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Kenya battles recurring drought

Countries of East Africa and Horn of Africa plagued by successive years of low rainfall.

Farmer Mutindi Maithya, 36, finds it hard to support her six children because of low rainfall. The family is scraping by on two meals a day, one of which is tea with sugar. (Tristan McConnell/GlobalPost)

MWINGI, Kenya — There is not supposed to be drought here, a few hours drive east of the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

All around Mwingi are small scale farmers and livestock keepers. When the rains come — twice a year — they plant maize and beans in the thick red earth, then live off the harvest until the next wet season. But there hasn’t been any rain for years now.

Mafuo David, a 36-year-old mother of five, said that her three-acre patch of land could give her a harvest of eight sacks of maize and beans. But she was talking theoretically because last year the maize died in the earth and she harvested nothing, while the year before that she got just two sacks, and the year before that, nothing.

Across East Africa and the Horn of Africa communities are facing starvation thanks to a drought that may be the worst in a decade or more. Twenty-five years after a BBC report from Ethiopia kick-started Band Aid and then Live Aid and gave us the defining image of contemporary Africa — the emaciated child, flies on her eyelids staring listlessly at the camera — famine looms across Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia, and there are food shortages in Sudan, Eritrea, Uganda and Tanzania.

The aid agency Oxfam estimates that more than 23 million people are on the brink and will only survive if emergency food is handed out fast.

The World Food Program (WFP) — part of the United Nations — is asking for $1 billion to feed the region’s drought-struck people for the next six months but is struggling to raise the money as the world recession stymies charity appeals.

Large parts of this region are home to a low-density population of pastoralists, semi-nomadic herders who by choice and adaptation live in semi-arid or desert regions of northern Kenya, southern Somalia and southern Ethiopia.

These pastoralists have always lived tough lives in harsh parched environments but this years-long drought has decimated their herds and made their existences more marginal and precarious than ever.

Such is the severity of the drought that farmers and even city dwellers are in need of help, their plight worsened by high food prices at the market. The hungry poor can’t afford to buy expensive maize when their own supplies have run out.

“There have been four failed harvests, stores are depleted and so are the savings that could be used to buy food,” said Gabrielle Menezes of WFP Kenya which is feeding 3.8 million Kenyans, or one in every 10. School feeding programs now reach 1.1 million, some of these in
areas that are considered Kenya’s green belt.