Kenya: Simple technology brings food in 'famine'

Kenya is going through another 'famine'. The Kenyan Media and Government have hyped up a large, public 'Save A Life' campaign, bolstered by sensational and distressing pictures of people living in the famine areas getting their skeletal frames up mountains of refuse to search for snippets of food. News stories of mass poisoning then reached the media followed by the inevitable 'who is to blame' rhetoric by the same media who started the campaigns. Well meaning but publicity hungry local corporate companies queued up to donate to the appeal - so long as the TV cameras were present.
Kenyan people dipped their hands into their empty pockets and bought rice, maize meal flour and sugar to be delivered in trucks, again followed by TV crews, to these vulnerable communities.

The real reason for the acute food shortages is a lack of planning by the government and mainly, a lack of access to water. AMREF, the African Medical Research Foundation is currently running a campaign to get water to those communities so that Kenya does not face the same food crisis next year. With water, people have much more chance of surviving these difficult times. With knowledge of food preservation, an ability to grow fast growing crops and water from nearby boreholes, Kenyans in isolated communities would have a far, far better chance of surviving and staying healthy in times of crisis.

Rose Wambua, 48, lives in one of the 'famine areas - but she is not lacking food. When I visited, she looked up in joy, and said, "Mumetoka AMREF? Karibuni! (You are from AMREF? Welcome)! If it were not for AMREF, I am not sure my family would be alive today."

At 9:00 am in the morning the sun is already getting hot in this rural Mtito Andei village of Makueni district in Eastern Kenya. Rose is busy tending to her kitchen garden, which is startlingly green in relation to the bare sun-baked brown earth around it.

Rose began her training and association with AMREF a year ago. All her life, she had woken up every morning wondering whether there was going to be food for the family that day. When her son and daughter died one after the other and left their children under her care, she was close to despair. She was forced to accommodate 12 dependants in her house; most of them were either school going children or toddlers.

Here in dry, parched Makueni, feeding even a small family is a problem, let alone a family of 12. The district suffers severe drought every four years, and even when there's no drought, the 'rainy season' may only last as long as three weeks. Charcoal selling is the only means of livelihood left to the people. But now even the trees have diminished in alarming proportions due to the deforestation and land degradation making the situation even worse both for farming and for earning a livelihood.

During this current famine, Rose and her dependants are under no threat from malnutrition, thanks to this water and nutrition project. Her kitchen garden is lush, green and brimming with tomatoes, Sukuma wiki and cabbages. She has been taught to use the drip irrigation method, an easy way to make a kitchen garden using the minimum amount water, a method developed by Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI). An ordinary water bucket is attached to two thin water pipes, which have holes at intervals. The vegetables are planted along the length of the pipes and fed by water from the holes.

Apart from supplying Rose and her community with water and the means to use it usefully, AMREF have also provided Rose with six chickens and 33 chicks that provide eggs for her domestic use and for sale. She is also joining the AMREF goat-rearing project.

Women from the community project have been taught how to preserve food, to dry fruits and vegetable for storage, and to make jam from fruits and tomatoes.

There is the old adage that it is better to give a man a fishing rod than a fish. Rose and her family do not want to be dependent. They do not want to stand with their arms outstretched every time Kenya faces its inevitable drought. They want to have a way of earning a living, of fending for themselves. This method of ensuring that people have food on the table is empowering, cheap and sustainable. Kenya can feed itself. It just needs to be given the tools to do it.