Fatuma with her four children: (L-R) Shamsa, fifteen, Rahiya, six, Sultama, eight, and Musharaf, three.
Fatuma’s four children looked at me with lazy eyes and slowly followed my movements as I positioned a flash unit to light the dark interior of their hut on the outskirts of El Wak, Kenya. It was a little past noon, and their sluggish movements confirmed that they hadn’t eaten anything all day. They wouldn’t be eating anything for lunch either, but the day still held out the hope that their father’s wages would be enough to provide a bit of corn meal to boil for dinner.
“Last year, I could feed my family on two hundred shillings a day (about £1.70). Now, even five hundred (£4.27) is not enough.” Fatuma related a story that was becoming increasingly familiar to me – rising food prices meant that families could no longer afford to feed their children. “We used to eat three meals a day,” she continued, “but now I’ve had to cut out breakfast and lunch and replace these meals with cups of black tea.”
In the desert of Northeastern Kenya, chronic drought has forced many families like Fatuma’s to abandon their pastoralist lifestyle as the grazing livestock they traditionally depended on for nourishment slowly died out for lack of vegetation. They now live in permanent settlements on the peripheries of the urban centers, dependent on day wages and food purchased in local markets for their subsistence.
“My husband works as a truck loader in town,” Fatuma told me, “but since the border closed, there is less work for him, and the money he brings home is no longer enough to feed us.” She was referring to the Kenyan government’s recent decision to close the border with neighboring Somalia for security reasons. While the move has greatly increased the security in border towns like El Wak, it has also caused a drastic reduction in cross-border commerce – the kind that men like Fatuma’s husband depended on for their income. This reduced economic activity at the border, coupled with a general global economic downturn, and mixed with the global rise in food prices has created a perfect recipe for hunger -as evidenced by the white, anaemic eyes of Fatuma’s four children.
“My children are getting sick more often these days,” Fatuma offered. “Before, they were able to eat things like milk and beans, but now they only have tea and pourridge.” She became silent and stared off blankly, her frail body as hungry and exhausted as those of her children. The batik-patterned shawl covering her shoulders rose up in a shrug, ““We have no alternative, this is what we have to do…it’s all we have to live with, so we have no choice.”