Kenya: Scorching Sun, Dust, Famine

Published on 1st November 2005

MWINGI, Eastern Kenya (IPS) - Frail Musyimi Mbiti lies on a bed that is almost bare, in Mwingi District Hospital. His little arms are tied to the bed rail with a dirty piece of cloth as a precautionary measure, failing which he would probably start gnawing on himself.

The cheekbones of this emaciated four-year-old protrude so that one fears they may pierce through his skin. He struggles to cry, but can hardly produce a sound. Eventually, he surrenders to sleep as his equally tired mother, Tabitha Mbiti, tries to caress him. Elsewhere in the hospital, several other equally malnourished children can be found. 

This is the face of a famine that is eating its way through several parts of Kenya, including Mwingi district -- about 165 kilometres north-east of the capital, Nairobi. The dry, dusty region with a population of 332,000 has experienced a three-year drought, and the temperatures here are simmering.  Tabitha Mbiti planted maize and beans last year on her five-acre plot in an effort to feed Musyimi and her other five children, but reaped nothing.  \"He has not eaten a thing for the last four days because there is nothing to eat,\" she told IPS. \"I had gone to the DC\'s (District Commissioner) office to ask for food, and someone noticed my tired child and asked me to bring him to hospital.\" \"At least here, he has been put on a drip and can find some porridge to drink,\" she adds. Tabitha is in no better a state, her mouth dry and her eyes watery from the yawning that comes with constant hunger. 

The Mbiti family and many others are now dependent on food rations distributed by the government and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), under a \"food for work\" initiative.  Under this scheme, a family receives maize, pulses and oil for every day that one of its members works on a WFP project -- rations that are meant to meet half the family\'s nutrition needs. No person may work for more than 12 days a month on the projects, which focus on matters such as soil and water conservation.  However, there are fears that the initiative may buckle under the strain of ever-increasing demands for assistance. \"It is getting worse day by day, and this is revealed by the rural-urban migration of people in the district. Many people are coming from their villages to Mwingi town to look for food,\" says Solomon Kitheka, a project manager for Action Aid -- the
Johannesburg-based agency that administers the WFP\'s \"food for work\" initiative.

Every day, more than 30 people approach his office in search of help.  A school feeding scheme has also been put in place, but has experienced difficulties. Delays in supplying food to the institutions have disrupted plans to provide children with lunches. \"This term the allocation was delayed for three weeks, during which we stayed without food,\" says Wilfred Kimanzi, Deputy Headmaster of Mavisi primary school. \"Almost half of the pupils left school. They only returned soon after the allocation was delivered.\"

Surrounded by withered trees and carpeted by dust, Mavisi caters for 530 pupils. Mwingi has a total of 353 primary schools with 131,225 pupils, most of them on the feeding programme.  Despite these concerns, Deputy District Commissioner Mohammed Maalim maintains the situation is under control.  \"There is no cause for alarm right now. We have enough food to address the situation. Besides, we have also appealed for seeds to help the people get ready ahead of the rains. This is a disaster preparedness measure that we have embarked on,\" he notes.

In September this year, President Mwai Kibaki\'s government launched an appeal for 33 million dollars to help some 1.2 million Kenyans facing food shortages in various parts of the country.  A month later, however, authorities announced plans to build a 1.3 million dollar mansion for the head of state, in Nairobi.  While the proposal was given the green light by Kenya\'s treasury, it outraged critics of the administration who argued that the president already had adequate accommodation at State House -- and that the funds would better be spent on alleviating hunger.

It\'s an argument that might prove compelling back in Mwingi at the district commissioner\'s office, where a long and winding queue has formed of people needing food. About 50 persons, both young and old, have walked long distances, braving the scorching sun to beg for supplies.  Charles Musyoka is one of them: a blind father of six whose children have stopped attending school because of hunger.  \"I have walked for 15 kilometres to look for food to feed my weak wife and six children. I have left home because they are too weak to walk,\" he told IPS, in tears.  \"We have slept hungry for many days, I cannot count. We have been surviving on wild fruits since we were given four kilogrammes of maize a month ago.\"

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