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Praying For Rain in Northern Kenya
March 13, 2006
The familiar sound of an imam's voice drifts through the searing heat of the early morning in El Wak, a town in the far northeast of Kenya. But his call is not for the souls of the faithful. Instead, he is praying for rain.
A combination of three failed rainy seasons, neglect at home as well as from abroad, and the decades-long overstretching of natural resources have been devastating. The earth in El Wak is a bleached moonscape scattered with thorn bushes and the carcasses of dead animals.
At regular intervals along the rutted track that makes up much of the 530 miles between the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and El Wak, women and children wait forlornly with buckets and jerry-cans in the hope that one of the rare passers-by will give them water.
In many places there is simply no water left, the pastures have dried up and thousands of animals have died, depriving much of the primarily pastoralist population of their livelihoods.
"No livestock means no food," says Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) emergency coordinator Ibrahim Younis. "People live on the meat and milk that their animals provide, and now many have nothing."
The result is that today, nearly half the children under five are malnourished or at risk of malnutrition. In January, MSF opened a therapeutic feeding program in El Wak and five surrounding districts to care for children who had become severely malnourished -- meaning that they were in need of intensive medical care in order to survive. So far, 170 children have been treated.
But this time at least she won't lose her son. Severely dehydrated and malnourished on arrival, 18 month old Abdullahi is recovering well and today alone has put on 200 grams in weight. "He will be out soon," says a smiling MSF clinical officer, Ibrahim Ahmed.
Strong coping mechanisms among the local population, which faces chronic food shortages in most years but is now bolstered by food distributions, have played an important role in keeping the number of children in the MSF therapeutic care project relatively low. But with 19 percent of children already moderately malnourished and a further 20 percent on the brink, the situation could deteriorate quickly.
When the project began at the start of the year, the greatest concern was over water. "We had people at the office from dawn to dusk begging for water," says Ibrahim Younis. "Our initial aim was to provide therapeutic feeding, but when we realized how critical the water situation was, we had to quickly begin providing it to villages. Up to now we've delivered about half a million liters, but the appalling state of the roads has made this a tough task."
The lack of water and food has other serious consequences on health: hygiene suffers, and malnutrition weakens children in particular, leaving them more vulnerable to disease. A measles outbreak has forced the MSF team to carry out an emergency vaccination, which began on March 8. Over the first three days alone, more than 9,000 children were vaccinated. Within 14 days, the aim is to vaccinate around 27,000.
Another huge challenge for MSF is the mobility of the population in a region covering 16,400 square miles. Around 70 percent of the people are pastoralists coming from what locals call the badia, an Arabic term that loosely translates as 'the bush' or 'nomads.' In search of pasture for their animals, they move hundreds of miles every week, even across the border into Somalia.
A traditional therapeutic feeding program based in a health center or hospital is largely ineffective. The project has to be adapted, and MSF now carries out ambulatory feeding, screening, and treating of children at a number of different points throughout the five districts covered.
Severely affected by the drought, the worst off are found among those from the badia. With their livestock gone and their means of survival with it, many desperate pastoralists have set up ragged camps around established settlements. They have become known as the 'drop-outs.'
One such camp, El Haji, is located 2 miles south of El Wak. Named after the nearby borehole, the camp is a picture of desolation. Shelters have been erected with scrap materials ranging from bits of wood to old tattered items of clothing. They provide virtually no protection from the sun, or from the constant wind that whips up a fine dust from the scorched earth.
It is one of dozens of similar camps around the area, and while the total number of drop-outs is unclear, over a thousand people have settled in El Haji alone and more arrive destitute every day. An MSF driver, Ali, sums up the situation. "I have lived here all my life and I have never seen anything like this," he says as he surveys the scene.
Few have. According to the people of El Wak, this drought is the harshest in 15 years and unless the prayers of the imam are answered soon, it could become significantly worse yet.