The tragic irony of biting hunger amidst plenty

A hungry Ocheli Lemuu drinks a soda given to her inside her hut at Kamekwi village in Turkana Central, Turkana County on March 17, 2019. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Maize farmers in Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia lack market for their produce while their countrymen in other regions like Turkana risk starving to death.

  • The current crisis in the north is putting to question the ability of both local and county governments to avert such disasters because, even though Kenya’s drought emergency is cyclical.
  • Also, despite early warning systems raising the red flag months earlier, drought disaster response mechanisms and coping strategies remain miserably wanting.

Ocheli Lemuu lies inside her small hut at Kamekui Village in Turkana Central, too weak to stand, too frail to even speak. Her eyes are sunken, her face, in its ashen dread, the personification of a haunting distress.

Alone in the small hut, and with nothing to eat, she surveys the nothingness outside, hoping for something to eat.


She has done this for the last three days, and the results of her feeble, dart-eyed forays from the relative comfort of her mud hut have been the same: nothing.

At 60, Lemuu cannot go out to look for food, and last week, hunger took a toll on her, so she decided to just stay inside her manyatta and hope that food will somehow find her.

“I am not sick,” she says, through an interpreter, soon after the Nation team investigating the hunger pangs of Turkana feeds her. “I am just hungry.” Her five children are also staring death in the eye, while her husband died years ago.

Lemuu is not sick, but she wishes she was, for the hunger, like a terminal disease, is killing her slowly.

Her daughter, Emily Erii, explains the predicament facing their mother: “We don’t have anything to give her. She has just been sleeping inside there for days. She is so hungry but we cannot give her anything… because we have nothing. We have not eaten for days.”

At the nearby Nachoto Village, a frail Naupe Akolom rests under a shade, staring at the white sand covering hundreds of acres of barren land around her. Like Lemuu, she, too, has not eaten for days. The last time she swallowed something solid was when the area Member of County Assembly brought her some cereals a week ago. Now she survives on water.


A few hundreds of kilometres away, in Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia counties, farmers are drowning in maize, and have for months been literally begging the government to buy the stock, illustrating how mismanagement of resources in one end of the country is affecting those who live elsewhere.

Also, the hunger pangs of Turkana are not unexpected, because as early as last December, a US-funded food security monitoring network warned that dry conditions in parts of Kenya were likely to result in significantly smaller harvests in the first few months of this year.

“Crop production in Somalia and Kenya is expected to be at least 30 per cent below average, and pasture and water availability is likely to be well below average throughout the region,” the East Africa alert issued by the Famine Early Warning System noted.

“Should this forecast come to fruition, historical trends indicate that food security outcomes could rapidly worsen. Humanitarians should prepare for an increase in need throughout 2019,” the network, which is operated by the US Agency for International Development, urged.


And now the reality has set in, with hunger-related deaths, which the Nation could not independently confirm, already reported in Baringo and Turkana counties.

A biting drought in at least 12 counties is causing an unprecedented food crisis that is quickly turning into a national humanitarian disaster.

The most affected region is Turkana, but the counties of Isiolo, Garissa, Wajir, Kilifi, Baringo, Marsabit, Tana River, Samburu, Mandera, Kitui and Makueni are also affected.

In Turkana, as in most other drought-ravaged regions, the most affected are elderly women and children who are unable to travel long distances to get food rations.

The Turkana County government has indicated that more than 800,000 residents are battling hunger and risk starvation, if no urgent measures are put in place to save them.

Mr Francis Loropiyae, a community leader in Kamekui, says residents first raised the alarm a few weeks ago, but no one took them seriously. Now, for many of them, the situation has grown from bad to worse as food stores have run dry and help might come too late for the elderly, the young, and the sick.

“Do we have any leaders in this country?” Loropiyae wonders. “The situation is out of control, yet no one wants to listen to us. Some are saying we are lying, but you can see for yourselves. Some leaders came here last week, but when we tried to tell them about this situation, we were told to keep quiet.”

Kerio Delta MCA Peter Ekaru says his community’s appeals for help have not been heeded. The ward is the most affected, although other leaders have said their surrounding regions are quickly running out of food.


Should that happen, Turkana would be staring at a humanitarian crisis of huge proportions.

Last week, Devolution Cabinet Secretary Eugene Wamalwa visited the county and distributed 7,000 bags of maize. But that, to many, was a mere drop in the ocean in this vast county.

Before he left, Mr Wamalwa said that both levels of government will ensure that no Kenyan dies of hunger as the country has enough food in its strategic grain reserve, estimated to currently hold about four million bags of maize.

Mr Wamalwa, who was accompanied by Petroleum and Mining Cabinet Secretary John Munyes, Turkana Deputy Governor Peter Lotethiro, Senator Malachy Ekal and MPs James Lomenen (Turkana South), John Lodepe (Turkana Central) and Christopher Nakuleu (Turkana North), said that going forward, the State will focus on irrigation for sustainability.

“Instead of bringing relief food, we want to build resilience by ensuring that arid and semi-arid counties can store water in dams when it rains and use it to irrigate farms,” Mr Wamalwa said.

His remarks, coming in the wake of the Arror and Kimwarer dam scandals, as well as the collapse of the multi-billion-shilling Galana Kulalu irrigation scheme that was touted as model for sustainable agriculture in the future, did not inspire much confidence in the locals.


Also, the current crisis in the north is putting to question the ability of both local and county governments to avert such disasters because, even though Kenya’s drought emergency is cyclical and, in the age of technology, predictable, its mitigation measures do not seem to be sufficient or are not working.

The Constitution, through the Public Finance Management Act, allows counties to spend on emergency situations without going through the rigours of authorisation and procurement procedures.

Section 112 of the Act mandates county leaders to use the County Emergency Fund (CEF) for these purposes, but the fact that the law allows for the funds to be first used and only later reported to the County Assembly has raised questions about abuse, monitoring and control.

Also, despite early warning systems raising the red flag months earlier, drought disaster response mechanisms and coping strategies remain miserably wanting.

The National Drought Management Authority and the Kenya Meteorological Departments have always issued early drought warnings, which are either disregarded or scarcely acted upon.

Additional reporting by Sammy Lutta


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