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Four-Year Drought Pushes 23 Million Africans to Brink of Starvation

Tristan McConnell in Mwingi

Kenya Wildlife Service rangers inspect the carcass of a baby elephant that died from the prolonged drought. (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)

"The last time I had a good harvest was 2003 - there has been nothing at all
for the last three years," said Mutindi Maithya, 36, a widow who lives with
her six children on a four- acre plot of sun-baked land.

Sitting beneath a thorny acacia tree, she picks up ochre lumps of dried mud
from the ground and crushes them to dust between her fingers. "It is hard to
cope," she said.

A four-year drought has pushed as many as 23 million people to the brink of
starvation across East Africa, making it the worst in a decade or more.
Close to four million of those at risk are in Kenya, where one person in ten
survives on emergency rations.

Last week clouds gathered over much of the country, but the rains have come
too late to bring much relief. Aid agencies have warned that with them will
come flooding, cholera, malaria and hypothermia.

In the arid north, pastoralists have watched as their cattle collapsed from
exhaustion and thirst, and those that survive now face floods. The people
are scarcely holding on and the number of armed skirmishes over water and
livestock is rising.

Even in usually greener regions the drought has taken its toll. Four
consecutive harvests have failed in the southeast while the Rift Valley,
Kenya's breadbasket, is a wasteland of withered crops. There are fears that
heavy rains will wash away the topsoil, taking with it precious maize seeds.

In Nairobi emaciated cattle led by desperate Masai herdsmen graze by the
roadside. The economy is also threatened by plummeting tea and coffee
production, while tourists who visit the country's money-spinning safari
parks return with tales of landscapes littered with carcasses.

Drought is nothing new to this part of Africa, but what is different is the
frequency with which it hits. The cycle of drought used to come around every
ten years but now it is almost constant. Many attribute the changing
patterns to climate change.

Kenya's fractious coalition Government, forced together last year after a
violent election, has been accused of hindering rather than helping the
situation by failing to safeguard the country's strategic grain reserve.

Even as the current disaster loomed, thousands of sacks of maize went missing
earlier this year. Some reappeared later in neighbouring Sudan. Dark
accusations circulated that it was the work of certain politicians in
cahoots with favoured traders.

In Mwingi people scrape a living from the land by farming small fields and
keeping livestock. Harvest after harvest has failed, livestock has perished
and wells have dried up.

"For the last four years these farmers have held on to hope, but each year
been left with despair as the rains failed," said Fergus Conmee, Africa
humanitarian manager for the Catholic aid agency Cafod.
"This humanitarian crisis has pushed them on to a tightrope of survival and
many farming families have been left destitute."

Mafuo David, 36, is one of 3,500 people in the area receiving emergency
supplies of maize, beans and oil from Cafod. Most days she manages to feed
herself and her family two meals, but the first of these is usually black
tea with sugar and the second a bowl of maize.

She said that in a good year she used to harvest five bags of maize and three
of beans but it had been a long time - "maybe ten years" - since such a
bumper crop. Last year everything died, and the year before she harvested
two bags of maize and beans; the year before that, nothing.

Her husband died of an Aids-related illness in 2001 so she tends the
three-acre family plot with the help of her eldest son. The light drizzle
this week made her smile: "The land has changed, we have soft soil to plant
in and water to drink. Even our bodies are changing; our faces are shining."
Ms David has felt this optimism before, and been disappointed.

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