I spent quite a bit of time in Kenya in the early 1980s. I first travelled there in 1979; my first time outside of Europe. I instantly fell in love with the country, and still feel the same way. This is Northern Kenya, circa 1986, Samburu District, near Maralal. I had spent a couple of days in Maralal, and it was time to move on. Drought, and conflict in neighbouring Ethiopia, was causing famine in parts Northern Kenya at the time, and food aid was being distributed by truck. This was also one of the simplest ways to get around. Battered, dusty L-series Mercedes trucks laden to breaking point with gunny sacks gathering outside the police station, while sleek, shiny Landcruisers sporting United Nations logos would occasionally arrive with important looking officials. Finding one truck that was heading west and leaving shortly, I climbed on top, joining a bunch of locals already there. We sat on the sacks of mealie maize flour as the truck bounced and swayed over the deeply rutted and washboarded latertite soil. Like most of the trucks carrying food aid, ours wash ancient; the product of years of jury-rigged repairs that somehow kept it running, sharply contrasting with the brand new, air conditioned Land Cruisers transporting UN staff and Government officials. To no-one’s great surprise, it broke down and shuddered to a stop after about 50 miles.

A truck carrying food aid to Marsabit and Turkana, 1980s, breaks down. www.colinmunrophotography.com
Our broken down truck transporting food aid and people, near Maralal, Samburu district, Northern Kenya.

With the unflappable patience that so many rural kenyans display, my travel companions settled back on the hessian sacks to wait, while our driver tinkered under the truck’s bonnet and I climbed down to take some photographs. Losai region is described as semi desert, and it was fiercely hot and dry. Nothing moved amongst the scrub and termite mounts that stretched to the horizon. I don’t remember much about my travelling companions, but I do remember there was a young couple with two small children, maybe 6 or 7 years ol, sitting next to me. They were calm and silent, but I had noticed they had not eaten or drunk anything since we had left. Fresh fruit and vegetables were pretty hard to come by then, but I had a small bag of passionfruit that I had bought some days earlier, in the top of my rucksack. I dug two out, cut them in half with my pocket knife, and offered them to the kids. They were extremely shy, and looked to their parents for guidance as to what they should do. Their father smiled and indicated they should accept. This was clearly the first time they had ever eaten passionfruit. I can still remember the wide-eyed look of amazement and pleasure as they bit into tangy pulp. After a couple of hours the engine of our truck coughed and spluttered back to life, and we continued on our way. A few years prior to this I was involved in the salvage of a much larger (and disastrous) food aid delivery to East Africa, but that can wait for another blog.

Drought and famine has blighted Northern Kenya, and all of the Sahel*, for half a century. They first came to the attention of the wider, western public in the early-1980s, when BBC newsreel images and Michael Buerk’s powerful narrative from Korem, Ethiopia, was shown around the World. These shocking images gave birth to Live Aid benefit concerts at Wembley and JFK stadiums a year later. Whilst famine is not new to this part of the World, they do appear to have increased both in frequency and in costs to human live since the 1970s. The factors behind this are complex, and the relative importance of each is still a subject of debate. Warming of the Indian Ocean due to climate change has been implicated in reduced seasonal rains (although it seems this can also have the opposite effect and create severe flooding at times). Deforestation is also believed to be a major factor; Kenya is estimated to have lost around 40% of its forests since independence in 1963. Collecting wood for charcoal has been a means of survival for poor families, but the combined effects of unsustainable charcoal production and overgrazing which further denueds the land and prevents recovery of logged areas, has contributed to catastrophic famines.

Isiolo, Kenya. 1980s. two girls carry sacks of charcoal to sell. www.colinmunrophotography.com
Young Samburu girls carrying sacks of charcoal on their heads, Isiolo, Northern Kenya. Over 85% of kenyans rely on charcoal as their main source of fuel, between 1980 and 2000, as the country’s population grew, charcoal production increased by 200%. This creates problems of increasing desertification, particularly in the semi-arid lands of the North (within which Isiolo lies). By removing the trees that act as natural carbon dioxide sinks and increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere charcoal burning exacerbates the problems of global warming that are likely to lead to greater desertification in parts of Africa. However, for many kenyans there is little alternative.

Things are far from all bad however. For one thing, understanding of the problems is far greater now, and there are multiple initiatives to mitigate and reverse these environmental problems. Building walls has a very negative image at the moment, whether it be Trump’s attempts to build a border wall between the USA and Mexico, or Israel’s wall surround the Palestinian West Bank, but there’s one wall we should all applaud. The Great Green Wall. This is a project to build a wall of trees, nearly 5000 miles in length, across the Sahel. From Senegal on the west, to Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, this massive project was conceived in 2007. Driven by the African Union, this concept has now evolved into a more complex programme of land restoration and ecosystem management. Planting trees is one thing, getting planted trees to survive in semi-arid land is another. results so far have been mixed, some areas doing better than others. Other initiatives, such as restricting cattle grazing and allowing natural grasslands to return have had significant success in some Sahelian countries (e.g. Niger). So no one single initiative will solve the problem and reverse the trend of drought and land degradation, but the hope is that multiple smart solutions just might.

  • The Sahel is defined as the semi-arid band spanning the African continent, with the Sahara to the north and savanna grasslands (the Sudanian savanna) to the south. It runs from Senegal and Mauritania to the west, across to Ethiopia, Somalia and Northern Kenya to the east. It includes many countries in between as well as areas of countries to the north and south.