Where the vultures circle

How one village in Kenya is coming to terms with its grief

Driving through the remote expanse of the Kenyan savannah, it’s easy to forget that the barren beauty of this part of the country is also giving rise to misery.

It’s here, as the landscape gets progressively drier, and communities grow more and more isolated, that the ongoing drought is most acutely felt.

In Kenya alone, 2.7 million people do not have enough food and are living without clean drinking water. Around 85,000 children are severely malnourished and at risk of dying.

But Kenya is just one country affected by a vast crisis in East Africa. Millions more across Somalia, Ethiopia and South Sudan are in urgent need of food, water and medical treatment.

Please donate to our East Africa Crisis Appeal today.

A village grieving

In the remote village of Badanrero, in Marsabit county, one of the more subtle and malignant effects of the drought is felt most deeply: the death of livestock.

Approaching the village, the air is thick with the unmistakable smell of rotting flesh. The source of the stench is plain for all to see.

There, across the fields, lie hundreds of dead goats, cows and camels. They have not moved from where they fell.

With no breeze in the air, and the temperature in the mid-30s, there is no escaping the stagnant smell.

The carcasses are covered in maggots. Some have exploded in the sun, their entrails exposed to the world. Others are being slowly picked apart by the vultures.

The Red Cross is currently supporting more than 340,000 vulnerable people in Kenya’s 13 worst-affected counties — ©Arie Kievit/Netherlands Red Cross

Everyone here is profoundly affected by this loss. Bekemalicha, 25, and her one-year-old son, Did, are among those suffering.

“I am on the point of tears right now, I’m feeling so miserable,” she said. “The animals are all we have, but now they are dead.”

For the people of Badanrero, their livestock are their only source of livelihood. But beyond their monetary value, the villagers also have a deep connection with their animals. Without them, they are left feeling helpless, their pride gone.

The curious thing was that no one in the village so much as acknowledged the foul smell in the air.

Perhaps they had grown accustomed to it. Or perhaps they didn’t really want to get rid of the carcasses, that somehow they didn’t want to say goodbye to their animals.

2.6 million people in Kenya are in urgent need of safe water — ©Riccardo Gangale/British Red Cross

Dirty water better than none

Another problem people face is the availability of water. As we drove through the arid lands, children, spotting the dust thrown up by the car, would rush out of nowhere to greet us.

As they got closer you could see they were each holding plastic water bottles. They would shake them desperately as the car passed by, begging for them to be filled up.

There are three water points used by villagers in Badanrero. Two of them have completely dried up. The other is filthy.

The water it produces is a very dark orange. So orange, it would be easy to think the children were holding bottles of squash.

Qaliti travels a mile to get water. “We suffer, I have the same source of water as animals, it is not clean,” she said— ©Riccardo Gangale/British Red Cross

Qaliti, 27, is worried about her nine-month-old twins Bati and Bahati.

“My children have had a lot of diarrhoea and vomiting because of the dirty water,” she said.

“Given an alternative I would bring up my children somewhere else, in proper shelter and with a good education — that is the one thing I would wish for.”

One word is repeated the village over: “Tabo”, meaning problem. Habadaso uses it regularly.

The 32-year-old is six months pregnant, but you can barely see her bump due to acute malnutrition.

“This is worse than anything I have experienced in my life,” said Habadaso. “I have never seen such severe conditions.

“The water point we are depending on is drying up, that is all the water we have. Once it dries up completely I don’t know what we will do.”

People are resorting to drinking the same water as livestock, a scenario seen across the region, and one that is bound to spread disease.

Malnutrition rates are alarmingly high across East Africa— with women like Habadaso and their children suffering the most — ©Riccardo Gangale/British Red Cross

The slow march of hunger

Habadaso’s isn’t the only life blighted by malnutrition.

There is a small run-down building at the edge of the village staffed once a week by a nutritionist from the Kenyan Red Cross.

A long queue of women and children forms here each week, waiting to be seen in the only consultation room.

The women, some mothers, others grandmothers, wait their turn in a quiet and distant contemplation.

The children, without exception, are distraught. It’s clear that, as it progresses, malnutrition can be acutely painful.

The British Red Cross has launched an East Africa Crisis Appeal to help some of the 20 million people in need across the region — ©Riccardo Gangale/British Red Cross

Bekemalicha, 25, said: “We are a big family. I take care of my mum who is a widow so everything we have we share with her. We have a small meal of plain maize once a day, not twice, we cannot afford any more.”

The Red Cross nutritionist sees the children one-by-one. He measures the circumference of the children’s arms, their height, their weight. He then consults his chart, the numbers indicating the stage of malnutrition.

Most of the children are small for their age and underweight. There are 18-month-olds weighing what a six-month-old should.

The children are given a two-week supply of Plumpy’Nut — a peanut-based paste designed to increase their weight.

A staggering 800,000 children in East Africa are at risk of dying from malnutrition— ©Riccardo Gangale/British Red Cross

Keeping business afloat

With hunger getting worse by the day and the residents losing money, running a business in Badanrero is a struggle.

“My business is not doing as well as it does during times of plenty when rain and pasture are available,” said Qabale Waqo, a shopkeeper in the village.

“The body condition of livestock has completely gone now, so people cannot sell their livestock, so they have no means of buying goods.”

Qabale’s fate, along with that of the whole village, is tied up in the wellbeing of their livestock.

“Most of the people who come to me seek credit. We make an agreement where they will pay me back once they have healthy livestock,” she said.

“But at the moment there are a lot of people who cannot sell their livestock and many are dying.

“I am waiting for a day when they can pay me back.”

Cash provided by the Red Cross helps keep Qabale Waqo’s shop open — ©Riccardo Gangale/British Red Cross

A necessary slaughter

The Kenya Red Cross is the only agency working in this remote part of Kenya.

As well as providing support to people suffering from malnutrition, the Red Cross is running a livestock ‘de-stocking programme’ that ensures farmers get something for their animals before they die.

The Red Cross buys livestock deemed too weak or unwell for their owners to sell on the open market. Cash is given to the owners before the livestock are slaughtered. The meat is then given to the community.

Increasingly, the Red Cross is also providing cash directly to vulnerable communities such as Badanrero. In remote areas like this, the logistics of traditional food aid can be very difficult.

Giving money directly to people also keeps businesses like Qabale’s afloat. Families can use the cash to buy essential goods in the market.

“Yesterday I sold quite a good amount — immediately after the Red Cross distributed cash I sold 7,000 Kenya shillings worth in a day which is really good,” said Qabale.

Despite their hardship, the people of Bananrero remain dignified and commited to their family and community — ©Riccardo Gangale/British Red Cross

Ultimately though, until the rains come and the pasture returns, this community will continue to be especially vulnerable to the drought ravaging large parts of East Africa.

With your support, entrepreneurs like Qabale will continue to provide for their own communities.

Mothers like Habadaso will get the support they need to keep their children healthy and happy.

And communities like Badanrero will be able to withstand the painful effect of losing their livestock to the drought.

If you can, please donate to our East Africa Crisis Appeal today.