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Let us support Kenyan children worst hit by severe drought

In the last month of October, at least 36.1 million people were affected by severe drought across the Horn of Africa. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

The ‘loss and damage’ fund at the concluded COP27 in Egypt is a big win for developing countries, such as Kenya and the Horn of Africa

“I am sparing some food to take to my mother after school,” a five-year-old girl from Kilifi County told me during lunch break, as her little hands held an empty container by her side, trying to divide the meal so that she can eat some and take the left-over for her mother.

This was during recent monitoring visits to our school-feeding programme in 135 schools in Kilifi, Kwale, Tana River and Tharaka Nithi. As the rest of Naima’s (not her real name) fellow pupils were enjoying a plate of maize and beans, little Naima thought of how she left home that morning with no food, and decided to share with her starving mother who had no hopes of getting a meal that day.

These words still echo in my mind. And as the world commemorated Children’s Day recently, I could not help but think of Naima and the many boys and girls in distress, following the ongoing hunger crisis in the country, and across the Horn of Africa, one of the worst in more than four decades.

In the last month of October, at least 36.1 million people were affected by severe drought across the Horn of Africa. This translates to 4.2 million in Kenya, 24.1 million in Ethiopia and 7.8 million in Somalia, according to a United Nations Regional Humanitarian Overview.

Back home, children are having challenges concentrating in their learning or attending classes due to hunger, as their families can barely afford a meal. With the unprecedented climate change, crops have withered, while pastoralist communities have had to walk for kilometers in search of food, water and pasture. The children are obliged to accompany their parents and guardians to help them, while others remain at home to play the role of caregivers to their younger siblings and the homestead.

This has left them too hungry or too tired to get time to attend school. While some families have had to relocate to another community for survival, this has also affected their school attendance and massive transfers to other schools. Some children end up being school drop-outs.

Our emergency drought-response interventions at Plan International in some of the drought-stricken counties namely Kilifi, Kwale, Tharaka Nithi and Tana River, has kept an estimated 56,329 children in school, supplementing government efforts in curbing the rising cases of absenteeism due to hunger. The school feeding programme runs from Monday to Friday.

Most vulnerable households have also received food assistance, emergency water supplies, ‘ready-to-use therapeutic foods’, nutritional supplements for infants and mothers, and child protection interventions.

Ironically, the parents we interacted with during our monitoring visits would prefer seamless learning,

with no outlined holidays or school breaks, as they are sure their children will have at least a cup of porridge for breakfast and a plate of food for lunch.

Sadly, most children do not have proper meals over the weekends but only survive on the available meal of strong tea with ugali, or nothing at all. Most look forward to school days.

This is the grim state of hunger crisis in our country.

Its secondary impact has had dire effects on families, especially young women and girls, who are vulnerable to insecurity and harmful cultural practices such as early marriages and Female Genital Mutilation. Some end up as teen parents, adding to a revelation by the government that Kenya ranks third worldwide in teenage pregnancies. 

On the other hand, infants who rely on their starving mothers for breastfeeding are having it rough. This has led to rising cases of malnutrition both to the mother and child, not forgetting the expectant mothers who lack a balanced diet for themselves and their unborn babies.

We need multi-sectoral interventions to curb the increasing hunger crisis, from the state and non-state actors and device sustainable mechanisms to ensure that families in hunger-prone areas can thrive without disruptions when drought strikes.

As schools close for two months, it is our duty to rethink strategies of how to ensure families have food security. This could be through cash-transfer programmes, drilling of boreholes or planting drought-tolerant crops as sustainability measures.

The ‘loss and damage’ fund at the concluded COP27 in Egypt is a big win for the developing countries, such as Kenya and the Horn of Africa, that continue grappling with the effects of climate-worsened drought, floods and heat waves.

While we provide food relief to vulnerable communities, it is imperative to also implement instruments that prioritise the health of the families, livestock and the environment at large.

Let us celebrate Children’s Day every day, by playing a part to ensure that African children reach their adulthood having pursued their dreams amidst challenges, that men and women came together and intervened for their sake and posterity.