Nairobi – A maelstrom of howling brown dust engulfs travelers through Isiolo. A few weeks earlier, 11 people were reported to have been killed around the north Kenyan town in the space of 10 days.
The pestilence of Covid is still in the dust-choked air, the ground is baked by drought. The murder and misery would seem biblical — if they were not so very modern.
They’ve already played out on the other side of the continent where climate change and overgrazing have hastened the spread of the Sahara desert south into Mali, Niger, and northern Nigeria.
Indeed the Sahel and the Maghreb have experienced widening desertification and, alongside it, frantic humanitarian crises and growing violence, especially from Islamic extremists.
In Kenya, the killings in the north do not (yet) have a neo-religious drive. But growing insecurity, in a country that’s been traditionally seen as the stable diplomatic and humanitarian hub in the Horn of Africa torn by war, is being fueled by many of the same factors that have set the Sahel aflame.
The murder of dozens of people over the last two years, including two chiefs in Marsabit, 160 miles north of Isiolo town, and eight others in one attack last May not far from the regional capital, has prompted a ferocious crackdown by Kenya’s police and other forces.
After one sweep through Marsabit county in June, police captured 200 machine guns, automatic rifles, and other weapons plus about 3,000 rounds of ammunition.
Just as in west Africa, Kenya’s problems are being deepened by climate change.
Kenya is enduring its worst drought in 40 years, according to the government and UN. More than four million people are “food insecure,” and 3.3 million can’t get enough water to drink.
Across the Horn of Africa, that figure leaps to 11.6 million.
Ileret, on the northern shore of Lake Turkana, is famously parched. But the local nomadic pastoralists have managed to exist, even thrive, in harsh conditions for centuries. Their herds of goats and camels are periodically fattened by fresh pastures that emerge from the savannah when it, occasionally, rains.
For more than two years it just hasn’t. Local officials in the Ileret district told CNN that around 85% of livestock here has perished. Surviving herds are being driven south in search of grazing.
Either way, those left behind have close to nothing to live on.
Akuagok is a widow who lives in a manyatta (collection of nomadic huts) about half an hour north of Ileret. It keeps some of the desert wind but little of the dust out of the lungs of her six children.
She survives on a meal every three days, which depends on whether she’s able to sell charcoal in Ileret to buy unground wheat which her older kids grind by hand with a stone and then mix with water into chapattis
“I eat when I can. Mostly I don’t eat every day. Sometimes when I sell charcoal I can eat maybe once or twice in three days,” she says.
Her youngest, Arbolo, is two. He wails when he’s laid down for a height measurement at an outreach mission from Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) — but is listless when the circumference measurement of his upper arm shows up red on the MSF tape that measures the extent of malnutrition. The red means he’s severely acutely malnourished — what most people would say is “starving.”
Members of Akuagok’s tribe, the Daasanach, crowded around her shouting their own stories of loss — loss of friends to illness perhaps caused by hunger, loss of animals, and how now, even when they make a very little cash, it’s never enough to get by.
Here, in Ileret, the cost of food has trebled since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 this year. Ukraine used to produce 11.5% of the world’s wheat for export and 17% of the world’s export market of maize. Maize flour, known as ugali, is Kenya’s staple. Across Kenya, the price of Ugali has at least doubled for most people.
Even if it rains in Ileret, Akuagok’s life won’t improve much. She has no animals left and food prices are unlikely to fall much. The United Nations’ World Food Programme, which might step in, usually gets 40% of its wheat from Ukraine. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization is appealing for $172 million in aid for the Horn of Africa to head off catastrophe. But as the war in Ukraine continues, that figure will surely rise.