Vultures of the famine

Published by The Mail on Sunday (19th March, 2017)

Emmanuel Ayapar is three years old and can no longer walk. The flesh on his legs, which dangle from his mother’s hip as she carries him around, is wasting away. He seems listless and sad, tongue flicking repeatedly in and out of his mouth.

‘We do not have enough food,’ said Veronica, his 28-year-old mother. ‘We eat only once a day.’

The little boy is suffering from severe malnutrition and is at risk of starving to death. He weighs just 15lb – half the typical weight for a boy of his age. His fearful parents have taken him to hospital but as poor casual workers they do not have money to pay for the medicines prescribed to help children in Emmanuel’s condition.

Veronica is deeply stressed and herself alarmingly thin. ‘Sometimes I can’t sleep since I am so depressed,’ she told me. ‘I can’t eat because there is no food and I am worried my baby is so sick. Then I can’t go out to work.’

This friendly Kenyan family, like millions more across East Africa, are suffering from terrible drought ravaging vast swathes of their continent and bringing sickness and starvation in its deadly wake.

The United Nations claims it is part of the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, with 20 million people facing ‘devastating levels of food insecurity’ in a sweeping arc from West Africa to the Middle East.

Stephen O’Brien, Britain’s former international development Minister now heading UN relief efforts, visited northern Kenya earlier this month to raise the alarm while an appeal was launched last week in Britain for Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan.

‘Crops are failing, food prices are rising and families are going hungry,’ said Mr O’Brien. ‘The spectre of hunger and disease is haunting East Africa again.’

That’s true enough. Yet while drought is a dreadful act of nature, regularly striking these parts with frightening ferocity, the horrors of hunger and famine are different. For they are disasters made and inflamed by humans.

We simply should not see distressing images of malnourished children in the 21st Century. But in fast-growing Kenya, just as in war-torn Somalia and South Sudan, people are starving in misery because of gross political failure.

They are victims of vultures who feast on their country through wanton corruption, wearying tribalism and woeful governance.

Kenya has some of the world’s best-paid politicians who pamper themselves and their cronies while less fortunate citizens end up dead.

‘God makes drought and man makes famine,’ said John Githongo, the country’s most famous whistleblower who, in 2006, exposed a £500 million corruption scandal involving top politicians. ‘In this day and age there should be no Kenyans dying for lack of food.’

This courageous man is correct. Yet even now, as the scale of this crisis emerges with shocking clarity, political fat cats are calculating the best way to cream off cash from these lethal events.

This is, after all, a country led by people who have become obscenely rich in power, and whose president and vice-president only escaped charges of crimes against humanity after witness intimidation.

There is ceaseless theft from public coffers, even on the front line of the fight against drought. Among last year’s financial scandals were scams involving the health services and efforts to improve food security by irrigating more land.

What shameful contrast these crooks are to people such as Mansani Lemoyok, a tall woman in a tatty striped tank top whom I met beside her home created from scraps of sacking stretched over a web of bent wooden sticks.

Two days earlier she had been forced to sell her last two cows. Mansani did not get much for the beasts since they had shrivelled from hunger and prices have fallen almost four-fold in recent months.

But at least it meant some money to help her starving children, who constantly beg for food when she has little to offer beyond their single daily meal of maize porridge. ‘The children are always asking for food and milk,’ said the young mother of four. ‘But I just have to tell them to keep quiet until the evening when we eat.’

The drought’s awful grip could be seen in scorched scrubland and shrivelled river beds around the hamlet of Lolngerded as we talked beneath straggly acacia trees offering shade from the savage sun.

‘It has been bad, really bad, since this drought came,’ Mansani said. ‘This is the worst I have ever seen it – we have had no rain since December. We are all really worried.’

Travelling around the Isiolo and Samburu regions, sometimes passing men frantically digging in dried ground to find water holes, I heard similar tales of deprivation and desperation among these proud pastoralist communities.

These are people whose lives revolve around cattle. The creatures are both a sign of status and source of the protein-rich blood and milk cocktail that helps families survive in such arid terrain. Yet hardly any could be seen alive.

Some have died. Some have been killed for cash, despite crashing prices. And some have been slaughtered for food, such as the trio I saw – their heads staring balefully out of a puddle of their innards as I drove through a village whose people had combined their money to buy meat.

‘Whatever happens we share things around,’ said Ntausen Lolema, 44, a mother of eight waiting patiently with other women for a lump of flesh while men hacked up the beasts. ‘But we are very afraid because when nothing is left what will we do?’

Many surviving cattle have been driven huge distances to find food, invading the white Kenyan farming heartlands and provoking incendiary tensions over grazing rights. That was what lay behind the killing of a former British army officer on his ranch earlier this month.

Experts blame the drought’s severity on climate change, inflamed by rapid growth of population. A national emergency has been declared in Kenya with 2.7 million people suffering food insecurity and 180,000 children dropping out of school.

In a pitifully poor cluster of homes called Ololokwe – named after an imposing flat-topped mountain nearby – I met a grandmother named Naalmalees and her shy teenage relative Kumontare.

The women had just fetched water from a wind-powered pump, carrying heavy ten-litre containers hung from scarves round their heads for more than an hour despite the fierce heat and being famished from hunger.

