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Opinion: 'I’ve never seen hunger and despair like I saw last week in Kenya'

With severe drought gripping many parts of East Africa, millions of people are facing starvation in the coming months, writes David O’Hare.

David O'Hare Trócaire

I HAVE JUST returned from northern Kenya and it’s one of the most difficult trips I’ve ever been on. Over the past twelve years, I’ve travelled to a lot of the countries in the developing world where Trócaire works, but I’ve never seen hunger and despair like I saw last week.

A prolonged drought is gripping Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan and Ethiopia and it has left millions facing starvation. It is really devastating to see the level of need and, as always, especially hard to witness the condition of the children caught up in this catastrophe.

I saw them arriving in their droves at the health clinic Trócaire supports in Kalokol in northern Kenya – skinny arms and legs, some unable to even hold their heads upright and quite literally clinging on to life.

Half a million children are starving

In one instance I saw a little child weighed by the health workers. He was just over seven pounds, the weight of a typical newborn baby here at home. I asked his mother, Florence, what age he was and she told me he was eight months.

The cries of hungry babies and toddlers in that stifling room will stay with me for a long time to come.

The heartbreaking fact is that there are half a million children under the age of five in Kenya alone who are facing starvation if they don’t get help in the coming weeks. And with no end to the drought in sight things are only going to get worse.

In Kenya there are a total of three million people requiring humanitarian aid and this is expected to rise to four million by July.

The situation has been described by the United Nations as the biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War.

A crisis on a scale we’ve never seen before

IMG_4445 Mary had walked for 13km to get to an emergency food distribution centre funded by Trócaire. Mary cares for eight family members. She said her whole family is hungry. The drought has killed their animals and because she is blind she is limited in the work that she can do.

Trócaire is grappling with a regional crisis on a scale we have never seen before. Parts of South Sudan are already in the grip of famine, while millions more people in Somalia, northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia have been left with no means of producing food.

At this late stage the situation is still not lost and lives can still be saved. Trócaire is providing life-saving emergency food supplies to hundreds of thousands of people across the region.

I saw an emergency food distribution in the town of Lodwar where the most vulnerable – the elderly, people with disabilities and people living with HIV – trekked for miles in the blistering heat. They sat in quiet dignity with their skin hanging from their bones and waited for their ration of beans and maize to be distributed. This is quite literally “life support” and will keep these people alive until the next distribution.

We are providing a high protein, high vitamin supplement to children which will give them a good chance of survival as things get worse. But in order to continue to deliver this life-saving food and reach more vulnerable children, we need help urgently.

I’m saddened, frustrated and angry at the lack of international attention being given to this unfolding tragedy. While people are fixated on Donald Trump and Brexit, half a million children are starving in Kenya. That this has been allowed to happen in 2017 is nothing short of disgraceful.

Let’s be clear about this: the developed world is responsible for accelerating climate change which is driving the severity of this drought and therefore has a real responsibility for those suffering in this current crisis.

The people of east Africa are crying out to us for help. We must listen to their plea and act to save lives now, before it is too late.

David O’Hare from Trócaire recently returned from northern Kenya where he saw the impact of the crisis on people there. He has worked for Trócaire for over 12 years and is based at the Belfast office. He has extensively travelled and visited Trócaire’s programme work in over 20 countries. Learn more about Trócaire’s response in Kenya and throughout East Africa at www.trocaire.org/east-africa.

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David O'Hare  / Trócaire

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