Drought bites hard for Kenya's marginalised nomads

By Simon Denyer

WAJIR, Kenya (Reuters) - A dead cow rots slowly on the parched red sands of northern Kenya.

Not far away, a woman sits listlessly on a thin mattress in a feeding centre in the town of Wajir -- at her side, wrapped in a colourful shawl, lies her desperately thin baby, its skin blotchy and sore because of severe malnutrition.

For two years much of this region has had little or no rain. Pastures are worn out, and the nomadic people who live here with their herds of camel, cattle and goats are surviving on hand outs.

There is no famine here, but the people are destitute. In Wajir district, a scrubby wasteland twice the size of Belgium, 93 percent of the population, around 300,000 people, will depend on food aid for at least the first half of this year.

In Kenya as a whole, the U.N.'s World Food Programme this week launches an appeal to feed more than four million people, making Kenya its third largest country appeal in the world, behind North Korea and Ethiopia.

"It is still very much an emergency situation," said Jan Debyser of Britain's Save the Children Fund (SCF). "The outside conditions have not improved at all, and people have not recovered from last year's of drought and loss of livestock."

Bishara Abdullahi brought her three youngest daughters to Wajir two months ago. All three are severely malnourished, unable to digest the maize which makes up the bulk of the food aid coming into this region.

The family lost most of their cattle and goats in 1998 in devastating floods blamed on the El Nino weather phenomenon. The drought which followed wiped out their few remaining animals.

"I don't know what I will do with these children when I go home, unless someone helps me," Bishara said.


But the problems of the pastoralists of northern Kenya did not begin with the drought, or even the floods of 1998.

Ethnic Somalis, they feel marginalised by the government in Nairobi, and say they are still being punished for an armed uprising in the 1960s when they fought Kenya's newly independent government for the right to become part of Somalia.

"As a result we are always termed second class citizens," said Dr Abdullahi Ali, local member of parliament for Kenya's ruling Kanu party.

"The problem of this area is negligence by the government," he said. "Since independence not much has been done here, no roads, no health facilities, no education facilities."

The collapse of the Kenya Meat Commission in the 1970s destroyed the market for meat in northern Kenya. The poor state of the roads makes it expensive and therefore uncompetitive to send meat to Nairobi, the collapse of Somalia into anarchy has cut another market as well as a route to the sea.

Food aid is certainly saving lives, but it will not save the way of life of these nomadic people.

"What comes is only emergency help, not long-term projects," said Mohamed Abey Adan of SCF. "That is why we see mothers and children coming back every few years in the same situation."

The answer is not an easy one -- local officials talk about income-generating activities for mothers, encouraging Kenyans from the south to eat camel meat, a long-term development plan.

"We need more for these people than just coming during the drought and then walking away," said Abdirahman Abass, local head of the Arid Lands project in the Office of the President.

"You are discharging someone at the front door, but they just appear at the back door," he said.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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