Photo: WFP/Peter SmerdonWhen the Maasai herdsmen drive their cattle into the outskirts of Nairobi for a long period of time – as has been happening increasingly for more than a year – city dwellers know that there is famine or impending famine. Eastern Africa is used to prolonged dry periods, but since the El Nino floods in 1998 the weather cycle seems not to have returned to its usual pattern: long rains from mid-March to early June, short rains from the end of October to mid-December, otherwise dry. The last fairly substantial rains were in May 2005, and were quite light.

In over 75 per cent of the Kenyan land space (although not 75 per cent of the population) – namely the Coast, the North East and Eastern provinces – rain is not expected for another ten months and people are already suffering famine. These areas depend more on the "short rains", which failed last year. One tenth of the population is said to be at risk, with two-and-a-half million (out of a total population of about 33 million) surviving on food aid, and more at risk.

A national disaster has been declared. The minister in the Office of the President entrusted with dealing with the famine has said that 38 billion Kenya shillings ($US528m) is needed to fight hunger. And President Kibaki, on a special tour of the affected areas in northern Kenya – Wajir and Mandera – made an immediate appeal for 8 billion Kenya shillings ($US111m), saying that the Government can raise only 2 billion ($US28m).

How is it that a reasonably well-organised country like Kenya – which over 20 years ago had a worse famine and managed to feed and keep alive people in the remotest and worst-hit places, while the world looked on in horror at the hundreds of emaciated and dying people in neighbouring Ethiopia which was suffering the same climatic effects – is now caught off guard and trying to apply the remedies when it may be too late?

In the 1970s and 1980s Kenya exported a wide variety of food products, not counting unprocessed tea leaves and coffee berries, such as maize, wheat, sugar, rice and milk. Now the main export sector is horticulture, including high-quality flowers for the European market. Few people can afford to set up such enterprises and a large part of the profits from these remain outside the country. Agriculture has become a somewhat depressed sector of the economy, owing to several factors:

  • Unproductive traditional farming methods, since most farmers cannot afford fertilisers and farm machinery.
  • Intensive sub-division of land: In the western part of the country inherited land is divided into equal parts for each male child. Often the portions are large enough only for subsistence farming; or one of the sons has left for work in town, and leaves the land, which must remain within the family, uncultivated.
  • At the coast, huge tracts of land belong to absentee landlords or owners – some of whom do not even live in Kenya – and in most cases are political "gifts" or favours, whereas the local people, whose land it has been traditionally, live on its edges as squatters.
  • The easy importation of food, especially during the last few years, which is often controlled by politicians or public figures, and which has brought about a lack of motivation for farmers.
  • Farmers are further discouraged by low payment for their produce – because of too many middle men – as well as delayed payment or lack of payment. They therefore remain perpetually poor and are unable to educate their children to escape from the cycle of poverty.
  • Lack of innovativeness on the part of farmers in dry areas. For example, some missionaries in very dry remote areas manage to produce high-quality tropical fruit by means of the judicious use of the scarce water available but few farmers have adopted this.

People are asking why the authorities have been so ill-prepared. In parts of the north the pastoral people, the nomads, will point southwards with their hands indicating the direction of the country called Kenya! They feel marginalised, forgotten by the government and some of their own elected representatives. Did the provincial authorities – the district officers and the chiefs – not inform their superiors of the gravity of the situation? Were they afraid of reporting something negative, thus appearing inefficient? Or did they report, and action was not taken, or was taken slowly?

Some shopkeepers are hoarding maize, since one area of the country has had a record crop, and hoping to export it for a better price. There have also been reports that food aid has been intercepted on the way to the hungry. It is now very clear that distribution of food has been inadequate and poorly organised. Food has not been moving from the points of production to the needy areas. According to one source, between September 2004 and March 2005, when famine was being seen as a real possibility, the government managed to deliver only 77,191 tonnes out of the 166,820 tonnes needed to feed 2.3 million people at that time. And from March to September 2005, only 54,000 out of the 126,000 tonnes required then.

Furthermore, the government did not act on the early warnings of the meteorological department, and did not stock up after the light rains of November 2004, which served as a warning that crops would fail. In June 2005, the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development warned the government of widespread crop failures. The government did NOT take crisis measures, such as filling up the strategic reserves of food.

The effects of the drought will fall on education, and therefore on long-term productivity and the capacity to earn. This will affect the health, especially of mothers and young children, and the productivity of the work-force. It will be the lower-income bracket who will feel the effects, and so the rich-poor gap is widened. Also, resources that could have been used for other kinds of development, such as roads, which in their turn improve the economy through enhanced communication and transportation of goods, will have to be diverted. Physical development is held back.

When the President visited the affected areas he promised that no child would be kept out of school when the new school year began in early January, for lack of fees; that the government would purchase weak livestock and slaughter them to feed the hungry; and that the borders with Somalia would be opened to allow the importation of cheap foodstuffs. Even if these measures are adopted they are very short term, as is the mobilisation of food aid from outside Kenya and from local donors. The farming sector has to be revitalised. Farmers have to be paid on time, and paid well. In theory, agricultural officers are trained and employed to help farmers improve their yields, but this is not working in practice.

The snow caps on the two highest mountains in the region, Kilimanjaro and Kenya, are receding, and from time immemorial these have been a natural source of irrigation. Ways have to be found to improve access to water. The Nile Treaty, a colonial remnant safeguarding the water of the Nile for Egypt, thereby preventing Kenya from the use of Lake Victoria (where the source is), has to be revoked. Despite many appeals this has not happened yet. More boreholes can be sunk in dry areas, where there is electricity close by to operate them. Farmers, too, must change their attitude, constructing more dams and trapping and storing rain water, and no longer wait for help from the government or NGOs.

The Episcopal Conference of the Catholic Church and the Muslim leaders have asked people to pray for rain. But perhaps the most touching reaction was that of the prison inmates. With the change of government three years ago reforms took place in the prisons: buses rather than covered trucks to transport prisoners; professional courses by distance learning for inmates; inter-prison soccer tournaments – and a common television set. It was on the TV that prisoners came to learn of the famine.

As a consequence, in one maximum security prison the inmates decided to sacrifice their meagre lunch on New Year’s Day for the famine kitty. The word spread and all 40,000 inmates countrywide did the same. They gave 200 big bags of maize, 50 bags of beans and 50 bags of rice to feed the hungry. In addition, the prison staff donated 500,000 Kenya shillings, about $US7000. A particularly touching gesture from those on death row, who know what facing death is like in whatever form, and could feel all the more for those facing death from starvation.

Martyn Drakard is a Kenyan of British origin, a teacher for many years and now Director of the Community Outreach Programme in Strathmore University, Nairobi. He is a regular columnist for local publications , commenting on social issues – particularly disadvantaged youth.

Martyn Drakard is a retired teacher of languages who lives in Kenya.