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Kenya drought: Children going hungry and women needing to 'beg' for support for the first time

An inside look at a malnutrition clinic for women and children in Northern Kenya.

drought-food-insecurity-in-northern-kenya Women waiting for their children to receive treatment for malnutrition in Lekwasimyen in Northern Kenya's Turkana province on 28 June 2022. Lisa Murray Lisa Murray

Orla Dwyer reports from Turkana County, Kenya:

AT A MALNUTRITION clinic in Northern Kenya, women waiting for food and medicine with their hungry children say that “people will die” if the drought does not end soon. 

Dozens wait under a beating sun to get their children assessed for malnutrition at the Sasame Dispensary clinic in Turkana County. 

This is a fast process where babies as young as six months are weighed and measured to see if they are within a healthy parameter for their age. Many are not. 

Patrick Lokitela, Concern Kenya health and nutrition officer, explained that while people get help from the clinic, some still take treatment into their own hands. 

Concern Worldwide brought The Journal and other media to Kenya last week to report on the impacts of drought. This impact can be seen in the women and children at the dispensary clinic the day we visit.

“For instance in the case of oedema [a build-up of fluid which causes swelling]… they don’t bring them to the facility because they believe that it is one of the forms they can manage in the community. So you find that they normally cut those kids,” he said. 

Oedema leaves malnourished children with swollen arms, legs and what Lokitela described as a “moon face”.

Lokitela explained that some communities cut a child’s skin in an attempt to ”remove the fluids from the body”. 

Nutritionists at the clinic discourage people from doing this for a number of reasons – not least because it doesn’t work. It can also leave children at risk of infection or contracting HIV if the razor blade used is unclean. 

Oedema swelling is painless and leaves behind an indent when pressed down on gently.  

drought-food-insecurity-in-northern-kenya A child's arm being measured at the malnutrition clinic in Turkana, Kenya on 28 June. Lisa Murray Lisa Murray

‘People will die’

Ekal Mudang, attending the clinic with her son Atur, said life has been more challenging since the drought. People have fewer resources to share and it is much harder to earn any money. 

“Life was better [when she was a child] because there was rain, wild fruits were available and everyone had livestock. But not getting rain is a problem and accessing food is a challenge,” she said*.

Ekal said that “people will die” and “there’s no future” if the rains don’t come.

Most of the animals her family owned have died since the drought began. They have six goats left. 

drought-food-insecurity-in-northern-kenya Ekal Mudang and her son at the malnutrition clinic in Turkana, Kenya on 28 June. Lisa Murray Lisa Murray

Ekal said that when she was younger, when she believes times were a lot easier, she “didn’t know about begging” for help from other people. 

Everyone had their own livestock and people could sell their animals if they needed money.

But since they lost most of their livestock, this is no longer an option.  

drought-food-insecurity-in-northern-kenya Maraka having his height measured at the malnutrition clinic in Turkana, Kenya on 28 June. Lisa Murray Lisa Murray

‘The men in this community don’t want family planning’

Asked whether the clinic advises on family planning, especially in times of limited resources, nutritionists said they provide the information but husbands can stand in the way.

Condoms and the contraceptive injection are among the contraceptive methods available, but Lokitela said: “The men actually in this community don’t want family planning.” 

He said men have a perception that women are “doing something behind their backs” if they use contraception. 

Many use the “natural way” of avoiding pregnancy, by counting the days of their period and only having sex in the “safe zone” when women are least fertile. 

But this is not foolproof – there is still a chance of getting pregnant at any stage in a period cycle. 

drought-food-insecurity-in-northern-kenya Plumpy'nut being handed out to parents of malnourished at the clinic in Lekwasimyen in Turkana, Kenya on 28 June. Lisa Murray Lisa Murray

How malnutrition is treated 

Four consecutive seasons of poor rains have left millions of people in Kenya and neighbouring countries like Somalia and Ethiopia in crisis. 

Many animals have died and malnutrition has become an even bigger issue.

Many families prioritise feeding children when there is less food to go around, so some mothers have also become malnourished. 

The clinic in Turkana County is stuffy and small, but holds a lot of medicines and food to help treat women and children.

Plumpy’nut was handed out to severely malnourished children. This is a peanut paste that helps them gain weight. 

Treating malnourishment isn’t always an easy fix, particularly for very young children. It can often have long-term impacts on their health and growth. 

“Those are the kids whom we say have delayed development milestones. They are not growing as normal kids,” Lokitela said. 

He said if stunted growth is not addressed and tackled before the child turns two, it is essentially irreversible. 

Nutritionists at the clinic said they see improvements in children when they are getting regular treatment, but they are then returning to food insecurity in their communities so they can become malnourished again especially in times of drought. 

“This time of the drought is very challenging for most of the households,” Lokitela said. 

*Ekal’s quotes were translated by a Kenyan Concern staff member. 

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