Nomadic Kenyans suffering from drought, famine

By Gabe LaMonica, CNN

(CNN)–World Relief, a Christian evangelical aid organization, is collaborating with Kenyan churches and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to stem the tide of acute malnutrition across the northern region of Kenya called Turkana.

Famine today “is rarely mentioned anymore,” said Don Golden, a senior vice president for World Relief based out of Baltimore. It is a word reserved strictly for Somalia, he said.

But famine, like a plague, spreads, and, “In reality it’s a very large food security crisis involving a number of countries and millions at risk,” said Golden, referring to the crisis situation in vast regions of east Africa.

“We have the means to stop famine,” he said. “The only reason it is happening now is because of al-Shabab-controlled territory in Somalia.”

According to Golden, refugees fleeing the al-Shabab-dominated famine areas of Somalia are exacerbating the situation in Turkana, a region already poor in resources. “The old saying is that droughts are natural disasters and famine is manmade,” he said.

“Nearly one-quarter of the children in Turkana are malnourished or at risk of malnutrition,” Golden said.

Turkana is drought-stricken and encompasses an area where a great body of evidence for early hominid development has been unearthed.

Areas east of the saltwater Lake Turkana have provided a boon for archaeologists, who have recovered fossils from the Pleistocene era; the first Australopithecus skull and Homo habilis were found here. In 1984,”Turkana boy,” or Homo erectus or Homo ergaster was found here.

In a speech this March, then-U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger called Kenya a ” ‘have-not’ country related to water … with an average of less than 1,000 cubic meters available per person per year.”

Americans have access to four times that much water.

Pastor Simon Ndegwa of Parklands Baptist Church in Nairobi, some 700 miles away from Turkana, said the people there “are first a community isolated, they are secondly a community facing conflict every day, and they are thirdly a community that’s living in a terrain that’s very, very challenging.”

It is a terrain that Peter Smerdon, the chief of media relations at the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF’s) global headquarters in New York, is familiar with.

Do the Turkana have to change to survive?

“All the arid and semiarid areas have similar problems of lifestyle as to whether it continues or not,” Smerdon said.

Stopping people from starving to death is different than enabling them to fend for themselves. “There’s a way of helping that can hurt,” said Ndegwa, who collaborates closely with World Relief.

“Sometimes interventions have the capacity to completely take away what’s so valuable to a people,” he said.

In the case of the Turkana, who are a pastoralist, animist people, what are valuable to them are their cattle and their ability to move around in search of pastures. Their nomadic tendencies take them across country and tribal borders.

“We shouldn’t just throw these people on the dust heap and say look, your lifestyle is no longer permitted and you need to be a farmer,” Smerdon said. Before coming to UNICEF, he was with the World Food Program operating out of northern Kenya.

“In 2006,” he said, “the people who survived the drought the best were those who educated some of their children who now were working in big towns like Nairobi and able to send money back in order to supplement loss of livestock.”

Smerdon and Golden agree that to create sustainability for an isolated people in today’s interconnected world, there has to be a bridge. The answer then, lies in education.

Initially, in an emergency situation, “everyone is saying we want water and food,” Smerdon said, “but at the end they are saying we want school fees.”

In a modern world, people can survive famine by “giving up their way of life, settling in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps and waiting for free food,” Golden said.

“Educating schoolchildren is a way to change lifestyles” for isolated children growing into a globalized world and “therefore they can get a job and provide a lifeline (to their families) when there is a drought,” Smerdon said.

“There’s the emergency response but also very much a realization that you have to help communities build up their resistance and find other ways of earning money,” he said.

Ndegwa said, “We must hear the cry of a vulnerable people, the Turkana, during their hour of need.”

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