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NUTRITION & HEALTH

Eternal starvation in Kenya’s arid frontiers

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An abandoned mud hut sits forlornly amid the sun-scorched desolation in Isiolo county. This flat, barren, desiccated land extends all the way to the horizon where it seems to merge with vast blue sky. There is nothing to hide the fate of those who call this place home. Photo by the author.

It’s late morning, but you wouldn’t tell that given the heat. I’ve never known any time of day to be so hot. I park on the verge of The Great North Road and alight to admire Mt. Ololokwe. I am captivated by the scenery. The landscape spreads endlessly in all directions. The earth is scorched by the sun, producing in the distance, a mirage whose waves seem to distort reality. I want to absorb it all; to savor the display of natural beauty all around me. But something else catches my eyes.
It’s that frail body, those dry lips, the cracked feet, the protruding belly, the thin, discolored hair, those conspicuous ribs struggling to hide underneath the tattered clothes he has on. He emerges from behind a thorn bush, clutching onto his mother’s hand as she walks in hurried steps. He’s struggling to keep up. His steps seem reluctant, painful even. It’s as if the mother is dragging his emaciated being to wherever home might be. She’s on a mission; to get there and fix him a meal before he drops dead. It must have been a long time since they last had a meal. There’s a lot of making up to do. At the pace she is walking, her feet barely rest on the hot earth before being swung up and forward and up again. I wince each time her bare foot misses a sharp pebble, or a rugged tuft rock, or the thorns strewn everywhere. She knows all these dangers are present, yet she doesn’t look at the ground. She can’t, not with the bag of grain balancing precariously on her head. Her right hand holds tightly onto a can of cooking oil whose sides announce (with no attempt at modesty) that it is donated by a generous people, a generous nation! I cannot counter that. It’s evident that thanks to that generosity, there’ll be a meal in a household that would otherwise starve to death. Today, a child’s life, this child’s life, might be saved. But not just him. There are many lucky ones. Many whose mothers emerge from behind that same thorn bush chatting animatedly, each with a bag of grain and a can of cooking oil, their hurried steps making it clear as to the urgency of the situation.
I watch the cortege of hungry mothers march on into the distance. I watch their figures dancing in the mirage, watch until they disappear, absorbed back into a world natural to them and strange to me.
Meanwhile, in Nairobi, the argument rages on. The government is on a charm offensive about its ability to contain the ongoing famine. Local leaders insist that people in arid regions are starving to death. No one needs to be reminded that starvation is a perennial problem in our country. The government wants us to believe that there are enough food reserves (which may be true), that no one should die of hunger. It’s easy to buy into this rhetoric, but not after witnessing what I have. People starving to death doesn’t seem unlikely. They have no access to the food purported to be in reserve. As I watch their disappearing figures, there is a feeling of guilt about the excesses of our lives in Nairobi. Those statements by leaders now sound hollow, even clownish. And there is something much worse; the governor of this hungry county has been charged with looting significant amounts from county coffers. So much for bringing resources to the people.
I decide to turn back, mulling over this encounter. This was meant to be an adventure but is turning into sadness. There is something deeply disturbing about seeing a human ravaged by starvation. More so if it is a child (see Little Bob story). It signifies a most basic failure not just for humans but for any species. What else has a species than to ensure there is food at all times?
As I drive along, my attention is drawn back to the endless natural splendor. Except for the area around Ololokwe mountain, the rest of the landscape is amazingly flat. You can see so far into the horizon. Acacia trees dominate the landscape. They grow well apart from each other, as if weary of unhealthy competition. In the spaces between them are barrenness, desiccation, and evidence that life is scarce here. For life is not a fool—it knows to choose its battles.
It’s hot, horribly hot. The sun does not shine here; it burns. It’s furious rays bear down on poor earth, delivering it’s incinerating radiation as if there is a point to be made. The land is so desiccated it seems to want your sympathy. The air is hot and devoid of moisture. It is also restless – not a moment passes before yet another dust devil erupts. The sky is so barren that from horizon to horizon, it’s just a vast blue void where if once there were clouds, they must have left determined never to return. The landscape seems to have no choice but aridity—scorched continuously by the sun and whipped by the winds, it has long relented, giving up on its duty to support life.

We expect lush green vegetation on a riverbank. The barren, sandy banks of river Ewaso Ngiro break this rule, as if warning us against expecting any life deeper into this arid frontier.

