UNICEF UK Executive Director David Bull on his visit to Kenya’s drought-stricken northeastern region, where he witnessed the extent of the hardships faced by local communities.
By David Bull
UK National Committee for UNICEF Executive Director David Bull recently visited the Turkana region of northeastern Kenya, part of a vast area that has been severely affected by the drought in the Horn of Africa. Following are excerpts from a journal he kept to document his firsthand impressions.
In the makeshift Turkana village of Kaichakar, Eweet, 22, poses with her three-month-old baby girl, Akai. Eweet had to walk for 20 days in search of water during the final month of her pregnancy.
Day 1: Eweet’s long trek toward a better future
LOKICHOGIO, Kenya, 12 March 2006 – Imagine walking through the dusty semi-desert of northern Kenya, where the temperature is in the upper thirties Celsius day after day. Your whole community has lost all the cattle, goats and donkeys that provided the only livelihood in this parched landscape, where even the usual meagre rains have been largely absent for the last two years or more. Now, imagine that you are in the final month of pregnancy, with two small children in tow, and you are only 22 years old. Now, imagine that the walk lasts 20 days!
I don’t have to work so hard now to imagine it because it is the story of Eweet, a young Turkana mother who I have just met. She arrived at the end of her epic journey and gave birth to her daughter Akai, now three months old. She and her three children and their grandmother Eyepan were among 30 families who made this trek, arriving finally at the makeshift village of Kaichakar on the outskirts of Loki.
But for Eweet the walking is not over. Every day, she must walk for an hour to fetch 20 litres of water for her family. She has to queue in the searing heat for four hours, pump the water by hand and then make the return journey carrying her heavy load. She also has to risk her life to go to the bandit-infested woodland, where she collects wood which she sells in Loki town to provide for all the needs of the household.
This is a land in which a third of children under the age of five are suffering from malnutrition, where less than one in five girls goes to school, where schools are closing due to lack of water. Some 73,000 children and 7,200 pregnant and lactating women are in immediate need of emergency supplementary and therapeutic feeding, yet 50,000 are not being reached due to lack of funds.
But there is hope. A new UN appeal will be launched in early April. The Horn of Africa crisis, now affecting five countries, is beginning to attract sporadic media attention. UNICEF is planning to drill five new boreholes in this area, with solar-powered pumps – including one in Eweet’s village. The difference these wells would make requires a further effort of imagination. Imagine that Eweet is saved all this walking for water and that as Akai grows up, she (and many like her) can spend her days at school instead of fetching water. And then a new future can begin to open up for this proud community. Imagine that.
Michael Eporon, a boy from one of Turkana's most drought-affected areas, walked for three days with no food and just five litres of water to reach the primary school in Lodwar.
Day 2: Feeding the hunger for both food and education
LODWAR, Kenya, 13 March 2006 – Today, we found one young boy for whom the severe drought afflicting northern Kenya and four neighbouring countries has provided an opportunity to change his life, though at some cost to himself and his family.
Michael Eporon is about 12 (he doesn’t know his exact age). Today was his first day at school, ever. His family were living in Kerio Division, the part of Turkana worst affected by the drought. He once ran away from home to the nearest primary school, but his parents said they needed him to herd the family animals and he couldn’t stay. Now the animals are all dead, as is the case for so many families’ livestock in this region. So Michael decided there was now nothing to prevent him from going to school.
He says he has “so much hunger for school” that he walked for three days, with no food and just five litres of water, to reach the primary school here in Lodwar. The school caters to a nomadic population so nearly half of the nearly 2,500 pupils are boarders, and the provision is free since Kenya abolished school fees a few years ago. Children don’t lose the right to education if they come late – even seven years late, in Michael’s case. Despite his ordeal, his yearning to learn burns very brightly.
The school provides meals, and 60 additional children have enrolled this term as their families struggle to survive the loss of their livestock to drought. At the nearby hospital, I saw how this school feeding programme is saving children’s lives. I met two families in the stabilization centre where the most severely malnourished are brought back to life using therapeutic feeding supplies from UNICEF. In both cases, the children too young to go to school were in the worst condition. For their older siblings, the school lunch was a life saver.
It is a happy day for Michael and for others like him, despite the ordeals they have already suffered in their short lives. We must try to feed both kinds of hunger – the hunger for food and for education – because the two are intimately related here. Our response to the current emergency can also help build a better future for Turkana’s children, if only we can develop the schools as an integral part of that response, providing a focus for food distribution in the short term and the skills for a new future in the long term.
Little Lomeyana receives supplementary food at Kangagetei Dispensary in the hard-hit Kerio Division of Turkana, northern Kenya. A UNICEF survey indicates that acute malnutrition rates are dangerously elevated in all parts of Turkana.
Day 3: Resources desperately needed to address the crisis
TURKANA, Kenya, 14 March 2006 – “Let UNICEF not get tired,” said one of the members of the women’s group I met this morning. Well, I hope we will not let her down and that our supporters will see the value of the help we are providing here in northern Kenya.
There has been a lot of debate about well-drilling programmes. This morning we saw what can happen if it is not done effectively: The wells are not maintained and fall into disuse. So one part of UNICEF’s work is to rehabilitate these dormant wells, training the women’s group to maintain the pump, giving them guidance on good hygiene practices and providing filters so that children can access clean water and not get sick. The women can also use some of the water to irrigate small kitchen gardens providing some food, and eventually perhaps some income, for their families. The result is better health for the children and a greater capacity to withstand drought.
So far, this scheme is reaching 5,000 households. We need to reach 50,000. But right now we are facing an emergency and need to try to save those at risk before it is too late, even while we continue our long-term development work.
Today, we saw the impact of the drought in the most forceful way. We drove for two hours through the driest, hottest and most parched land imaginable, arriving at Kangagetei Dispensary, a remote health post in the worst-affected Kerio Division. It was hard to imagine that anyone could survive in the scorching heat of this environment, but families emerged from the landscape bringing their children to be assessed for malnutrition and given a range of health checks.
At the dispensary, the children are measured and weighed. If they are less than 70 per cent of the normal weight for their height, they are classed as severely malnourished and enter a therapeutic feeding programme. If they are just 70 to 80 per cent of normal weight, they are moderately malnourished and are kept under observation by volunteers from the community until the next visit in two weeks.
About half the children weighed here today were in the 70 to 80 per cent category and will probably be below 70 per cent in two weeks if they don’t get supplementary feeding, which is not yet reaching all those who need it.
I am leaving this area tomorrow and will return to the UK determined to raise awareness of the crisis emerging here, and to do what I can to find the resources that are so desperately needed. There can be a future for the people of this region. They are hardy and resilient, and we simply cannot ignore their plight. There remains a huge amount to do if we are to prevent this situation from deteriorating further, help families and communities get through this crisis and help them rebuild their livelihoods.
As the woman said this morning, please let UNICEF and our supporters and donors not get tired, because the people of northern Kenya need our help right now.