Kenya

Kenya's Kerio Valley Parched by Drought

Written by Cynthia Long, Managing Editor, DisasterRelief.org
Looking down from the lush, steep slopes of the Elgeyo Marakwet escarpment in northwest Kenya, the Kerio Valley is deceptively green - an illusion of rolling emerald carpet is created by a thin, brittle canopy of leaves dangling from stunted Acacia trees. But those who inhabit this environment know it as a hot, dusty landscape of rocks and dry thorn bush - a barren wasteland hardened and cracked by two years of drought.

The drought is making headlines in the cities - in the capital, Nairobi, where power is run on hydro-electricity, the drought has forced the government to institute daily black outs in a power rationing system. More recently, the headlines decried a new water rationing policy. Missing from most news reports, however, is any mention of the traditional people of the remote Kerio Valley, where every day is a struggle for survival under a relentlessly beating sun.

The 4,000-foot deep valley is at least a day's drive from almost any town or city, and it's a difficult journey over deeply rutted, bone-jarringly bumpy dirt roads, fit only for the most rugged of vehicles. As a result, people don't often make it out to the small villages and makeshift nomad communities of the valley, and its inhabitants are isolated and forgotten.

But even the most tenacious traveler willing to brave the ride would likely be scared away by the vicious tribal warfare that is waged throughout the valley and up into the surrounding mountains. Cattle raiding is a way of life for the people of this region - heads of cattle comprise a young woman's dowry, they bring a hefty price at the market, and they provide growing children with nourishing milk. Always in short supply, heads of cattle from other tribes' herds are fervently sought by fathers, uncles and brothers who are heavily armed with automatic weapons.

Prolonged drought has intensified the conflict between the valley's Pokot and Marakwet tribes. Without adequate water and grazing pasture, cattle are dying off and raids have grown more frequent and bloody as desperate pastorlists try to fortify their herds.

Over the years, the Marakwet tribe has learned to farm and their territory in the valley is dotted with the green of crops that have been irrigated by river water. They are not as reliant on their animals and aren't as likely to raid other herds, unless it is in retaliation.

But the rivers are quickly running dry, and one of the last full waterways borders Pokot territory. The banks of this river have become battlegrounds and crossing the small bridge between the two lands has been called an act of faith.

The most fiercely aggressive tribe in the country, the Pokots have earned a frightening reputation - when Kenyan children act up, they are told to behave or the Pokots will come and snatch them away. The Pokot people are very traditional and have led a primitive, nomadic lifestyle for centuries. They are herders who depend on their animals for survival. In a desolate region prone to drought, their livelihoods are under constant threat, which leads to desperate measures.

A staple of the Pokot diet is a porridge made from wild fruits boiled with a mixture of milk and blood, a repast rich in nutrients and iron. A special arrow is shot into the neck of a cow to drain blood without permanently harming the animal.

The mixture is necessary to build the strength of a growing child, but the drought has killed most of the cattle in the area and the tribe's children have gone without milk and blood for weeks. The youngest are the first to suffer, but even some of the older children in the region have distended stomachs framed by protruding ribs.

The only sustenance now is the wild fruit, called loma, which can be salvaged from the dry scrub. The fruit is poisonous unless it is boiled for at least 12 hours, and without milk and blood the taste is sour and unpleasant. If it weren't for wells dug by the American Red Cross, the Pokots wouldn't even have the boiled loma to eat.

Last year was one of the driest on record for the Kerio Valley. With the help of the Kenyan Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, the American Red Cross was determined to bring relief to the people of this desolate, forgotten land. Over the course of a year, 52 wells were dug throughout the valley, providing clean drinking water to the Pokots and Marakwet.

The female tribespeople may benefit most from the wells. Women must shoulder the burden of hauling water back to their villages or huts. With nearby wells, they no longer have to hike several miles to the rivers or streams.

"We can't change the culture here or improve the status of women," said Alfred Peters, the American Red Cross head of program for the Kerio Valley, "but we can sure make life a little easier for them."

