Barely noticed the famine

In 2011 this dry, dusty place was the area hardest hit by Kenya’s worst drought for over half a century. Almost every last vestige of green was bleached from the savannah as successive rains failed and the thermometer nudged 40°C. Hundreds of thousands of livestock died, and tens of thousands of children were brought to the brink of starvation by severe malnutrition.

The drought prompted Islamic Relief and other aid agencies to switch to emergency mode, sending life-saving food aid and water trucks to remote villages to prevent mass migration and keep hope alive. The operation was a remarkably successful one, although barely noticed internationally as the eyes of the world focused on drought turning to famine in neighbouring Somalia.

While most of Mandera was clinging to life in the unrelenting heat, however, some farmers came through the drought relatively unscathed. They were able to do so thanks to an Islamic Relief irrigated agriculture project along the river Daua, which forms Kenya’s north-eastern border with Ethiopia. “I normally irrigate early in the morning and in the evening,” says 35-year-old Ishmail Mohamed (pictured above), tending a crop of onions that is almost ready to harvest near his home village of Shantoley. “At those times the sun isn’t so hot and there isn’t much evaporation, so I have to use less fuel.”

Ishmail used to be a pastoralist, an itinerant livestock farmer roaming over a vast area to find pasture for his 50 cows and 100 goats. Now he is proud to call himself an agropastoralist: his main focus is growing crops, with just a handful of animals to provide milk for his children. “I used to grow just maize and beans but now I have diversified and added cash crops including capsicum, onions, tomatoes, pawpaws and kale,” he says. “Onions are our best crop – there’s high demand and we get a good price. We normally sell to wholesalers and traders who transport them to Nairobi.”

Pastoralists make up 80% of the population in north-eastern Kenya but their old way of life is dying as successive droughts, environmental degradation and population pressures take their toll. Many pastoralists have now settled in villages in order to register for the food aid on which some have become dependent. The landscape is so dry and parched that it can neither sustain large numbers of animals nor support rain-fed agriculture. For Ishmail, however, the changing climate is no longer such a formidable opponent. His new livelihood means he is better prepared for the onslaught of drought.

“There’s not enough rain to keep livestock any more,” he explains. “In the future I intend to reduce my numbers of livestock further and concentrate on growing crops. I will just keep the animals I need for milk for the children.” Ishmail and his wife, Nuria Ahmed, have seven children aged between one and 12. In 2010 four of their children were found to be acutely malnourished and were enrolled in Islamic Relief’s therapeutic feeding programme. In 2011, however – with the Daua irrigation programme more established and Ishmail’s farm thriving – all seven children remained healthy through a record-breaking drought.

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