Kenya: Their animals are dead. These people are next

In conference rooms and in academic papers, the experts call it "pervasive pre-famine conditions". In the village, squatting on his brick-sized wooden stool in the red dirt of East Africa, Lokuwam Lokitalauk calls it a death sentence. His curses ricochet round the quiet village and his glaucoma-misted eyes dart off, surveying the stick-like spectres of children drifting listlessly about.
"When I had my cows, I could afford three wives and I have 20 children," he said. "The drought has killed my herd. All my cattle have died of thirst but I still have the wives and children, and now I can't feed them. I should be out there with my cows grazing." He waves a hand behind him to the crisp, cracked plains without turning his head: "But, here I am, I am weak now; I'm waiting to die."

And if the rains fail again later this year, he and his people face death. The ghost of famine hangs over the Turkana nomads of Northern Kenya. The short rains failed last November and the long rains of April and May have arrived only as the occasional shower that just keeps the vicious thorn bushes and the few camels alive. The cows and sheep on which about 250 000 pastoral people rely for food and milk are now all dead. Over the whole drought-hit area, stretching into Southern Ethiopia, Southern Sudan and east into Somalia, people who spend their time moving with the weather from the valley-floor grazing sites to the springs in the hills have lost almost all their livestock. Animals are everything to these people -- their food, their wealth, their insurance and their savings accounts. Eight million people in this dry triangle are hungry.

Herds of cattle hundreds strong have been wiped out, their skinny corpses not even any use as meat. The lucky families have a few thin goats left and spend most of their waking hours searching or digging for water to keep the spark of life in them. The children are malnourished and sick, their parents are weak and helpless. There are no old people.

There is some grazing land still to the west in Uganda where the rain has fallen a little more, but the once-friendly tribes there have turned protective and attack anyone who attempts the long walk to the border.

Half an hour's drive from the village of Lopiding, where the old men sit in despairing solitude while the women queue for hours for a turn at the well that reluctantly squeezes out a bowlful of water from deep in the earth, two-year-old Lokaalei cries and cries. He has not eaten for two days.

Lokaalei was orphaned in the last week of April. His young parents -- Nakatorot and Ekal -- were part of a group who had been digging for water. Some of the wells they dig with their bare hands have reached 12m: that means 10 people standing from top to bottom passing up gourds of water from the shrinking water table.

The sides of these pits are just sand and brittle earth, so they collapse every now and again. Smothered by the very dryness of the land: this is a brutality beyond irony. Six people died in the accident that killed Lokaalei's parents and locals say about 35 others have died this way in the past month, but showers over the past few days have raised the water table and, for about four weeks at least, the pits will not need to be so deep.

Lokaalei's aunt has taken him in, but he will only let one of his cousins, a six-year-old girl, anywhere near him. No one knows if he cries for his mother or because of the pain in his belly.

"His name, in Turkana, is the word for when the water is flowing," says his aunt Kochele. "The rains were working when he was born and he was a great hope for his mother and for all of us."

She has her own three children, but the Turkana look after their own fiercely.

"Whoever has something small they will share," she said. "If we had livestock, there would be milk for the children, but now they get up in the morning to scavenge for a few berries." She burns wood to make charcoal and walks for many kilometres to sell it. But so do many of the other nomad women scattered around this wide plain. It is a buyers' market and she gets a handful of shillings for her load.

These people have nothing on their minds but water, their days centred on it. They are haunted by water. Food is almost a secondary issue. Sanitation a long-forgotten luxury. "It drives us crazy to see when they are drinking stagnant water from a pool where their animals have also drunk," said John Kener, a project officer for the charity Amref's clinic at Lopiding, the only health service for thousands of square kilometres. "There is no boiling of the water they can find, they drink where the animals drink. Disease is rampant."

Joseph Lomil (27) is on the village committee that looks after the well at Lopiding. "Last month there were fights here because people wanted to give water to their livestock, but it takes too long to pull up water and everyone must queue."

Lomil has heard of irrigation and knows about bore holes, and he dreams of going to Nairobi to train as a water engineer and then come back here to help his people. Just to torment himself he has worked out what it would cost for the two-year course -- 300 000 Kenyan shillings (about $4 000). There is nowhere for a man like him to get that kind of money and no charities are offering such individual investment. The Kenyan government certainly is not either. So Lomil dreams on as the village well creaks out its daily allowance.

