In Kenya, famine threatens, but eyes are on the presidential election

Northern Kenya hasn’t seen a drop of rain in three years. In this dusty desert, there are only wild fruits left to eat.

Loka Metir feeds his five children with it, even though he knows it makes them sick. “It’s the only way to survive,” says the mother of Purapul, a village of thatched huts a two-day walk from the nearest town in arid Marsabit County.

The Horn of Africa is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years. At least 18 million people are experiencing extreme hunger.

Hunger affects 4 million people in Kenya, immersed in the midst of the election campaign ahead of a high-stakes presidential election on Aug. 9.

In the northern desert regions, some 950,000 children under five and 134,000 pregnant or breastfeeding women suffer from acute malnutrition, according to official data in June.

In the three hardest-hit counties, including Marsabit, conditions are close to famine.

– “Under the Rug”

Already hit by the coronavirus pandemic, East Africa’s main economy will see its recovery hampered by drought, compounded by the impact of the war in Ukraine, the World Bank warned last month.

Overshadowed by the problems of expensive living, drought hardly appears on candidates’ agendas.

In the big cities, the populations threatened, with cries of “no food, no elections”, to boycott the scrutiny if the prices of essential products (food, gasoline, etc.) do not fall.

The fate of Kenya’s far north has been “under the rug,” said economist Timothy Njagi of the Tegemeo Institute for Agricultural Policy and Development in Nairobi.

“As it is an election year, we could imagine that this would be a key topic of discussion”, he laments.

Four consecutive seasons of insufficient rainfall created the driest conditions since the early 1980s.

Rivers and wells dried up, grasslands turned to dust, killing more than 1.5 million cattle in Kenya alone.

– Forgotten Lands –

Animal carcasses litter the rocky expanses around Purapul, where herding families struggle to survive without milk, meat or money to eat.

Iripiyo Apothya watched her goats lose weight and then die.

“Now I eat what monkeys eat”, sighs the 73-year-old woman, showing a handful of fruit that she boiled and reduced to a bitter paste: “But even that is running out. What to do?”

The village is isolated and, as is often the case in these forgotten northern regions, there is no school, road, shop or dispensary. The nearest town, Loiyangalani, is 60 km away.

The two leading presidential candidates, William Ruto and Raila Odinga, came by helicopter to campaign in these drought-stricken regions, promising infrastructure and development. But their stop was brief in those voices.

The first has been vice president for almost ten years, the second supported by the outgoing president. “So it’s a loss for anyone who brings it up,” said Karuti Kanyinga of the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi.

For Claire Nasike, from Greenpeace Africa, the promises of the two candidates to invest in water supply and agriculture remain very vague. “The concrete details of how they are going to deal with the climate crisis were not discussed,” she summarizes.

– “We’re dying” –

Despite its historic scale, this drought – which could continue until 2023 if predictions of an upcoming rainy season are confirmed – also does not attract the attention of the international community.

An appeal for aid funds for Ukraine raised $1.92 billion, nearly 86% of its target, according to the UN. Kenya’s much smaller drought appeal was filled at just 17%.

Under an acacia tree, a single doctor examines dozens of mothers and babies during his biweekly visit to Purapul.

“The kind of help we offer is just a drop in the bucket,” said James Jarso of World Vision, one of the few charities that provide help on the ground.

The government says it has spent more than 9 billion Kenyan shillings ($76 million) since the drought was declared a national disaster in September.

“We are going through a difficult economic period. We are doing everything possible, within the possibilities of the government, to support the communities”, assures Steven Mavina, deputy mayor of the municipality of Loiyangalani.

Meanwhile, in Purapul, residents draw water from an unsanitary well.

“We don’t have anyone to help us,” laments Apothya. “I want people to know that we are dying.”

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