TURKANA DISTRICT, Kenya, 18 JULY 2011 – A typically warm Turkana welcome greeted UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake when he visited the village of Kapua in north-western Kenya this weekend. Report by Edita Nsubuga and Alicia Jones
Women and men in traditional attire sang as they escorted him to the shade of the trees in the village meeting area, a complete contrast to the desolate, rocky landscape surrounding Kapua. Waiting patiently in the shade were row upon row of mothers with babies, along with the young, the old and the infirm.
Hundreds of people had trekked for miles, despite their thirst, deep hunger and extreme fatigue, to meet with Mr. Lake. He had come to listen to their stories and, perhaps, offer a glimmer of hope in their harsh lives.
Impact of climate change
In addition to the thousands of drought- and conflict-affected Somalis who are seeking refuge in Ethiopia and Kenya, millions more in this region are barely surviving. Across the Horn of Africa, people are suffering the consequences of failed rains and the impact of climate change.
For the largely pastoralist Turkana people, the loss of their livestock has meant the decline of a way of life that used to make it possible for them to support and feed their children well.
Now, Kapua village has become a satellite point for food distribution. Its 4,000 or so inhabitants rely on a sporadic supply of nutrition supplies to survive.
‘We will do all we can’
At the meeting with Mr. Lake, people talked about their search for water in dry river beds, mothers described their pain at not being able to breastfeed their babies, and parents spoke of their aspirations to give their children an education and, ultimately, a better life.
“I want to tell you that I’ve not only listened but I will remember, because the stories that you have told have moved my heart,” Mr. Lake told the crowd.
“As you know, at UNICEF we are working hard to help in whatever way we can. And we will do all we can,” he added. “But most of all, I want you to know how much I and my colleagues admire all that you are doing to work through such difficult times.”
Kapua has a dispensary, which is the only health facility in the village. Drought-affected children in Turkana are screened for malnutrition at rural dispensaries like this one. Then they are referred for treatment, if necessary.
For the most severely malnourished children – who are often suffering from other complications – survival is dependent on the Lodwar District Hospital, where the paediatric ward has a therapeutic feeding programme.
To get there, in most cases, a mother has to walk 40 km for at least eight hours. A boda boda (motorbike) would charge about $9, but that kind of money is hard to find in this village.
UNICEF and its partners support outreach vehicles that are able to transport children with acute malnutrition to the hospital for life-saving treatment. With only seven vehicles for the region, though, the outreach programme urgently needs to be scaled up.
And the dangers facing children in Turkana extend beyond malnutrition. They are also vulnerable to the spread of killer diseases, especially outbreaks of measles, diarrhoea and pneumonia.
In fact, the number of children admitted to Lodwar District Hospital is currently double what it normally would be at this time of year.
At the time of Mr. Lake’s visit, 10 children under the age of five were being treated in the paediatric ward for complications from acute malnutrition. Tragically, one of them died just before he arrived in Lodwar.
To ameliorate the situation, UNICEF and its partners are helping medical staff at rural dispensaries to link up with food programmes in the area. So if a child is referred for therapeutic feeding, his or her family automatically qualifies for the supplementary feeding programme.
“Communities like this across the region live on the edge. It doesn’t take very much to tip them over to such extreme circumstances as this,” said Mr. Lake.
“What we are seeing here is almost a perfect storm – conflict in Somalia, rising fuel and food prices, and drought and the loss of the rain,” he noted. “Now we are going to go another four to five months before there will be a harvest, and we all have a huge job ahead.”
UNICEF is appealing for $31.8 million for the Horn of Africa over the next three months, to rapidly ramp up its response aimed especially at children, who are bearing the brunt of the crisis. The most urgent needs include therapeutic feeding, vitamin supplementation, water and sanitation, and immunization.