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A Population Hungers for Relief

Only despair grows in parts of Kenya that have suffered years of drought. One veteran mystic who failed to produce is out of a job.

August 17, 2004|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

KAYA FUNGO, Kenya — Before rainmaker Simba Wanje was chased out of his job by enraged locals, the pressure of trying to make rain was sometimes so great that he felt as if his heart might burst.

"When the rain doesn't come, it's terrible for me," said Wanje, 70, who lost his powerful post after the failure of the April rains. "There's a lot of pressure. It's like a sickness in me."

It's tough to be a Kenyan rainmaker in the bad times: calamitous floods in 1997 and now three years of drought and near-total crop failures across much of the country. People look for someone to blame.

Tayari Mwaringa, 65, now sits in Wanje's place on the sacred ground of Kaya Fungo, wearing a garish crown of cow tails that lick, flame-like, at the heavens. When Mwaringa took over, he was sure he could open the clouds. But even he was filled with fear when the departing rainmaker warned that people would suffer famine all their lives for repudiating him.

In proudly self-sufficient Kenya, people are deeply disturbed to see their country unable to feed all its people because of drought. President Mwai Kibaki declared a national emergency last month, and the United Nations launched an urgent, $97-million appeal for aid last week.

According to the U.N., 2.3 million people need emergency food relief. The world body warned that the number could rise to 3.3 million unless the drought breaks in the coming months.

In the newspapers, columnists are allocating blame too, with accusations that the government could have fed everyone if so much money hadn't been siphoned away in corruption.

Last month, an assistant Cabinet minister, Robinson Githae, sparked a storm when he suggested that because other Africans ate wild rats and monkeys, Kenyans should eat food they had never considered. But in the dry landscape of many parts of Kenya, the dust has little to offer.

"It is assistant minister Robinson Githae and his kind who drive

"No political class has displayed such gluttony as this recycled elite. The money needed to save Kenya from hunger between now and December is far less than what the officialdom gobbles in a month."

U.N. officials such as Resident Coordinator Paul Andre de la Porte fear that concerns about corruption could scare off donors.

"There is concern the donor community could overlook the importance of this appeal," he said, adding that the timing of the recent corruption criticism is "unfortunate."

With three years of crop failure here in the Kilifi coastal district, southeast of Nairobi, villagers are angry, but they are not desperate, as many Kenyans are. They do have a little food.

An hour's bumpy drive farther inland, in the Ganze and Mitangani areas, the coconut palms give way to stunted shrubs. Nearly everything that grows bristles with spikes and prickles, ready to rake the flesh of passersby or drive themselves into a child's foot.

The hateful thorns claw like beasts of prey when Benjamin Changawa, 15, and his siblings forage for wood and yesa, the peppercorn-like berries they eat when there is nothing else. Even those are becoming hard to find.

"If we don't find yesa, we will just stay hungry," he said.

In a good week, there might be three or four days of relief food from the government in Nairobi. Sometimes there is none for a month -- a plight all families in the region face.

Benjamin stands in the dusty clearing that is home, a machete to cut wood in his hands, his flip-flops worn through so that the soles of his feet touch the dry dirt.

Collecting wood to burn and sell as charcoal takes all his parents' time, yielding about $6.50 a month, enough to buy about 35 pounds of maize for the family of 13, which lasts about six days. A brother works in a kiosk, bringing in a bit more. They trap small antelope called digdig, which they sell as meat.

The children scratch the lines for a game of African hopscotch into the dusty earth. Nearby stand the sun-bleached bones of the family dream: the wooden frame of a house they had started building before the rains disappeared and the money ran out.

"We didn't have money to pay for the thatch and somebody to build it. We used to have about 20 goats, but we had to sell them a long time ago, about six years ago, because they were dying of hunger," Benjamin said. "Sometimes my parents say they wish they could buy land somewhere else, where there's rain."

In the nearby Dangarani area, Charo Kapombe, an old man who does not know his age, described the sweet root called mtunguru that he and his wife dig, dry out and boil into tea.

"We drink it when there's no food," Kapombe said. "Sometimes we have no food for a week. It's the worst time I've seen in my life."

Beside him, a small girl bent down, picked up a tiny seed or crumb from the dirt and put it in her mouth.

Up the road, Jumina Pombe, a widow with six teenagers, makes less than $2 a month selling charcoal. Her relief food had run out a day earlier and the family had fallen back, as so often before, on the bitter fruit of the prickly pear.

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