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In Kenya, families struggle to cope with loss amidst drought

By Victor Chinyama

Inside the camp settlements that have mushroomed around towns like Wajir, men are conspicuously missing. As drought ravages the vast and barren expanse of northern Kenya, decimating livestock and displacing hundreds of pastoralist communities, rather than stay in the settlements, the men have opted to salvage whatever little livestock is left by scouring the arid ranges of northern Kenya and sometimes southern Somalia in search of water and pasture. Leaving behind their families, they hope the government and aid agencies will fill the void.

VIDEO: 17 August 2011 - UNICEF correspondent Rob McBride reports on the struggles of families displaced by drought. Watch in RealPlayer

Moving further south

Sauda Abdirahman Abikar, a mother of five, has not seen her husband for two months. At the beginning of 2010, following consecutive years of patchy rains, the family migrated to Wajir in the north-eastern corner of Kenya near the border with Somalia. Owners of 150 goats, 100 camels, and 70 cows, the family considered itself fairly well off until the drought wiped out all but 15 of the herd.

According to the area chief, Mr. Yahya Abdi Mohamed, of the 160 households in Sauda’s settlement, more than half are headed by women. Some, like Sauda, have been at the settlement for months but others are fairly new arrivals.Sauda’s husband accompanied the family to Wajir but did not stay long. He returned to Ganyure to look after the remaining livestock. Sauda says she briefly saw him in June when he came for her youngest son’s funeral, a year-old baby that she says died of malnutrition-related illnesses. Sauda neither knows where her husband is, nor when he will return. A recent UNICEF assessment found that pastoralists are moving further and further south in search of water and pasture, often coming into contact with other more settled pastoralist communities where competition for resources inevitably results in conflict.

The women don’t expect their husbands to return as long as the drought persists. “I miss my husband but there is nothing for him here,” says Sauda. “When the children have no food, they ask for their father. They miss him.”

Options for these women are limited. For those industrious enough, selling groceries in Wajir’s sandy streets is the only choice, but the majority depend on aid and the two bags of rice they receive every month are barely enough, forcing some of their children to work in a nearby construction quarry to supplement the family’s resources.

UNICEF provides support

UNICEF is helping families to cope by constructing boarding facilities and providing water to schools while the government and other agencies supply school meals. At Wajir Girls’ Primary School, UNICEF built two dormitories, supplied beds, and provided a borehole. Though August is a holiday month, the government has ordered all schools to remain open in order to provide meals. At Wajir Girls’ Primary School, 400 children turn up every morning to receive their daily meal of porridge fortified with essential vitamins. These interventions are not only preventing families from migrating to faraway places with their children but also ensuring that the children’s educational lives suffer minimal disruptions.

UNICEF is also exploring direct cash grants to eligible families during this crisis. Modelled on the cash transfer programme successfully implemented in Kenya and other African countries, direct cash transfers have helped families to improve their health and nutrition and keep children in school.

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