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Northern Kenya’s Drought-hit Herders Pin Hopes on Desert Farming

The people of northern Kenya have traditionally been pastoralists, since the land has long been considered too dry for farming, Nov. 28, 2014. (Hilary Heuler/VOA)

Kenya’s hot and arid north has been suffering droughts and dry spells for years, which locals say are getting more severe. Herders have seen their animals die, leaving them with nearly nothing. Extreme circumstances have pushed some in the area to resort to the locally-stigmatized practice of agriculture, in hopes of being able to feed their families once again.

Ali Abdi’s family had long been considered wealthy, well-respected in their home district of Garissa, in northern Kenya. Abdi himself had around 100 goats, which he moved with the seasons, always on the lookout for fresh pastures.

But then came the long drought of 2012 and 2013, and Abdi’s fortunes changed.

As the pastures dried up, he said, his animals grew thinner, then started to die. By the end of the drought over two-thirds of his goats were gone, and with them his only source of food for his family.

According to Ahmed Sheikh of the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization, Abdi was not alone. Many people, he said, lost even more.

“Most people actually went into destitution. People who had 100 heads of cattle remained with 10, goats the same. The herd size is what makes pastoralism a bit economical, but once the herd size shrinks it becomes really un-economical,” he said.

This year is not as bad, but once again Garissa has dried up. So Abdi looked around, considered his options and made a difficult decision.

For the first time Abdi, along with a group of about a dozen other men and women, is trying to grow crops. The group cleared about three hectares by hand, using machetes, which was so difficult that some thought it would be impossible. Now they are growing a number of fruits and vegetables, including bananas, tomatoes, chilies and lemons.

Garissa’s ethnic Somalis have been semi-nomadic herders for as long as anyone can remember, and Abdi’s choice was considered radical, even foolish.

Abdi admits he had been worried about what the neighbors would say. Many thought he had gone crazy, he said, and some still do. His wife was unhappy, because in Somali society a man who works the land is considered lowly and poor. This is still true, said Abdi, despite the fact that he now makes more money from his farm than he did keeping goats.

With the help of grants from development organizations and the government, small pockets of pastoralists around Garissa have begun to crow crops. Rain-fed agriculture was impossible here, but with a bit of technology the Tana River could be harnessed, said Ahmed Sheikh.

“You can put your canals, or you can put arteries where you put concrete into the canals so you don’t lose much water in seepage. The water is pumped from the river through irrigation, and is distributed,” he said.

The new farmers have to be taught everything, from preparing the land to spacing the seeds and proper techniques for watering. Not all have the patience for the long wait before a harvest.

The NGO African Development Solutions (Adeso) is training them. And according to Adeso’s Abshir Abdi (no relation to the farmer), while people might still keep some animals, the adoption of farming is likely to be permanent.

“If you look at the way the climatic change is going, from now onward it’s only camels that can survive here in northern Kenya. Especially inside the bush, you will not see grass coming up. So for the cattle and sheep to survive, they have to do fodder production,” said Abdi.

Their numbers were still small, said Sheikh. But as he drives along the Tana these days he sees more and more land being cleared, as northern Kenya’s desperate herders pin their survival upon making the desert bloom.