As Kenya appoints its new president, rural communities in Taita Taveta struggle with drought, which particularly affects women and children
As the country prepares to appoint its new president on August 9e, the severe drought affecting rural communities in Taita Taveta County is having dire consequences. Women and children are among those most affected.
East Africa is experiencing a catastrophic drought and food crisis that is rapidly escalating into a full-scale humanitarian crisis. According to a recent report by Oxfam and Save the Children, “one person [is] probably starve every 48 seconds” in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia1. Kenya experienced a fourth consecutive rainy season that did not bring relief, with low and erratic rainfall contributing to a prolonged drought on a scale not seen in the past 40 years2. Moreover, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is driving up the prices of food and essential commodities and casting a shadow over this humanitarian concern. The August 9 general election would have been an excellent forum to address the issue, but candidate promises are more often symptoms of election campaigning than supported by concrete action plans. In this context, NGOs like ActionAid and local networks on the ground are among the few to provide a response. It takes a lot more to save lives and avert disaster.
In Taita Taveta County, this is translating into heightened struggles for rural communities already facing water scarcity and human-wildlife conflict. As water collection is traditionally a female chore and single-parent households are usually headed by mothers, women and children are the most vulnerable to these impacts that jeopardize their livelihoods. The stories of Patience, Vainess and Grace attest to this precariousness.
6:53 a.m. – It’s time for breakfast at Patience’s house. This morning, like any other meal, the food will consist of rice and beans. The family wakes up to the sun before the children leave for school, an hour’s walk from the farm. Despite having 10 acres of land, she is unable to cultivate anything. Indeed, bordered by the Tsavo National Park, the area is visited daily by elephants in search of food and water, destroying any plantation it has undertaken so far. Insufficient and unstable income prevents Patience, the breadwinner of the
Household of 7, to provide three meals a day for loved ones: most of the time, one meal is all they can afford. Beyond the destruction of fields, elephants pose a threat to education: it is not uncommon for students to encounter them on the way to school.
7:36 am – When water is scarce, it is not surprising that all consumption is restricted. In terms of hygiene, this implies that the bare minimum is possible. Patience’s 5-year-old granddaughter Abigale can be seen in this photo doing a ‘passport toilet’. As the name suggests, it consists of minimal washing, i.e. feet, hands and face. “Even to cook, it becomes a challenge,” she laments.
9:22 a.m. – After 45 minutes of walking, Patience reaches the water point. She first went to the tap where she usually gets her water. However, elephants broke the water pipe that supplies the kiosk last night. Local authorities are used to it: the pipeline has already been repaired more than twenty times in a few months. As a result, she drove to the location of the leak. There she collects water from a muddy pond that has formed overnight. The good news is that she won’t be charged for water, which is a big savings for the poor family. In the parched land, the characteristic marks of the skin of elephants left during the night when they lay in the mud bear witness to this. Uncollected water flows down the slope, wasted.
10:20 a.m. – The fiery sun is now high in the sky. Patience carries her first 20 liter container on her back with a strap around her forehead. Each day, the household consumes about three. So, every day, she carries them one by one, going back and forth for hours between her house and the water point. This exhausting drudgery takes up half of her day, leaving virtually no time for income-generating activities.
Later that day – Living with her disabled brother and three of his four children, the eldest mother of two herself, Patience is tasked with finding ways to generate income. Once productive agriculture no longer exists due to disrupted rains and conflict with wildlife. She also had to sell all her goats to pay school fees. Faced with this complex situation, she now harvests hay and sells it to neighbours. Sometimes she sells pottery that she makes from the clay stored in the ground in front of her house. “Sometimes I think about leaving this home,” she confesses, “but then I wonder who I would leave my family to.”
For the same reason as Patience, Vainess had to give up all hope of farming and is also trying to sell hay. Luckily for her, she still owns few cattle and starts raising poultry. Through the opening carved by the elephants in the fence, we see her tending to her grazing goats. Goats, a very hardy species, are a sort of safety net, providing temporary relief when sold.
Vainess is blessed with two donkeys. She uses them for the sole activity of fetching water, 8 jerry cans at a time, thus relieving her of an exhausting task. Still, it’s a daunting 6-hour long walk that she commits to doing at least twice a week as she has to provide extra water for her cattle. The different members of this community are unequally affected by the water load. The wealthiest will pay more than ten times the price of a jerry can of water to have one transported and filled by a boda-boda, that is to say a motorbike.
Vainess finally arrives at the water kiosk nearly two hours after leaving her house. Then begins the wait, which can last for hours because there is only one drinking water tap within a radius of several kilometres. “The reality is that we spend most of our time fetching water,” she laments.
11:16 a.m. – Just like Patience and Vainess, Grace (pictured left) had to change her livelihood. But she might have done better if she teamed up with other women to form “Shining Star,” a small grassroots network whose members join forces to develop new income-generating activities. In addition to reselling basic products, they also started a soap-making business: they buy all the constituents and mix them together. During the pandemic, they provided their liquid soap to many surrounding businesses and households. This lifestyle change was facilitated by women’s empowerment trainings provided by the NGO ActionAid and its local partner Sauti ya Wanawake (Women’s Voice in Swahili) which helped them develop skills in finance and accounting. Some have also benefited from complete professional training (masonry, sewing, hairdressing, etc.) to reduce dependence on rain-fed agriculture. NGOs like ActionAid or the Kenyan Red Cross are among the rare actors to come to the aid of the agro-pastoral communities of Taita Taveta, thus making Vainess say that these communities are “forgotten” by the national and county governments.
1:02 p.m. – Like most of its neighbours, Grace’s chomba (small field in Swahili) is frequently visited by elephants, making any attempt at cultivation futile. There, she points to the footprint left by the pachyderm the day before. In previous years, she managed to earn a good living by selling the surplus harvest. These days, she struggles to put enough food on the table, mostly limited to one meal a day.
5:47 p.m. – Because her husband is hopefully temporarily disabled, she has to find other sources of income. The modest structure under construction in the background is a small shop she plans to open within her compound. When it is ready, she hopes to find customers among her neighbors to get her supplies in Voi, the nearest town. Grace can count on the support of the Village Loan and Saving association of which she is a member, a table-banking initiative, to help her finance this project.
The area where Patience, Vainess and Grace live is surrounded by many private game reserves and one of Kenya’s largest national parks, Tsavo. They are a financial windfall for landowners but they rhyme with despair and discontent for rural communities. Reserves have been accused of over-abstraction of water and land grabbing in areas
where rural communities are settled, while failing to take adequate precautions against elephant escapes. In the reserve represented, one of the two water points is artificially supplied with this precious liquid, at the foot of a seaside resort where wealthy tourists can effortlessly observe the fauna that compels itself to it.
Patience (4e left of bottom right) and Grace (out of frame) attend a political rally ahead of the August 9 general electione. The candidates are trying to charm voters on pressing issues as the country prepares for this highly anticipated political event. Many make promises of improved water infrastructure and better wildlife management. However, as Vainess puts it, they “run away and never come back” once elected. Moreover, the electoral period is also in some way paralyzing the country in the middle of the lean season, while the November-December rainy season should once again fail.
Images reproduced with the kind permission of Victor Léon.