Three signs of hope in Turkana

By Anna Kramer
Shopkeeper Alice Atanbo is working with Oxfam to distribute emergency food aid in her community. Photo: Irina Fuhrmann/Oxfam

Drought and food crisis have hit hard in northern Kenya’s Turkana region, where an estimated 37 percent of the population is now malnourished. In an area that is home to many herders, communities have been devastated by the loss of their livestock: goats, sheep, cattle, and camels that provided a source of both food and income. “When the animals die, we know that we humans will be the next ones to go,” said Mary Nsaniana, 50, who recently lost her daughter to illness exacerbated by hunger.

When Oxfam media officer Irina Fuhrmann traveled to Turkana earlier this month, she found herding communities under what she described as “a virtual state of siege.” But Fuhrmann also discovered something unexpected. Many people who had been affected by the region’s last drought were now weathering the current crisis, thanks to solutions designed to fight poverty and build resilience over the long term. Where local ingenuity and determination are paired with this kind of long-term investment, there is real hope—even reason to believe that the cycle of drought can be broken.

A businesswoman helps feed the hungry

More than ten years ago, Alice Atanbo joined one of Oxfam’s cash-for-work programs in Turkana.

“It all began when I decided to invest a small amount, which Oxfam had given me when I participated in a cash-for-work project, to buy products like milk, flour, and sugar. As soon as people found out they could buy their basic food supplies in my shop, they started coming from all around. And over time, I’ve been able to go back and ask for more credit and increase my supplies,” Atanbo said.

Atanbo’s store now supplies her entire community, Milima Tatu, with essential goods. Since her husband’s livestock died from the drought, she and her eight children have been able to live on the income generated from her shop.

Meanwhile, Atanbo is working with Oxfam to distribute emergency food aid in her community. “I receive food for free distribution, and the neediest families come to pick it up at my shop,” she said. “Today, the food has arrived from the distribution center, and the people are already waiting impatiently, with their food vouchers ready.”

A garden blooms in Turkana

It’s unusual to find green leaves in the dry landscape of Turkana, but in the village of Kaaleng, several family gardens are beginning to thrive. Supplied with water by an Oxfam-installed solar-powered energy pump, the village maintains small patches of fertile soil even in this time of drought.

Several residents, such as Benson Kore, have begun to use their plots to grow vegetables for food. Corn, tomatoes, onions, and other plants thrive on a few square meters of soil that Kore cultivates with great care. Kore’s children and his sister’s children help him in the garden—the family has pulled together, he said, to compensate for the loss of the livestock on which they once relied for food and income. Now, the waste materials from his vegetable garden provide food for Kore’s five remaining goats. 

Herders become fishers

Oxfam developed the Akadeli school for herdsmen as pilot project: a way for the herders of Turkana to regroup and support one another after a previous drought devastated their livestock. At their meetings, the herdsmen in the school share their knowledge and their experiences, which range from techniques for treating illnesses to making decisions about the best time to sell livestock. Given the seriousness of the current crisis, the group works to disseminate this information to their fellow herdsmen.  

With the help of a system of community microcredit, the school has also become a way for herders who have lost all of their animals to try to find new ways to earn a living. One of these, supported by Oxfam, is the development of fishing in Lake Turkana. Thanks to these fish, which they dry and sell, the herdsmen have found new sources of income, and have also diversified the nutrients in their own diets at a time when good food is scarce.

Oxfam aims to reach 3 million people
in the East Africa region 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 support our efforts.

Field reporting for this story by Irina Fuhrmann; written by Anna Kramer.