When there is no wind, they must walk three hours further to a bore hole along dusty paths punctuated by desiccated livestock carcasses. ‘Everything seems to have changed this year,’ said Naalmalees. ‘It is hotter and we have had less rain. I have never seen drought like this.

‘I do not have powers to change the climate or bring the drought to an end, so all I can do is encourage the younger ones to stay strong as we wait for the rain.’

Both wore traditional Samburu beaded necklaces while the shine on copper rings in Kumontare’s ears showed she was newly married. ‘If there is nothing in your stomach you are afraid,’ said the teenager. ‘But we do not know what we can do.’

We talked near the new grave of an old man who died in the drought, watched by skinny children. The villagers, eating at best once a day, told me they fear more of their young and old will succumb to starvation before the drought ends.

Relief groups are scaling up their efforts in this middle-income country famed for its fertile land. ‘Malnutrition rates seem higher here although the crisis seems bigger in South Sudan and Somalia,’ said Philippe Carette, country director for Action Against Hunger.

One in three young children have malnutrition in the worst-afflicted parts of Kenya. ‘These are rates that demand an urgent response,’ said Mr Carette.

At a clinic in Isiolo run by the Catholic Church, I watched as a subdued 11-month-old boy was weighed, then his arm carefully measured to assess his malnutrition before he was given food supplements. ‘We have a problem getting food since my husband does casual jobs and it is not constant,’ said the boy’s mother Sophia. ‘The drought means there are few jobs, with no farming and more people wanting work.’

On some days the family does not eat at all, especially since their small plot of kidney beans and maize dried up. Little wonder the tiny boy had a smear of clay, oil and cow dung across his forehead, a tribal mark for good luck.

He was found by Claudia, a 23-year-old volunteer who tours villages searching for malnourished youngsters. ‘It is very distressing,’ she said. ‘You see so many of these children and they are deteriorating so fast. Mothers are also starving.’ Few can quibble with urgent need for humanitarian help, yet troubling questions lie behind these scenes of tragedy.

Take neighbouring South Sudan, where the UN warns almost half the population of 12 million people is at risk from famine.

The short history of this nation – the world’s newest – is scarred by the most savage factional fighting over the spoils of oil and aid. In 2012, just a year after becoming an independent country, the president begged senior officials to return £3.2 billion stolen from his impoverished state.

Yet aid poured in, especially from Britain, often ending up with warlords carrying out atrocities. It is hard to think of a more damning indictment of naive Western dreams of building functional states with huge dollops of aid. There was even a fake ministry of finance for gullible foreign donors while generals carried on back-door dealings elsewhere.

Now the grotesque regime wants to rake off more cash from misery by ramping up visa costs to £8,000 for foreign aid workers flocking into the famine-hit country.

Similar venality is seen in Somalia, an anarchic state in which Islamist terror group al-Shabaab serves as a foil for Western failure. ‘Famine has been a business here for 20 years,’ said Ben Rawlence, an author and analyst on the area.

There are few cash sources in this shattered state. Britain pumps half a billion pounds of aid into Somalia while – as I revealed last year – accepting a ‘certain’ risk of funds being diverted to terrorists and gangsters wrecking their country.

Meanwhile, one British expert told me of his frustration at being unable to drill cheap bore holes because only big aid outfits could access a £10 million Department for International Development fund.

Another source of income is illegal charcoal – and Kenyan army chiefs have been accused of taking a hefty cut in the lucrative trade sustaining the al-Shabaab forces they are supposed to be fighting in Somalia.

Given the egregious history of Kenya’s elites, this is entirely believable. Close to half the population lives below the poverty line yet its self-serving MPs are the second-highest paid in the world.

Some pocket 60 times the average Kenyan salary, taking home £10,000 a month in pay and perks. And earlier this year, as hunger began to bite and doctors went on strike, they handed themselves an extra £100,000 each in payoffs after their terms expire this summer.

President Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s founding leader, is worth an estimated £400 million placing him among Africa’s wealthiest men. His deputy William Ruto, a former teacher, has also become amazingly rich. Ruto lost a previous job as agriculture minister amid accusations of illegal sale of grain put aside for tough times.

Both men only escaped prosecution at the International Criminal Court over links to political violence after witnesses disappeared or were terrified into silence.

On Friday Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson visited State House, former home of the colonial governor that now serves as the president’s seat of power in the heart of Nairobi.  The British Foreign Secretary was handing over seven ambulances, bought with fines imposed on a British print firm found guilty of bribing Kenyan officials.

Despite the drought crisis, Kenya’s rulers have revealed plans to spend millions refurbishing other state lodgings, including retreats enjoyed by Kenyatta and Ruto, as well as splashing out huge sums on homes for diplomats abroad.

Devolution of power under Kenyatta has improved infrastructure and relief efforts. Yet many ask why is there still hunger in this fertile, educated country that exports beans, coffee, flowers and tea to Europe?

Especially when Ethiopia, the country that once symbolised such issues and still suffers rigid state repression, is learning to navigate drought – without a massive mortality explosion – through peace and prudent planning.

For Boniface Mwangi, a prominent Kenyan activist, the answer is simple – contracts for relief distribution go only to firms with political connections. ‘Our politicians capitalise on our people’s problems,’ he said. ‘Famine makes people money.’

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