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New life in the midst of Kenya's drought

By Oxfam
Drought-affected families in northern Kenya line up to receive their first payment from Oxfam's emergency cash transfer program. Photo: Caroline Berger/Oxfam

“If there is no water, then there is no life,” said Sabina Loliyak, 35, a herder and mother from Loruth, Kenya, who lost half of her animals to drought. “We used to get nutritious food drinking milk and eating meat from [our] livestock, but right now there is nothing. Even the trees have dried up.” 

As drought and food crisis spread throughout East Africa, families like Loliyak’s are feeling the effects of hunger. With support from Oxfam, and funding from the Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance, an emergency cash transfer program aims to help the hard-hit population of northern Kenya’s Turkana region. More than 5,500 families in the program will receive a payment of 3,000ksh, about $31, every month for the next six months. Because the aid comes in the form of cash, rather than food or other goods, people can choose to buy what they need most; the local economy benefits; and herders who’ve lost everything can seek new ways of earning a living.

A good meal and a roof overhead

For Loliyak, the new income means an opportunity to choose the most nutritious foods for her children. "If you have cash, then you can buy things [you] don't have in the house, like cabbage or beans. But with food aid, we can only eat maize for the whole month,” she explained.

Another participant, Abenyo, 25, said she hopes to use her payments to buy a goat—a first step toward replenishing her family’s assets. With most of their livestock lost to the drought, and food prices escalating out of reach, she and her three children have turned to foraging to survive. 

Ekimat Maraha, whose family also lost all of their animals, said they have been living on wild fruit and gifts of food begged from their neighbors. Balancing her child on her lap, she signed the official paperwork with an indelible blue fingerprint to confirm receipt of her first cash payment. “With the money, I’ll buy food for my household and a roof for my home,” she said. “I hope one day I’ll return to my former glory.”

Shopkeepers back in business

Also participating in the program are 215 local shop owners, who not only receive cash themselves but work with Oxfam to distribute payments in their communities. In turn, the families buy food and other staples from the merchants’ shops, boosting their business during a time of hardship.

“Since the drought, I’ve been unable to provide customers with the things they need,” said Samuel, one of five participating shop owners in Loruth. “Thanks to Oxfam’s cash grant, I was able to purchase items that I couldn’t afford before, like wheat, maize, flour, and vegetables. As long as there will be a good circulation of cash, then I can go and buy new items.”

Jacinta opened her store in Nachukui in 1994, but said that lately she has struggled with rising food costs. A bag of flour, for example, costs her 40 percent more than it did before the drought. “A few days ago the shelves were bare, but now they've been restocked,” she said.

Many shopkeepers, like Abullah Mohammed and his wife Asinyen, let the neediest local families buy food on credit to tide them over. Thanks to the cash transfer program, many of those customers have now been able to repay their debts.  “We got 1000ksh (about $10) in one day. We usually only make 300ksh ($3) per day,” said Asinyen. “With the extra money I make, I hope that I’ll be able to send my son to university.”

A new start

Many of Turkana’s herders have been devastated by the loss of their animals, and are left seeking new ways to provide for their families. “The pride that I used to have with my livestock is no longer there,” said one herder, Ebe. “I had lost hope with life, but because of this cash, hope is coming back. I’d like to start a petty trade so that I can sustain my family.”

Sabina Loliyak, the mother who lost half of her livestock, said she wants to use her future cash payments to make the transition from herder to small business owner. “Since the drought has come, everything has changed,” she said. “People who used to be pastoralists are now moving to the trading centers like Kaikor. There are [fewer] people in the mountains now.”

Faced with these changes, she is determined to adapt. “If we can start a business, then our life will change automatically,” she said. “Cash will help us to start a new life."

Oxfam aims to reach more than 3 million people throughout East Africa with a variety of support including food aid, clean water, and veterinary care for animals. We are also campaigning to change the root causes of this crisis. Find out how you can help saves lives in East Africa.

Reporting and photos by Caroline Berger; edited by Anna Kramer.