Kenyans hope for food aid as drought and hunger bite

by Clare Barasa, of Kenya Red Cross, in Bandari with Andrei Neacsu

A frail old man struggles to curve a hoe out of a thick log. Some years ago making farming tools would earn Askari Jefwa a living. Today, Kenya's Coast province is ravaged by drought and Jefwa's future looks bleak.

A large farm, which appears to lie fallow, surrounds his homestead. But a closer look reveals withering maize plants. He peers into the distance and strides slowly out to welcome the visiting Red Cross team.

Askari Jefwa, who is aged about 70, hails from Bandari in Kilifi District. As he talks of the tough times of drought and hunger that are affecting his village, he is overwhelmed by a deep sense of despair.

"People are dying of hunger," he says. "I don't have anything to feed for my six-member family. My grandchildren get weaker and weaker every day."

This is the third year that rainfall, during both the long and short rainy seasons, has failed in Kenya's Coast province.

"The season has been quite unfavourable for us. Despite planting seedlings on time our efforts have been rendered futile. I have had to go for days without food, or have had to survive on greens. We have resorted to eating cactus when there is nothing else to eat," Jefwa says.

But cacti fruits can prove a deadly delicacy when eaten in large quantities, especially for children, with their frailer bodies. Their stomachs can swell, and medical care is too often lacking or misguided.

"It has been hard, but I am a man and can carry on for many days without eating something. But what about my family?" Jefwa asks.

Even if it is in insufficient quantities, aid has started to arrive. Jefwa's community received relief food donated by the government and distributed by the Kenya Red Cross.

"We get two kilos of maize every two months. That is barely enough to feed my family," he laments. He is still waiting for the promised additional supplies of maize and beans in the location.

Jefwa says the government should be providing larger rations for each family, but Kamau Maina, Kilifi's district officer, points out that "Bandari location still receives the highest portion of the relief food allocated", compared to other divisions of the Coast province.

On the other side of his homestead, Katsuheni Askari, Jefwa's wife sits still under the scorching sun. Her pale eyes, malnourished body and protruding bones paint a grim picture of hunger.

"I have gone three days without food. I haven't seen such a famine for the last 20 years." She lowers her traditional clothing and exposes her malnourished body. Her brown hair is also a telltale sign of lack of a balanced diet.

Today's meal consists of a bowl of mchunga, a local vegetable dish. Usually prepared with a lot of oil, the vegetables were obviously boiled with only water. She dips her hand into the bowl of vegetables, mixes it with a piece of ugali, a compact paste made of maize flour and water, and eats quickly.

"Today my husband managed to get some 20 shillings (25 US cents) and purchased some maize flour," she points out.

Katsuheni's six-year-old nephew, Hamisi Mwendwa, looks much healthier. He and other children get to eat under a school feeding programme run by authorities with support from Unicef, the UN children's foundation.

Authorities in Kilifi note that 70 per cent of the population is directly dependent on farming in the district. With a massive food deficit, the situation has grown worse and about 120,000 people in the district require urgent food relief before the situation deteriorates.

So far the Government has distributed 15,000 bags of maize, over 3,000 bags of beans, 4,918 cartons of oil and 2,000 bags of sorghum.

Despite the hardship there is ray of hope for Jefwa's family. The government has announced that it will release more bags of maize and beans to famine-affected areas in the Coast province.

"Donations from the national public and corporate sector enabled us to conduct food distributions in some of the most affected areas for the last two and a half months. But our resources are far too limited compared with the size of the current drought", admits Farid Abdulkadir, Director of Disaster Preparedness and Response at the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS), which is coordinating all humanitarian efforts at national level.

In support of the KRCS's efforts, the International Federation has launched an emergency appeal seeking 3.56 million Swiss francs (US$ 2.78 million) to assist the 200,000 most vulnerable drought-affected people, including 40,000 children in the Coast and Eastern provinces in the Kwale and Makueni districts respectively.

"Our aim is to assist the affected population to cope with the present drought, reduce its impact, but also to initiate recovery activities, underlines Reidar Schaanning, the Federation's acting head of regional delegation.

Besides distributing food, the KRCS will work to rehabilitate water sources, improve sanitation and truck water to schools and medical institutions. Seeds and farming tools will also be distributed during the second phase of the operation.