As Kenya Just Appointed Its New President Taita Taveta Rural Communities Battle With Drought, Particularly Affecting Women And Children

Article By Victor Leon

As the country is about to appoint its new president on August 9th, the severe drought impacting rural communities in Taita Taveta county is having terrible consequences. Women and children are among those suffering the most severe repercussions. 

The East of Africa is experiencing a catastrophic drought and food crisis that is rapidly escalating into a large-scale humanitarian crisis. According to a recent Oxfam and Save the  Children report, “one person [is] likely dying from hunger every 48 seconds” throughout  Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia1. Kenya has undergone a fourth consecutive rainy season that has failed to provide relief, with low and erratic rainfall patterns contributing to a protracted drought of unprecedented proportions in the last 40 years2. Furthermore, Russia’s invasion of  Ukraine is raising food and critical commodity prices and casts a shadow over this humanitarian concern. The general elections on August 9th would have been a great forum for addressing the problem but candidates’ promises are more frequently symptoms of electioneering than backed by tangible action plans. In this context, NGOs like ActionAid and grassroots networks on the ground are among the very few delivering response. A lot more is needed to save lives and avert a catastrophe. 

In Taita Taveta county, this results in heightened struggles for the rural communities already facing water scarcity and human-wildlife conflicts. As water collection is traditionally a female chore and single-parent households are typically led by mothers, women and children are the most vulnerable to these impacts that jeopardize their livelihood. The stories of Patience, Vainess and Grace attest this precariousness. 

6:53 AM – It’s time for breakfast in Patience’s household. This morning, like any other meal,  food will consist of rice and beans. The family wakes up with the sun before the children head to school, an hour walk from the homestead. Despite having 10 acres of land, she is unable to grow anything. Indeed, bordered by Tsavo National Park, the area is visited on a daily basis by elephants looking for food and water, thus destroying any plantation she has undertaken so far. Insufficient and unstable income makes it impossible for Patience, the breadwinner of the 

7-person household, to provide three meals a day to her relatives: most of the time, one meal  is all they can afford. Aside from field destruction, elephants pose a threat to education: it is  not uncommon for pupils to encounter them on their way to school.

7:36 AM – When water is scarce, it is no surprise that every 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, that is to say feet, hands and face. “Even for cooking it becomes a challenge”, she laments.

9:22 AM – After a 45-minute walk, Patience reaches the water point. She first went to the tap where she usually gets her water from. However, elephants broke the water pipe that supplies the kiosk last night. Communities are used to it: the pipe has already been repaired more than twenty times in a few months. As a result, she proceeded to the place of the leakage. There,  she collects water from a muddy pond that formed overnight. The good news is that she will not be charged for the water, which is a significant savings for the poor family. In the dried earth, the characteristic marks of the elephants’ skin left during the night as they laid down in  the mud testifies against them. Uncollected water runs off down the slope, wasted.

10:20 AM – The blazing sun is now high in the sky. Patience is carrying her first 20-liter jerrican  on her back with a strap around her forehead. Every day, the household consumes about three  of these. Thus, every day, she carries them one by one, walking back and forth for hours  between her house and the water point. This straining chore demands half of her day, leaving  virtually no time for any income-generating activities.

Later that day – Living with her disabled brother and three of her four children, the oldest mother of two herself, Patience is responsible for finding ways to generate income. The once-yielding agriculture is no longer existing as a consequence of compounded disrupted rains and wildlife conflicts. She also had to sell all of her goats to pay for the school fees. In the face of this complex situation, she now harvests hay and sells it to neighbors. Sometimes she sells pottery she crafts from the clay stored in the ground in front of her house. “Sometimes I think  about abandoning this household,” she confesses, “but then I wonder to whom I would leave  my family.”

For the same reason as Patience, Vainess had to give up any hope on cultivating crops and tries to sell hay as well. Fortunately for her, she still owns little cattle and undertakes poultry rearing. Through the elephant-made opening in the fence, one sees her looking after her goats grazing. Goats, a very resilient species, are some sort of safety net, bringing temporary relief when sold.

