Death and despair as hunger sweeps through dry villages

Rebbeca Chepkel with her children at Kositei village in Tiaty Baringo county on March 17,2019. She claims her husband died of hunger. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]
The sun is hot at Kamusuk village in Tiaty sub-county, Baringo.

It bakes the bare ground, leaving it simmering. Here, temperatures soar above 40 degrees Celsius.

Rebecca Chepkel sits under a shade with her two children. She is pregnant, but cannot even feed the two children with her.

Chepkel would have gone searching for anything edible in the simmering heat, but she has no one to leave her two-year-old daughter and five-year-old son with.

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Their father, Stephen Lokidap, died five days ago from what she suspects was hunger.

According to Chepkel, her husband collapsed and died while working in their neighbour’s farm. He had left home on Tuesday to eke out a living at the  farm after going for three days without food.

“He could not sit with us and watch us die of hunger and decided to go look for some menial work. A neighbour had offered him work to cultivate his farm. While he was digging he collapsed and died,” she says.

Lokidap was the sole breadwinner in the family and had only worked for 15 minutes under the scorching sun when he suddenly collapsed and died, leaving Chepkel a widow, with nothing to feed the family.

And if the situation continues, Chepkel fears she and the children might be heading to the grave. Every day spent without food draws them closer to Lokidap’s grave, a few metres from the house.

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“I have nothing to offer the children, I am pregnant and see myself dying as there is no one to help us,” she says.

The family is not the only one in the shadow of death.

Sote Limo says she left her home early in the morning and walked three kilometres in search of wild fruits to feed her children.

Some of the wild fruits are poisonous, but the single mother of nine is willing to take the risk. It is the only way to survive.

The Standard found Limo by the roadside at Takol village, Tiaty. She was trying to remove the outer shell of Sorich, a wild fruit. Once this is done, she will have to boil the fruits for up to 12 hours to ensure they are free of poison.

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Anything less than this, and her family will surely die if they feed on the meal.

She left her two children aged three and one back home waiting for food -any food. The rest are out in the sun-baked wilderness in search of more wild fruits.

They ought to be in school, but in these hard times, schooling is not a priority, getting something to eat is, and the only available meals are wild fruits.

“This is our only food, without them we will die of hunger,” she says.

Locals queue for relief food at Chemolingot. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]
Five kilometres away, a group of women sits under a tree. One would think the place is a market but on drawing closer, the women are also busy picking wild fruits.

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For a people facing starvation, the women demonstrate incredible resilience and organisation. While some are fetching water from a nearby half-dry water pan, others are busy picking the fruits. Another group is removing the fruit’s outer shell, while one of them is checking on a boiling cooking pan close-by.

A woman waits for relief food at Chemolingot in Tiaty, Baringo County. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]
Near the women, a group of men occasionally offer a helping hand.

In these hard times, working alone is out of question. According to Margaret Chebongisio, gathering enough wild fruits to feed one family is a tedious process.

Chebongisio says the women leave their homes as early as 6am and assemble under the tree where they stay until late in the evening before leaving, each with a handful of the boiled fruits to feed her waiting family.

“Boiling enough fruits to feed our children is hard work, this is why we have to come together,” says Chebongisio.

And if the fruits are difficult to boil, eating them is not any easier. According to Chepteiyo Nadoku, even after boiling them for hours, the fruits are still bitter.

The choice of the tree from where the women run a makeshift open kitchen is deliberate. The lone tree stands by a water pan, and boiling wild fruits require lots of water.

In these desolate dry lands, water is even more scarce than the wild fruits.

Most of the water pans and rivers have since dried up. The few that have defied the simmering heat are nothing more than muddy patches where man and beast compete for a drop.

Goats, cows and camels have been reduced to bones. One can easily count the number of ribs the animals have. Many have died, and villagers fear the elderly and children among them might soon follow.

A few lucky ones have been surviving by prowling the vast dry lands in search of a tree to convert to charcoal which they later sell for a pittance. Despite a national ban on logging, a tree can mean putting a meal on the table. 

“I survive on charcoal burning to feed my children, the ban on charcoal to us does not matter, we get little from the sale of charcoal,” says Festus Komopus.

Baringo County Commissioner Henry Wafula concedes that thousands of families in the region are facing hunger, but denies that any person has died.

“Yes there is hunger but I am not aware of any deaths ask them (the people) to show you the graves, I have been there the whole day,” he says.

He dismissed reports of death as fake news.

“The problem with Baringo County is that negative news is the currency, at times it baffles me,” he says. 

Elsewhere in parts of Turkana West and North, residents are fleeing villages in droves to neighbouring countries in search of food.

Turkana West MP Daniel Epuyo yesterday said that a number of his constituents had crossed the border into Uganda and South Sudan in search of water and pasture for their livestock.

Mr Epuyo claimed that a number of people and livestock have died, warning that more deaths might be recorded if urgent relief food is not supplied to the most affected parts of the county.

“There is no pasture in Turkana West and herders have no option but to flee. They have now crossed the border into Uganda and South Sudan to save the remaining livestock,” Epuyo told The Standard.

In the neighbouring West Pokot County, reports indicate that two people have died of hunger.

Governor John Lonyangapuo yesterday said that two people had died from hunger in Sigor along the border of West Pokot and Baringo counties.

Sigor and Kacheliba constituencies are worst hit by the raging drought that has left thousands of people in dire need of food.

According to Prof Lonyangapuo, ten out of the county’s 20 wards are affected.

“Children are now staying in schools because there is no food in their homes. No relief food has been brought to the affected areas. We have diverted some development money to buying food but we can only afford 15,000 bags of maize which is not enough to feed affected residents,” he said.

 [Additional reporting by Stephen Rutto]

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