Turkana’s children leave schools in search of food

Emuria Long’orkit with his four grandchildren during an interview with the ‘Nation’ in Kateboi village, Turkana North sub-county on November 11.

The girl should be in school, but she is not. In fact, she has never been. She is looking after a flock of six sheep and one goat; the extent of her family’s wealth.

In her hand is a long hooked stick that she uses to pull down acacia branches, the only feed available for the animals as the ground is barren. She only speaks Ngi’Turkana, so we need the services of our translator.

“My name is Ayenai,” she says. “I come from Ekosowan village and I am the oldest in a family of five children.” She does not know exactly how old she is. We soon realise this is common among many children and even adults. “My siblings, three boys and one girl, go to a nearby nursery school, mostly because they can get some food there, but I am too old to attend. So I look after our animals,” she says.

We came across Ayenai about 25 kilometres north of Lodwar town. We had just started our journey early in morning in Lodwar, Turkana County’s capital. We had arrived in the area the previous evening, our main goal being to capture children’s voices on the effects of drought on their lives, and their hopes for the future.

Our next stop is Kateboi in Turkana North sub-county, about 100 kilometres north of Lodwar. We are joined by the area assistant chief Francis Naseki, who takes us to the homestead of Rebecca Ekope, a local shopkeeper.

Her home has become the only source of hope for 74-year-old Emuria Long’orkit and his four grandchildren. With the assistance of our translator, he tells us that his two daughters left the children with him to go in search of food. He does not know the whereabouts of the children’s fathers.

“I am old now, I cannot fend for my family,” he says in a hoarse voice. “I used to have 100 goats and 10 cows, but most of them died due to hunger, and the few that remained we ate. Now I am left with nothing and I am dependent on other people’s help. I cannot even feed, clothe, or educate my grandchildren. It just makes me sad.”

Also in this homestead is a girl, Nancy Etaba, about 11 years old. She has never been to school, and does not wish to join in her current circumstances. She says her two older sisters are in boarding secondary school and she was left to look after her younger siblings. Her mother died and her father just stays at home, battling depression.

“I ran away to look for help. I have been living with Rebecca for a few months now, and whatever little I get, I take home to my siblings to share with them. I can only go to school if I knew there was someone to look after my siblings.”

Mr Naseki tells us that getting children enrolled in school is a big challenge because of food scarcity.

“We have a programme to identify children who are out of school. The challenge, however, is that they keep running away. When there is food in school they stay, but when the food runs out, a lot of them will run away to try and find food. Even for those in boarding institutions, it is difficult to keep them in school. If there is no food, they will walk kilometres to the lakeside and dried-up rivers to get mkoma, the fruit of the doum palm, for sustenance.”

After hearing a few more heart-rending accounts from residents, the following day we start the final leg of our journey to Nawuokojom village in Kibish sub-county, over 300 kilometres from Lodwar and neighbouring South Sudan. Here the situation is even worse, with just a few acacia trees in sight. The ground is dry, with only thorny shrubs, rocks and sand. The temperature is 37oC.

This is a village of pastoralists who settled here from neighbouring Lorusi mountains when their livestock was decimated by hunger. The nearest centre to the 305-household settlement is Kaikor, six kilometres away.

We find Nakuei Emoja resting inside a makeshift manyatta with her four children. The donkey skin they are sitting on is the only reminder of the large herd they once owned. Nakuei does not know her age or that of her children and carries no form of identification. With the help of our translator and the chief, however, we estimate her age – about 35 years – and her eldest son, Aalim Nakuring’o, is about 10 years old.

Nakuei tells us the biggest priority for her and her children is survival. She is not overly bothered that her children are not getting an education.

“I go with him (Aalim) to fetch firewood in the mountains. We sell it at Kaikor and whatever little we get, we buy food. We also get wild fruits like edapa, which is very bitter, but the only food source when we cannot afford anything else.”

Aalim tells us when they first settled here last year, he used to go to an early childhood development education centre at Kaikor where he would get some food. However, it has become a challenge to attend school due to the hostility of the local people. “If we had our own school nearby, I would be going every day. I would love to get an education and help my family,” he says.

Rodgers Wekesa, an education officer with Save the Children International, says his organisation has ongoing programmes in both sub-counties where they provide non-food items such as sanitary pads for girls, drill water and provide tanks. They also carry out sensitisation campaigns and partner with local authorities to identify children who are out of school and enrol them.

We spend our lunch hour with the residents of this village and notice that few fires are lit. They tell us that on good days, they eat only in the evening. Soon, it is time for us to leave.

We leave clouds of dust behind us as we traverse this land devoid of life. Even acacias and cacti are finding it difficult here, and most of them have dried up. Many residents look up at the sky, watching the meagre clouds. Like many times before, their hopes are raised that finally, it will rain. But even if it rains, they wonder, how will they ever get their lives back on track?