Foreign Policy: The Last Famine

Mar 5, 2012
Originally published on March 5, 2012 7:23 am

Paul Salopek is a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent.

Early in February, without much fanfare, the United Nations officially declared the famine over in the Horn of Africa. This is welcome news. Last summer, when the worst drought in 60 years was wasting the region, 13 million people faced starvation. The misery was most acute in Somalia, where al-Shabab, the fanatical Islamist militia with links to al Qaeda, had blocked aid groups from working in the areas under its control. In the end, an estimated 35,000 Somalis — along with some Kenyans and Ethiopians — are thought to have died; most were children under five. The handling of the calamity nonetheless has been rated an overall success. Context helps in measuring such victories. Twenty years ago, a quarter of a million Somalis perished during a similar wartime drought. And before that, in the Sahelian emergencies of the mid-1980s, a million emaciated bodies were spooned prematurely into sandy graves.

Last August, I took a long walk with Daasanach nomads in northern Kenya, well inside the disaster zone, to see what it was like to move, as most famine victims do, on foot, through a landscape of chronic hunger. It was a way to look at hunger beyond the carefully framed shots of television cameras, and an occasion to ask: When will Africa's vast hunger pangs finally end?

I made no pretense of suffering myself. I was joined by my wife, Linda, a seasoned hiker, and neither of us stinted on our personal food supply: We carried rucksacks heavy with energy bars and bottled water. Our host was a rope-thin goatherd named Inas Lonyaman, a smiling, bald-headed elder at 35, who answered to Mister Inas. He wore sandals cut from old tires and a kind of faded sarong, and he brought along his usual herding kit — a throwing stick and a tiny wooden stool on which to sit. His sterner colleague, Haskar Lotur, shouldered a rusty AK-47 rifle slung on a rawhide cord as defense against the Gabra, a competing and similarly armed group of herders. A young entomology student, Luke Lomeiku, also of Daasanach ancestry, joined us as interpreter. Lomeiku had equipped himself with a shiny-red plastic thermos that held perhaps two cups of water, and a butterfly net. Every few hours, he crept up to shriveled acacias and swept them for insects. But our trek promised lean prospects for science. Mister Inas's pastures — located in the immense, arid core of the Turkana Basin — were overgrazed to the appearance of a gravel parking lot. Temperatures in the netted shade of the thorn trees hovered, at noon, around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. In two days of plodding across 25 miles of cauterized terrain, Lomeiku captured a single bee.

Mister Inas seemed grateful for the company. Pushing 80 goats through the coming desert was melancholy work. For three years, precipitation had fallen erratically, if at all, in his isolated corner of the world, a Kenyan outback located 500 miles northwest of the famine's epicenter in Somalia. It was not the focus of the massive international relief effort, in which the U.S. government played a leading role, having donated by then some $459 million in humanitarian assistance. But the epidemic of hunger here was just as old and stunting. While an army of foreign journalists and relief workers converged on refugee camps on the distant Somali border, Daasanach children were starving in the more typical nomad way — more or less permanently and beyond the restless glare of the TV lights. Half of the Turkana Basin's population of 500,000 livestock herders and subsistence farmers was on food aid. Indeed, some people had been collecting rations for 30 years. Even so, Mister Inas, a veteran of many starveling years, ranked the current dry spell the toughest he had ever experienced. Droughts used to be spaced further apart, he said. Nowadays, they came brutally hard and fast, and his goats were dying of thirst. He'd lost half his herd already. His seven children he parceled out among various relatives to avert starvation. When I asked how long he was prepared to endure such catastrophes, he shrugged.

"We have no education," he said, knocking his bony forehead with a fist. "If the Daasanach go to school, then all these troubles will end. But we are stupid." He talked at length about abandoning the nomad life altogether.

But I'd heard such declarations before. They weren't credible. For the Daasanach, owning animals means everything — status, wealth, life. And like many disempowered minorities, they frequently said what they thought outsiders wished to hear. Trudging behind him for hours, I became convinced that the surer measure of Mister Inas's future lay at the opposite end of his anatomy.

Continued At Foreign Policy

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