Sub-Saharan Africa famine relief - Update 2: A view from the field

Damaris Frick, seconded from The Salvation Army in Germany, was part of the International Emergency Services assessment team which looked at how The Salvation Army might best respond to the humanitarian crisis in Kenya. She reports here on her experiences in this, her first emergency services deployment:

Driving through Kenya, you cannot ignore the drought. For three years there has not been sufficient rainfall -- the last five consecutive rains have failed -- and the situation now is very severe. In areas where agriculture is the main way of life the maize should be ready for harvest -- more than two metres high, green and luscious. But what I saw were fields of knee-high, yellow-brownish dry maize. There will be no harvest again this year. You see dried-up river beds and the dead bodies of cows, donkeys, zebras and other animals alongside the road. And you see people transporting water -- often for many kilometres.

It was my task to visit several schools and talk to pupils and teachers about their experience of the current situation. One pupil I met was Duncan, a 14-year-old Masai boy. According to his teacher he comes from one of the very poor families in the community. His family's possessions numbered just two cows, both of which died recently. A small cow would cost 12,000 Kenyan schillings (about US$175), a fortune for a family such as Duncan's. In other families the father or other male family members have to go away with the herd in search of pasture. Some even go as far as Tanzania.

We visited the Turkana District in the very north of the country, where the livestock is mainly goats, sheep and camels. In the desperate search for pasture, their owners even go over the borders to Uganda and other neighbouring countries. The population there is very hostile towards the Turkanas and there have been cases of violence and armed hostility.

Even in big, crowded cities like Nairobi you can see people with their livestock. Wives and little children usually stay behind, often with no means of buying food. On the Salvation Army premises in Kajaido a local farmer had left three cows. The compound had running water and the cows' owner obviously could not think of another way to keep them alive. So The Salvation Army became a cattle refuge!

At another school I met 14- and 15-year-old Mueni and Kalekje. Both come from families which earn their living from agriculture. There will be no harvest this year and a total crop failure is anticipated again this month. When I asked how their families would survive the girls had no answer.

Every morning they walk for 30 to 45 minutes to school, to get there in time for a 6.30 start. The school is supported by a school feeding programme -- supplied in a partnership between the Government and the World Food Programme. At precisely 12.40 pm the children receive their lunch -- kiselli, a typical Kenyan dish with maize and beans. I asked if they would receive any other food at home. They were reluctant to answer. Maybe they were ashamed to confess that there is no food at home these days.

Kalekje's favourite subject is mathematics. Jane Kyalo, the senior teacher in this school, told me that 'being hungry does affect children's ability to concentrate and study'.

After returning from school the girls have to go and fetch water. They walk for an hour, wait in a queue with many other people -- mainly women and children -- and then walk back for another hour carrying a 20-litre jerrycan on their backs. That is the water for the whole family. The international standard for water requirements in a disaster is a minimum of nine litres per person per day. In Mueni's case, eight people have just 20 litres for drinking, cooking and washing -- an unbelievable situation.

To help deal with this sort of situation, The Salvation Army will be working in partnership with district authorities to deploy water tanks to strategic locations. This is just one of a series of measures that form the response to the famine now facing much of sub-Saharan Africa.

I wondered if these girls would get the opportunity to attend secondary school (four more years) after finishing the eight years of primary school. I doubt it. The primary school is supported by the Government but the family has to pay school fees for the secondary school to cover school materials, boarding fees and food. There is no school feeding programme for secondary schools so only a few children get this opportunity, the parents just don't have enough money. During times of drought the situation is even worse. We hope The Salvation Army's 'Food for Fees' programme which will be launched in a number of secondary schools will help.

After a long day in the field we returned to our accommodation. I felt pretty bad flushing the toilet and taking a shower. I was very aware of the fact that I would normally use more water for a simple shower than Duncan's, Mueni's or Kalekje's family probably have for a whole day. We have seen water in one of the shallow wells that was so dirty we would not use it for washing a car. But here they drink it because it is all that is available. Drinkable water is a precious commodity in countries like Kenya.

Donations to The Salvation Army's Sub-Saharan Africa Disaster Fund can be made via the International Headquarters web site at this URL: