Wails of Akoro! Akoro! Akoro!... (Hunger! Hunger! Hunger) meet us as we enter the homestead of 78-year-old Namerele Akoo in Kodekode village, Turkana East sub-county.
Ms Akoo has had no decent meal for the past several months, surviving solely on boiled water and a small bite here and there served by her 10-year-old granddaughter, who is taking care of her.
For her, it is double trouble after her relatives migrated with their animals in search of pasture and water as famine ravages Turkana County.
“Three days ago I was served plain nangaria (half ugali, half porridge) and I am starving. The hunger is so biting that I wish I could die to relieve myself of the daily struggles,” she told the Nation when we found her lying in her manyatta shielding herself from the sweltering desert heat.
Finding food, she said, was an arduous task for the child, who has to beg in the neighbourhood so that the two can eat.
“Her parents are taking care of the animals in Kainuk and they send us some money to buy maize flour. We are suffering a lot,” she said.
No rain in two years
It had not rained in her area for the past two years, she said. The effects of the drought were exacerbated by locusts, which decimated food crops and vegetation.
Except for the invasive drought-tolerant but unpalatable Prosopis juliflora, popularly known as Mathenge, which dominates the region with its dense green canopies, all other shrubs including the neem and acacia trees have tried up.
The most affected are the elderly, children and women, who spend most of their time under trees or in their manyattas. In Kerio ward, for example, several animals have starved to death while in others livestock are emaciated and require urgent feed supplements.
Alarm drought status
National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) Turkana County coordinator Abdikadir Jilo said pastoral zones had gone into alarm drought status.
He singled out Lakezone, Kaeris, Kaaleng/Kaikor and Lapur wards in Turkana North Sub-County, as well as Kerio, Kalokol and Kangathota in Turkana Central, as high-risk areas.
Others are Kalapata and Lokichar wards in Turkana South, Katilia and Kochodin in Turkana East and border villages in Loima and Turkana West.
“More than 600,000 people are in dire need of relief food. Relevant stakeholders in the county are already taking necessary action through immediate response and we have requested funds to mitigate the drought,” Mr Jilo said.
The agency was accelerating contingency and response plans, including delivering water, especially to schools and health centres.
“We are procuring collapsible water tanks and plastic tanks that we will distribute in strategic areas to store water," he said.
He said his agency was coordinating with county steering and technical groups to help residents in need.
"NDMA is conducting health and nutrition outreaches in the sub-counties that are the worst hit. Other stakeholders like the county government and development partners have also moved into action and are responding to the effects of drought across the county," he said.
He said that through the Hunger Safety Net Programme, one of the four government cash transfer schemes under the National Safety Net Programme, 40,000 households in Turkana are each getting Sh5,400 bimonthly, which he said could be scaled up to reach more families if the situation worsens.
Turkana, occupying 13 percent of Kenya’s land mass, is an arid region with poverty levels of 79.4 per cent, according to the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis in its 2020 Economic Report, compared to a national average of 31.6 percent.
The county also has the highest number of hard-core poor (571,000 individuals), the report said, accounting for 15 per cent of Kenya’s total.
In the 2015/16 Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey Well Being Report, a family is in hard-core or extreme poverty if monthly consumption per adult is less than Sh1,954 in rural and peri-urban areas and less than Sh2,551 in core urban areas.
This is the group hit hardest in Turkana, with families struggling to find food, as animals, their economic mainstay, are miles away. They urgently need food and water aid.
In Kaluochelem village, we met Matet Esuron, a mother of five who had not eaten for the previous two days. The last meal the family had was a quarter tin of maize donated by a neighbour, which they boiled.
Staring at death
“We are staring at death if there is no urgent intervention to save us from hunger. All the villages around here are facing the same predicament - no water, no food. We seem to have been forgotten and it appears the government will act when we start dying,” the distraught mother said.
The family said they were relying on the mercy of neighbours and were alive because of God’s grace, noting that the situation was aggravating malnutrition in children.
“We trek over eight kilometres to get water. My husband and other villagers are far away with the animals and we fear they might be attacked by rustlers,” she said.
The situation was the same in Lorengelup village, Kerio Delta ward, Turkana Central. We met Mzee Ebong'on Kwee under one of the few surviving neem trees.
The 70-year-old man, who was holding a plastic bottle with muddy water, said that was the only thing he had taken that day.
His wife Ewoi Ebong'on is the breadwinner of the family, which includes four grandchildren who rely on them.
Ms Ewoi makes and sells charcoal. When she has no money, she buys food items on credit at the nearby manyatta shop so the family can have a meal.
"Wednesday was the last day I ate a meal, which consisted of boiled maize and beans after I received Sh200 from my son in Lodwar. I fear that if the drought persists, I might die," Mr Ebong'on said.
He had only 20 goats remaining, he said, and he had to give them to his more energetic neighbour, who had since migrated to areas with pasture.
The last time it rained in this village was in November 2019 and the prolonged drought may lead to the deaths of both livestock and people if no sustainable interventions are made.
Speed up relief food distribution
“I just want the government to speed up relief food distribution and rescue us. They should distribute livestock feeds and water," he said.
His village has about 15 elderly men who are emaciated and cannot help themselves and rely on relief food from well-wishers.
“We should be enrolled in social protection schemes so that we can get cash to buy food, and the government should buy our livestock before they die,” he said.
Ayanae Ekwee, who has four grandchildren to fend for, said she and one of the children collect firewood to sell so that they can earn money to buy food. They make at least Sh100 on a good day.
"Elderly people who are breadwinners should be treated as a priority in any intervention to mitigate the effects of the drought," Ms Ekwee said.
Isaac Emase appealed to the government to buy residents’ livestock, observing that since the locust invasion, they had not recovered.
"With supplementary livestock feeds and water, our livestock would have been in a good condition and we could be selling some and relying on them for milk," he said.
The drought has also affected learning in most schools. Lokwar Primary in Kaputir Ward, for example, moved all its pupils to neighbouring Nakuse Primary, where they could study and be fed. Their old school has been turned into livestock sheds.
Some of the children, their parents said, had refused to join Grade One because there is no feeding programme in primary schools.
The Nation established that nursery schools get supplies of maize and beans from charity group Mary's Meals. This has kept the number of children at early childhood development centres high compared with primary schools.
Resident Hellen Lotukol appealed to the county government to supply food to all such centres to supplement what the charity group offers.
"We also need relief food in Nawepeto village. My only meal consists of wild fruits, and I spend the whole day in the bush searching for them," Ms Lotukol said.
At Kaimegur Primary School, free food from Mary's Meals motivates more than 50 children to spend the whole morning under a tree learning, because by 11.30am they are assured of a meal.
Food insecurity has worsened in arid and semi-arid counties, attributed mainly to the poor performance of the October-November-December 2020 short rains and the March-April-May 2021 long rains.
Both seasons were characterised by late onsets, below average cumulative quantities, and poor distribution in time and space. This has worsened drought conditions, manifested in poor vegetation, greater distances to water sources, livestock malnutrition and reduced milk production, according to the May 2021 NDMA Bulletins.
NDMA projected that about two million people would need assistance between July to December this year.
President Uhuru Kenyatta has since declared the drought a national disaster and instructed the Treasury and the Ministry of Interior to spearhead government efforts to help affected households, including distributing water and relief food and buying livestock from pastoralists in affected areas.
Turkana Governor Josphat Nanok admitted that in several areas, locals could not find water and pasture for their livestock and many had migrated.
“Villagers, mostly in Turkana West and Loima sub-counties, have already migrated to neighbouring Uganda with more than 150,000 livestock, a situation that is resulting in conflict over pasture and water with pastoralists there,” he said.
Turkana North and Kibish sub-counties, he said, were the worst hit, adding that the county had procured relief food that will be distributed starting Monday.
"We have reached out to partners, who are helping us to repair broken-down boreholes due to overuse. There are others where the water table has really gone down and those will be served with water trucking," Mr Nanok said.
"We hope that we will get a share of the Sh2 billion that the national government has allocated to drought-stricken counties, so that together we can tackle the drought by investing in land preparation for irrigating fields with flood water and rain-fed agriculture."
Deputy Governor Peter Lotethiro said that the effects of climate change are dire in Turkana as evidenced by the drought.
Mr Lotethiro urged the Turkana County Assembly to pass a climate change bill that has adaptation and mitigation policies and can unlock donor funding relevant programmes.
Agriculture Executive Philip Aemun regretted that the drought is also affecting hundreds of locals who would otherwise have plenty of farm produce for consumption and sale to food-insecure areas at affordable prices.
He said more than four million goats and sheep across the seven sub-counties were at risk.
"Generally, most traditional and reliable grazing fields are depleted due to overgrazing, threatening pastoralism, the livelihood of a majority of locals," he said.
Because of lack of pasture, county officials said, animals are weak and fetch little or no income for pastoralists who opt to sell now.
"We urgently need concerted efforts from all stakeholders in the livestock sector to rescue our pastoralists by cushioning them with supplementary livestock feeding so as to increase availability of feeds for the livestock that produces milk for highly affected women and children," Mr Aemun said.
He acknowledged support from the Frontier Children Development Organization, which recently donated 300 bags of livestock supplementary feeds to support last year's victims of desert locust invasion who were also affected by drought in Turkana Central, Loima and Turkana North.