The Covid epidemic is still in the dust-choked air, the earth baked by drought. Murder and misery might sound biblical – if they weren’t so modern.
Indeed, the Sahel and Maghreb region have witnessed widening desertification, along with frantic humanitarian crises and increasing violence, particularly by Islamic extremists.
In Kenya, the killings in the north do not (yet) have a new religious motive. But growing insecurity, in a country traditionally seen as the stable diplomatic and humanitarian hub in the war-torn Horn of Africa, is fueled by many of the same factors that inflamed the Sahel.
After one sweep across Marsabit County in June, police seized 200 submachine guns, automatic rifles and other weapons as well as about 3,000 rounds of ammunition.
As in West Africa, Kenya’s problems are exacerbated by climate change.
Across the Horn of Africa, that number has jumped to 11.6 million.
Elret, located on the northern shore of Lake Turkana, is famous for being very thirsty. But the local nomadic shepherds have managed to survive, and even thrive, in harsh conditions for centuries. Herds of goats and camels are periodically fattened by the fresh pastures that come out of the savannah when it occasionally rains.
For more than two years this has not happened. Local officials in Illeret told CNN that about 85% of the livestock here have died. The remaining herds are pushed south in search of grazing.
Either way, those left behind have almost nothing to live on.
Aquajuk is a widow who lives in A a lot of things (a group of nomadic huts) about half an hour north of Illyret. It keeps some desert wind but a little dust away from the lungs of her six children.
She survives on a meal every three days, and that depends on whether she is able to sell coal in Illret to buy unmilled wheat that her older children grind into stone and then mix with water in Chapati
“I eat when I can,” she says. “Mostly I don’t eat every day. Sometimes when I sell charcoal I can eat maybe once or twice in three days.”
The youngest, Arbolo, is two years old. He cries when he is put on for height measurements on an MSF awareness mission – but is lukewarm when his arm circumference is shown in red on the MSF malnutrition tape. Red means he’s severely malnourished – which most people would say is “starving.”
The people of the Akwajuk tribe, the Daasanach, gathered around her chanting their own stories of loss – friends lost to disease perhaps due to hunger, animals lost, and how now, even when they earn so little money, it’s never enough to have them.
Kenya has seen bouts of chaos and land invasion before. But for many, even people who are used to seeing their ethnic group violently graze, or raid cattle, there has been a turn for the worse in Kenya.
Limarti Limar, a Samburu community leader and well-known musician, says he has lost “at least 30” head of cattle to the drought.
“People lose everything they own. If a man loses 50 heads of cattle, that’s a loss of $25,000 or more. But the most dangerous is that young people Moran (Warriors) They have no livestock left to graze. They got illegal weapons, and they have nothing to do. They stopped listening to old people and some of them became gangsters.”
“We are losing control,” he added.
Kenya faces general elections in the middle of next month. This process often raises fears of instability in the country, and if the results are challenged, the potential for political violence could escalate.
In marginalized communities across the northern counties, urban politicians have expressed their lip service to the unfolding atrocities. The government ended, and quickly reinstated, fuel subsidies in July. But since Kenya’s population is largely concentrated in the center and south of the country, insecurity in the north has not been a major electoral issue.
But it may be imposed on the central government after the election, as shepherds seeking to graze now bring camels to roam the hedges of Isiolo.
In search of pastures, they have invaded wildlife parks and reserves, bringing them closer to the tourist attractions that are one of Kenya’s biggest export sources.
No effort was made to drive them out, but the heavy losses their livestock inflict on the landscape means that they will struggle to recover in the coming rainy season, if they ever arrive.
Previous experiences across Africa have shown that drought combined with overgrazing means that when it rains, it washes away the topsoil in large quantities. Once that happened, there was little desert left, after only a few years.
“Anytime you find people hungry and with no 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 grip of conflict,” says Frank Pope, CEO of the Kenya-based charity Save the Elephants. Samburu National.
Bob’s organization also works with elephants in Mali, and West Africa, many of which now warn of the savannah not too long ago, but now count only “elephants, goats and rebels”.
The combination of drought, rising food and fuel prices due to a distant war, a growing population, and civil wars on Kenya’s doorstep is an incendiary combination.
This could be bad news for humanitarian operations in neighboring Somalia, Ethiopia and South Sudan that depend on Kenya’s ports, and the relative calm, as a base of operations and an essential location for logistics.
As the effects of climate change take hold in Kenya, with children facing malnutrition and their mothers wasting, and exacerbated by the desperate battle for survival of nomads and pastoralists, this once stable region shows little sign that it can handle on its own.