MWINGI, Kenya — There is not supposed to be drought here, a few hours drive east of the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
All around Mwingi are small scale farmers and livestock keepers. When the rains come — twice a year — they plant maize and beans in the thick red earth, then live off the harvest until the next wet season. But there hasn’t been any rain for years now.
Mafuo David, a 36-year-old mother of five, said that her three-acre patch of land could give her a harvest of eight sacks of maize and beans. But she was talking theoretically because last year the maize died in the earth and she harvested nothing, while the year before that she got just two sacks, and the year before that, nothing.
Across East Africa and the Horn of Africa communities are facing starvation thanks to a drought that may be the worst in a decade or more. Twenty-five years after a BBC report from Ethiopia kick-started Band Aid and then Live Aid and gave us the defining image of contemporary Africa — the emaciated child, flies on her eyelids staring listlessly at the camera — famine looms across Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia, and there are food shortages in Sudan, Eritrea, Uganda and Tanzania.
The aid agency Oxfam estimates that more than 23 million people are on the brink and will only survive if emergency food is handed out fast.
The World Food Program (WFP) — part of the United Nations — is asking for $1 billion to feed the region’s drought-struck people for the next six months but is struggling to raise the money as the world recession stymies charity appeals.
Large parts of this region are home to a low-density population of pastoralists, semi-nomadic herders who by choice and adaptation live in semi-arid or desert regions of northern Kenya, southern Somalia and southern Ethiopia.
These pastoralists have always lived tough lives in harsh parched environments but this years-long drought has decimated their herds and made their existences more marginal and precarious than ever.
Such is the severity of the drought that farmers and even city dwellers are in need of help, their plight worsened by high food prices at the market. The hungry poor can’t afford to buy expensive maize when their own supplies have run out.
“There have been four failed harvests, stores are depleted and so are the savings that could be used to buy food,” said Gabrielle Menezes of WFP Kenya which is feeding 3.8 million Kenyans, or one in every 10. School feeding programs now reach 1.1 million, some of these in
areas that are considered Kenya’s green belt.
Mwingi's rocky hills and scrubby forest should be interspersed with fields of maize and beans, instead the people are watching the sky and waiting for the rain. Last week precipitation began to fall and Mafuo David’s 16-year-old son set about ploughing the fields by hand, carefully placing precious seeds in little pits dug in the dirt.
She said she was happy that it had begun to rain but knew that a little rain would not change everything.
“Every year it rains a little and we plant but it doesn’t grow. If it rains for three months then we may have a good harvest,” she said. In the meantime her family scrapes by on monthly handouts of maize, beans and cooking oil.
In a nearby village, Mutindi Maithya, 36, also hopes the rains will last. She supplements the food handouts for herself and her six children with money earned by washing clothes for neighbors or cutting hedges.
But with the first drops of rain ushering in the planting season there will be no time to work for cash so times will be harder than ever in the coming months. Already it is rare for her family to have more than two meals a day, the first of which is a simple cup of black tea with
The rains are unlikely to bring much relief. In some parts of northern Kenya there are already reports of flooding that will make getting food to hungry people more difficult as dirt roads turn into seas of mud.
It also raises fears of malaria, cholera and other water-borne diseases. Cattle weakened by hunger and thirst can quickly succumb to the cold. In farming areas flood waters wash away fertile topsoil and valuable seeds.
“Rain changes the water situation but not the food situation,” Menezes said.