Dateline ACT Kenya 01/00: Turkana - Living with the Drought

Turkana, May 2000 - Even the wind is burning hot, dry and dusty. There is no grass around for miles and miles. It is hard to believe that this was once green plains with cows grazing peacefully.
Now the cows can be found as carcasses strewn all over the landscape. In the river bed and closer to the villages

  • they have fallen where they tried to find water. The dry heat means that even the number of scavengers is reduced, in spite of the overwhelming offerings.

It is mostly bones left. A grinning cranium from an ox. The tiny rib cage of a young calf. These carcasses do not smell as much as one would expect. Only at close range do you find the nauseating stench of rotting meat.

The heat, the wind and the sand yield to a bit of shade close to the dried out riverbed lined by a few trees and shrubs. Here people are trying to survive. The Turkana, renowned pastoralists (cattle herders), are related to many of the other cattle people living in these parts and they usually are in constant battles over cattle raiding. Now there is little left to raid.

A few huts covered by bits of plastic sheeting make up a hamlet called Nanam. A group of women and children sit between the huts.

"Just go ahead and see", they say, "our situation is desperate". They confirm that ever since the rains failed they have survived on relief supplies from relief agencies including ACT members National Council of Churches in Kenya (NCCK) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). But the relief supplies are not exactly plentiful and the toddlers cannot stomach the coarse maize very well.

"They're used to living on milk and maize flour that we cook to a porridge. Now we're receiving maize that we have to grind ourselves and the coarse porridge gives the children diarrhoea", says Aragae who has ten children and looks a lot older than her 40 years. Next to her are two women who look even older. They are 42 and 45 years old.

Some of them have tried to cook and eat the meat from the dead animals and many people became ill from living on this.

The last rains came at the beginning of April and shortly after that the rest of the cattle in the area died. The riverbed is so dry that they have to dig new wells all the time.

"Sometimes we dig a well every day and then the water disappears and we have to dig a new one", says Aregae.

The water may be another reason for the children's diarrhoea. Water is carried up from the deep pits where the women have to climb up and down for hours just to get a few litres of a filthy and muddy liquid unfit to drink. Right next to the wells, carcasses are rotting away in the riverbed.

Most of the Turkana men appear to have gone looking for grassing with the remaining cattle. Or they have left trying to find work in the nearest towns, first and foremost Lokichokio where relief flights to southern Sudan take off every day. A refugee camp in this area, Kakuma, receives refugees from Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Burundi, Congo and DRC Congo.

Supplies for the refugees are minimal but to the Turkanas living outside the camp, this must look like a forbidden Paradise: Food and water every day, a well functioning health system and schools for the children.

When food distributions take place inside the Kakuma camp, security precautions are always taken very seriously. In the Turkana villages, food distributions are organised by the people themselves who elect a relief committee among the women. In the traditional Turkana society women are responsible for food.

The women are elected on the basis of their good reputation. At the village of Songot, the chair-lady of the Relief Committee, Lotapai Lorupaan along with her fellow committee members have to feed 2360 beneficiaries who stand patiently in line waiting for their fair share.

"One sack was ruined", Lotapai Lorupaan complains, "and look at all these people who are not on the lists. They have to go and look for wild fruits and roots but it is very difficult to find any in this barren land".

Hundreds of people are sitting down quietly watching the distribution go ahead. They will not get any maize this time but they are waiting patiently to be considered for the next relief distribution.

"Please tell the international community that we are starving because of the failure of the rains. We did not get into this desperate situation on our own account but because our cattle is dying", is the message that Lotapai Lorupaan wants us to convey to the rest of the world as we say goodbye.

ACT has issued an appeal for the victims of the drought in North Eastern Kenya (Turkana and Mount Kenya East). The appeal is for US $ 1,7 million and so far US $ 1,5 million has been covered including very significant in kind (food) contributions from the Government of Kenya and the UN's World Food Programme.

Stine Leth-Nissen is a press officer with ACT member DanChurch Aid. She visited Turkana, Kenya in May, 2000.

Photos to go with this article will be made available within a few days.

For further information please contact:
Nils Carstensen (mobile ++ 41 79 358 3171).
ACT Web Site address:

ACT is a worldwide network of churches and related agencies meeting human need through coordinated emergency response.

The ACT Coordinating Office is based with the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in Switzerland.