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History: How 1984 drought forced Kenyans to eat yellow ugali

By Hudson Gumbihi | August 31st 2021
Kirinyaga politician Caroline Wamarwa distributes relief food to residents of Kiambu in 1996. [File]

A warning by experts that hard times lie ahead should the current drought persist is a cause for alarm.

According to specialists within and outside government, the famine being experienced in some parts of the country has the potential of escalating into an emergency if the October and November short rains fail.

This is not the first time Kenya is facing drought. It is a perennial challenge. Since 1914, Kenya has suffered major cycles of famine with some happening every 10 years. But with evolving climate trends, predictability is becoming elusive.

It is instructive to note that 1984 had the most reported drought – one of the main reasons was that Kenyans fed on yellow maize imported from Thailand and the US where it was produced for animal feed.

By shipping in yellow maize, the Government was killing two birds with one stone.

First, the cost of yellow maize was 30 per cent less than that of white maize.

Secondly, when faced with the prospect of eating yellow ugali, many Kenyans cut down on consumption and substituted it with other foods. This reduced demand for more imports of yellow maize, which was considered by consumers to be inferior to white maize.

The first order was made in June 1984 and the consignment arrived at the end of September. Ironically, Kenya had in January exported excess maize only to import the yellow corn that became a common meal in households until the following year.

The severity of that drought remains etched in the minds of many Kenyans who, depending on the communities they came from, coined monikers in reference to the famine.

In neighbouring Ethiopia, more than one million people succumbed to hunger as a result of the drought. Half a million others fled the country while 2.5 million were internally displaced, prompting foreign interventions and the involvement of top American musicians to raise funds.

And with experts forecasting the possibility of disaster amid unpredictable weather patterns, God forbid that an occurrence akin to what was witnessed 37 years ago should recur.

In the event of such a situation, the government through its multi-agency teams, hopefully, has a plan in terms of crisis response, capacity strength and building resilience.

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