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Latest update : 2011-09-30

Kenya: the paradoxes of hunger

Dadaab, in Kenya, is the world’s largest refugee camp. Over 400,000 exiled Somalis live in this gigantic city of canvas, under the unforgiving glare of the African sun. NGOs are there to help, and despite the difficulties, most of the refugees are able to subsist on handouts. Yet, a few hundred kilometres away, in Kenya’s Turkana district, pastoralists are starving to death.

A group is approaching in the distance, their gaunt figures appearing in the dust. They are Somali refugees who have walked more than 20 days to escape the drought and famine that has struck their home regions. Much of Somalia is controlled by the Islamist al-Shabaab militia, which has banned international NGOs from operating in the areas it controls. For these displaced people, Dadaab camp in Kenya is the end of a long journey and the beginning of a new life.

Upon arrival, the refugees are registered in the database of the UN High Commission for Refugees, before being given cooking utensils, tarpaulin and 21 days’ worth of food. After three weeks, the new arrivals are given a ration card allowing them to collect aid from the World Food Programme. They then have to find a place to settle with their families.

Opened in 1991, the camp was designed to accommodate 90,000 refugees. Today, there are over 400,000 people here. With the drought that has struck the Horn of Africa and the famine in Somalia, up to 1,500 Somalis arrive in Dadaab every day. Since there is no more room inside the original camps, newcomers are forced to settle on the outskirts. They build small huts with branches from trees in insecure areas where there is no water and no latrines. They have to walk, sometimes for hours, in order to collect their food aid.

Armed bandits roam, and attacks are frequent. NGO employees are not allowed to move between the Dadaab camps without a police escort. Some of the refugees have had their few remaining belongings stolen.

Despite these chaotic conditions, the Somali refugees in Dadaab have escaped hunger. The situation there is widely publicised and aid is provided.

The Turkana are starving in indifference

However, a few hundred kilometres away from Dadaab, indigenous Kenyans are succumbing to severe malnutrition and starvation, because not enough aid is being provided. The Turkana region, in north-western Kenya, is all but ignored by the authorities. There are no roads, no water and no electricity.

Along the rutted tracks, the land is parched and there is nothing to eat. In the villages, faces are emaciated and children have distended bellies; classic symptoms of chronic malnutrition. The area is populated by Turkana pastoralists whose livelihoods depend on their livestock. Like most of the rest of the Horn of Africa, the area has been hit by the worst drought in 60 years and most of the cattle and goats here have long since died of starvation.

In the village of Kaikor, we find an old man, Nagwawi, who says that his wife starved to death. Nagwawi has not eaten anything for three days himself. The elderly find it particularly difficult to cope, because they are not mobile enough to go and search for wild berries and leaves.

Elders in Kaikor told us that a total of 12 people had starved to death over the previous two weeks. An official working for the Kenyan branch of an international NGO told us this figure was realistic, but he did not want to go on the record, for fear of causing problems between his employer and the Kenyan government.

Paradoxically, Kenya’s economy is one of the most dynamic in East Africa. The capital, Nairobi, is experiencing a construction boom and GDP growth has been solid in recent years, despite the global economic downturn.

The authorities are just beginning to react, by distributing food in some villages, but these efforts are insufficient. Some international NGOs such as Oxfam, UNICEF and the Red Cross have programmes in the area, but the lack of roads makes it difficult to reach the most remote villages. Widespread insecurity - in the form of armed raiders, who prey on the remaining livestock - adds a further layer of complexity to the crisis here.

Whilst the international focus is, for now, centred on scaling up the provision of food relief in Turkana, there are longer-term solutions to the current crisis, including digging more wells and encouraging people to shift from pastoralism to crop-based agriculture. Underground water reserves are available and can be accessed with modest levels of investment, so irrigated crop production is a realistic possibility.

Whether the Kenyan government belatedly takes the initiative on this front - or leaves it to the ubiquitous international NGOs - is still a moot point. But one thing appears certain: until such long-term investment is carried out, crises such as the current one will keep recurring.

Report by James André and Duncan Woodside.

By James ANDRE

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