On a patch of scrubland in northwest Kenya, Lokiyoto Ekal clings to memories of the two children she lost four months ago to hunger. All she has to sustain her three remaining children and herself are small red berries, aid handouts and hope.
“If the world heard our problems, they would do something to help us,” Ekal, 30, says, shielding her infant son against a desert wind that whips at the blankets and food sacks pulled over her empty home.
They live in Turkana, a northwestern region known as the “cradle of mankind”. It was here, scientists believe, that the earliest humans walked out of the desert two million years ago.
But today it is a place of untold suffering, compounded by the callous indifference of one 21st century leader waging a war 3,300 miles away.
The conflict that President Vladimir Putin instigated in Ukraine has sent fuel and food prices rocketing across the world but nowhere outside the war zone has its impact been more savage than in east Africa. The region was already grappling with its worst drought in 40 years in addition to aid cuts and the lingering effects of the pandemic. Now the war has disrupted the grain exports needed to feed some of the planet’s most vulnerable people.
Kenyans get an estimated 90 per cent of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia. Somalia previously received almost 100 per cent of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia.
In those two countries and Ethiopia an estimated 1.7 million children are in “urgent need of treatment for severe acute malnutrition”, Rania Dagash, Unicef’s deputy regional director for eastern and southern Africa, said last week. More than 20 million people are at risk of going hungry.
Visiting Russia this month, Macky Sall, the president of Senegal and head of the African Union, told Putin that African countries were innocent victims of the war, which has blocked exports of tens of millions of tonnes of grain from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. “Failure to open those ports will result in famine,” said the Amin Awad, the United Nations crisis co-ordinator for Ukraine.
Russia rejects claims that it is blockading Ukrainian ports, but some suggest that it hopes that global food shortages will weaken the West’s resolve by sending a new wave of refugees to Europe’s shores. The US has also alleged that the Russians have stolen Ukrainian grain to sell to drought-plagued countries.
Because of the shortfalls, East Africa’s poorest are either paying over the odds for pre-existing grain stocks, rooting around for local substitutes, such as white maize and sorghum, foraging for fruits or relying on aid rations. Kenya imports some wheat from the US, Canada and Argentina. Traditional food sources, including camel and cow’s milk and livestock meat are dangerously scarce.
Even in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital and east Africa’s biggest metropolis, the war’s impact is being felt. “Because of the war in Ukraine, my family don’t even have bread, they have to drink strong tea for breakfast,” said David, a 29-year-old driver from Kirinyaga county. “I can’t even help my neighbour because I don’t have any cash.”
The high stakes are stark in Turkana. In Lodwar, the region’s main city, children mope about with yellow water jugs, unable to fill them. Some in the worst-hit areas have taken to drinking animal blood. With bloated cows and goats unable to produce milk, children are going hungry. In the sprawling Kakuma refugee camp, a paediatric ward echoes with the cries of malnourished babies. “People are starving, they don’t have anything to eat,” said Sammy Chege, a driver. “They are tempted to go and steal.”
The body count is rising from cattle raids by heavily armed tribesmen and gangs from South Sudan and Uganda.
Weapons have flooded into the region in recent years, many of them from war-torn Ethiopia.
In the town of Lokichogio near the Ugandan border, men stroll around with AK-47s slung over their shoulders. A gun-toting teenager herds a dozen cows down the street, his eyes darting around for threats.
“We have rampant cases of cattle rustling,” said Mwale Jackson, the health administration officer at Lokichogio’s main hospital, where gunshot victims are treated. “Some are killed and left in the bush,” he said. “You can get people with blown-off heads.”
In Ekal’s village, a collection of eight circular shelters reached by driving along a desert road and dry riverbed, there is nothing to steal: all the livestock have died from the extreme heat.
To fetch water she walks to Kakuma, the refugee camp, where war and drought have aggravated a nightmare.
Built in 1992 for 70,000 people, it houses 230,000. Residents say their food rations have halved since 2019, while neighbouring communities are increasingly forced to seek vital supplies there. A family at the camp might receive 2,400 Kenyan shillings (£16.65) in financial support for a month, aid workers say, but a month’s worth of plain maize will now cost them 2,500 shillings. A sense of hopelessness hangs over the place.
Down one boggy alley, Paul Loliba is waiting for a university scholarship letter. As weeks turn to months, he is beginning to lose hope.
Time is not on his side. When an 18-year-old hanged himself in the camp after an altercation with Loliba’s cousin, the boy’s relatives began pursuing him. Twice they have beaten the 25-year-old South Sudanese refugee who arrived in Kakuma two decades ago. Now he is afraid to walk around at night. “I don’t know what they are planning,” he told The Sunday Times outside his home.
Loliba’s neighbour, Judith Idiengo, was brought to Kakuma from South Sudan by her aunt in 1998 after her father was murdered in a blood feud. Today the 27-year-old agonises about how to feed her four children. Her youngest, 14-month-old Vanessa, suffered terrible diarrhoea, vomiting and a bad cough before doctors in the camp began treating her for severe malnourishment.
Beside Idiengo’s home, men stumble out of a rudimentary bar. One sways in the sun, heckling Idiengo as she speaks. Drug use, meanwhile, is said to be common among young people. “Some of them, if you look closely, they have given up on life,” said Loliba, who hopes to turn his diploma in primary education into a bachelor’s degree. Only then, he said, would he be able to find a good enough job in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, to stay out of reach of his enemies.
At a clinic operated by the International Rescue Committee, an NGO, mothers from Burundi, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and elsewhere nurse malnourished infants. In the courtyard outside, hundreds swat away flies in the baking heat. Unable to return to their home countries, they are held in limbo, sometimes for decades.
Dr Sila Monthe said admissions to the ward had risen 157 per cent in three months. “Their bodies are already so compromised they are susceptible to infections, so by the time they get to hospital they are usually critical,” she said. “We are sitting on a ticking time bomb and we don’t know when it will explode,” said Shashwat Saraf, the NGO’s East Africa emergency director.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, extreme weather is becoming more common in East Africa. Kenya will soon witness its fifth consecutive failed rainy season. Meanwhile, with no end in sight to Putin’s onslaught in Ukraine, the price of vital commodities continues to rise.
In 1984 scientists unearthed a 1.5 million-year-old hominin skeleton near Lake Turkana, the oldest found. Today, aid workers say, the county symbolises the world’s failure to help the needy.
As the sun beat down outside the Kakuma clinic, Mohammed Unaru, 25, was leaning against a pillar awaiting news of a sick relative. The smell of refuse hung in the air. “Life in this area is very hard, but people get by, just with patience,” he sighed. “What other option do we have?”