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Residents turn to poisonous wild fruit as famine ravages East Pokot

A woman picking cactus fruits to eat and feed their children. Famine-stricken residents have been forced to eat these and other wild fruits, some which are said to be poisonous. [PHOTO: BONIFACE THUKU/STANDARD]

By VINCENT MABATUK

BARINGO COUNTY: The sun is hot, very hot. The air is still and appears to amplify the intensity of the sun. The ground is sun-scorched and bare and the soil under foot as hot as a cooking oven.

Most residents of Cheptunoyo Village, Nginyang Division, Baringo County, have abandoned their homes and lined up along the banks of the dry seasonal River Nginyang—their feet buried in the sand. They are trying to cool their feet in the “river” sand.

But Chepokosogong Ngotingot is not one of them. The frail, elderly woman, who does not even know her own age, is at home—outside her dilapidated hut to be exact.

She stretches her feeble and shaky hand trying to pick up an aluminium bowl with some dry michicha (remnants of maize flour that has been used to make busaa).

This is the only food that she has today.

But soon a Good Samaritan making his way to the dry river also to cool his heels passes by and brings her something more to eat.

He throws three cactus fruits into the almost empty bowl and without wasting time disappears, as fast as he appeared, down the rocky foot path leading to the river without even appearing to notice our presence.

Cheptunoyo village is in the grips of a devastating famine.

And starving villagers, according to Mr John Asil, prefer to make a traditional brew by the name busaa from the two kilogramme maize ration given to them by the Government every six months.

“If they cook ugali it will only last the beneficiaries a day. When they brew busaa they get machija and alcohol to sell,” he explains. That is called killing two birds with one stone.

At Katukumuk village in Kositei location, Chepochonyir Todonyang has not seen relief food since November last year. She has survived on sorich, a wild fruit alone.

The 70-year-old wakes up at sunrise to prepare the wild fruit, which she boils the whole day. She keeps on discarding the boiled “soup”, which she reveals is poisonous.

The aging woman informed us that unless utmost care is taken during preparation and cooking, a sorich meal can turn out to be your last meal.  Incredibly, many villagers depend on this wild fruit to stay alive.

Outside Todonyang’s hut is a grave-the grave of her husband, whom she claims succumbed to hunger late last year.

Although they are separated by a seasonal stream, Todonyang’s tribulations are no different from those of Cheptiyo Longurabok, whose daughter-in-law fled months ago and left two children under her care.

“You cannot expect me at this age to feed these children. Unless the Government brings food it should prepare for the worst any time,” warned Longurabok.

Sadly, sorich trees that have been the only source of food for these hunger victims have less fruits this time, compared to the past years.

 Consequently, villagers are forced to trek long distances in search of the life-saving fruit.

When they get the fruit, women take between three to four hours removing the outer shell. The seeds are then placed in a sufuria or a pot and boiled using a lot of water until cracks show on their surface.

Ironically, water is also a scarce commodity here and women and girls walk long distances to collect it either in dams or drying riverbeds.

At another homestead, Chemket Amantuk was left alone when her only son moved in search of pasture for their livestock four months ago and she does not know when he will return.

“I had my last meal three days ago. I am not sure of the next meal. There is no need to continue living in such a situation,” says the desperate 68-year-old through an interpreter.

Like the rest, Amantuk heard for the first time from The Standard about the Government programme which was launched almost five years ago to help ameliorate the suffering of senior citizens like her.

As the famine bites, residents and the local provincial administrators are calling on the Government to increase food rations.

DIFFICULT TIMES

Chiefs in the drought-stricken district said only 20 per cent of affected residents are getting relief food.

East Pokot Deputy County Commissioner Daniel Kurui said about 84,505 people are facing starvation.

“We have recommended that the food be increased as the current portion falls way below the number of needy people,” the DC said.

He warned that the residents were going through difficult times in the entire constituency because of the low rains the area received last year.

“There is dire need for food distribution, we have been trying our best but the distribution is also being hampered by the constant movement of the residents who are mostly pastoralists,” he said the in his office at Chemolingot.  

He added: “The community does not like staying in one place and this has posed a big logistical problem when it comes to distribution,” explained the DC.

The DC said the Government and relief agencies had come up with intervention measures, including drilling of wells and boreholes and purchasing of food for distribution to the affected residents.

He said the area urgently required 6,200 bags of maize and beans and 800 cartons of cooking oil on a monthly basis.

A committee appointed by the DC is currently identifying elderly people across the seven administrative wards with plans to increase the number of those benefiting from the fund from 300 to 2,000.

“The Government is yet to launch any programme to buy animals from local residents as a way of saving them from a total loss,” he added.

Those most hard hit are the elderly and children.

Residents of Akwichatis in Naudo Division travel more than 100km to Lake Baringo in search of food and pasture for their animals.

Fears abound that the current drought could renew conflicts among pastoralist communities in parts of the county.

Peace crusaders and relief agencies say the movement of herdsmen from their areas to other parts in search of water and pasture could raise tensions.

Pastoralists from Chemolingot seeking grazing land have moved to the neighbouring Marakwet, Laikipia and Turkana Districts.

Residents pleaded with the Government to look for a permanent solution to the perennial famine in East Pokot and its neighbourhood.

“It has become a cycle where residents experience drought on a yearly basis. We need a permanent solution and not knee-jerk reactions from the Government,” said Francis Lekotomek.

IRRIGATION SCHEMES

He said the Government should tap water from rivers in the area and establish irrigation schemes to boost food production.

The residents said the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) should reopen its depots in the area to facilitate distribution of food to those affected.

The NCPB depots at Kolowa and Nginyang have remained closed for years with the buildings being used for other purposes.

Jackson Roruney, Kositei location assistant chief, said four people had already died due to hunger and warned that things could get worse if action is not taken immediately.

DIED QUIETLY

“Many more people than reported must have died quietly deep inside the villages and were buried without the knowledge of the Government,” he said.

Baringo Governor Benjamin Cheboi who toured the area said it was not only residents of Tiaty who faced starvation but also those from lower parts of North Baringo, Baringo South and Mogotio.

He challenged the National Government to respond by distributing relief food in the county before it is too late to save lives.

“As a county we will focus on giving food to the elderly and schools as a lasting solution is identified,” said the governor.