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Kenya: Nothing prepared me for this

“I owned sixty goats but they were all killed by disease and starvation,” said 65 year old Ameen Abubakar, who lives in a small hut with his wife, daughter and six grandchildren.

“Most children in my village became very sick and we were forced to move when there was no more food and water available. Now, I am completely dependent on food rations to sustain my family.”

Fleeing drought

I met Ameen and several other families near Wajir in north-eastern Kenya. Hundreds of people have moved here because of the drought that struck East Africa last year.

Ameen said, “The wells dried up since there were no rains for two seasons [autumn 2010 and spring 2011]. We were getting water from shallow wells in neighbouring villages but this was insufficient and very little was available for our cattle. The animals grew weaker and started dying. I lost my last surviving goats on the way here.”

Losing his animals meant losing his only source of income. Like most of the people here, Ameen sells milk, animal hides and newborn and adult animals for a living.

With minimal savings, their last hope lies with family members and aid agencies, often located far from their homes.

A protracted crisis

I have worked with impoverished communities in rural Pakistan, and had spoken to colleagues and read reports on the emergency, but nothing could have prepared me for my first visit to this part of the world.

Like many people in distant Nairobi and elsewhere, I believed that the crisis was now under control.

This is very far from the truth. A visit to any community in Wajir town reveals the complexity of this protracted crisis.

“We had only soup for three months”

Dahaba Abdul, mother of eight children, has been surviving on food aid for five months.

Her family owned two dozen animals before but now only has two goats. Her husband goes to the market every day to find work as a labourer. On good days, he makes KES 200 (£1.50) and Dahaba can buy extra food for her children.

Dahaba and her four youngest children in front of their home at Gotadelay, Wajir

“When our animals began to die we only had soup, made of water with some maize and herbs, for three months. I could only give powder milk to my baby Mariam, eight months old at that time. All my children were extremely weak.”

Dahaba’s children are now enrolled in Save the Children’s feeding programme. They are much healthier but their parents still have no means of buying more livestock or finding suitable employment.

In the absence of humanitarian aid, they will return to their previous state of deprivation.

“I have a small garden which grows lemons and tomatoes. Even if there is water, how can we farm the land? We do not have the tools, training or manpower.”

Recurring droughts

This is not the first time a severe drought has struck the Horn of Africa. Many of us remember television footage of starving children from the 1980s. Similar crises occurred in 2002, 2006 and 2009.

“In the past eight years,” said Ameen, “this is the third time we have left home because of food and water shortages. This time, I am thinking of staying here for good.”

The recurrent droughts have drastically increased the influx of rural communities to towns like Wajir, where aid is available.

Like Ameen, many decide not to return home, especially if they live in the volatile border areas near Somalia.

They have also become completely dependent on aid.

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