Kenyan hunger worsens over drought

Marketplace Staff Sep 30, 2009

Kenyan hunger worsens over drought

Marketplace Staff Sep 30, 2009

Jennifer Collins responds to readers’ questions after story below.


Kai Ryssdal: In Kenya today the director of the government’s Anti-Corruption Commission has resigned. Maybe because after 5 years in office, he hadn’t successfully prosecuted a single case. Corruption was one reason the U.S. threatened to stop some Kenyan politicians from coming here this week, and also to take a closer look at some planned aid programs.

All of this attention to corruption comes as Kenya is suffering through its worst drought in a decade. A drought that has basically broken the agricultural economy there. Marketplace’s Jennifer Collins reports now from Northwest Kenya.

JENNIFER COLLINS: In the searing afternoon heat, a couple dozen women sit in the shade of a tree and weave baskets.

They make about 30 cents a day. That’s if they can sell those baskets. Even in this dusty rural community about 300 miles from Nairobi, 30 cents isn’t much. Margaret Akai worries about feeding herself, her husband and nine children.

MARGARET AKAI: The kids are really starving and if there is no intervention, they will not survive. They’re becoming weak and susceptible to illness.

The drought has devastated agriculture and killed off livestock, so men like Akai’s husband can’t find work as herders. She says everyone depends on her now.

AKAI: When I see my kids going hungry, I try to weave very fast. So I can then go to the river and collect firewood to sell in town.

But even this extra money doesn’t put enough food on the table. Residents here say hunger contributed to the deaths of some of their neighbors. The World Food Program warns more Kenyans may die if food isn’t soon shipped to the nearly 4 million people who urgently need it. Another $230 million is needed for emergency rations. But because of the global financial crisis, donor countries are slow to give. And some Kenyans are outraged to see their country in this dire situation.

JOHN Githongo: For even one Kenyan to die is not acceptable.

John Githongo is an anti-corruption official in the Kenyan government. Now, he runs a couple of nonprofits. He says Kenya used to be known as a breadbasket. It should have the resources to handle this crisis.

Githongo: The Kenyan government collects over $4 billion in tax every year. The civil service and provincial administration in this country has the capacity to distribute food around the country. So Kenya is well placed to deal with these kinds of problems.

Githongo says the government is wracked by graft and infighting. There are also reports that corrupt officials sold off some of the country’s grain reserves at the beginning of the drought. Now there’s not enough left to feed the hungry. Restaurant manager Stella Nabibia says corruption is exacerbating the affects of this drought.

Stella Nabibia: It makes the prices to go high.

Nabibia runs a restaurant that’s popular with tourists and aid workers — even here there are problems.

Nabibia: You can see there are stickers.

Stickers, because food has to be shipped in from more fertile regions — things like tomato and kale are five times as expensive as they used to be. So new prices cover last year’s menu. Nabibia says she’s also had to cut back on the food she cooks for her 8-year-old son. They have tea for breakfast everyday and skip lunch. But on her walk to work she sees people who are far worse off.

Nabibia: You just seem them. Sometimes they just come asking for water, just for water to keep them going. It’s not new here if somebody tells you I’ve gone for four days without food. It’s real. Yeah, it’s real.

Faced with this reality, Margaret Akai and her neighbors weave their baskets and pray that help will come soon — from inside or outside Kenya. But village elder Peter Etesiro is pessimistic.

Peter Etesiro: I’m used to hard times. But this time is the worst because I see only darkness. There’s just no solution.

In the Turkana district, I’m Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.

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