I reach Archer’s post, where an open-air market is in full swing. It is a spectacular display of cloud as crowds of Samburu men and women mill around in traditional garb. They seem to be hardly affected by the heat, their dark faces glittering in the relentless sunshine. A short drive and I cross the Ewaso Ngiro river: full and magnificent, its waters flow eastward in sheer indifference to the parched land around it.
I drive on, getting closer to Isiolo town. As I approach a little village called Ngaremara, an older man waves me down. He, his wife and a small boy are sitting in the shade of an acacia tree. They have sacks and cans, the same ones announcing so flamboyantly the identity of the donor. He approaches and asks for water. He seems frail, his battered form attesting to what such a hard life can do to the human body. I hand him a bottle of water, then carry two to his companions as we chat about the heat and hunger. His wife looks worse for the wear. The little boy is their son, about the same age and in no better condition than the one I saw earlier further north. They had come to collect relief food from an NGO of some variety. They’ve not had food for a while, he says, and their animals are dead or dying. There have been no rains here for long, and the river stopped flowing a long time ago. He points to the south where about a hundred meters from us lies the long dried bed of the river after which this area is named.
The man tells me that if not for relief food, there would be no hope. He has lost a few children. Just a few of his goats remain – remnants of the prolonged drought and raids by their hostile neighbors. He points to the northeast the distance they must traverse, on foot, before getting home. I look, seeing nothing but the waves of the mirage dancing menacingly in the distance. It will be a punishing trek. I look at the little boy, another epitome of malnutrition. Overcome by it all, I hand over some banknotes to him. It seems useless, such an act. What can money do against such a powerful and ruthless natural environment? My experience as a witness to nature’s brutality is repeated yet again as I watch their labored steps. For the second time today, I stand watching the backs of starving human beings disappear into the mirage. Their figures disappear in the horizon as if Mother Nature has swallowed them, taken them back into herself. She’s not a caring mother. Not when under her fury, existence is one nasty, brutish and very short affair.
I have only always heard of Kenya’s north-eastern frontier where drought and banditry reign supreme. There are images etched in my mind of animal carcasses, of mothers crying over their dying children, of communities fighting over dwindling water supplies and vanishing pasture, of people scraping off the mud from long dried river beds—to somehow squeeze the last remaining molecules of water from it. To many Kenyans like me, these images on television are the closest we get to the tragedy that life for our fellow citizens must be. They terrify us, fill us with dread, fill us with guilt at our own wastefulness, move us to a little and some more to the cause of saving our fellow Kenyans. Year after year, the spectacle unfolds on our screens. Too soon after the emotions dissipate, we forget it all. Life goes on for us. We argue about handshakes, succession, legacy. Perhaps the noise helps to drown our nation’s hunger pangs. For some, the noise serves to expend the energy of an overfed ego.
I wonder how many like them there must be. How many like that man, how many like those women walking home in haste, how many even less fortunate than them. There must be many. More than half of the country is arid or semi-arid. The heavens have parched the earth, which gives in kind to the people. What choices have they but to raid their neighbors? How could they not, when their lives depend on finding something by any means possible. Perhaps they would stop if the promises were kept. Promises to sink boreholes to provide water year-round. Promises to modernize pastoralism, to introduce new economic occupations and reduce dependence on unreliable ones. Promises made by irresponsible leaders who leave them to their fate as they indulge themselves in the capital of a nation all but indifferent to their plight.
On the surface, it may seem that those living here are victims of brutal natural forces. One might even wonder why entire communities insist on living where life has no chance. But this is their way of life, their natural habitat. With climate change, nature has made life difficult in the only habitation they regard as home. Nature does what nature does. If ever mother nature issued an apology, the news never got to me, or anyone I know. The survival of species depends on adapting to natural changes. This means that the worsening aridity in Kenya’s frontier regions is an invitation for the country’s leadership and all of us to find ways of solving the problem of perennial food insecurity. But with the bickering at the highest levels of leadership and granted the unconscionable looting by leaders in the most affected counties, it seems the more significant problem is aridity of kindness and responsibility. You can’t help but think so after encountering starvation face to face, not on the TV screen.
I get back on my way, wishing them well. I cannot but wonder how long this lucky break will last. How long have they, and will they, depend on relief food for their survival. I doubt it will be long enough to rejuvenate that little boy, to provide some fat padding over his ribs, to revitalize his cracked skin, to assure him of survival beyond his present fate. Wherever I look, there is no sign that nature cares for his survival. Nothing seems to favor life. To want for food, to want for water, to want for the most basic provisions might be an aberration in our modern world. A world where you do not go for water, you make it come to you. A world where you do not hunt and gather, you call the fast food to deliver to you. A world where you do not roam the plains or climb the hillsides looking for berries, trying to spear wildlife, or stalk in the dark of night to snatch your neighbor’s cattle and kill him if he tries to stop you. Here, survival imperatives demand that you push nature for the most that can be squeezed out of it. A nature so unwilling in its giving, so unsparing in its meanness must be made to yield to the demands of survival. You cannot simply take what it gives, for its giving is not giving at all.
I can’t shake the thought that the aridity that covers two-thirds of our country isn’t the problem. Some nations which are almost entirely desert manage to feed themselves—and donate to us. The occasional grain and oil from faraway lands do little for the survival of these communities and for our dignity as a nation. We cannot fight nature’s meanness, but we must tame it. It is why we are human. It is the challenge to the leadership of a nation which annually declares famine as a national emergency, which treats food insecurity so casually. A message to those who watch it all unfold on the newsreel, unable to reconcile the excesses of their lives with the deprivation of their countrymen. Perhaps, just perhaps, if we all came together, as one nation, as a human collective, no child should starve to death, even in the sun-scorched frontiers.

“You should not see the desert simply as some faraway place of little rain. There are many forms of thirst.”

William Langewiesche

Send correspondence to p.editor@tiirahealth.com 

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