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The children caught in Kenya’s hunger crisis

11 July 2017

Trócaire’s Niamh McCarthy reports on her recent visit to Turkana in Kenya, where she saw the awful impact of the ongoing hunger crisis on the country’s most vulnerable citizens – its children. 

Meshak and his mother Nancy at St Patrick's Clinic

Incredible transformation: On the left is a picture taken two months ago (April 2017) of Meshak Lokol, with his mother Nancy, before his supplementary feeding programme at St. Patrick’s clinic, Lodwar, Turkana. On the right is Meshak after two months on the programme in June 2017.

I recently returned to Ireland from Lodwar in the arid Turkana district of Kenya, where I had travelled to help generate much-needed media coverage of the drought there. 

In Turkana, and neighbouring regions of Kenya, some 3 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. And that number is expected to rise sharply this month as the effects of prolonged, devastating drought continue to take a massive toll. 

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At St. Patrick’s medical clinic in Lodwar, which Trócaire supports, we met babies and toddlers receiving testing and treatment for malnutrition.

A high number of children under the age of 5 are suffering from malnutrition, which can irreversibly stunt their growth and mental development if not urgently treated. 

Those identified as malnourished at St Patrick’s are immediately put on a specific supplementary feeding programme and given high nutritional food called ‘plumpy nut’ or ‘plumpy sup’, and their progress is checked weekly.

At the clinic I was lucky enough to meet one-year-old Meshak Lokol (pictured above and below) who was with his mother Nancy for his weekly check-up.  

Meshak and his mother Nancy at St Patrick's Clinic

Meshak with a portion of plumpy sup at St Patrick's. June 2017.

When Meshak was first brought to the clinic, two months ago, he was severely malnourished. Nutritionist, Gloria told me that he is a different child now and showed me images of his first visit.

Meshak’s mother Nancy said that they have one meal a day consisting of maize but this is becoming less and less frequent. 

Support for mothers

Mother’s too are given nutritional support at St Patrick’s. 

On my visit I also met Helen Eipa, a teenage mother who was attending with her one-year-old daughter Josephine.

Helen is from a nomadic tribe in Lotureirei – 30km away from the clinic – and is herself very underweight. She has been attending the clinic since her pregnancy. 

Helen and Josephine at St Patricks

Helen Eipa with her one year old daughter Josephine at St. Patrick’s clinic, Lodwar, Turkana, northern Kenya. June 2017.

Her daughter is small for her age, but she is healthy. Helen is breastfeeding and so it is essential that she is looked after or both of them will be in jeopardy. 

Trócaire provides ‘blanket feeding’ at this clinic – meaning all mothers and babies receive a highly nutritious food ‘unimix’ to supplement their diet. 

This is clearly a lifeline for the 1,000-plus mothers who attend the clinic.  

We hope to continue to provide support to more mothers but after July, supplies will be at an all-time low, and this drought and its effects are not likely to end in the coming months.

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Helen told me: “Our animals have died and things got worse for my family end of last.

“Now, on a good day, we get some money (up to 85 cent) from burning charcoal. My head hurts as the wood is heavy but our animals are dead and we were left with nothing. So this is how we now survive.”

When asked what her hopes are for her future, Helen replied: ‘Good health for my family’.

Homeless children

I’m sad to say that the children we met at St Patrick’s were the ‘lucky’ ones. 

Three consecutive years of poor rains have exhausted people’s coping capacities, and intensifying conflicts over water and pasture are driving people out of the region and into urban settings.

Often parents cannot feed their children, with some being abandoned to live on the streets. They are extremely vulnerable and open to abuse. 

In Lodwar town we see gangs of such children aged 8 and up.  

We spoke to five boys (10 – 13 years old) who were playing on a dusty side street in Lodwar town. They live and sleep on the streets. They are surviving on food scavenged from bins. 

All are thin and dirty, with eyes that are much older than their young years. Two of the boys say they are orphans, two are from slums and one said that he had family problems at home. None of them have been to school but they all said they would like to go.

nadopoyen centre

Some children are receiving food and shelter at the Nadopoyen Centre for Street Children in Lodwar Town. But resources are stretched to the limit as more and more children flood into the town from the surrounding rural areas. 

Trócaire’s impact in Kenya

As part of our ongoing effort in Kenya, 13,000 children will receive supplementary high-energy food, and 6,000 families (approx 36,000 people) are being provided with drought-tolerant seeds.

We are also supplying five schools, three health units and five communities with water, as well as providing new boreholes for six communities.

We are currently reaching 150,000 throughout the wider East Africa region, where 25 million people across Somalia, South Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia are facing desperate hunger. 

We need to reach more. But we are struggling to engage the media at the scale needed to generate awareness and public support for the people of East Africa at this critical time. 

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A major fundraising drive will take place on the weekend of 22 July when a national Church collection will be held.

Archbishop Eamon Martin, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, said the situation is critical and urged support for the collection from parishioners.

We are hopeful that the people of Ireland will give generously, enabling us to reach more people who are living through the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.

Thank you for reading.