Kenya’s Samburu People Fight For Survival On The Front Lines Of Climate Change

Food & Drink

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has advised that at least 4.2 million people in Kenya’s Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASAL) urgently need humanitarian assistance in the midst of the country’s fifth failed rainy season and its worst drought in forty years. Pastoralist communities, such as the Samburu, who live in Northern Kenya and depend on livestock rearing for their livelihoods, have had to endure extended periods of extreme poverty and severe food insecurity due to the prolonged conditions.

The March-May 2022 rainy season was the driest on record in the last 70 years and the meteorological department forecasts “drier-than-average conditions” for the rest of the year. More than 2.4 million livestock have died, and 4.35 million people are expected to face acute food insecurity between October and December 2022.

Scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have confirmed the role of man-made climate change in the protracted crisis, and Kenyan President, William Ruto, has said that Kenyans are suffering “the consequences of climate emergency.”

The Loigama community of Samburu County are a people living in despair. Hope began to diminish when their rivers began to dry up, threatening their livestock and sole source of income and disrupting their cherished indigenous lifestyle.

The Samburu are a semi-nomadic people, devoted to the preservation of their traditional customs. Culture, nutrition, and livelihoods are intertwined with their animals, which consist of cattle, goats, sheep, donkeys and camels. Given that Samburu diets consist predominantly of milk and occasionally blood from their cows, they are heavily reliant on their livestock for survival.

Once livestock are healthy and have adequate grounds for grazing, the Samburu can settle comfortably in a particular area.

But these days, animal carcasses litter barren lands that are unsuitable for grazing or vegetation growth. Surviving animals make do with what’s left— withered, grey shrubs that have little to offer with respect to nutrition. The National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) reports that “dehydration and a shortage of forage have caused cattle [in Samburu] to become skinny, with tightened skin, and dry mucous membranes and eyes.”

For a people whose culture and history has been steeped in movement, the drought has created a devastating sense of stagnation. Hopelessness has, on occasion, opened the door to apathy.

Each evening, as he helplessly watches the sun go down over the Mathew ranges, with no hope of a better tomorrow, Loonkishu Lemerketo, age 75, becomes increasingly weak and weary.

“We have not had any rainfall in the last three years. We have lost herds of cattle, goats and sheep and the remaining few are too weak to feed their young.”

The Samburu elder sobs as he points to three dead goat kids, just a few feet away, that died because their dehydrated mother was unable to produce milk.

Once upon a time— not that long ago— this community depended on the milk and blood of their livestock as a primary source of nutrition. Young energetic men would launch arrows from their bows, puncturing loose flesh on the necks of fat cows, catching the blood in a clay pot or calabash after which they would seal the wound with hot ash.

“Blood and milk was always available to us, even during droughts,” says Loonkishu. “Now the animals are too weak.”

Milk consumption among the Samburu has completely ceased.

Loonkishu tells me how the droughts have disrupted the entire food chain. The pastoralists can no longer depend on their traditional foods, forcing them to delve into the livestock trade and sell their revered cattle to buy food. And given their dire circumstances… they are frequently exploited by opportunistic traders looking for a good deal.

With skyrocketing food price inflation, this leaves them with limited resources to purchase food.

“We used to buy a kilogram of wheat flour at 50 Kenyan shillings and now we are buying the same bag for 120 Kenyan shillings,” Loonkishu explains. “Because we have no choice, we are forced to sell our best livestock at the market so that we can purchase animal feed for our other animals and for ourselves— only to encounter more frustration when we are offered close to no money at the livestock market.”

A September 2022 early warning bulletin for Samburu County, from the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) reveals that “the prices of food commodities continue to skyrocket, occasioned by crop failure in the county and neighboring counties. Livestock prices remain seasonally below the average… Prevalence of children at risk of malnutrition based on family MUAC [Mid-Upper Arm Circumference] remain above the recommended thresholds.”

As of September 2022, 33% of Samburu children are either moderately or severely malnourished with mothers frequently opting to forego meals so that their children can eat.

In many cases, women— weak and hungry themselves, but desperate to feed their families and animals— are forced to walk up to 50 kilometers to find markets for their livestock. But meager funds received from the sale of their treasured cattle can only afford about two or three days-worth of food, despite strict rationing.

And then there is of course, the water problem.

Women of the Loigama community (who traditionally carry the responsibility of fetching water for their families) must walk at least 20 kilometers to the closest water source and wait in long queues in the hot sun for their turn to fetch water from the stiff hand pump. When their 20 liter jerricans are finally full, it is time to make the arduous hike back home.

With babies draped across their fronts and jerricans that can weigh up to 50 pounds strapped to their backs, they return home, weary, with little hope for relief. Water pans and dams have all dried up.

A minute away from Loonkishu’s hut, a dehydrated donkey takes its final breath— its lifeless face settling peacefully into the dry dust. The helpless owner sits by her donkey’s side— collected—but unable to hide the pain in her eyes.

It is heart-breaking end for a faithful and kind companion that had been loyal every day of its life, helping her— a young mother— throughout the drought, with the daily transport of water and food supplies, making it possible for her to traverse impassable roads so that she could return to her children as quickly as possible when attending to daily responsibilities.

Like other parents, she has had to make the difficult decision to dis-enroll her children from school.

With no school feeding program and no food at home, they no longer have the fortitude to make the 42-kilometre journey to and from Sereolipi Primary School. Instead, they stay home and take care of their camels and livestock and try to make themselves useful to their parents.

Life in the village has become unbearable and unpredictable as each member helplessly awaits their fate.

Many pastoralists have opted to walk hundreds of kilometers, traversing Samburu County with their livestock to look for pasture and water for their animals, but they know that crossing the Mathew ranges could prove to be far more dangerous than remaining where they are.

Recurring communal and resourced-based conflicts— particularly in Samburu North— prevent access to grazing fields and watering points.

Human wildlife conflicts have also become rampant as pastoralists encroach on animal habitats in the quest for pasture and water for their livestock. One elder tells me of how his seventy sheep were all killed by hyenas.

Wildlife— like the Samburu people— are fighting for their lives. Elephants have been dying at staggering rates as are buffaloes, zebras and giraffes. Fifty-eight Grevy Zebras— 2% of the world’s rarest zebra species— have succumbed to the harsh conditions across the span of a few months.

Efforts to build resilience for humans, animals and nature, while notable, have been impeded by the cumulative effects of increasingly frequent, severe and prolonged drought conditions, with limited time in between episodes for the vulnerable to recover and bounce back.

Hyenas and vultures might be the only creatures to reap some benefit from a cruel and undeserved punishment that shows no signs of letting up any time soon.

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