Land of safaris and Masai warriors tries to cope with drought

The first impression as you arrive in this East African land of safari treks and Masai warriors is that whatever ought to be green is actually brown - fields , farms, parks, back yards.

The drought that has caused famine and tragedy across much of Africa has reached Kenya. Each day clouds pile up in the wide sky and people look up hopefully, ''but the rains won't come now,'' an American diplomat says, ''and the drought could be the biggest in a century.''

Kenyan requests for foreign help are flooding into the embassies of the United States and other countries. Corn that should by now be taller than a Masai warrier standing erect is instead shriveled and dry.

''We should be eating potatoes, but they can't grow without rain,'' say Kikuyus in Nyeri, about 90 miles north of Nairobi in Central Province. Cattle are being slaughtered for lack of feed. Two successive maize (corn) harvests have been lost, and two of beans.

''Kenya imported grain from the US in the 1980 drought,'' says a Kenyan official, ''and it may have to do so again in 1985.''

The drought would be easier to withstand if the number of Kenyans was not growing so fast - the most rapid growth rate on the face of the earth and in history, United Nations demographers say. At independence in 1962, there were only 8.6 million Kenyans, living in a beautiful land with some of the finest wild animal sites in Africa - giraffe, elephant, many others. Then President Jomo Kenyatta did not talk openly about family planning for fear that other tribes would think it a Kikuyu plot to thin them out.

Improved health care over the years has seen death rates plummet, while the birth rate has stayed high. The result: the average number of children in a Kenyan family now is eight - the highest figures in Africa. And one in every two Kenyans today is under age 14.

The population has zoomed to 19.8 million, at a growth rate of about 4.1 per cent a year. By contrast, the US grows at 0.9 percent a year, and Africa as a whole at 3 percent.

According to the UN Fund for Population Activities, present trends suggest there will be 38.5 million Kenyans in the year 2,000, double today's population. If those trends continued, there would be a staggering 82.9 million Kenyans by the year 2025.

As my host, a Western diplomat, drove me to dinner in his home in northwest Nairobi, the physical beauty of Africa was stunning.

Gathering dusk hid the countryside's brown-not-green look. Brilliant red and pink bougainvillea plants were still visible. The air was balmy, the clouds momentarily dispersed, the sunset vivid. The day had been hot, but not too hot. Friends in the car discussed a recent safari in central Kenya and how they had spotted rainbow-hued birds as well as elephants and deer.

Out on the patio beyond the French windows, a brazier glowed red in the darkness as we sat around it to talk before dinner. Above us hung the brilliant stars of the Southern Hemisphere, almost close enough to touch.

And yet - reminders of the other Africa were never absent for long.

As we drove into the grounds of the house, a uniformed private security guard in a tin helmet and carrying a large baton sprang to attention. The embassy contracts with the company to guard the residences of all its diplomats. This guard was on duty from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. The company pays for anything stolen in that period.

Before my host drove me back to the hotel, he first wrestled shut a metal, lattice-like protecting door across the outside of the French windows and carefully locked it. It was similar to the storefront protectors in downtown and slum areas of the US.

''But you have the security guard, '' I said.

''Yes, but there are gangs here, six to 12 young men, who come in and do the house over,'' he said.

The drought comes just as the government claims some economic successes last year, helped by higher coffee and tea prices. Agricultural output is said to have just exceeded population growth at just over 4 percent. The balance of payments deficit is at its lowest since 1977. Inflation dropped from 22.3 percent to 14.6 percent. Unemployment said to affect more than 1 worker in 5. Below age 25, it is at least 1 worker in 4.

Malnutrition is tragic. The official 1984 economic review admits to samples showing that between 1977 and 1982 the proportion of one- to four-year-old children below normal size and weight rose from 24 percent to 30 percent. Western observers find this very disturbing.

The percentage of rural Kenyans who can read or write practically stood still between 1976 and 1981, rising from 46 to only 48 percent. The proportion of girls in secondary school has actually dropped in the last two decades from 47 to 40 percent.

This writer observed learned about Nyeri - and the skill and bravado of Nairobi taxi drivers - in a battered Peugeot 504 station wagon. The taxi hurtled over the country roads at speeds over 100 m.p.h. in order to cut a three-hour journey to one hour, 45 minutes. The drivers do this so they can squeeze in several trips a day.

Outside Nairobi, a boy drove a herd of brown cattle across the road. The driver stopped inches from a cow in the middle of the herd, with other cattle all around us.

Friends shrugged: It happens all the time.

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