DROUGHTS are cyclical in Kenya. Before, they came every 10 years, but now they seem to be hitting us more often and for longer periods of time. My community remembers events and birthdays by times of hunger. We give the droughts names: “longoza” was the drought when many animals died; there was the drought of the “planes” because food was dropped from the air by planes, and one particularly bad drought was called “man who dies with money in his fist,” because, even if there was money, there was simply no food to purchase.
I was born in 1951 in Machakos. From what my mother tells me, that year
there was a serious drought. My sister was born in 1961, and I clearly
remember the terrible weather and the prevailing hunger throughout the
region. I can’t tell you how many times I went to bed without eating. “I
slept like that,” is how we described it, which means we went to bed
with nothing to eat. I can’t count the number of days when “I slept like
that,” or describe the feeling of going to sleep hungry knowing I’d
wake up and there would still be no food for breakfast.
Hunger is an unforgivable disease because it is the easiest one to cure.
It is devastating to wake up in the morning and look east, west, south
and north and see that there is nothing green that you can chew. During a
drought everything goes yellow and dry. I would walk the roads and
search the ground to see if someone had spat out a bit of chewed-up
sugar cane. I am not ashamed to say that I would re-chew what I would
Hunger is dehumanizing. It gets to a level where you do not know how you
will survive and you will do anything for a simple kernel of corn.
The thing about drought is that it does not just affect farmers and
their crops; it affects everyone. If you think about it, during harvest
time farmers hire local farmhands to help with their crops. But when
there are no crops to harvest, not only does the farmer lose his or her
income, so do the laborers the farmer would have hired. There is a
ripple effect that affects the whole community. Few have food and even
fewer have money to buy food.
My parents did everything they could to feed us. My father would leave
early in the morning carrying a little basket to beg for food or ask for
food on credit. Each night he would return home around 10 p.m. My
mother, after a fruitless day attempting to find food, would try to
encourage us by telling me to keep the water in our pot boiling so that
when my father arrived we could quickly cook any food he brought in the
already prepared water.
I would keep the fire burning and the water boiling. As the hours passed
I would watch the water level slowly go down, along with the hopes that
we would eat that night. More often than not, however, my father would
arrive frustrated and empty-handed. And I would sleep like that.
It is a traumatizing situation as a young child to be without food. You
see the fear in the faces of your mother and father, despairing that
they cannot feed their children. You feel afraid, too, because your
parents can’t provide for you. Your stomach is so empty that even when
you are thirsty and you take water it makes you dizzy. You get so
nauseated your body wants to vomit, but you haven’t eaten. I think about
this now as East Africa faces another drought. I think about all the
children who are suffering as I did. We see terrible images of hunger,
but I fear that we have not yet seen the worst.
We are experiencing really serious stress. At the moment, the magnitude of the hunger facing Kenya is not well known.
It is incumbent on all of us to band together and fight this very
curable disease. No child on earth should ever have to sleep like that. -
Peter Kimeu is a small-scale farmer in Machakos, Kenya, and a technical adviser for Catholic Relief Services, a humanitarian organization.
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