After a seven-hour drive from Nairobi, we wind up deep in the wilderness of Samburu County, somewhere on the Samburu-Maralal Road.
It is a Sunday afternoon, and for a long time we see no traces of human activity.
Then, about 20 kilometres from Baragoi Shopping Centre, we come across groups of women and children begging for water and bread by the roadside. “Maji, mkate (water, bread)” are the two words we can make out from what they are saying, an unmistakable look of hunger in their eyes.
They are hoping to sell charcoal to the few motorists who use the Samburu-Maralal Road. They happily wave good us goodbye after we give them water.
Less than a kilometre ahead, we come across five men emerging from the bush. They are armed with guns, machetes and clubs.
They, too, ask for water and bread. We give them the few remaining bottles, as well as some soda, and they, too, happily wave us goodbye.
About 20 minutes later, we reach Baragoi Shopping Centre. It is 5:30 pm. There is tension in the air following a bandit attack not too far from here. Three people have been killed and nine seriously injured.
A police car and two ambulances taking the injured to the nearby hospital zoom past the people gathered in small groups, their sirens wailing.
Curious, we follow them.
We learn that one of the victims has a bullet lodged in one of his nostrils and is having trouble breathing. Another was shot twice in the stomach, and in his private parts. There are small groups outside the hospital. There
is a huge security presence, with heavily-armed, mean-looking men patrolling the area.
“The Turkana and Samburu fight over the Suiyani grazing fields. The situation is often worse during prolonged droughts, so we are always on the alert for such emergencies,” Mr Jeremiah Leitoro, a medical officer at the Baragoi Sub-county Hospital, tells us.
Last year, the country faced two consecutive seasons of failed rains. The government declared the El Nino-induced drought, which affected 23 of the country’s 47 counties, a national disaster on February 10 this year. But since the country attained middle-income status two years ago, international humanitarian agencies are no longer actively involved in drought-mitigation, since they expect the government to contain the situation. However, the government lacks the resources and mechanisms to handle such emergencies.
Still, in response to the government’s plea for help, ChildFund Kenya issued an appeal for $2.36 million (Sh243 million) to provide relief to the hard-hit Turkana, Samburu, Isiolo, Marsabit and Nairobi counties. Since February this year, ChildFund Kenya’s emergency response programme has distributed more than 3,734 tonnes of relief food comprising unimix porridge flour (a blend enriched with vitamins and minerals), plumpy sup (a ready-to-use food supplement), maize, beans, rice, cooking oil and salt. It has reached more than 88,000 people, including children, pregnant women and lactating mothers in the five counties.
Besides, the organisation has trucked more than 200,000 litres of water to schools and early childhood development (ECD) centres.
“Water scarcity is challenging livelihoods, health and education in most of our operational areas,” ChildFund International President Anne Goddard said during a tour of Samburu County. She added that the organisation would continue to protect children from drought and crime.
“Childhood is a one-time opportunity. Children under five need proper nutrition to spur their growth. If a child doesn’t get the right nutrition, it can affect brain development. We don’t want drought today to affect someone’s life 10 years later,” said Ms Goddard.
In Samburu, Child Fund Kenya has distributed more than 49 tonnes of food including unimix flour, maize, beans, rice, cooking oil and salt to 3,298 people, including 2,155 children in 79 ECD centres, and 1,143 pregnant and lactating women.
On Monday, we meet 18-year-old Pascalia Omotho, a lactating mother, who is at Bendera Primary School for her monthly food ration. She gets 15 kilogrammes of maize, one kilogramme of beans, and a litre of cooking oil under the ChildFund Kenya emergency response programme. But the supplies last her family only two weeks, after which they have to make do with one meal a day.
“Access to food is a big problem here. When this ration runs out, we eat only at night,” says Ms Omotho.
She spends most of her day away from home. “It is tough being a woman in Baragoi. Every day I go to the wilderness to graze our goats as I burn charcoal. I take me my baby with me,” Ms Omotho offers.
Meanwhile, her husband spends his days in Yuisani looking after their cattle.
BOTHERED BY INSECURITY
The insecurity bothers her. “I hear gunshots every day and night. Armed raiders just won’t give us peace,” she laments.
At just 18, Ms Omotho has been married for four years and has an 18-month daughter. She dropped out in Standard Four after being circumcised, and was married off four years later. Teachers in nearby say the practice is common in the area.
