Praying for rain in Kenya

July 14, 2017
Written by Catriona Loughran

Concern Communications Officer Catriona Loughran reflects on her visit to drought-stricken northern Kenya earlier this year. The communities she visited continue to suffer the devastating impacts of recurring drought and failed rains.

Kenya was in the grip of a severe drought when I visited Concern’s programs in Marsabit back in February. Almost everyone I spoke to was praying for the rains to come. They had been driven to despair after months of no rain. Animal carcasses lay scattered on the ground as we traveled through the region. For nomadic herders communities in northern Kenya, each carcass represented another cruel blow to a family’s future. Their livelihoods were wasting away before their eyes. As the water dried up, so too did their income. Many were going days at a time without food.

Iyesa and his wife Atho speak to Catriona

Catriona Loughran speaks with Atho Shama and his wife, Iyesa. They came to the Basbalesa health clinic with their five-month-old son when Iyesa became severely malnourished. Photo: Jennifer Nolan

Weakened by hunger

Atho Shama was one of the many people I met who were praying for rain. Our paths crossed as he approached Concern’s health center in Basbelesa. He was carrying five-month-old Adano in his arms, while his wife, Iyesa — visibly weakened by hunger — struggled to keep pace with him. In all his 78 years, Atho had never experienced a drought as long and ferocious as this one.

In food crises such as this one, it is always the vulnerable people who are at most at risk from hunger.

Iyesa was complaining of headaches and had a fever. She was struggling to feed their baby boy, and had walked to the nutrition center in the hope of getting medicine and nutritional supplies. She whispered, “I feel weak and I can’t breastfeed my baby because I have no milk or food.”

Days without food

Atho told me they would regularly go for long periods without food, up to three days at a time. He was struggling to cope with no longer being able to provide for his family. “I feel bad. I do not feel like a husband any longer because I cannot look after my family,” he said, adding, “There is nothing we can do but pray for rain.”

Iyesa and son in Kenya

Atho Shama with his five-month-old son, Adano. His wife, Iyesa, is severely malnourished, weighing only 70 pounds. Photo: Jennifer Nolan

The vulnerable are most at risk

Iyesa was not the only mother I met who was struggling to cope with a lack of food. In emergency situations, like the hunger crisis unfolding across East Africa, it is the young, the elderly, and pregnant and lactating women who are most vulnerable.

“My children are constantly crying because they are hungry.”

The drought had ravaged Nasino’s village and emaciated her livestock. The food from last year’s harvest was gone and there were no jobs in the community. Feeding her young family had become almost impossible. She told me “I have no income to buy food, I have no work to make money, and my children are constantly crying because they are hungry. I am also hungry and I feel weak, which makes it hard to face the day.”

Nasino and her children in Marsabit, Kenya

Nasino Asuran is six months pregnant with her third child. Pictured here with her daughter Nangiro and son Sampson, the family is malnourished and hasn’t eaten today. They normally eat boiled maize once a day. Photo: Jennifer Nolan

The struggle to find water

En route to the village of Yaa Algana, we encountered 51-year-old Budha Tura, along with her neighbor Enow Wanyo, and his herd of goats. Budha was scooping water into a jerry can from a muddy pool following a brief rain shower. The water looked dirty and potentially harmful, but Budha and her family were desperate.

With her donkey unable to travel, Budha relied on word of mouth about watering holes that pop up along the deserted plains after small bouts of rain. With a stroke of luck, she heard about this particular watering hole from Enow, who made the hour-long journey with her.

Drinking unsafe water to survive

The pool of water looked thick and warm, and it was drying up quickly as another herder arrived with his animals. “Word spreads fast,” said Enow. “It’s a constant competition between us and the animals. They have to drink too, otherwise they die,” he explained.

“I have never seen the drought as bad as this, we are very worried about the future.”

Enow told me that he often goes without water so his animals can drink first. “If we don’t have goats to sell, we have nothing,” he said, before adding, “we know this water might not be safe, as animals are urinating in it, but what can we do? I have never seen the drought as bad as this, we are very worried about the future.”

Thankfully, Concern staff were on hand to provide the two neighbors with life-saving aqua-tabs to help sterilize the water and make it safe to drink. “I am happy that I have been given them, especially now since the water I have collected here is dirty,” Buddha said. But clean water was not her only worry.

Enow and Budha gather water in Northeastern Kenya

Due to the severity of the drought in Kenya, Enow and Budha must gather water from a puddle one hour from their village. People and animals are competing for any water they can find, but it is often contaminated. Concern is providing aqua-tabs to sterilize the water. Photo: Jennifer Nolan

Budha hadn’t eaten that day, and like so many others, had often gone without food for up to three days so that her children could eat. “My stomach hurts from the hunger pains. I feel so bad and have no strength. But I have to keep going for my children,” she told me.

“I feel death staring at me every day”

She too had been praying for rain, but she was starting to lose hope. “I am losing my strength every day” she said. “The situation is getting worse than I expected. We need help to get us through this period because we are facing the dark. I feel death is staring at me every day.”

Millions at risk after poor seasonal rains

Since my visit in February, the prayers for rain have been largely in vain. The seasonal rains in Marsabit typically fall between March and May. But this year they were delayed, and when they finally arrived, they were weak and poorly distributed, offering little respite to the people who so desperately needed them.

Now the people of Marsabit have entered the long, dry period between July and September. Their situation remains precarious. And across the country, some 2.6 million people are severely food insecure and at risk of starving.

Chalbi Desert in Kenya

In northeastern Kenya’s Chalbi desert, the drought crisis has transformed the landscape into a goat graveyard as scores die of thirst and starvation, leaving hundreds of nomadic herders without income to provide for their families. Photo: Jennifer Nolan

The government is doing what it can to provide relief, but resources are stretched to their limits. During my time there, the drought was declared a national emergency. For a crisis of this scale, the government needs support to reach everyone affected.

Concern is helping

We have launched an emergency response to support communities in Kenya affected by the drought. We are providing pregnant and lactating mothers like Iyesa and Nasino with nutritional support and treating children who are malnourished. We are also distributing weekly cash transfers to families so they can buy food or other urgently needed supplies.

With your help, we can reach even more families who have lost their livelihoods and are at risk of starvation.