The domino effects of drought and hunger in East Africa

Editor's note: When it rains here in Seattle, I don't think much of it. But right now, rain is the wish for many people in the Horn of Africa. The worst drought in decades is affecting Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and surrounding regions. The United Nations declared famine in two parts of Southern Somalia recently. There are 11.5 million people in the Horn of Africa in need of humanitarian aid, including emergency food. For years, World Vision has been present in East Africa, providing clean water, education, food, and other long-term assistance to communities in need. As the effects of the drought grew dire a few months ago, World Vision staff member Abby Metty visited Kenya to better understand the predicament people are facing.

By Abby Metty, World Vision U.S. Edited by Chris Clouzet, World Vision U.S.
Published August 1, 2011 at 12:00am PDT

Drought is nothing new to Mama Selina and her family, but this has been one of the most disappointing rainy seasons in Kenya for nearly 10 years.

"In the past, the rains were more, and you could get something from the land," says Mama Selina. "But now, I cannot plow and get anything from the land."

But a lack of food is just one of the problems. Drought has caused a domino effect of difficulties for families like Mama Selina's, and there is no easy fix.

Early marriage

Last year, in desperation for food, Mama Selina and her husband, Thomas, agreed to a paltry dowry of a few goats for their oldest daughter, age 14, to be married to a local man twice her age.

Mama Selina explains that the other family pressured the quick acceptance of the dowry, and it seemed to make sense. It would mean one less mouth to feed, food and livestock for her own family, and a better situation for their daughter. But now their daughter, also named Selina, is pregnant — and still hungry.

Mama Selina holds her youngest son, Koutich, 7 months. Because Mama Selina is malnourished, she has a hard time producing enough milk for Koutich. Photo: ©2011 Abby Metty/World Vision

"Often, I'm very hungry and I only eat leaves," daughter Selina says. "It's very painful when I feel hungry." Not only is her poor diet risking the health of her baby, but her young age means she is at risk for delivery complications.

"I was not happy when I was married," she says. "I wanted to go to school…" Tragically, this short-term solution may have a devastating, long-term impact on a girl who no longer has a chance at an education.

Dying animals and firewood

The drought is killing the goats and chickens Mama Selina and Thomas raise, and hindering the growth of the maize they try to grow on their land. "Ten goats have died in my house," says Mama Selina. Now, the family only has five goats and one chicken.

The aching hunger and desire for education for her children drives Mama Selina to continue finding ways to earn money while the drought drags on. She collects firewood and makes charcoal to sell at the local market so she can buy maize to feed the children. This is combined with her daily two-hour task of gathering water, leaving her exhausted.

Feeding her hungry children

"It's only about hunger and taking our children to school," Mama Selina says. "Also, fetching water."

If she can, she buys beans to add to the maize porridge they eat at home. A wild, bitter fruit, and leaves from the thorny bushes near their home provide another option. But besides being difficult to collect, the fruit is only edible if boiled for 12 hours — with water that is hard to obtain.

The infrequency and lack of consistent nutrition in their diet is affecting the children. They've stopped begging for more food, knowing there isn't any. "When there's no food, they don't ask," says Mama Selina. "They're used to living like that."

Her own malnourished body doesn't provide enough milk for her 7-month-old son, Koutich, either. But she seems resigned to this, even fatalistic. "I believe that the little milk the child gets is enough. He will be used to the life the others are facing."

Health, hut, and hygiene

Julia, 5, has been sick for most of her life. She was a twin, but her twin was stillborn, and her mother says she has not fared well since. Photo: ©2011 Abby Metty/World VisionLittle Koutich's sister, Julia, 5, is often sick, and the other children lack energy and have all been treated for malaria at a local missionary clinic.

The family's hut is small and stuffy, too hot to sleep inside. The children sleep outside with Mama Selina and Thomas, or in caves by the river. The adjacent hut they were sleeping in fell down, and there is always the worry about the security of their few possessions.

Mama Selina is careful to boil the river water before drinking it to prevent illness, but there simply isn't enough water for bathing or cleaning. "I normally bathe the kids once a week," she says. She uses just one cup of water per child. Their clothes are dirty and unwashed, as are the dishes out of which they eat.

'God, help'

Mama Selina's resignation and dwindling hope are evident in the way she speaks about her wounded faith. "Before, I was going to church, but I have not prayed for my family."

She says her prayers are simple: "I just believe and say, 'God, help.'" When she speaks, she is downcast. "Everybody is struggling," she says. "We believe every day we will get something."

When asked what she prays for, she hesitates and speaks slowly. "I just believe that God will help me one day get some iron sheets and build my house." Praying for a house implies Mama Selina's larger hope of more animals, all of her children sleeping at home, and enough food for everyone to be healthy and well.

Learn more

To help solve hunger, we have to understand it. Read about hunger and its effects. Learn about what poor nutrition does to families and children. See what World Vision is doing to fight hunger.

Ways you can help

Pray for Mama Selina's family, their livestock, young Selina, little Julia, and the rest of the children. Pray that Kenya receives the rain they need to grow their crops and thrive.

Make a one-time gift to World Vision's Horn of Africa Food Crisis Fund. Your donation will help provide emergency food and care to children and families suffering from hunger and malnutrition, as the worst drought in 60 years rages on.

Give monthly to provide support to children affected by hunger. Your monthly contribution will help us deliver assistance like food aid, agricultural training, and more.

Sponsor a child in East Africa. Your love and support of a boy or girl in need will help provide essentials like nutritious food.