I arrived in Garissa, Kenya — a city of at least 180,000 people not far from the border with Somalia — today after a long, hot drive from Nairobi. I’ll be in Garissa and areas to the north for the remainder of the week to see how this year’s drought has impacted families in the area.
From an outside perspective, it’s easy to hear about drought in the Horn of Africa and glaze over. It’s one of those creeping natural disasters that people in the West hear about almost every year.
But this isn’t just another annual drought – this is the worst crisis the region has seen in 60 years. To put that in historical perspective, the situation is looking more grim than the massive drought in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s that prompted the Live Aid concert, and the drought in Somalia in early 1990s that led to the well-known United Nations peacekeeping mission.
Garissa and the rest of the region — including parts of Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia — usually have two rainy seasons, one in the fall and one in the spring. This year, neither rainy season happened and the earth is bone dry.
One thing to keep in mind about people in this region is that most of them herd and sell animals for a living — including cattle, goats and camels. When there’s not enough rain, animals can’t find sufficient food or water. Animals getting progressively weaker and sicker, and people rush to sell the animals they cannot feed.
The market gets glutted with, for example, goats that aren’t good quality and prices plummet. That means that poor families with no resources except animals take a tough hit. Someone told me today that a goat that used to fetch 5,000 Kenyan Shillings (about US$55) now gets sold for 1,000 Kenyan Shillings (about US$11).
I met one such family today. About 10 kilometers from the center of Garissa is a settlement of a few hundred pastoral families, some of whom have been there for years, and some of whom recently migrated in search of water. I talked to Nimu Adan, a 65-year-old woman who lives with her husband, eight grown children and several grandchildren.
Nimu’s family has lived in this settlement for 15 years, but they’re surrounded by newcomers who have moved into the area since the drought. The family has 20 goats — most of which have been sick for past two months because there’s not enough food — and with the newcomers, there’s extra competition for the little food that does exist. The family has purchased some medicine for the goats, but Nimu contends that it’s not helping.
Nimu explained that — because the animals are sick — no one wants to buy them, which means her family’s income has taken a nosedive. As a result, the family can’t buy enough to eat so they have cut back from three meals a day to just one or two, and they’ve done away with “luxuries” like milk. They are now consuming almost entirely staples such as maize flour — hardly a nutritious diet.
The saving grace of Garissa is that it’s located near the Tana River, which means that there’s a water source for people and animals. But the farther you get from the river, the less green you see and the more desperate things become. As one herder family recounted to me, “We moved from the grasslands — where the animals had plenty of grass to eat — to Garissa because they needed water. Now we have water at the river, but there is no food.”
I have a feeling that as we moved north to Wajir tomorrow — where there’s no river to blunt the impact of drought — things will just get worse.