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‘A poor man shames us all’

Elizabeth Wright of Concern Worldwide explains the way of life of pastoralist communities living in northern Kenya — and how they have been affected by the drought.

For pastoralist communities of Northern Kenya such as the Borana tribe, cattle and rain are as vital to human life as air. Their herds are not only their primary source of food, but also inseparable from centuries-old cultural traditions linked to marriage, health and the naming of children. Cattle are at the heart of their way of living, and each are highly valued.

Pastoralists in the arid and semi-arid lands of Marsabit, northern Kenya, move from place to place about four times a year to find water and rangelands for the herds.

Men care for the animals, and the women build and pack portable, round huts made from grass and branches when the community moves from place to place with their herds to find water and pasture. They depend on two rainy seasons a year to provide the minimal resources they need to keep their livestock and families alive.

For the past two years in a row, the rains have totally failed in Northern Kenya — and the lives of pastoralists have been violently disrupted. In fact, rains have either failed or been insufficient for five of the past seven years. In 2011, the worst drought in six decades in East Africa has created the world’s worst food crisis, endangering the survival — and way of life ― of millions of pastoralists.

Buke Pulacha is feeling the pain. She is a Borana, living in the arid and semi-arid lands of Marsabit. Her husband left her many years ago to manage on her own with five children. She became one of the poorest in her community.

Buke Pulacha’s entire herd of cattle and goats was stolen by rustlers from a neighboring tribe, leaving her with no source of food or income.

But Buke says that the Borana have a saying: “A poor man shames us all.” The tribe will not let anyone go hungry or live without animals to tend. In fact, this culture of sharing is so strong in some communities that a person who refuses to help someone in need among them is stigmatized, along with their family, sometimes for generations. Buke’s brother gave her animals, and taught her sons to tend them.

Resources in Marsabit are always scarce — and cattle theft along borders of tribal lands is not uncommon.

Drought has killed the majority of cattle in Marsabit, and people are desperate. There is very little water or food, and this has intensified violence and cattle rustling among tribes.

A few weeks ago, as Buke’s brother and sons were returning home with their animals after grazing, rustlers from the neighboring Gabbra tribe ambushed them, armed with guns. They shot her brother in the arm, and stole most of the livestock, including all of Buke’s animals.

Buke Pulacha at the site where she buried her five-year-old son, Wario, who died from causes related to malnutrition

From one day to the next, Buke does not know where she will find food.

She says, “To get by, I am begging. I have received food from the Borana Area Chief, but he is also taking care of other families who have lost everything.” Her community is devastated, and no one has much to spare.

Buke has lost weight, and says that she fears for herself and her children. She walks a few dozen yards from her home to a pile of rocks surrounded by branches. This is where she buried her five-year-old son Wario. He died recently from causes related to malnutrition.

Buke says help must come soon. “I fear that my other children will suffer. I am putting all my hopes in the rains, but I pray that help will come before that.”

Indeed, if help does not arrive soon for drought-stricken communities in Kenya, it will be the shame of us all.

Concern is launching an emergency nutrition program and an emergency livelihoods program in the remote arid and semi-arid lands of Marsabit to provide lifesaving assistance to pastoralist communities devastated by drought.

-Elizabeth Wright, Concern Worldwide

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