Reaching out to drought affected rural communities

Published: 30 August 2011 16:30 CET

By Faye Callaghan in Kenya

Zeinab crouches on the floor of the straw hut, her hands shaking, eyes distant. Four of her young children hover listlessly around her. “I have fever,” she stammers to the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) nutritionist, in Busbus village to promote a health outreach visit to this community in north east Kenya.

Zeinab has a small amount of grain, but no appetite to eat it. Her children too are struggling to eat and regularly experience diarrhoea. “It has been like this for two weeks,” she says.

Her four older children have gone with their father to find pasture for their goats; a rare thing in a place that has not seen rain for almost 18 months. Acute malnutrition rates are at 22 per cent in this part of Kenya. With no rain, no food is growing and shallow wells have run dry months ago. Communities rely on food aid and water brought in by NGOs.

“Each family gets 40 litres of water twice a week,” says Guliye Osman, the local primary school teacher. “It’s not enough. As a minimum we need one hundred litres. With that we can also wash our clothes and stay clean. But we can’t get more; the nearest well is 60 kilometres away.”

The KRCS medical outreach programme being promoted will reach 200,000 people living far from health facilities over the next six months. They will screen for malnutrition, give vaccinations to children and treat other health problems.

On leaving Busbus village, the community elder gives permission to the KRCS team to take Zeinab to the local clinic. The facilities are basic, there’s only one doctor and few medications, but at least she will get help to recover and her children will receive nutritional supplements to build up their strength.

As part of the Red Cross response, children attending the local school receive a daily ration of a food supplement called Unimix, high in nutrients and energy. But this too is not without its problems. “Today we have no water, so we can’t make the meal for the children. We hope that a water truck will arrive today,” admits Osman.

Caleb Chemirmir, KRCS regional health officer, says the long term lack of a good diet has serious effects. “Today I’ve seen children with rickets. For conditions like this to appear, children have lacked minerals and vitamins for a long time,” he says. “The prolonged drought is certainly taking its toll here. Last year malnutrition rates were high at 15 per cent, but now it’s so much higher.”

As the KRCS health teams move tireless across this remote part of Kenya they will meet many more people like Zeinab, on the margins of survival. But with continued funding they will bring life saving treatment and give hope as the drought continues. And after the crisis has finished, the Red Cross will still be here, helping people stay healthy.

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