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October 11, 2009

East African drought wreaking havoc amongst pastoralists

by Will Ross

The drought which has hit East Africa is wreaking havoc among the region's pastoralists. Their herds of livestock have been decimated. Even the hardy camels are dying.

Turkana district in north-west Kenya is a harsh environment at the best of times. Driving along the sandy roads with temperatures tipping 40C, the air coming through the car window feels like the blast from load of hair-driers. The landscape is desert-like and the only signs of life are the occasional circular mud huts thatched with grass. There is very little vegetation - just a few brown thorny shrubs. In a dry river bed in Lochoraikey, close to the shrinking Lake Turkana, men and women gathered. The women were on one side - most wearing a mountain of brightly coloured necklaces. They were sitting in the sand and lying among them were dozens of emaciated goats - concave with protruding ribs.

"I had a herd of 100 goats but just in the last month 40 have died," said Esther Ekouam, who had walked for about 15km (10 miles) and had to carry her goat as it was too weak to make the journey. "Now the children are very weak because as the animals are dying they are not getting enough food. This is the worst drought we have had here since 1969."

Ms. Ekouam was propping up the head of her goat. But it appeared the animal was already dead. The woman behind Ms. Ekouam was gently rocking a white goat in an attempt to keep it alive. A closer inspection of the group revealed that several other goats were also dead. With their livestock in such a fragile state, it is little wonder that an offer to buy up their goats has been popular among the Turkana.

In a programme funded by the European Union's humanitarian wing, ECHO, the pastoralists have been offered the equivalent of about $10 a goat - less than the market price of a healthy goat but a far better option than watching the entire herd die for no return.

The river bed was rapidly transformed into a huge open air abattoir and butchery. The men, many of them wearing traditional checked cloth tied toga-style over one shoulder, slit the throats of the goats. The women, some removing the sharp metal bangles from their wrists to be used as knives, dragged the animals on to a bed of leaves and skinned them.

"For a Turkana to bring their goats to slaughter is like putting their life on the line," said Kephas Indangasi of Vets Without Borders, which is implementing this de-stocking programme. "Seventy per cent of the Turkana are pastoralists who entirely rely on their livestock for survival. "They get milk and meat from livestock and they sell the animals to buy other items and even pay school fees. Livestock is like the bank for the Turkana. They are losing their entire economy."

Between March and October a total of 15,000 goats and sheep as well as 500 cattle have been slaughtered in central and southern Turkana. But it is not only the goat population that has been hit. Even the hardy camels have been dying and in a bid to salvage some revenue before it is too late, two weak camels were brought to be slaughtered along with the goats.

"A camel is the most resistant and it is their last resort. When they are slaughtering camels it is like throwing away the pension," said Mr Indangasi.

Another worrying implication of the drought is an increase in violent conflict. The number of livestock raids has shot up as increasingly desperate people look for ways to boost their dwindling herds. In late September, 26 people were killed in one raid.

In the village of Lobei, about 80km south-west of Lodwar town, Turkana herdsmen are engaged in the twin battles against drought and livestock theft. "I moved my camels and goats to an area with better pasture and water but last week I lost 25 camels when some Pokot [rival tribesmen] attacked," said Naukon Lonyaman. "I fear the rest of my camels may now die because of drought."

Another herdsman said 6,000 goats had been stolen in September.

Joseph Elim of the Riam Riam organisation, which aims to protect the interests of the Turkana people, fears the life of these herdsmen is going to get worse because the climate is changing. "Scientifically we may not know about climate change but we can interpret the weather patterns and say something significant has shifted," he said. "We can no longer predict the rainfall patterns.

Temperatures have also increased as well as diseases. And when rainfall comes we get floods. If that is what is called climate change then it is here with us now."

Many Turkana have been forced to abandon their pastoralist lifestyle and have headed for Lodwar town in search of work.

"If God assists I will go back home and look after the animals but right now I have nothing. I have lost all my animals because of this drought," said 68-year-old Eram Moru, who was holding two discarded car shock absorbers, which he intended to flatten out and make into knives to sell.

Despite the pressure to change their way of life, Mr Elim feels the Turkana culture is too deeply entrenched to be lost. "People have lived with pastoralism for the last 3,000 years. This is only an adjustment and the drought will not decimate everything. Some animals will remain and they can build from there," he said.

But with still no sign of any rain clouds, it is little wonder that people here say God has become angry.


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