Breaking the Spell: Can the Turkana Be Freed from Hunger?

Turkana, Northern Kenya, Africa (Photo Credit: Alissa Everett)

By Phyllis Nyambura/ AMREF 


The story of The Turkana is marked by irony. In the mid-18th century a group of energetic warriors decided to break off from the Karamajong community in north-eastern Uganda and migrate to the Turkana area, in Kenya which was green with pasture and mostly uninhabited. It was ‘a land of milk and honey’, and they flourished.

But in the 21st century, the story has changed – and therein lies the irony. Turkana District is now synonymous with insecurity, hunger, perennial drought, disease and underdevelopment. The Turkana are currently grappling with another drought. This one has been ravaging their land for close to three years. In fact, for a decade now, rainfall has been erratic. It has been devastating.

AMREF has been working in Turkana District for close to 30 years, with development projects centering on sustainable development: primary health care, water, sanitation and nutrition.

The drought has changed everything.

“We have had to divert a lot of effort and resources to tackle the effects of the drought on the communities we serve. You cannot talk to starving people about hygiene when they do not have water. And when they are hungry, the immune system is weak – people will more easily get ill” says Ali Jillo, a Project Officer in charge of AMREF’s Turkana drought response.


On a hot Wednesday afternoon, a crowd of close to 4,000 people has gathered in Lokichoggio town, waiting for food rations.

Mostly women, children and the elderly from 12 villages gather their daily ration of dried maize. Turkana, Northern Kenya, Africa (Alissa Everett)

“Two tins each!” shouts Assistant Chief David Imoni, as the crowd surges forward a community leader pours two 4lb tins of dried corn into an old woman’s sack. As I learn later, the woman is actually not old. Veronica Narubu is only 32. But hardship, have left her with dry, wrinkled skin and a stiff back.

Veronica says “I lost most of my cattle when the Toposa raided our homestead. The few animals that were left died as a result of the drought.” The rations Veronica receives last only a few days. The rest of the time, she feeds her family on wild fruit.

Early the next day, we set off for a medical camp at Karubangorok village, a semi-settled pastoral community where we meet about 300 pre-primary and primary school-going children standing in line for their daily rations of maize and cowpeas, some in tattered clothes, others stark naked.

Hygiene and water go hand in hand. Several children are diagnosed with trachoma, an eye infection which, if untreated, leads to blindness. “It mostly occurs due to poor hygiene. That’s why AMREF’s PHASE (Personal Hygiene and Sanitation Education) project  is teaching children in schools to take care of their own cleanliness and to be change catalysts in the community,” observes Sylvester Ebei, Deputy District Public Health Nurse, who works closely with AMREF to serve the Turkana community.

“AMREF has also trained community health workers to teach the people on the need to observe personal hygiene, dig toilets, and boil water says Sylvester. “Things will even be worse if rains come and proper hygiene is not observed.”

An elderly man, his back bent with age, taps me on the shoulder. He points to his wife, a thin old-looking woman sitting close by with an emaciated boy with a protracted tummy on her lap. For Pelech Losanitei, 65, and his wife Chegen, 45, the drought has brought a chain of misfortune. Pelech tells me that not only did they lose their cattle, but their two daughters both weakened by hunger also got sick, and died. Pelech and Chegen now have nine additional mouths to feed, as they grapple with their own hunger and failing health.

The villagers show us mounds of dirt behind a group of grass-thatched huts. “All these graves are of people who died because their bodies couldn’t stand the hunger, a village elder, Henry Etengan, says.

What are the solutions?

Sylvester believes that it is time for change. Besides perennial drought, insecurity and poor health, he blames the poor quality of life in the area on illiteracy, remoteness and exclusion of the Turkana from national development, deforestation, poor development policies and leadership, and unyielding cultural practices

The desperate circumstances of the Turkana communities certainly call for immediate responses, but the answer to this perennial problem does not lie in emergency measures.

That is why Chief Paul Meyan Marioa of Kaikor believes that even a million bags of food will not alleviate the community’s suffering. “Donors want to come with emergency solutions when there is hunger. But we need to deal with the problem of water, so that our people can farm. Our soil is very productive.” AMREF’s health, water and sanitation projects in the division have made a huge difference, he says. AMREF, has constructed several boreholes in Turkana district and plans to build more in the coming months.

Ebei Benjamin Inong, project officer, AMREF, Turkana says “we need to encourage education through sponsorships and talk to our people about family planning. When people see the benefits of an educated child, they will stop investing in many children as insurance against the cruelty of nature.”

Perhaps if these suggestions are turned into action, Turkana may one day revert to its former status – a land of plenty, flowing with milk and honey.


Photo credit: Alissa Everett

Take Action:  Find out how you can support AMREF’s drought alleviation efforts  by clicking here.

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