Sweet relief from Kenya’s bitter drought

Mothers in Turkana County, Kenya, smile after receiving food from ChildFund. As part of our emergency response to a severe drought in Kenya, ChildFund provided hundreds of metric tons of direct food assistance to families and supported thousands of young children and pregnant or nursing mothers with supplemental food and water.

We often think of fruit — sweet, succulent, rich in nutrients — as synonymous with health and abundance. Mention fruit in rural Turkana County, Kenya, however, and you’ll almost certainly get a grimace in response. In the worst days of the drought that has gripped much of the country since 2016, a wild, poisonous and tremendously bitter fruit known locally as sorich was all many families had to eat.

“If you do not prepare the sorich well, it can turn out to be your last meal,” says 32-year-old Ayien, who is pregnant with her eighth child when we speak with her at a ChildFund food distribution. “Yet this is what we have depended on to stay alive.”

Ayien, whose husband makes a meager living as a motorcycle driver in a nearby town, explains how before receiving rice, beans and cooking oil from ChildFund, she and her children would scavenge for the wild berries daily. They had to wake up at sunrise to begin a rigorous cooking process, boiling the fruit for at least 12 hours to make it edible, periodically spooning out the poisonous “soup” left behind. It made a dangerous, unpalatable meal, but it beat the alternative of sending her kids to bed hungry.

“It is extremely painful for me as a parent to watch my children suffer and not be able to do anything about it,” Ayien says. “All my goats died during the drought. This land has been so barren, we keep asking God why he put us here and why we have to go through this.”

From top: Emergency rations await delivery; women mete out beans at a ChildFund food distribution; a young boy is screened for malnutrition at a ChildFund-supported growth monitoring event.

A drought doesn’t have the sudden, shattering impact of other emergencies. Victims of earthquakes or flash floods barely have time to blink before they’ve lost possessions or loved ones in the disaster. In a drought, the trajectory of loss is slow.

First, the rains don’t come. In rural communities, residents make the necessary adjustments: They travel farther to get water, often pulling children out of school to help with the time-consuming search for pasture. Next, crops — the maize and millet people depend on for sustenance — begin to die, and families must sell whatever they have to buy food. Scarcity drives prices out of reach, and as competition for resources grows more intense, violence increases. By the time the livestock begin to starve, human malnutrition isn’t far behind.

“It is very hard to teach a hungry child,” says Thomas Eyanai, 22, who runs Kooliyoro Early Childhood Development (ECD) Center in Turkana County. Here, a sprawling acacia tree serves as the classroom for over a hundred children under age 5.

Thomas Eyanai, 22, with the students at his ECD center. The children are carrying plastic containers that they use as cups to drink their daily ration of porridge, provided by ChildFund.

Eyanai says enrollment has jumped since July 2017, when ChildFund delivered a large amount of Unimix porridge to the center to be rationed to the students each morning. The promise of a nutritious meal was incentive enough for many families to send their children back to school.

“If we did not have this porridge, then this center would probably have closed down completely by now. These children would have been severely malnourished, but thanks to [ChildFund], their health has improved and they are also back in school.

“Without education, they cannot get out of this vicious cycle,” Eyanai says.

That very true statement reflects ChildFund’s holistic approach to working with children, including in emergencies. In addition to helping provide for basic needs like food and water, we look for the hidden pressures the emergency places on children — then work to alleviate those pressures and protect children’s well-being.

“This porridge is very sweet. I come here every day early in the morning so that I don’t miss,” says Etabo, 3.

Eoko, who is in class 4 at a primary school in Turkana County, was forced to drop out of school to help his family search for water and pasture. “I really wanted to stay in school and learn, but my father insisted that we could not just sit and watch as our 32 goats died,” he says.

Eoko was out of school for three months before community members trained by ChildFund came to speak with his father at the family’s home.

“There was a long discussion, and my father was asked to come and look for me and take me back to school immediately,” Eoko says. “I am so happy. I am so grateful because they made my father understand that I have rights and that there is more to life than just herding goats. Now, I have a brighter future.”

Eoko’s favorite subject is math, he says, “because it reminds me of when I was counting goats in the bush.”

The future is looking brighter for Ayien and her family, too.

“Being pregnant at this time makes everything worse,” she says. “I used to worry that my baby might be born underweight and unhealthy. But now, because of the food we are receiving, I’m starting to regain weight and I feel stronger.

“This intervention is a life-changing experience,” she says. “You are giving us hope that we will live to see another day, another month and another year. Now I know that my child will be born healthy.”

Ayien, 32.

Want to join us in bringing relief to and support to children and families affected by disasters? Check out our Emergency Response page to learn how you can help.

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