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Kenyan Pastoralists Hardest Hit by Drought


The Kenyan government says 3.5 million of the country's 32 million people are in need of immediate food aid as a result of a severe drought ravaging many parts of East Africa. The Kajiado District in southeastern Kenya, the vast majority of the people affected are herdsmen, whose lives depend entirely on the climate.

Even in the best of times, water is a precious commodity in the plains of southeastern Kenya. Rival tribes who share this arid land have fought repeatedly for water and pasture rights.

The pastoral Maasai people, who have lived here for thousands of years crisscrossing the plains in search of grazing land for their herds of cattle, sheep and goats, have survived numerous violent clashes - many of them sparked by droughts that ravage the region on a regular basis.

But 80-year-old Kashimiri Eleposo, says this recent drought has brought a level of calamity few people here have ever experienced. Speaking in the Maasai language, he laments the loss of nearly all of his 400 cattle and sheep to hunger and disease. Now, he says his family's health is deteriorating.

Eleposo says some of his family members are so weak from hunger, they are unable to leave the house. He says he has tried to sell his remaining cattle and goats. But with so many people trying to sell off their animals, prices have plummeted in recent months, making it impossible for Eleposo to get enough money to feed his family and to buy medicine.

At this time of the year, the Maasai say the plains should be full of animals grazing on grass watered by seasonal rains that usually fall between October and November and again between April and July.

The October-November rains are especially critical because they replenish the numerous bore holes in the area. These underground wells often serve as the only source of water for people and animals.

But little rain has fallen in Kajiado and eastern Kenya in the past two years. Now, only patches of scrub brush cling to life in the brown, cracked earth. In a telltale sign of how little moisture there is in the air, dust devils have become a common sight, swirling sand and debris across the parched landscape.

District health officer Jane Kimintin notes that because the lives of the Maasai and herdsmen are so tied to their animals, any crisis that affects their livestock usually has devastating consequences for their owners as well.

"It has been really bad," she said. "The Maasai depend on their animals for their daily food, so right now, they are not having food. They are not having milk. Mothers and children are coming in with a lot of malnutrition."

The drought has also raised fears that tribal clashes here and elsewhere in Kenya could escalate as the competition for water and livestock intensifies.

The drought has hit a huge area, affecting northern, southern, and eastern Kenya, as well as in neighboring Ethiopia and Somalia.

Kajiado resident Jonathan Manangoi says this time, people simply do not have the option of moving their animals to better grazing lands like they could do in the past.

"They will be forced to change their course of life," he said. "Like now, if all the livestock are gone completely, what do you expect? They will go to the wildlife and eat them all. So, that is very bad also."

The Kenyan government has declared the situation a national disaster and has appealed for food, medicine and $150 million from donor countries.

The government says it has released millions of dollars in emergency funds to, among other things, deliver water by trucks to needy communities and to buy livestock from desperate owners, who can neither afford to feed the animals nor sell them.

Aid agencies like the Kenyan Red Cross have also been involved in a similar project to purchase livestock. The aim of the project is to provide much-needed cash to the community and immediate access to food. Minutes after the animals are purchased, they are slaughtered and their meat distributed to hungry families.

But while the Maasai in Kajiado say they are grateful, many say it is too little, too late. They blame the government for failing to act on warnings, issued more than a year ago, about a possible famine if the rains failed again in 2005.

District council member Peter Mweko says western Kenya had had rainfall and bumper harvests. Councilman Mweko says the government did not have measures in place that could have quickly redistributed the surplus food from the west to where they were needed elsewhere in the country.

"We see that things are getting worse day by day. It is becoming too much," he said. "The government, they say they have the food, but they say they have no transport. We do not know what is happening."

The head of special programs for the Kenyan government, John Munyes, acknowledges that the famine threatening the lives of millions of Kenyans is not necessarily drought-related.

"The problem is not really the lack of food in the country. It is access to that food. We must be prepared all the time," he said. "The government has been providing, yes. But I think we need to do more than what we have done in the past."

Even if Kenya's drought-stricken regions receive adequate rainfall during the next rainy season, the government says that many devastated communities will likely require humanitarian and food aid well into next year.

No one here wants to contemplate what the consequences may be if the rains do not come at all.