To protect girls from early marriage and female genital mutilation, Bendera Primary School has been running a boarding facility for teenage girls since 2008. It also ensures that they attend school consistently instead of moving around with their parents in search of food and pasture, Mr Gabriel Leteipa, the head teacher, offers.
The school has no running water so it relies on harvested rainwater but since there has been no rain, the water tanks are dry.
“Sometimes the children are forced to go and look for water, which means they miss classes,” Mr Leteipa says, adding that the situation is made worse by delays in the disbursement of funds for free primary education.
“Last term the money was sent very late. We endured 14 weeks without food until July 20, when we were about to close. We have used that money for this term. The government is yet to send money for this term,” he offers.
He would like to expand the facility and sink a borehole but doesn’t have the cash. “I would want to rescue and house more girls but this space is congested,” he says. He is happy that the dormitory is helping girls to transit to secondary school, and later to acquire professional training. This is the only such facility in Samburu County.
Children eat one meal a day
Mr Leteipa has appealed to the government to disburse the funds on time to reduce the children’s suffering.
“Most of the children eat only once a day, and that’s in school. Only the lucky few also eat at home at night. Breakfast is unheard of here,” he says.
He commends ChildFund Kenya for ensuring that his students, and those in some neighbouring schools, have something to eat in school.
“These children look forward to the unimix porridge at 10 every morning. Since we started serving it, enrolment and absenteeism numbers have improved,” he said.
The situation at Bendera is replicated in three other institutions. At the Logetei Early Childhood Development Centre, the head teacher, Mr Thomas Tomoina, says the unimix porridge is what makes most pupils attend school regularly.
“Most of them eat only at night, when their parents return from grazing their animals. In the morning, they just wake up and come to school,” he says.
SITUATION NO DIFFERENT
Mr Lawrence Lominye, the head teacher at Nalingangor Primary School, says the situation is no different at his school. Thanks to the porridge. “Enrolment now stands at 175, up from 123 in January,” he says.
It is the women and children that are hardest hit by the drought. As their fathers and husbands kill each other in Suiyani and their only source of livelihood is taken away, they are left hungry, thirsty and helpless.
Citing a survey by the Ministry of Health in January this year, Mr Abdulkadir Dakane, the ChildFund Kenya emergency response coordinator, notes that of the 23 hardest hit counties, Samburu comes third, after Turkana and Marsabit.
The ministry puts the malnutrition rate in Samburu County at 34 per cent. “This implies that about four in every 10 people assessed daily at the health centres suffer from malnutrition-related illnesses or complications,” Mr Dakane says, adding that the figure should be “about 10 per cent”.
He says although they still need funds, their programmes have not been affected by insecurity. “We have been able to reach people in the remotest of places,” he says.
With no end in sight to the drought, peace remains elusive.
What the government is doing
The ongoing drought, which has hit half of the country’s 47 counties hard, is the worst in 25 years. It began in May last year after the long rains failed and has swallowed up an estimated Sh13.2 billion in interventions and left nearly 4 million people facing starvation.
An estimated 370,000 children under-five and 37,000 pregnant and lactating women nationwide require treatment for acute malnutrition, the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) says.
“The magnitude and severity of this drought is high. Fortunately, there was early and reliable information. There was co-ordination at all levels involving the national and county governments, and development partners. There was timely release of earmarked funds by the National Treasury,” says NDMA boss James Oduor.
The drought has seen Cabinet secretaries Mwangi Kiunjuri (Devolution and Planning), Willy Bett (Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Development) and Eugene Wamalwa (Water and Irrigation) frequently on the ground in the past year coordinating relief efforts. “This has ensured that resources are directed where drought stress is highest,” Mr Oduor offers.
“Iti [the drought] started slowly at the Coast (in Kwale and Kilifi) and by July it had crept into most of the counties. By then, about 1 million people were affected,” he adds.
When the situation became grave, the national government stepped in to assist county governments in the most affected sectors, namely livestock, water, agriculture, peace-building, education and health.
In August 2016, an assessment was conducted by teams from the national government, UN agencies, NGOs, county governments and development partners. “The number of affected people had risen to 1.3 million. Unfortunately, the October-December rains failed, and the situation became dire,” says Mr Oduor.
The government embarked on a three-phase approach that would ensure interventions for at least nine months. In the first phase, it disbursed Sh5.4 billion for November 2016 to January this year to the most affected regions.