An energetic, eccentric engineer, Peters has become as much a part of the landscape as the ubiquitous digdig, the tiny antelopes that scurry through the bush. He has befriended the Pokots and Marakwet and earned their trust, and he is one of the only people who can travel freely between the two territories. By providing them with clean drinking water, he has enabled the primitive people to survive the prolonged drought, and he has been made a tribal elder and awarded countless goats in gratitude.

In an innovate "food for work" program, Peters also has showed the tribes how to desilt dams, small manmade ponds designed to catch rainwater that quickly become clogged with mud and silt. The tribespeople were given shovels and silt pans as well as bags of food in exchange for working to desilt the natural dams and replenish the water supply.

But the dams and rivers are slowly running dry, and Peters said he has never seen them so empty. "It's dry as a bone down here, but sometimes you see it raining up in the mountains. The rain never makes it down to the valley, and you just want to cry," he said.

According to Joseph Yatta, the Pokot chief from the town of Kolloa, the situation is very grim. "If the drought continues for another two months, the people of this area could be wiped out," he said. "The government has asked for international help to feed 23 million starving Kenyans, but the impact of drought is especially severe in the interior areas because of bad roads, or no roads. This is the worst drought I've seen in my lifetime."

Yatta is worried about the people of his village who already are showing the signs of severe malnutrition - children like Amos Matiba whose father was killed in a raid and whose mother has died from disease. Reduced to little more than skin and bones, Amos is now being looked after by an aunt but his chances for survival are slim.

Each month children from the surrounding bush gather at a clinic run by a Kenyan Catholic mission to be weighed and immunized. "They are much lighter than they were just a few months ago," said Sister Elizabeth, a nurse from west Kenya who is working at the clinic.

"The children are starving, they are very skinny and some are suffering from anemia or have become ill with malaria. The situation is very bad and is worsening every day. If it doesn't rain, I'm afraid the people here will die."

This is the fourth article in a series by Cynthia Long, managing editor of DisasterRelief.org, who traveled through Ethiopia and Kenya to report on the drought and Red Cross projects in the region.

DisasterRelief.org is a unique partnership between the American Red Cross, IBM and CNN dedicated to providing information about disasters and their relief operations worldwide. The three-year-old website is a leading disaster news source and also serves as a conduit for those wishing to donate to disaster relief operations around the globe through the international Red Cross movement.

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All American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. To help the victims of disaster, you may make a secure online credit card donation or call 1-800-HELP NOW (1-800-435-7669) or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Or you may send your donation to your local Red Cross or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013.

The American Red Cross is dedicated to helping make families and communities safer at home and around the world. The Red Cross is a volunteer-led humanitarian organization that annually provides almost half the nation's blood supply, trains nearly 12 million people in vital life-saving skills, mobilizes relief to victims in more than 60,000 disasters nationwide, provides direct health services to 2.5 million people, assists international disaster and conflict victims in more than 20 countries, and transmits more than 1.4 million emergency messages to members of the Armed Forces and their families. If you would like information on Red Cross services and programs please contact your local Red Cross.

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DisasterRelief
DisasterRelief.org is a unique partnership between the American Red Cross, IBM and CNN dedicated to providing information about disasters and their relief operations worldwide. The three-year-old website is a leading disaster news source and also serves as a conduit for those wishing to donate to disaster relief operations around the globe through the international Red Cross movement. American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. To help the victims of disaster, you may make a secure online credit card donation or call 1-800-HELP NOW (1-800-435-7669) or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Or you may send your donation to your local Red Cross or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013. The American Red Cross is dedicated to helping make families and communities safer at home and around the world. The Red Cross is a volunteer-led humanitarian organization that annually provides almost half the nation's blood supply, trains nearly 12 million people in vital life-saving skills, mobilizes relief to victims in more than 60,000 disasters nationwide, provides direct health services to 2.5 million people, assists international disaster and conflict victims in more than 20 countries, and transmits more than 1.4 million emergency messages to members of the Armed Forces and their families. If you would like information on Red Cross services and programs please contact your local Red Cross. © Copyright, The American National Red Cross. All Rights Reserved.