Starving Kenyan children trapped between two worlds

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 15, 2011 5:29 AM
Starving Kenyan children trapped between two worlds

By Katy Migiro

WAJIR, Kenya (Reuters) - One-year-old Siad Abdikadir was so weak that he could not support his own head, resting it on his mother's heavily pregnant stomach.

He squirmed occasionally, trying to remove the feeding tube from his nose. But mostly he was quiet, motionless and exhausted.

The malnourished children filling northern Kenya's Wajir District Hospital represent a fraction of the millions of nomads across the region struggling to maintain their traditional lifestyles in the face of recurring, severe droughts.

"I saw he was deteriorating. He had diarrhea, vomiting, fever, mouth ulcers and a cough," said his mother, 28-year-old Habiba Ibrahim.

"But I had six other children at home and no one to take care of them."

Siad's family are what are known locally as 'dropouts' from the pastoralist ethnic Somali community that lives in Wajir, 600 km (373 miles) from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

His father is a casual laborer, earning 400 Kenya shillings ($4.50) a day when he can find work.

"Life became very hard," said Ibrahim, swatting a fly away from her baby's eye.

"Work was reliable before but casual workers became too many."

DESTITUTES BEG FOR FOOD

Ten million people across the Horn of Africa are going hungry as the livestock upon which they depend die off because of severe drought, according to the United Nations.

In northern Kenya, towns have mushroomed as destitute families camp on the outskirts, hoping that well-wishers will give them food and water.

They are mostly women, children and the elderly. The young men have migrated to Somalia and neighboring districts with their few surviving animals, although the situation is little better there.

"This is the only meal the family is eating today," said Fatuma Ahmed, cooking pancakes for her seven children as the sun rose.

"If I get a meal from well-wishers, I cook for the children. If I don't, we sleep hungry," the 38-year-old widow said, crouched inside her dome-shaped stick shelter.

Somalis' culture and Islamic faith oblige them to share the little that they have.

"When you go home, you meet people waiting to share your lunch," said Mohamed Dahiye, a nurse in Wajir hospital.

"You don't even know them, but you have to respond."

MPS "BLIND TO THE DYING"

With recurrent droughts and growing populations, pastoralism is becoming untenable without massive investment to support it. Columns of dust spin over the barren landscape, littered with carcasses and abandoned villages.

Roads are just sandy tracks snaking between grey thorn bushes. There is no mobile phone network outside the major towns.

The region has been neglected since the colonial era.

"MPs are blind to people dying," said Osman Salat, a Nairobi businessman who came to give some money to his relatives, referring to the region's lawmakers.

The soil is fertile and irrigation could make farming viable. But development is expensive. Simply installing a borehole costs 5 million shillings ($56,000).

Budgets are consumed by the current crisis. The charity World Vision has been trucking life-saving water to 24 communities in Habaswein District since December, at a cost of 250,000 shillings a day, according to project manager Jacob Alemu.

Dahiye, the nurse, said people needed to consider the future. "Instead of looking for the root cause, we are mostly being fed with relief food," she said. "This will not take us forward. We should sit and look for long term solutions."

LEARNING THE MODERN WORLD

Some pastoralists are starting to send their children to school, hoping that education will offer them choices that their parents never had.

"The time of moving around with animals is fading," said 49-year-old Dekow Farah, who settled in Fini village nine months ago.

Farah had spent his entire life traversing Kenya with his livestock, looking for pasture and water, with the family's possessions strapped to their camels' backs.

Now, two of his nine children, Zakaria, nine, and Abdi, six, are attending the local government school, a simple hut made of sticks in the middle of the village.

"Because of droughts like this one, it's good to settle down and take the children to school so they can learn how to cope with the modern world," he said.

"I don't see a future in the nomadic way of life."

In the last year, he lost 450 sheep and goats, six cattle and two camels to the drought. He had 50 sheep and goats and two camels left.

"I settled here so that I can get aid from the government or non-governmental organizations and I might get casual work," he said, chewing on a stick.

He hadn't found either yet but he was philosophical: "Everything has a time limit and one day we are going to get out of this problem, God willing."

(Editing by George Obulutsa)