"Belt tightening" as hunger spreads

Ninety-year-old Mary Mwelu sits forlornly outside her daughter-in-law's home in Makueni district, eastern Kenya, wondering when and where her next meal will come from. She last had some food - porridge - two days ago.



"My daughter-in-law has gone to the market to try and get some food on credit - to be paid when she sells the sisal ropes she makes. If she succeeds then we might have something to eat, if she doesn't, then I will have to tighten my belt some more," Mwelu told IRIN on 20 January. "I have not had anything to eat today; I had porridge two days ago and the day before that I had a cup of tea."



What Mwelu does not know is that her daughter-in-law, Mbula Waema, 38, is HIV-positive and a health worker from the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) is concerned about Waema's weight, which has dropped from 52kg to 48kg in three months due to erratic access to food.



Waema's rope-weaving is the main source of income for the family, which includes Waema's six children and a mentally handicapped step-daughter who has a two-year-old baby. Waema's husband and co-wife died in the mid-1990s from HIV-related illnesses.



Triple whammy



Mwelu and Waema are among an estimated 10 million Kenyans facing a food crisis due to a combination of factors: total crop failure due to poor rains and drought; high food prices, and the effect of post-election violence in early 2008 that disrupted farming activities and cut grain production in Rift Valley province, the country's breadbasket.














Photo: Julius Mwelu/IRIN
Mary Mwelu, 90, had not had a meal in two days when this picture was taken on 20 January 2009 due to a food crisis that has gripped Kenya

Makueni district, a marginal agricultural area, is one of the worst affected, together with several other districts in Eastern province, Coast and Central provinces. Other blighted areas are the pastoral and agro-pastoral areas of Rift Valley and North Eastern provinces.



On 16 January, President Mwai Kibaki declared the food crisis in the country a national disaster and appealed for Ksh37 billion (US$400 million) to meet the needs of 10 million food-insecure people.



"Currently, the government and World Food Programme [WFP] are feeding 1.4 million people under the emergency operation programme. Another one million people are also fed through direct government interventions. However, these ongoing programmes cannot absorb the sharp increase in numbers of needy people requiring relief food without additional resources," Kibaki said.



Aid agencies said an inter-agency countrywide short rains assessment, expected in early February, would help determine the exact numbers of food-insecure as well as identify areas requiring immediate intervention.



"This assessment will help us understand the severity of the failure of the short rains and determine exactly how to upscale our response," Marcus Prior, a WFP spokesman in charge of east and central Africa, said on 19 January.



He said the assessment would guide the short-term and mid-term measures required, especially in marginal agricultural and agro-pastoral regions most affected by drought and the failure of the short rains.



Feeding programmes



Jeanine Cooper, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs-Kenya (OCHA), told IRIN the assessment findings would help to determine whether increased funding would be required on top of the UN's Emergency Humanitarian Response Programme plans for 2009.



She said 64 percent of its projects in Kenya were already focused on food security.



"There are different aspects of this situation, some of which are beyond humanitarian intervention; for instance, the shortage of maize being experienced points to systemic issues of management, marketing and pricing," Cooper said. "Issues such as high food prices, pastoralists not making much from the sale of their livestock and other commitments such as paying school fees have contributed to the vulnerability of those who are food insecure.”














Photo: Waweru Mugo/IRIN
Millions of Kenyans are dependent on food aid (file photo)

Titus Mung'ou, acting communications manager for the Kenya Red Cross Society, told IRIN it would focus on providing food to at least 500,000 school-children in the drought-affected areas.



"We will also focus on water, health and sanitation issues in our efforts to combat the food crisis," he said.



Malnutrition rising



Catherine Kilonzo, Makueni district medical officer, told IRIN on 20 January that food shortages had hit the district hard as the people had not harvested anything in the past two rainy seasons.



"This means the people will require food distributions and we are looking forward to a planned distribution of UNIMIX [fortified maize meal] to the severely affected cases among the vulnerable communities," she said.



Franciscah Yula, Makueni District Hospital's nutritionist, said cases of malnutrition had risen sharply towards the end of 2008 and expressed concern about further increases.



"Most of the patients we see tell us they have one meal per day; some take drugs on empty stomachs. It would help if the distribution of relief food was accompanied by the distribution of nutritious complements like tinned meat, vegetables and fruit to help provide these people with a nutritional balance," she said.



js/mw