Umbate, a small village in northern Kenya of about 600 inhabitants, sits on a hot and bone dry plain, with hardly any crop cover. It sits on the border of Marsabit and Turkana counties, two counties hit hardest by a drought that is affecting half of Kenya’s 47 counties. Low sand dunes and a few thin goats dot the landscape as do women and children carrying yellow plastic jerry cans in search of water.
With no food, no water and most of their livestock dead from lack of pasture, the pastoralist community at Umbate had no choice but to stop moving and settle on an open dry field near a main road, hoping help would find them.
And it did.
On the day of our visit, the Kenya Red Cross is carrying out a mass screening of the Umbate villagers to identify very needy and vulnerable families. The Kenya Red Cross, through humanitarian funding from the European Union, is rolling out emergency cash transfers in Marsabit county to help those affected meet their daily food needs.
“We have lost almost all of our goats and donkeys,” says Edonga Nyatata, Umbate village chairman. “We are pastoralists but we stopped moving when we lost our livestock. There is no need to move anymore in search of pasture because there is nothing to eat or drink for kilometres on end,” he adds.
After the screening, the Red Cross officials have a hard time trying to determine who will be eligible to receive cash in a village where everyone has lost everything. Eventually, they decide that everyone, 100% of the village, will be listed to receive the cash aid.
“This is a rare, extreme case,” says Peter Murgor of the Kenya Red Cross. “There is not a single family that does not need help to get through this drought. Often our priority is given to malnourished children, pregnant and breastfeeding women, child headed homes and the elderly. In Umbate, every family has at least one or more of these vulnerable people."
Ndeling Aling, a mother of three, is one of the most affected. After the screening, she is declared anaemic and her three-year-old son, Esakong, is severely malnourished.
“My children and I have been living off food borrowed from the other villagers,” says Ndeling. “All my goats died, my husband left to look for work about six months ago, but never returned. I am left alone with my young children with nothing to offer them.”
Ndeling breaks down in tears as she recounts how her two-year-old child died just two months earlier, after the family went without food for five days.
The situation in Kenya’s arid north seems unlikely to change soon. “Food prices have shot up to unusual heights,” says Jean Marc Jouineau, the European Commission’s humanitarian field expert for Kenya. “Not just in the north but all over the country. And since Kenya’s food security situation is unlikely to improve in 2017 we are funding partners to provide cash for food and treat children for malnutrition in six of the most affected counties.”
After being enrolled in a nutrition programme, Ndeling’s son Esakong should live to see his fourth birthday.