hunger and impoverishment,” Healy says.

In Moyale district, near the Kenya-Ethiopia border, camel keeper Mursaal Issack recalled a scorching day on which, he wheezed, “it was so hot I could not see”. Leading his animals in a vain search for water, the elderly man said he had chanced upon some locusts.

Issack laughed: “It was one of the happiest days of my life. Those locusts, they tasted sweet, like meat. I thought I was eating meat.”

For many, illusion is the only sustenance remaining.