Jason Kennedy visits Turkana, Kenya where the population is experiencing drought. So many children are malnourished and don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

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Climate change is far from their minds but they pay the price

Jason Kennedy visits Turkana, Kenya where the population is experiencing drought. So many children are malnourished and don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

Climate change is far from their minds but they pay the price

Jason Kennedy visits Turkana, Kenya where the population is experiencing drought. So many children are malnourished and don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

At an informal mobile health clinic in rural Kenya, more than 100 parents wait with their young children, most of whom are hoping to eat for the first time in days.

Among them is Louren Amicha. In an equal world, Louren would be excited about going back to primary school and would have plenty of energy to play with all of her friends.

But this is not an equal world; Louren is clinically malnourished and hasn’t hadanything to eat in five days.

Louren’s story is far from exceptional in her home county of Turkana, where repeated drought has left the younger population severely at risk.

Decades ago, the north-western county — which is roughly the size of Ireland — would go through a drought every 10 to 15 years. However, in the last 10 years or so, a drought has hit the area every second year, severely impacting an already vulnerable population.

This aligns with the recent International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that declared climate crisis is damaging the ability of land to sustain humanity. Although climate change may not be a topic of discussion for those living in Turkana’s isolated valleys and hills, they are currently experiencing its effects the hardest.

The last two major rains failed in Turkana, with devastating consequences for people living in those areas. The vast majority of farmers in Turkana are pastoralists who mainly live off livestock husbandry.

These farmers lost many of their goats in the droughts of 2016 and 2017. Already vulnerable communities no longer have enough time to recover from the losses incurred from one drought before the next drought hits.

Childhood malnutrition rates have reached 30% in some areas of Turkana, which is double what would constitute an emergency. The Kenyan Ministry of Health estimates that more than 78,000 children under five are malnourished in the county, with almost 19,000 of these severely malnourished.

Concern Worldwide, which has been working in Kenya since 2002, began working to improve nutrition rates in Turkana late last year at the invitation of Unicef.

Health and nutrition officer Giro Dima uses a muac band on a young child.
Health and nutrition officer Giro Dima uses a muac band on a young child.

It is currently working closely with NGO partners such as Save The Children and Kenya’s Ministry of Health to assist those most in need in the most hard-to-reach places.

Back in the mobile clinic, one of 36 Concern Worldwide is operating in Turkana, many of these children wait to be seen. Everyone sits in silence until it’s their time to be seen by health workers.

Most are visibly fatigued with hunger, with not enough energy to even swat flies and ants away from their eyes and mouth.

Although there are around five or six fathers waiting, most children here are minded by their mothers. Most of the male family figures are out trying to get jobs in distant semi-urban areas or trying to search for food and livestock, while the mothers stay at home and look after the children.

Louren and her older sister Ekai are weighed, their height is checked their little arms are measured. They are both still moderately malnourished. They are given two pouches of therapeutic food — a form of high-fat peanut paste — and make their way back home not knowing when they will eat next.

It’s about a 2km walk in the scorching heat for Louren, Ekai and their recently-widowed pregnant mother Akuwom.

They live in a small thatched hut on the side of a hill close to her husband’s grave. The sparse and barren land almost looks untouched by civilisation, were it not for the small huts that are dotted throughout the region.

It’s an incredibly isolated life, where there is nothing for them to do but occasionally herd faraway goats, as Akuwom’s young son Agule was doing when we visited.

Local cultural traditions dictate that Akuwom, who is in her 20s, is not allowed to travel far from her husband’s grave during the first few months after his death.

Brothers Aukot and Ekuam with the last of their family’s goats in northern Kenya. It takes five goats to feed a child. But the family only have five goats left, which are not producing milk. Pictures: Gavin Douglas/Concern Worldwide.
Brothers Aukot and Ekuam with the last of their family’s goats in northern Kenya. It takes five goats to feed a child. But the family only have five goats left, which are not producing milk. Pictures: Gavin Douglas/Concern Worldwide.

After this period, she will have to find a new place for her, her young family, and newborn baby to live. She said she will abide by these customs and she doesn’t hold out hope for a happy life as a result.

“Seeing into the future I see no hope, I see no hope and the reason I am saying that is because I’ve been left behind with a lot of burden,” she said.

“How do I even put it? My husband is gone. And I have my unborn baby.

“Who is going to take care of my unborn baby?

Why would God give me this baby, knowing he was going to take my husband? Who will get food for the other children? Because unless I get out and go burn charcoal and buy food for them, now when I’m in this house, taking care of the new baby, the others will perish.

On the day we met Akuwom, the only thing keeping her going was the knowledge that Concern would have food for her children.

“Our hope has been the outreach [mobile clinic]. We knew we would eat because the outreach was supposed to be here today so we knew,” she said.

“I know my life is going to be hard though. It is going to be extremely hard for me. That is one thing I know.”

In the coming weeks, Concern will be launching a direct cash transfer system for almost 5,500 households. The cash will enable them to buy food and other essential items to survive the current drought.

The 36 outreach clinics, specifically targeting the poorest areas in the region, will continue to provide life-saving therapeutic food for malnourished children.

Atiir Kataboi collects firewood every day in Turkana, northern Kenya, to make money to feed her seven children . Recurrent drought has made it her only means of survival. Photo: Gavin Douglas / Concern Worldwide.
Atiir Kataboi collects firewood every day in Turkana, northern Kenya, to make money to feed her seven children . Recurrent drought has made it her only means of survival. Photo: Gavin Douglas / Concern Worldwide.

Concern is already planning longer-term programming in Turkana which will make livelihoods more secure and reduce the vulnerability of the pastoralist communities.

Although climate activism is growing in sentiment around the world, all predictions indicate that the situation will only worsen unless global action is taken now.

Meanwhile, all vulnerable malnourished children in Turkana can do is sit and wait, hoping their next meal is not far away, not knowing that although they have contributed least towards climate change, they are amongst the first to pay the price.

Jason Kennedy is media relations officer for Concern Worldwide. For more information about Concern’s work visit www.concern.net

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