Twenty men from the 110-strong village of Elerai, on the Kenya-Tanzania border have taken their cattle and are droving them on foot across the country in search of grass. Last the village heard, the men were near the capital of Nairobi.
“They’ve been gone two months now,” says Menteine Mparkepu, a senior woman in the village. They don’t know when the men will be back. If they stay on this dry, dusty land, the cattle will grow thinner and weaker, and even the renowned fighting skills of the Maasi won’t be able to protect them from predatory lions.
Their story is a common one across Kenya, a country in the throes of severe drought as the long rains have failed to arrive for the past three years. Experts say the country stands to lose half its cattle and goat populations during the extended drought.
The country’s main source of foreign currency is the export of agricultural goods – Kenya is the world’s biggest exporter of black tea and 75% of its population works in the agriculture sector, most as subsistence farmers.
With inflation unofficially at 30%, the price of the staple food, maize, has doubled, and the next harvest’s yields expected to be nearly a third lower than normal, according to the UN’s World Food Programme. The programme, which supports almost one in 10 Kenyans through food aid packages, estimates that 31 percent of Kenya’s total population is undernourished. It is currently appealing for money to provide emergency food assistance to nearly 4 million Kenyans hit by the drought.
Where there should be fields of tall, flourishing maize, the ground is bare save a few stunted stubs. Cattle, weakened from a lack of feed, lie dying on the roadside, unable to keep up with the herd. Wildlife workers in Tsavo East, Kenya’s largest national park, tell of the five elephants they have found in the past 14 days alone, dead from starvation, and rangers have resorted to hand feeding their wild hippopotamus populations to halt the animals’ deaths – an expensive activity with no end in sight.
However, there are still small doses of good news: such as the safari camp near Elerai village establishing a community project to train the local Maasi population in tourism. Currently, many young Maasi men are employed as security guards protecting the wildlife camps from wild animals – it’s a good job for those with little education, especially during times of drought when their cattle herds are in decline. The Satao Elerai camp aims to be completely run by the local population and is establishing a local school for the Maasi children. The nearest primary school is 1½ hours’ walk from the village.
The women make beaded jewellery to sell to passing tourists to raise money for food and hope that their children will be able to receive an education.
“Our cattle and goats are dying,” says Menteine. “We need the school so we can change our lives.”
It’s a long-term view, but Kenyans must yet survive in the short term.