Kenya nomads take refuge from drought

The Kenya government, international relief agencies, and private individuals throughout the world have come to the rescue of a small tribe of nomads in northern Kenya.

The Turkana, who live in the desrt area between the Iganda and Sudan borders, are the latest victims of Africa's devastating drought. Africa claims nearly 4 million refugees, most of them the result of drought and famine.

The nomads once wandered from waterhole to waterhole in the great desert spaces with their herds of cattle. Now they are forced to lock to camps set up by the International Red Cross, the European Community, and Dutch Roman Catholic and Protestant missions. Adopting a more permanent way of living means a dramatic change in life style for these nomadic people.

Around the camps and feeding centers the Turkana have erected their little beehive huts of grass, leaves, and sticks -- some of the smallest and most temporary dwellings ever seen. In better times, these temporary structures were usually put up at a waterhole when a family was on the move. Now it seems these primitive dwellings will have to endure.

The Turkana rehabilitation project just started by the Kenya government and aid agencies is based on firs feeding the people, then urging them to work for food because the aid officials want to avoid their becoming permanent destitutes. Work has started on reversing desertification by planting trees, irrigating sorghum plots in the settlements, rehabilitating and restocking decimated herds.

What is certain is that for the Turkana, nomadism is over for the time being. So is the Turkana's dependence on their cattle, which traditionally have been part of their life style.

Cattle gave meaning to their lives and were a resource that enabled them to survive their harsh desert environment. Now the Turkana are being pressured to settle and grow crops instead -- a shift that many make with reluctance.

Last year the Kurkana lost their cattle, camels, and goats in a two-fold disaster that spelled the end of their nomadic life.

Herds were seized by armed raiders from Uganda, who came over the border into Turkana country in a series of cattle raids infiltrating deep into Kenya. Mainly Karamajong who were in dire straits of hunger because of the pervasive drought, the raiders were armed with sophisticated, modern weapons abandoned by Idi Amins defeated armies when they fled into the Sudan.

The Turkana fought back gallantly with primitive spears, bows and arrows, and what firearms they could find. But they were no match for the armed raiders, who herded tens of thousands of cattle, camels, and goats over the Uganda border. What few cattle survived the raid died from a desperate drought which dried up rivers, streams, and waterholes in the parched, desert environment.

Women and children also died in the waterless desert. Only missionaries on the spot knew the scale of the disaster, which was communicated to the Kenya government and to aid agencies.

Water is the major problem for the aid givers an the nomads themselves. The women -- always the bringers of water in Africa -- dig holes in the dry riverbeds and collect driblets of water in bowls which they transfer to bigger pots and tins. Not only do they have to carry water for miles. They have to dig for it as well. The water is muddy. It may be unclean. But it is all they have for washing, drinking, a nd cooking.

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