Vainess is lucky enough to possess two donkeys. She uses them for the sole activity of fetching water, 8 jerricans at a time, thus relieving her of an exhausting endeavor. Yet, it’s a daunting 6-hour-long walk that she commits to at least twice a week as she has to provide additional water for her cattle. The different members of this community are unequally affected by the burden of water. The more well-off will pay more than ten times the cost of a jerrican of water to have one of them transported and filled by a boda-boda, i.e., a motorcycle.

Vainess finally arrives at the water kiosk nearly two hours after she left her house. Now begins the wait, which can last for hours as there is one tap of drinkable water in a several-kilometer radius. “The reality is that we spend most of our time fetching water,” she regrets.

11:16 AM – Alike Patience and Vainess, Grace (left of the picture) had to shift her livelihood.  But she might have been more successful as she partnered with other women to form “Shining  Star”, a small grassroot network whose members combine their force to develop new income-generating activities. In addition to resale of basic commodities, they also launched a soap-making business: they buy all the constituents and mix them together. During the pandemic,  they supplied many of the surrounding businesses and households with their liquid soap. This shift of livelihood has been facilitated by women-empowering trainings provided by the NGO  ActionAid and its local partner Sauti ya Wanawake (The Voice of the Women in Swahili) that helped them to develop finance and book-keeping skills. Some have also benefitted from a  full professional formation (masonry, tailoring, hair-dressing…) to decrease reliance on rain dependent agriculture. NGOs like ActionAid or the Kenyan Red Cross are among the few actors bringing relief to the agropastoral communities of Taita Taveta, thus making Vainess say that these communities are ‘’forgotten’’ by the national and county governments. 

1:02 PM – Like most of her neighbors, Grace’s chomba (small field in Swahili) is frequently visited by elephants, making any attempt to grow crops vain. There, she points out the footprint left by the pachyderm on the eve. In previous years, she managed to make a good living by selling the harvest surplus. Nowadays, she struggles to put enough food on the table,  most of the time limited to one meal a day.

5:47 PM – Because her husband is, hopefully, temporarily disabled, she must find alternative sources of income. The modest structure under construction in the background is a small shop she intends to open in her compound. When it is ready, she hopes to find customers among her neighbors to purchase supplies she would source in Voi, the closest town. Grace can count on the support of the Village Loan and Saving association she’s part of, a table-banking initiative, to help her finance this project.

The area where Patience, Vainess and Grace’s all live is surrounded by numerous private conservancies and one of Kenya’s biggest national parks, Tsavo. They are a financial windfall for the land-owners but they rhyme with despair and discontent for the rural communities.  The conservancies have been accused of water over-exploitation and land-grabbing in areas 

where rural communities are settled, while failing to take adequate precautions against escaping elephants. In the conservancy depicted, one of the two water points is artificially supplied with the precious liquid, at the feet of a resort where wealthy tourists can effortlessly observe the wildlife compelled there.

Patience (4th on the left from the bottom right corner) and Grace (out of the frame) attend a  political meeting in the perspective of the general elections taking place on August 9th. Candidates attempt to charm voters on pressing issues as the country is in the run-up to this much anticipated political event. Many make promises about improved water infrastructure and better wildlife management. However, as Vainess puts it, they “run away and never come back” once elected. Besides, the election period also somehow paralyses the country in the midst of the lean period while the November-December rainy season is expected to fail again.

1 https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/one-person-likely-dying-hunger-every-48-seconds-drought ravaged-east-africa-world 

2 https://www.the-star.co.ke/news/2022-07-06-worst-drought-in-40-years-risks-new-conflicts-uhuru-tells-igad

Images courtesy of Victor Leon.

Victor Leon is an economic engineer specializing in climate change and economics. He has realized several photojournalistic projects, driven by his interest in photography and social-humanitarian issues. After a 4-month project on migration in Europe, he worked in Kenya as a humanitarian. In his twenties, the photographer mainly shares his work on his Instagram account, @victorle0n” (link to my account: https://www.instagram.com/victorle0n/)

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