The Turkanas usually live only briefly in larger groups, spending most of their time in the countryside moving around with their immediate family in a couple of hide, tarpaulin and stick huts. Since the drought, security has become paramount and families are coming together into encampments surrounded by thorny brush barriers to keep out Sudanese rustlers who come at night to steal a goat.

Today some grain has arrived in Lopiding from Nairobi -- a three-day treacherous drive away -- the first for several months and Kener estimates it will last the 30 families here four days. Others have walked in from kilometres around. There is no food aid for Lokaalei, though. Kochele and her family were in the hills when the government man came to register people for emergency food. Their name is not on the list.

There is no expectation from the Turkana that help will come to them from outside, certainly not from the government so far away in Nairobi.

David Ille is a 40-year-old father-of-six who for now lives in Lopiding. "For the Turkana, we prefer to live in the countryside, that is where we are comfortable and happiest. Even now, those who have moved near or into villages will move out again as soon as they get some livestock." Ille has lost three-quarters of his animals. He was a rich man, but, in a cashless economy, his wealth faded with his cows. "For me it was very difficult as I had sent my sons to school so when the time came there was no help to move the cows to find some pasture. People say, 'Now you have lost everything because you have sent your boys to school.' But I do not regret it; maybe my boys will be able to support me in different ways."

What different ways there are in this harsh environment is hard to see. This calamity is as much a part of the natural landscape as are its six metre termite towers and the distant hills reaching up to the blue sky. Although the usual cycle of drought is every eight to 10 years, that has now been reduced -- most likely by global warming -- to about once every five years, and this one is especially tough. When all the livestock dies like this, it takes an estimated 15 years to build up stocks again.

Experts and charity workers believe the nomads' plight in times of natural disaster is exacerbated by wilful neglect of people with no political clout. Dr Sara Pantuliano is an expert on pastoralism. A research fellow of the humanitarian policy group at the Overseas Development Institute, she will host a meeting in London this week to look at the gaps in the response to the drought. She said too many government officials believed the answer to helping the nomadic peoples of the Horn of Africa was not to help them in practical ways to sustain their traditional lifestyles, but to make them settle down.

"The ecosystem there cannot support large numbers of people so the areas are sparsely populated and easily forgotten. These are people who make the best use of resources by moving around and their way of life is valuable to the economy and they provide meat. They need investment such as abattoirs and livestock markets and roads, so their animals can be bought and sold." In times of drought, people could then sell their cattle before they died and smaller herds would have a better chance of survival, especially if more wells and bore holes were built, she said.

"The biggest problem is that pastoralists have always been political outcasts, marginalised by the mainstream," said Pantuliano. "So no investment is forthcoming -- politicians are taught outdated theories that the pastoralists have an inefficient economy and the only way they will survive is to settle. But 20 years of research has shown that is not true. They are economically productive: put them in settlements and they become an increasing burden on their government and on the international community."

Some of the areas where the Turkana would normally go in times of drought have been closed off, not just by warring tribes but also by a decade of flawed management of land by successive governments with the encouragement of the World Bank and other donors.

"We are in a crisis," said Mette Kjaeris, country director for Amref in Kenya. "Around eight million people in that triangle are in need of food. Even if there is just a little rain now, it won't help much. Turkana is still an emergency district and the lowest priority in allocating investment; it's remote, it's hidden."

It is not only a low priority for the government. Just up the road from Lopiding is Lokichoggio, a scrap of a town around an airstrip. About 20 charities use it as a stopping-off point for supplies and workers heading into the vast humanitarian crisis of southern Sudan. South African and Russian pilots drink beer in the bar at Kates' Camp, the only hotel for hundreds of kilometres. There is even a small swimming pool -- full of water.

Now the fragile peace agreement in Sudan means most of the NGOs that come through here are beginning to ship out to base themselves fully within Sudan's borders. Kates' Camp customers will go and the pool will be drained. So, too, will the supplies of medicine to the Amref medical clinic that Kener runs and which relies on these assorted flights to keep their supplies coming in. "We will stay, but I am worried things will get very difficult. Already some of the NGOs have taken our nurses away to Sudan," Kener says.

The bigger calamity calls. "That's one of the challenges facing us all, the NGOs, the governments -- how do we prioritise? If we just look at greatest numbers of people, as in Sudan, areas such as this with lower population density will be neglected. We need to find new criteria; we need to pay more attention as a global community," said Kjaeris. "Everyone needs to work harder."

This is the edge of the abyss of famine. If the rains do not fail again in November, the little boy named after running water may live to see his homeland green again. If the drought continues, Lokaalei and many others like him will undoubtedly die.