Rural Poverty in Kenya

By Barasa, Mildred | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

Rural Poverty in Kenya


Barasa, Mildred, Contemporary Review


MARGARET Kitetu has seen many faces of poverty during her sixty years, but she says the worst was a drought so bad that some in her poor rural community hunted stray dogs for food.

In her locality, where the Katelembo community of 250,000 forms part of the Kamba tribe of eastern Kenya, poverty still dictates life and death choices.

'There is never enough food', sighs Kitetu, who scrapes together about US $0.17 (17 cents) a day from menial work, several kilometres' walk from her home. The money must feed her--and the eight mouths she inherited from a husband, son, and two in-laws.

'Many days, we have nothing at all to eat', she laments. Kitetu's whole wealth--and insurance against starvation--is a black baby goat playing in the craggy dirt ground outside the shack she calls home.

Many people in Kenya are destitute. More than half of its 33 million people live on less than US $1 a day, many in overcrowded city slums infested with rats, overflowing sewers and disease. But the stark poverty of the slums often pales against that of the countryside, where three-quarters of the population lives.

Rural communities across Africa are the real battlegrounds of poverty. The World Food Programme says that 25,000 people die each day of hunger and hunger-related causes. Most will die in rural communities, like Kitetu's in Kenya.

The struggle for food is not new to the 2.5 million ethnic Kamba, who have been peasant farmers and small herders for generations; they have managed to squeeze life out of the thirsty, semi-arid lands they call Kambaland. But after more than two decades of receding rains--in a continent bearing the brunt of climate change--the Kamba's precarious lifestyle has been pushed to the edge.

Kamba mythology is infused with tales of Mulungu, the benevolent Supreme Being who placed the first Kamba man and woman on the fertile Mbooni Hills of Mount Nzaui, then nourished all of Kambaland with rain and blessed it with crops and livestock. But myth no longer resembles the reality of Kambaland, which is one of the least developed and poorest areas of Kenya.

In 1984, when the present cycle of droughts began, more than 800,000 died across Africa. And 1997 was the year in which some people in Kambaland ate stray dogs to keep from starving, say Kitetu and other residents.

'Reports that people ate stray dogs in Kambaland are nothing but the truth', says Kioko Mutuku, an economist at the University of Nairobi, himself a Kamba.

In 2000, the drought was the worst in thirty-seven years. The Kenyan government had to launch an urgent appeal to feed four million people, according to the Red Cross. And the country was again hit by a severe drought in 2004-2005.

Mutuku says he can see the effects of climate change first hand. 'I remember the big old trees of my childhood, but these don't exist anymore. They have disappeared', he says.

Aid and environmental groups around the world warn that Africa must brace itself for the worst assaults of climate change, which have yet to come. They say the continent's 220 million rural poorest will be hardest hit, and least prepared for the shocks.

But for Kitetu's community life is already hanging by a thread. 'It often happens that people collapse and die from hunger while walking to work because their bodies are too weak', says Kitetu, whose husband died this way.

Without rains and agriculture, for most people the only choice is to walk ten kilometres or more for so little money that it barely pays for a full stomach.

Felix Kitua works in a stone quarry a 15-kilometre walk from his home, earning less than US $1 a day on average. He has a wife and eight children to feed. 'We depend only on whatever I can make, this is our only income', says Kitua, who is in his late fifties. 'The children usually stay home, because they are too weak from hunger to get to school and sit through classes'. …

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