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Ongoing Drought has Tragic Consequences for Pastoralists

Despite rains this spring, which alleviated some of the regions of drought-affected Kenya, which we reported on in the last issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly, many parts of central and northern Kenya have still not received any rain. This ongoing drought has continued to wreck havoc on these communities, many of which are populated by pastoralist and indigenous peoples.

Kenya has two rainy seasons, a short period in November, and the long rains in April-June. These rains have been sporadic and inadequate for the past several years, and, in many parts of Kenya, no rain has fallen since last June.

In Laikipia, a region in central Kenya, home to about 30,000 indigenous Maasai, 80 percent of the livestock has been lost to the drought, and the remaining animals are very weak and prone to sickness. Many families have had to move with their cattle, walking many miles in an effort to find suitable grazing. The cattle are a source of food, income, and security for the Maasai, but also a foundational aspect of their culture, and losses of this kind have no parallel in Western societies.

"At Saramba village one elder aged 65 years committed suicide after two of his cows died," said John Tingoi, the Program Coordinator at OSILIGI, a Maasai organization in the community of Dol-dol.

As we reported in the last issue, many Maasai and other pastoralists have moved to the forests around Mount Kenya to find grazing land for their livestock. But there have been clashes with the agriculturalists who live around Mt Kenya. In reaction to earlier clashes, the government had closed down the forest to the pastoralists, but driven by the worsening conditions, the pastoralists have returned.

"Acute malnutrition rates among children under five are still well above the emergency threshold of 15 percent in many districts," according to a recent report prepared by the World Food Program, the U.S. Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a number of NGOs, and the Kenyan government. Hunger and malnourishment, as well as a severe lack of clean water sources has weakened immune systems, making it more difficult for old people and young children especially to fight infections. "An indicator of this [increased infection rate] is that people can not overcome even a normal common cold until they are taken to health centers," Tingoi said.

According to the World Food Program, "Even if the long rains—which should last until June—are normal after years of poor rains and drought in Kenya, and even if normal short rains follow (from October to December) it will take years to rebuild the livelihoods of the nomadic herders who have lost all their livestock and subsistence farmers who are now destitute."

Aid to the area has been infrequent and inadequate. Government-supplied food, in the form of white maize, has been available only in small amounts. In addition, it provides a very unbalanced diet, and young children and the elderly often cannot eat the hard maize. The World Food Program, World Vision International, the Red Cross, and a few other organizations have brought some food, but, according to John ole Tingoi, "They come for couple of months and then leave, and what they give out is very little; it cannot sustain a household for two weeks."

Local organizations are also involved. OSILIGI, headed by Tingoi, has been able to provide food assistance and relief to families, and another organization, called IMPACT, has been creating a dialogue between the Maasai and the agriculturalists of Mount Kenya to avoid the clashes there. On a similar note, they have also been organizing conversations between the Maasai pastoralists and white farmers, who are generally on better-watered lands, in an effort to gain access for the Maasai to some of these pastures.

Although the situation is very bad, Simon Kaparo, the director of IMPACT, says they have not yet lost hope that it will improve. With emergency relief and lasting solutions, Kenya’s Maasai and other pastoralist communities can begin to rebuild.