Africa / Drought / Drylands / Food Security / Forages / Genetics / ILRI / Kenya / Pastoralism / Vulnerability

Landscapes of chronic hunger: Eating food aid in empty deserts and desert slums

Untitled (Desert Landscape), by Salvador Dali, 1934 (source:

Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek has published in Foreign Policy this week a feature article, at times lyrical and elegiac, stemming from a walking trip he and his wife made last August, as a great drought gripped the Horn of Africa, across a part of the arid Turkana Basin, a hot, harsh, wind-blown and ‘freakishly beautiful’ landscape in Kenya’s northwestern frontier. The Salopeks made this trip with a nomadic goat herder and two other local Daasanach people, he writes, to get an understanding of the ‘natural history of hunger’ in this remote hunger-friendly pastoral region.

Some climatologists are predicting another drought in the Horn this year.

‘Early in February, without much fanfare, the United Nations officially declared the famine over in the Horn of Africa. This is welcome news. . . . In the end, an estimated 35,000 Somalis—along with some Kenyans and Ethiopians—are thought to have died; most were children under five. . . . Twenty years ago, a quarter of a million Somalis perished during a similar wartime drought. And before that, in the Sahelian emergencies of the mid-1980s, a million emaciated bodies were spooned prematurely into sandy graves.

‘Last August, I took a long walk with Daasanach nomads in northern Kenya, well inside the disaster zone, to see what it was like to move, as most famine victims do, on foot, through a landscape of chronic hunger. It was a way to look at hunger beyond the carefully framed shots of television cameras, and an occasion to ask: When will Africa’s vast hunger pangs finally end? . . .

‘For three years, precipitation had fallen erratically, if at all, in [Inas’s] isolated corner of the world, a Kenyan outback located 500 miles northwest of the famine’s epicenter in Somalia. It was not the focus of the massive international relief effort . . . . But the epidemic of hunger here was just as old and stunting. While an army of foreign journalists and relief workers converged on refugee camps on the distant Somali border, Daasanach children were starving in the more typical nomad way—more or less permanently and beyond the restless glare of the TV lights. Half of the Turkana Basin’s population of 500,000 livestock herders and subsistence farmers was on food aid. Indeed, some people had been collecting rations for 30 years. Even so, Mister Inas, a veteran of many starveling years, ranked the current dry spell the toughest he had ever experienced. Droughts used to be spaced further apart, he said. Nowadays, they came brutally hard and fast, and his goats were dying of thirst. He’d lost half his herd already. His seven children he parceled out among various relatives to avert starvation. When I asked how long he was prepared to endure such catastrophes, he shrugged.

‘”We have no education,” he said, knocking his bony forehead with a fist. “If the Daasanach go to school, then all these troubles will end. But we are stupid.” He talked at length about abandoning the nomad life altogether.

‘But I’d heard such declarations before. They weren’t credible. For the Daasanach, owning animals means everything—status, wealth, life. And like many disempowered minorities, they frequently said what they thought outsiders wished to hear. Trudging behind him for hours, I became convinced that the surer measure of Mister Inas’s future lay at the opposite end of his anatomy.

Horny with calluses, flat as slabs of jerked meat, his feet swung from his high, girlish hips like the weights on a metronome: smoothly, tirelessly—I am tempted to say, eternally—as though the surface of the savanna consisted not of burning dust, but greased ball bearings. His sandals rode the earth like skates. It was a gait of superhuman efficiency: transcontinental, very old, designed for chasing clouds, for swallowing endless miles of geography in the pursuit of the country of rain. . . .

‘One anthropological study pegs the number of African pastoralists, classic drought victims, at 20 million. When agro-pastoralists—herders who also scratch out a bit of farming—are included, the total grows to 280 million, about a quarter of the entire African population. . . .

‘”This country is too crowded,” Haskar Lotur, the gunman, snorted. He flicked his skinny wrist dramatically at the ringing emptiness. “Nobody stays in their place anymore.” . . .

‘The nomads, once canny at eking out a livelihood on the gauntest of Kenyan landscapes, had been settling into ramshackle outposts, essentially rural slums, where each household received a monthly allotment of 10 kilograms of maize. They were losing what relief workers termed “famine-coping mechanisms”—their ancestral survival skills. . . .

Outsiders tend to see their pet causes played out in African famines. Everyone brings something to hunger’s table.

Anti-globalization groups condemn stock market speculators for jacking up the costs of the world’s food staples (thus pricing the poor out of their next meal). Washington worries about famine’s role in political instability, particularly if relief is diverted to terrorist groups. . . . Nowadays, the latest meta-concern to be piggybacked onto the backs of the starving is global warming. Some reporters . . . have labeled the bloody clashes in the Turkana Basin one of the world’s first “climate-change conflicts.” Like most other imposed narratives, though, this one is blinkered.

At this stage, I don’t think there is any hard evidence to show conclusively that droughts are getting worse in the region, compared with the past,” Philip Thornton, a leading climate scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, wrote me in an email. “To call this a ‘climate change war’ may well be simply wrong.”

‘. . . [T]he point Thornton and other climate scientists make is that events in one lifetime aren’t a reliable enough gauge of what droughts loom ahead. Long-term rainfall statistics collected in the region—going back to British colonial times—are ambiguous, sometimes oscillating just as radically as today. And according to the most recent report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international agency spearheading the study of the man-made pollutants that cause global warming, East Africa is expected to get wetter, not dryer, in coming decades.

Even if East Africa does become wetter, this does not imply that the climate will be more conducive for agricultural production,” Thornton cautioned. Increases in temperature are likely to lead to decreased crop yields. . . .

The United Nations expects hunger to return again this year to the Horn of Africa. The next dry season begins in May. From that month on, it simply becomes a waiting game. . . .’

Read the whole article at Foreign Policy: The last famine: A natural history of hunger, by Paul Salopek, 2 Mar 2012.

View a slideshow that accompanies the article, A long walk through a dry country, with photos by Mike Hettwer, 2 Mar 2012.

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