Famine in Kenya – from a Friend on the Ground

kinnon —  March 13, 2006 — Leave a comment

Spencer and Gayle Radnich are friends of ours working on the ground in Kenya. I met them in late September of 2001 when they took me under their wings to introduce me to life in Kenya. In the summer of 2002, when Imbi and I returned to work in Kenya with our kids in tow, Spence and Gayle adopted us all into their extended family and we value their friendship greatly.

Spencer is a former Xerox executive who was teaching a business course at Daystar University when we first met. Gayle is a nurse who specializes in family health care and infectious diseases. Retired from their American careers, Gayle and Spencer both fell in love with Kenya, where they both still work. Spence is now with World Concern, while Gayle continues her work with a number of medical organizations. I received an email from them yesterday, where Spence talks about the Famine issues and our tendencies in the West to think there are simple solutions. With Spencer’s permission, I’ve included his comments and pictures in the expanded portion of this post.

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By now, I’m sure all of you have seen and heard the news reports about the drought and famine in Kenya and neighboring countries in East Africa. The impact is worst in Northern Kenya, Southern Ethiopia, and Southern Somalia. However, almost all of the pastoralist peoples have been severely impacted by this drought, as shown by the enclosed photos taken in Narok District (Southwestern Kenya) earlier this week. World Concern has worked in Narok District and in Southern Somalia among pastoralist people for decades, and we are currently starting another emergency feeding program. Frankly, we are doing this reluctantly because it diverts time and money from our long term goal of improvement in the lives and livelihoods of the communities we serve. We know going into the emergency feeding program that this effort will cost millions and do little, if anything, to fix the underlying problems.

Someone sent an article about the drought from a Seattle newspaper to our office last week. One paragraph in particular caught my eye. The reporter smugly commented that it would not take much to break the cycle of droughts and famines in Kenya – just enough vision and money to bring water, electricity, and roads to the affected areas. In America we love to believe that Yankee ingenuity and technology can easily overcome all obstacles.

If you will bear with me for a few paragraphs, I will try to explain why things are really not quite that simple.

First of all, the pastoralist life style is quite different from anything that we experience in the developed world. We really do have a hard time comprehending why a drought is such a big deal in Africa. So a few cows die. What does it matter?

Pastoralists have existed in arid and semi-arid lands in Africa for centuries. They are not farmers; they are herdsmen. Historically, they have coped with droughts by moving their herds and homes to wherever there is water and pasture, and they did not establish permanent settlements. One hundred years ago, there was lots of open land, and few people contesting for the right to use it.

In America, a severe drought is a bit of an inconvenience for most of us. Our lawns turn brown, there are some brush fires, and food prices may go up a bit at the supermarket. According to the CIA Factbook, only 0.7% of the US population is directly involved in agriculture. We are insulated from the direct effects of the drought. We operate in a cash economy, with our livelihoods dependant on our salaries, pensions, investments, and savings.

In Kenya, 75% of the population are in agriculture, with the vast majority of them being pastoralists in arid regions that are not suited for farming because of low soil fertility and lack of water. Wealth is measured by the number of cattle a family has, and rightly so. Their entire livelihood centers around their herds. Most of the food consumed is milk or milk product with occasional blood, meat, and purchased cereals. Excess milk and calves are sold to buy other necessities and pay school fees. Every part of the animal is used in some way, including the manure that is used to patch roofs of homes and for cooking fuel. A man with 100 cows has enough to feed his family with extra to allow considerable discretionary spending. A man with five cows lives on the edge of disaster. Any disruption to the milk production of those five cows causes immediate hunger in the family.

Spencefamineshot001Today in Narok I learned that there had been heavy rain in the district for several days, and that it had been distributed fairly evenly over the entire parched area. Before the rains came in Narok, about 15-20% of the animals had died from starvation or thirst. The early arrival of the long rains has changed all of that. The good news is that things have begun to green up, and the hungry animals now have at least some emerging grass shoots to eat. The bad news is that the rain and accompanying cooler temperatures pushed another 20% of the animals over the edge. There was not enough stamina or fat left on many of the cows for them to survive the sudden chill. Now we have as much as 40% of the cattle in the district dead and no longer available to provide livelihood for the families. In Kenya, 50% of the people live below the poverty line, so many of the affected pastoralist people were in or near the “five cow “ category to start with, and now have no chance of feeding themselves.

