In the dust bowl of drought-stricken northern Kenya, the people of Purapul near starvation, subsisting on nothing but wild berries while their children starve.
Loka Metir knows that the bitter fruits make her children sick and further weaken their frail condition. But it hasn’t rained properly in three years and there’s just nothing else to eat.
“It’s the only way to survive,” the mother-of-five told AFP in Purapul, a cluster of thatched huts a two-day walk from the nearest town in bone-dry Marsabit County.
At least 18 million people in the Horn of Africa are suffering severe hunger as the worst drought in 40 years devastates the region.
Over four million live in Kenya’s often-forgotten north, a number that has risen steadily this year as the crisis struggles to garner national attention amid a hard-fought – and expensive – election campaign.
According to government figures in June, nearly 950,000 children under the age of five and 134,000 pregnant and breastfeeding women in Kenya’s remote arid regions are acutely malnourished and in need of assistance.
Hunger in the three hardest-hit districts, including Marsabit, borders on famine.
– “Under the Carpet” –
The World Bank forecast in June that drought combined with economic disruption from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would delay Kenya’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet it was barely on the electoral agenda as Kenya’s political giants have criss-crossed the country collecting votes.
In the frenzy, the rising cost of living in East Africa’s largest economy has overshadowed other concerns.
Protesters in major cities have threatened to boycott the much-anticipated August 9 election if prices are not cut, chanting “no food, no choice”.
The plight of northern Kenya has largely been “swept under the rug,” said economist Timothy Njagi of the Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development in Nairobi.
“I found it quite sad… Given that this was going to be an election year, we would have imagined that would be a major talking point,” he told AFP.
Four consecutive failed rainy seasons, exacerbated by a changing climate, have created the driest conditions since the early 1980s.
Rivers and wells have dried up and pastures have turned to dust, killing more than 1.5 million livestock in Kenya alone.
Animal carcasses are strewn on the rocky plains surrounding Purapul, where pastoral families struggled with no milk or meat in their diet, or any means of trade for food.
– out of sight –
Iripiyo Apothya watched her goats shrink and die. The skins that she could not cook and eat lie on the floor of her hut.
“Now I eat what the monkeys eat,” says the 73-year-old, clutching a handful of the berries that she boils into a bitter paste.
“But even these are running out – what can we do?”
The village is isolated and, like many in Kenya’s chronically underfunded north, has no school, road, shop or pharmacy.
The nearest town of Loiyangalani is 60 kilometers away. Despite being home to Africa’s largest wind farm, this dusty settlement on Lake Turkana is without electricity itself.
Outside the city, children dig for water on the deserted coast of Turkana, a vast salt lake.
The two main presidential hopefuls, William Ruto and Raila Odinga, have flown helicopters to drought-stricken regions, promising infrastructure and development in short campaign stops.
But this is not a voting-rich country, and droughts generally don’t win elections, said Karuti Kanyinga of the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi.
“It’s a lose-lose for whoever raises it,” Kanyinga said.
Greenpeace Africa’s Claire Nasike told AFP that both candidates’ pledges to invest in water and agriculture in drought-affected areas were missing key details.
“The key points of how they will address the climate crisis have not been captured.”
– “We die” –
The drought, which could stretch into 2023 if the next rains fail as predicted, has also struggled for global attention in a crowded field.
An appeal for Ukraine has raised $1.92 billion – nearly 86 percent of its target, according to the UN.
Kenya’s much lower drought stimulus has met just 17 percent of its target.
At the same time, the cost of delivering aid has skyrocketed as the war in Ukraine drives up food and fuel prices.
Under an acacia tree, a single doctor screens dozens of mothers and infants for malnutrition during a twice-monthly visit to Purapul.
“The kind of help we’re providing is just a drop in the ocean,” said James Jarso of World Vision, one of the few charities providing drought relief on the ground.
The government says it has spent over 10 billion Kenyan shillings ($84.3 million) since the drought was declared a national disaster in September.
“We are going through difficult economic times. We are doing everything within the government’s capabilities to support the communities,” Loiyangalani Deputy District Commissioner Steven Mavina told AFP.
In Purapul, villagers draw water from a contaminated well and wait for help.
“We have no one to help us,” Apothya said. “I want people to know that we are dying.”
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