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Silent Food Crisis Crippling Kenya Slum


As international headlines draw attention to the political bickering among Kenya's leaders, a crisis almost entirely hidden from view is ravaging Nairobi's Kibera slum. A window into the lives of Kibera's schoolchildren reveals how the silent food crisis in Africa's largest slum is threatening an impoverished generation's future.

On the edge of Nairobi sits the sprawling tin-shack Kibera slum, which with its roughly one million inhabitants is large enough to be a city in itself.

Food prices have more than doubled in the past year, making the always-difficult survival of Kibera's population more challenging.

Plight of children

For a generation of Kibera children growing up with extreme urban poverty, disease, and ethnic violence, the unmanageable price of food is causing much wider and more sinister ripples than simply whether or not they will go to bed hungry. When families cannot afford meals here, it is often the children whose lives change most drastically.

"I am going to go home," said Gideon. "Then if there is no food, then I am going to rubbish."

Gideon dropped out of school last year so he could help support his family by scrounging for scraps in the heaping junk piles of Kibera. If he is lucky, he might make 20 cents a day. Gideon is 13-years old.

The school Gideon used to attend is supported by the World Food Program. Usually the lunch meal the school offers is enough to keep kids attending, as it is likely to be their only meal of the day. But in Gideon's case a fatherless home with younger siblings that need feeding and a mother in the late stages of AIDS has all proven too heavy a burden.

Gideon's mother, who is too sick to work and has been unable to persuade her son to return to school, says she makes her other children continue going to school, even though she can not pay the school fees - otherwise her children would not eat. When the kids are kicked out for being unable to pay, she is nevertheless forced to send them back to the school.

Miriam Wawira is the headmistress at a pre-primary school in Kibera. She says those children whose situations are unfortunate enough to qualify them for admittance into the small school are the fortunate ones in their families. While those young kids receive at least two meals a day during the school week, their siblings are unlikely to be as lucky.

"There are those parents who bring their children here simply because they know in as much as there is no food at home, at least this child can come to school, have porridge at 10 o'clock, have lunch at 1 pm," said Wawira. "And then after that, when they go home, even if there is some little food at home, these children who have been to this school, they will always be the last to be served in their family because there are other children who have been in the house and maybe they have not had lunch or did not have breakfast."

Prices skyrocketed

Food prices in Kenya have shot up, in part due to a severe drought that has left the year's harvest well below the nation's basic demand. Maize flour, the basic staple, has more than doubled in the past year, a trend that holds true for about all other simple grocery items.

For families already engaged in a daily struggle to make ends meet, the unbearable food strain could hardly have come at a more inopportune time.

According to a joint report from humanitarian groups Concern Worldwide, Care International, and Oxfam International, the cost of cooking fuel is up by as much as 50 percent from last year, while the price of water has doubled. Meanwhile, the global economic downturn has helped shrink incomes in Kibera by 20 percent.

Steven Okello, a project officer based in Kibera for CARE-Kenya, explains the crisis has remained largely under the radar because the problem is not that there is no food, rather, the prices are simply too steep.

"The food is available, that is the paradox," he said. "The food is available, but the prices are unaffordable for people living in Kibera. Right now if you look at maize flour for instance, one packet goes for 100 shillings. Yet a majority of people living in Kibera live on less than 70 shillings per day."

School dropout increasing

Gideon's situation is not unique. Not all schools provide meals, and school dropout rates in the slum have increased by 30 percent since last year. Miriam Wawira says for children who drop out of school, the consequences are usually dire.

"These boys when they drop out of school - they become thugs, they get into drugs, they start drinking; the girls, they become mothers, or they become prostitutes for them to raise money," she said. "And they confess it. They tell me, 'What else am I supposed to do? There are no jobs, I do not have money, my parents do not have money, my husband does not have money.' - because even these married women and men are doing the same."

With the rise in commercial sex work to make ends meet, experts expect to see corresponding spike in the area's HIV rate. For those already dealing with the deadly virus, both children and adults, empty stomachs create a challenging dilemma.

Lillian Sawayi is an HIV-positive mother to one of the children attending Miriam Wawira's school. Scrunched within her one-room house held together with wooden poles and packed red dirt, she describes how she is attacked by intense headaches and dizziness when she takes her powerful anti-retroviral drugs without eating. Even if she tries to sleep it off, the pain will force her back awake.

With the looming harvest looking especially weak, the prime minister of Kenya has warned that the severe food crisis is likely to only get worse.

Kenyan economist Robert Shaw agrees with the prime minister's assessment and sees higher prices on the immediate horizon.

"The world price of white maize is holding up, so the white maize we are going to have to import is not going to come in any cheaper than it is now," he said. "And we have had the fourth deficient rains in succession, which has affected a lot of crops, everything from maize to beans to you-name-it. So I think in the next few months you are going to see a rise in food prices again."

For those in Kibera whose day-to-day search for meals is already an all-encompassing struggle, such forecasts can mean very little.

Even those attending schools which provide food have seen a cut in portions and sometimes even meals.

Mbithe, a student attending one of the World Food Program-sponsored schools, mourns the last year's turn of events.

These days it is very difficult. But in back days when we were having porridge - those were better days.

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