In Kenya, 'Why Does This Keep Happening?'
Return of Drought and Threat of Starvation Renew Calls for Sustainable Development

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 8, 2006

NAIROBI, Jan. 7 -- On New Year's Day, groups of angry Masai herders attempted to drive their emaciated cattle onto the manicured lawns of the presidential residence so their animals could graze on the thick carpets of green grass in the morning sun.

With a drought turning their fields and pastures into dusty gray wastelands, and with millions of people in the region facing a food shortage, the herders wanted to make a point, organizers of the action said.

"Africa is not so poor that it doesn't have enough food or grazing land to feed itself. There's plenty of food here," said Ben Ole Koissaba, a leader of the Masai, one of the largest and most powerful tribes in Kenya. "Many countries around the world face drought, but people don't starve. We think it's ludicrous for the government to treat its citizens this way. Why does this keep happening?"

Many are asking that question as yet another drought threatens lives and destroys crops and livestock here. About 11 million people in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia are "on the brink of starvation," the United Nations said this week. In northeastern Kenya, at least 40 people, most of them children, have died from malnutrition and related illnesses since December, according to the Kenya Red Cross.

Enough food is grown in Kenya to feed all of its population of 33 million, but many citizens, especially the country's poor subsistence farmers, cannot afford it. When the rains ceased last year, the farmers were left with parched crops, hungry livestock and nothing to eat.

"The month of December 2005 will be remembered for a long time to come by Kenyans as a time when people were starving to death while others were feasting," said Gullet Abbas, secretary general of the Kenya Red Cross Society.

Feeding centers for children younger than 5 are filling up in northern Kenya, Abbas said. Cattle, goats and camels are growing thin. On Thursday, 3,000 herdsmen moved their 20,000 head of cattle across the border into Uganda to look for green pastures, according to reports on national television. Governments have warned that power shortages are possible because of lower water levels at Kenyan and Tanzanian dams, which the countries depend on to generate electricity.

"The current drought is more severe at most locations than the droughts of 1984, 1999 and 2000," Joseph Mukabana, director of the Kenya Meteorological Department, said in a full-page paid commentary in the Daily Nation, Kenya's largest newspaper. "Food relief efforts may need to go beyond December 2006 in some parts of the country."

Late Friday, President Mwai Kibaki ordered the government to purchase "all available" corn in the country in an emergency operation to stave off more deaths. The cabinet has "termed as the country's current number one priority the provision of food for Kenyans," Kibaki's office said in a statement.

The Kenya Red Cross Society and the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a monitoring group, have criticized the government for failing to do more to prepare for the drought, saying that officials knew more than a year ago that such conditions would develop.

Some experts predict that the cycles of drought and food shortages will continue on the world's poorest continent until governments here develop more permanent, sustainable solutions.

"During these emergencies, we don't talk enough about development and what really needs to happen here," said Nancy Mutunga, the country director for the Famine Early Warning group. "Shouldn't we be building more water irrigation systems and developing more long-term solutions so this doesn't keep happening every few years?"

"If we don't talk about underdevelopment, we may just carry on with these cycles affecting herding and farming households every few years," she said. "These families are poor and live on the edge. Their wealth is dependent only on their livestock and crops. They have to diversify that."

Kibaki has asked the international community for more food aid. The U.S. Embassy, which contributed 62,890 metric tons of relief food last year, said it was eager to help again.

Too much food aid, however, can cause the price of locally grown food to fall, leaving farmers without enough income to purchase seeds for the next season, experts say.

"Making food available for the farmers, though welcome, is short-term and short-lived," said Tom Kagwe, who writes about famines and development in Africa for the Daily Nation. "It cannot provide the long-term solutions to the country's food shortage."

There are many reasons for food shortages in Africa. Sometimes war plays a role. In rebel-controlled eastern Congo, for instance, thousands of banana and mango trees produce more fruit than local people can consume. But the excess food never makes it to markets or drought-stricken regions because the roads are destroyed and armed militiamen loot the supplies or tax them heavily.

In northern Uganda, people displaced by fighting between the government and the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group, languish in camps, looking out at the land they used to farm. Fields that once produced abundant amounts of yams, peanuts and corn are barren.

In Kenya, a peaceful and stable country, development has been hindered by corruption and mismanagement, according to Transparency International, a watchdog group that ranks Kenya as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Ole Koissaba, the Masai leader, said he was furious that the president turned the herders away from his residence. Even former president Daniel arap Moi, an authoritarian leader who ruled for 24 years, allowed the Masai to graze their cattle near the state house during a drought of 2002, Ole Koissaba pointed out.

"The new leadership cares more about politics than pastoralists, and now it can't do the correct things to save the lives, long term, of its own citizens," he said, adding there should be more international pressure on African governments to develop sound agricultural policies. "No African wants things to stay in this cycle of dysfunction."

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