The plague of Covid is still in the dust-choked air, the ground is baked by drought. The murder and misery would seem biblical – if they weren’t so modern.
Indeed, the Sahel and the Maghreb have experienced increasing desertification and, in addition, frenetic humanitarian crises and increasing violence, especially from Islamist extremists.
In Kenya, the murders in the north do not (yet) have a neo-religious slant. But rising insecurity in a country traditionally seen as the stable diplomatic and humanitarian center in the Horn of Africa, torn by war, is fueled by many of the same factors that have set the Sahel ablaze.
After a reconnaissance of Marsabit district in June, police seized 200 machine guns, automatic rifles and other weapons, plus about 3,000 rounds of ammunition.
As in West Africa, Kenya’s problems are exacerbated by climate change.
In the Horn of Africa, that figure rises to 11.6 million.
Ileret, on the northern shore of Lake Turkana, is famously parched. But the local nomadic herders have managed to exist, even thrive, in harsh conditions for centuries. Their herds of goats and camels are periodically fattened by fresh pastures that emerge from the savanna when it rains every now and then.
It just hasn’t been there for over two years. Local officials in the Ileret district told CNN that about 85% of the livestock died here. Surviving herds are driven south in search of grazing.
Either way, those left behind have next to nothing to live on.
Akuagok is a widow who lives in a much (collection of nomad huts) about half an hour north of Ileret. It keeps some of the desert wind but little of the dust from the lungs of her six children.
She survives a meal every three days, depending on whether she can sell charcoal in Ileret to buy raw wheat that her older children grind by hand with a stone and then mix with water into chapatis
“I eat when I can. Usually I don’t eat every day. Sometimes when I sell charcoal, I can eat maybe once or twice in three days,” she says.
Her youngest, Arbolo, is two. He wails as he lies down to measure height during an MSF outreach mission – but is lethargic when the circumference of his upper arm shows red on the MSF tape measuring the degree of malnutrition. The red means he is severely acutely malnourished – what most people would say is ‘starving’.
Members of the tribe of Akuagok, the Daasanach, thronged her and shouted their own tales of loss — loss of friends through disease, perhaps caused by starvation, loss of animals, and how now, even if they earn very little money. , it’s never enough to make ends meet.
Kenya has experienced periods of lawlessness and land invasions before. But for many, even those used to seeing their own ethnic group violently graze or loot livestock, Kenya has seen a deterioration.
Lemarti Lemar, a Samburu community leader and well-known musician, says he has lost “at least 30” cattle to the drought.
“People just lose everything they own. If a man loses 50 cattle, that’s a loss of $25,000 or more. But more dangerous is the young moran (warriors) no longer have livestock to care for. They get their hands on illegal weapons, they have nothing to do. They don’t listen to the elderly anymore and some have become gangsters,” he told CNN.
“We are losing control,” he added.
Kenya faces a general election by the middle of next month. The process often raises fears of instability in the country, and if the results are disputed, the potential for political violence could escalate.
In the marginalized communities of the northern provinces, urban politicians have paid lip service to the unfolding horrors. The government ended and quickly reinstated fuel subsidies in July. But as Kenya’s population lives largely in the center and south of the country, insecurity in the north has not been a major electoral problem.
But that could be forced on the central government after the election, as herders looking for grazing are now bringing camels to browse hedges in Isiolo.
In search of grassland, they have invaded game parks and sanctuaries, bringing them ever closer to the tourist attractions that are one of Kenya’s biggest export earners.
No attempt has been made to drive them out, but the heavy toll their livestock takes on the landscape means they will struggle to recover in the next showers, if they ever come.
Past experience across Africa has shown that drought combined with overgrazing means that when it rains, they wash away the topsoil in large quantities. Once that happens, after a few years there will be little left but desert.
“Every time you get people starving and without other options you have a security situation. (In) Northern Kenya we are bordered by South Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, all of which are still in the throes of a conflict that is spewing small arms in this ecosystem, so you have a lot of guns here and increasing hunger, so, yeah, I’d say that’s an increasing security issue,” said Frank Pope, CEO of Kenya-based charity Save the Elephants. Samburu National Reserve.
Pope’s organization also works with elephants in Mali, West Africa, much of which, he now warns, was savannah not so long ago, but now only sustains “elephants, goats and insurgents.”
The combination of drought, rising food and fuel prices due to a distant war, a burgeoning population and civil wars on Kenya’s doorstep is an incendiary mix.
And that could be bad news for humanitarian operations in neighboring Somalia, Ethiopia and South Sudan, which rely on Kenya’s ports and relative tranquility as a base and essential location for logistics.
And as the effects of climate change manifest in Kenya, children face malnutrition and their mothers languish, exacerbated by the desperate struggle for nomads and pastoralists to survive, this once stable region shows little sign that it can handle it alone.