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'Tell the people that the family seated here have nothing, they are just staring in the face of death'

An escalating crisis is threatening the survival of thousands in Kenya, writes Ian Begley, who visited there with Concern

Hospital bills: from left, Etiir (10), mother Akitela Edarit (25) with baby Asinyen (10 months), Lopoo (4) and grandmother Poko Edarit
Hospital bills: from left, Etiir (10), mother Akitela Edarit (25) with baby Asinyen (10 months), Lopoo (4) and grandmother Poko Edarit

It's 35°C in Turkana, north-west Kenya, and inside a makeshift hut sits a widowed mother who hasn't eaten anything in four days. I settle down on a goatskin rug and notice that the baby boy cradled in her arms is watching me as I set up my recording device and camera.

I look up at him and smile, but then I notice the swarm of flies crawl around his gaunt face. Wearing nothing but a discoloured rag, he is just one of 75,000 children in Turkana born into extreme malnutrition, poverty and drought.

His mother tells me his story.

"My name is Nayole Ngina (40), I have two children and have gone for four days without eating," she said.

"Life here is extremely difficult, especially when you have nobody to rely on. All I do is wake up in the morning and see where I can get wild fruits for my children, but whenever there's none, we just stay as we are.

"It always pains me when my children have no food or whenever they fall sick because I have to carry them on my back to the nearest facility, which takes about five hours to reach.

"We have nothing and without any help, I know we're going to perish."

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The mother from the village of Nakinomet said her only hope was the therapeutic feeding programme her two-year-old son Ero is enrolled in, which was set up by Concern Worldwide earlier this year.

For Nayole, life has always been a struggle, but in recent months, conditions for her family and more than a million others in Kenya has become almost unbearable.

With a second drought in three years, the population's livestock is declining at an alarming rate and finding an adequate source of food is extremely problematic.

According to the latest statistics, malnutrition rates for under-fives have reached 30% in some areas, and up to 7.8% of Turkana's severely malnourished children are at risk of dying.

In the village of Ekengot, another widowed mother explains that the drought has left her livelihood in ruin.

"When my husband was sick, we used a lot of goats to treat him and pay for his hospital bills," said Akitela Edarit (25).

"Now that he's passed on, we have just 10 goats left. We don't even have enough milk for the children to drink.

"We now rely on therapeutic outreaches or help from the government, but sometimes the feeds don't come for four or five months at a time."

At the end of the interview, Akitela's grandmother, Poko, asks to deliver a poignant message to those who will be reading this article.

"Tell the people that the (family) who are seated here have nothing - they are just staring in the face of death."

With a population of 1.2 million, 80% of the people living in Turkana are below the poverty line.

I meet a pregnant mother left alone with her three children after her husband died.

Akuwom Amicha, who is in her 20s, spends every day trying to sell charcoal or firewood to nearby sites, while also looking for wild fruit to eat. The distressed mother says she is terrified that once her baby is born, she will no longer be able to provide for her other children.

When her husband died, it also meant that his other wife in the village was also left to fend for herself.

"The drought has affected everyone in these surroundings," she said.

"Everyone in this community is vulnerable, so you just have to struggle by yourself and hope for the best. My husband is gone and I've been left with an unborn baby.

"When I give birth, I will have to stay inside to nurse my baby, so who will find food for the others?"

On the day I visited Akuwom, she attended a mobile clinic for medical services and therapeutic food for her two malnourished children.

"We have stayed for more than five days without eating… But today we're happy because we have food and I will share it with my co-wife because her family are also starving."

Concern's Amina Abdulla said Turkana's harsh climatic conditions are now being exacerbated by climate change.

"We moved from a drought every five years to one every two years.

"This has not just reduced access to food for families, but significantly lowered their ability to cope.

"Each time a family loses their livestock, they lose an asset, and the period between one drought and the next is not sufficient for them to recover.

"We've seen the long distances between one health facility to the next and have been to places where there's no source of permanent water or schools."

To donate to Concern's Drought in Kenya appeal, visit www.concern.net

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