Visiting drought affected communities in northern Kenya
September 14, 2011 - I have recently returned from a trip to Turkana, Kenya - a region severly impacted by the drought. Below are some of my thoughts and experiences from the day.
The air is thick with dust and it feels like we’ve been driving forever, but it’s probably been only about two hours since we left the area known as Kaikor, northwest of Kenya near the border with the Republic of South Sudan. There are no roads, few people or animals and barely any vegetation. It’s close to 100 degrees and it’s the middle of winter.
We’ve come to see AMREF’s emergency medical camp for people who’ve been suffering from the terrible drought in Napak in the Turkana region, the worst drought Africa has seen in 60 years. There are about 25,000 people in the Napak region – and until AMREF established the medical camps, only one nurse to serve them.
The Turkana, are pastoralist nomads and the drought has reached crisis level for them. They’ve lost most of their livestock (cattle, goats and sheep), which is their main food staple as well as their livelihood.
Even in the best of times, the Turkana have some of the highest maternal and child mortality rates in Kenya. During the drought, AMREF staff have seen the nutritional status of children under five and women worsen dramatically. Rates of malnutrition and severe malnutrition have doubled since last year – to nearly 37% and 9% respectively.
As we are driving to the camp our program manager, Eberhardt, tells me about the double-whammy – the pastoralists need pasture for the animals and they now have to walk for days to find pasture – but there aren’t water sources. There’s an endless cycle of walking for them and their animals – causing further exhaustion and leading to more deaths of the animals, and ultimately more poverty and malnutrition for the pastoralist community. One of the main interventions that AMREF will be implementing is rehabilitating older, non-working boreholes and building new ones, to provide clean and safe water supplies.
We finally arrive at the AMREF medical camp. People travel hundreds of miles to come to these camps. Today, there are about 200 women, children and men - all patiently waiting to see a health worker. Pregnant women are receiving pre-natal care. A little boy about nine months old bursts into tears as he receives his measles vaccination. According to the health worker, he suffers from malnutrition and so his mother is given food supplements for him. Nearby an elderly man is being examined for trachoma – an eye infection caused by poor hygiene. An AMREF health worker, Ali, tells me about the risk of cross-border infections as communities are on the move. There’s been a recent outbreak of polio, which apparently originated in the Republic of South Sudan.
AMREF workers and volunteers work tirelessly to provide micronutrient-rich food to the weakest community members. Workers are also screening and providing treatment for water-borne disease and giving demonstrations in basic hygiene. Ensuring even basic hygiene under these conditions is essential to prevent the further increase in eye infections and the outbreak of diarrheal disease such as cholera.
Throughout the day I meet many people like Akiru – Akiru Akolom guesses she’s between 35-40 years old. Before the drought, her husband had more than 200 goats, as well as sheep and cattle. Now they have only 15 goats left. A mother of six children, she’s been relying on emergency food distributions, which she says are irregular. Her village is just too remote for most organizations to reach. That’s why she is grateful for AMREF. Her children have been treated for trachoma, for upper respiratory infections and for malaria. All are alive, still she worries about malnutrition.
AMREF is working to address the concerns of Akiru and the millions of others like her.
We have ramped up our activities to mitigate the immediate and medium-term effects of the drought on ravaged communities. As a first step towards determining a longer-term solution for the water shortage, we will commission a hydrological survey of the region.
It’s been difficult to make this trip and to really see the human toll of the drought and its attendant ill health. Meeting the people whom AMREF has been working with, however, has reinforced my knowledge that AMREF is doing what we can to ameliorate the suffering - and we’re here for the long term to alleviate the effects of future droughts by providing access to clean, sustainable sources of water and basic medical care.
Comment by Sheryl Fairchild Posted on 2nd Oct 2011
I appreciate AMREF's efforts to facilitate a conversation at the U.N. about long-term planning for draught so that draught does not result in famine. Thank you for your first-hand account. We are traveling to Kenya for our third time in late December and this certainly very much on our minds. I wholeheartedly support AMREF's work!