Try to think of the situation from the point of view of how you would cope if you suddenly had your cash income and savings cut by 40% with no government welfare safety nets, all of your family and friends in the same boat, and no hope of being able to recover the loss. Look at the attached pictures and imagine that the carcasses are your salary, IRA and 401K evaporating before your eyes. The prospect makes the “Great Depression” seem like a walk in the park by comparison.

The emergency feeding program will bring food to the most affected families for six months, or until the next maize harvest is completed. This would be adequate for the few Maasai and other pastoralists who have had the opportunity to switch their life style partially or totally from herding to growing crops. As you would expect, however, these people tend to be at the top of the economic pyramid. They are not the “five cow” families that would have been included in the feeding program in the first place.

Spencefamineshot002The poorer “five cow” families will usually have no choice at the end of the emergency feeding program except selling one or more of their surviving cattle so that they have money to buy some of the food that someone else grew. Then they have to hope that calves will be born and survive to slowly rebuild their herds so that someday they can once again afford to send their children to school or buy a pair of sandals.

Talking about bringing water, electricity and roads into the affected areas to “solve” the problems and break the cycle of drought and famine is like proposing that we fund irrigation of most of Nevada ( about the same size and climate as the arid lands in Kenya ) and is about as practical. Water projects, electricity, and roads can help for irrigating crops and getting produce to markets. They are not very useful for keeping vast areas of sparse grassland alive.

Furthermore, everything that we do to help raise the basic standard of living for the pastoralists forces changes in their culture and coping mechanisms. Every well that is drilled, every child that enrolls in school, every woman who is helped to start a small business in the local market makes it more difficult for a culturally nomadic community to be nomadic. Today when a bad drought comes, the men and boys take the cattle and goats away to find food and water as they have done through the ages. But today they leave the women and children behind in permanent or semi-permanent homes with little or no food supply. The impacts of these changes on the most vulnerable members of the society are often devastating.

There is no question that we must do whatever it takes to keep these desperate families alive, even if it means diverting time and money from things we would rather be doing with them to improve their long term well being. But at the same time that we are doing emergency feeding, we must also ask, “What can we do to make the people better able to cope with the next drought that will surely come along?” World Concern is receiving donations targeted at helping alleviate this famine. Some of this money will be used to distribute food donated through the World Food Program or other agencies. We have received food in Narok from the Nairobi Hindu community, and we are spending come of the donated money to distribute this food to supplement the government school feeding programs.

We are also finding ways to use your responses to this emergency to make changes that will last. Some of the Maasai pastoralists are beginning to get into farming in the small pockets of land where the soil and water make it feasible. We have an opportunity to use funds to bring maize, millet and sorghum seed that the government has available in Kitale in Northern Kenya (but no funds for transport) to Narok to distribute to people who are farming so that they have seed to plant during the rains. This is one small step to improve the food supply for the next season, and build agricultural capacity for the future.

Our goal in this emergency relief program is to include at least four significant projects in our development programs that will increase food security in the region for the long haul while we are doing the emergency feeding. We won’t break the cycles of drought and famine. But if we work carefully with the affected communities, we can make changes that will lessen their impact. There are no quick and easy fixes like the newspaper suggested, but we believe that God is calling us to take incremental steps forward, and to use the resources He has provided as wisely and carefully as possible.

Please pray for Kenya. Write your congressman to encourage the US government to be generous in their response to this emergency, and remember that the funds coming to World Concern and other humanitarian organizations from individuals and churches add significantly to our capacity to work toward making it better in the future.

Spencer Radnich, World Concern, Nairobi, Kenya

I’ve added the links to Spencer’s writing and would ask you to

consider giving to the good work World Concern is doing in Kenya. 96% of funds raised go to specific projects. Only 4% of raised funds is used for administration.

Imbi and I have just given to the work they are doing. Go here to join us in being involved. Thank you.



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

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