In February 2017, the budget for the second phase was estimated at Sh11.6 billion. The government disbursed 64 per cent of this amount (Sh7.4 billion) while county governments, UN agencies and development partners provided the remainder,” says Mr Oduor.
Phase three of the programme was planned for May but was rescheduled after several areas received unexpected rains. “However, by July the number affected had hit 3.4 million. The National Treasury plans to release Sh6.2 billion for the third phase,” Mr Oduor says.
The NDMA also runs a drought contingency fund with support from the European Union. It has disbursed Sh958.6 million since August 2016. and also provided Sh600 million for cash transfers to vulnerable households.
There is a lot happening, including drilling of boreholes and distribution of water tanks. We are even giving fuel subsidies so that the water pumps can run 24/7,” offers Mr Oduor.
For pastoralists in Kajiado, moving is the only way out
By PAUL LETIWA
The only thing free thing in the drought-ravaged vast Kajiado County is air. But even then, it is hot, dry and dusty.
Agnes Lemomoi, 39, is resting next to her hut in Loolera village, more than 20 kilometres from Kajiado town. Narikuni, one of her five children, runs to hug her, The little girl is clutching her distended belly, and tears are running down her cheeks. But after Lemomoi gives her a cup of water, she stops crying and goes back to playing with some sticks.
Lemomoi’s husband, Mzee Richard Oletema, is lying under a tree to shelter himself from the blazing sun. He is worn out after a trip to the Araoi Hills to check on the family’s livestock, whichone of his sons had taken there to graze.
“Araoi is quite far from here; it’s near the Kenya-Tanzania border, I have just got back after walking for three days,” he says, his voice barely audible.
Like thousands of pastoralists in the expansive Kajiado County facing starvation as a result of prolonged drought, Mzee Oletema is planning to move his family to Araoi, where he will find pasture for his treasured livestock.
“We have several boreholes around here but we can’t eat water and when cows drink a lot of water without grazing, they become weak and die,” offers.
There are fears that the situation might get worse if help does not come soon. Currently, most residents, especially in the remote parts of the country, depend on relief food, which is not enough.
The little rains that fell in early December last year only softened the earth and saw a little foliage sprout for the animals. But in January the rains clouds disappeared, leaving clear skies.
Children, always the first causalities in such situations, now take porridge without milk. The nearest water point is a borehole in Loolera, which serves hundreds of families.
“Initially, water was in short supply here. Clean water was even harder to find, with most families having access to just a 20-litre jerrican. However, we managed to construct boreholes and thousands of familes in Kajiado can now access clean water,” says engineer Isaac Kiiru, who works with the Ewaso Ngiro South Development Authority (ENSDA), which has constructed more than 40 boreholes in Kajiado and Narok counties.
Kajiado County Governor Joseph Ole Lenku says his government is working closely with the national government to mitigate the effects of the drought.
In Kajiado, like in other pastoral areas, livestock is seen as a sign of wealth and health, providing families with meat and milk. The migrations in search of pasture affects school children, who suspend learning to be with their families.
“Many parents in Kajiado depend on livestock for their upkeep and for their children’s school fees. A good number of children are now out of school, taking care of cattle and goats,” says Monica Sinet, a teacher at a local primary school.
ENSDA Managing Director Sammy Naporos says the authority is constructing more boreholes in remote areas of the county and in Narok County, besides distributing relief food.
“We have already distributed 500bags of maize, 400 bags of beans and 250 cartons of cooking oil in the villages of Imotiok and Eseki, and we will continue to do so until it rains,” he says.
“The drought started in late 2016 and there has been subsequent rainfall failure. Currently, about 130,000 households are in dire need of food assistance. The rate of malnutrition in under-fives has increased significantly,” Kajiado County NDMA coordinator Omar Abdi says.
NDMA records show that about 400,000 heads of livestock are at risk of starvation due to lack of pasture. The Livestock market is also on the verge of collapse, with a sizeable middle-aged cow costing as little as Sh5,000 and those too weak to stand on their own going for just Sh500.NDMA, with support from EU, has provided 9,000 bags of nutritional drought meal pellets which, Mr Abdi says, will sustain about 45,000 heads of core breeding stock until the next rains.
In almost every homestead in the county, there is a child or adult who is either too weak to walk or too hungry to talk.
Women and children sit next to their huts contemplating their plight, while old men sit under cactus bushes clutching their walking sticks and stroking their beards, wondering when the rains will come.