Drought means life and death choices for Kenyan family

As a historic drought rages on across Kenya and other parts of the Horn of Africa, families like Eyangan and her grandchildren suffer the most.

Story and photos by Lucy Murunga. Edited by Elisa Casey.
Published November 10, 2011 at 12:00am PST

The health and nutrition status of children in Kenya’s Turkana district is alarming. This region alone has recorded some of the highest global acute malnutrition rates.

The food crisis has left many families in a state of starvation, severely impairing the growth of children, especially those under age 5.

Bearing the brunt of a lack of rain

Eyangan’s village in the Turkana district is among those hit hardest by the drought. The chances of receiving a meal grow dimmer every day.

Eyangan, 70, is a widow who tries to provide for her four grandchildren, but has no reliable source of income. The children’s mother died recently from stomach complications.

To make matters worse, the prices of maize — a local dietary staple — have risen sharply in recent months. Without assistance to cope with this food crisis, Eyangan fears that her family will starve to death.

Meals hard to come by

Tipen, 14 months, sits in the lap of his grandmother, Eyangan, 70. Tipen's siblings sit to the left: Emanikor, 6, Merinye, 7, and Alemilemi, 4.Skipping meals in Eyangun’s household is a common and frequent occurrence. Eyangan, who can’t even afford a cup of maize for porridge, is plagued by worry for her grandchildren. Sometimes she feeds them boiled palm tree seeds.

Perhaps the greatest challenge and heartache is struggling to feed her 14-month-old grandson, Tipen.

“When Tipen’s mother was alive, she was able to at least breastfeed him, but now she is gone, and my grandson is without…the only food that was readily available to him,” Eyangan explains.

“Four-year-old Alemilemi is suffering from a protein deficiency illness; Kwashiorkor, stunted growth and malnutrition, while his younger brother and follower, Tipen, is severely malnourished,” she continues.

“He has since given up on crying, because he can only cry, but there is no food to offer. I only gave him black tea just to stop him from crying.”

Severe acute malnutrition

Tipen is underweight and visibly malnourished. His ribs and spine protrude through his saggy skin. At 14 months old, he weighs a mere 11 pounds.

In mid-May, World Vision nutritionists and volunteers discovered a severely malnourished Tipen while visiting the community. Nutritionists use a Mid-Upper-Arm Circumference (MUAC) measurement to determine a child’s nutritional status.

“If a MUAC measurement is under 11 centimeters, the child’s life may be in danger, as he or she is suffering from severe acute malnutrition,” explains Thatcher Ong’onga, a World Vision nutrition project officer.

Tipin’s arm measured an alarming 9 centimeters. Thatcher says Tipen’s case is common to many children in this region.

Life-saving help

"[Tipen] has since given up on crying because he can only cry, but there is no food to offer," explains Eyangan. Sadly, Tipen died just two weeks after this story was gathered.At the St. Mary’s dispensary in Turkana, nurses and nutritionists from World Vision closely monitor the nutritional status of malnourished children, administering nutritious food that is helping to keep them alive.

Severely malnourished children, like Tipin, are immediately admitted to the outpatient therapeutic program and prescribed packets of ready-to-use-therapeutic food — in this case, a nutrient-rich peanut paste named Plumpy’Nut™.

“Tipen’s health began to bounce back slowly but surely, thanks to the Plumpy’Nut™ that he was feeding on, provided at a health center supported by World Vision and UNICEF,” says Thatcher.

Which child to feed?

Just when Tipen’s health was getting better, the worst hit. Hunger in the household became severe, and when his mother died, he was left even more vulnerable.

“Food became scarce, the children were starving and the only meal available to them was the Plumpy’Nut™,” Tipen’s grandmother says, explaining why she began feeding the rest of her grandchildren on Tipen’s prescribed Plumpy’Nut™ packets.

Thatcher says that Tipen was not getting the right quantity of nutritional supplements each day, because he was sharing with his siblings who did not have food. This contributed to the further decline of his health.

People should not have to make such decisions about how to feed their children.

Editor’s note: Sadly, Tipen died due to the effects of severe acute malnutrition, barely two weeks after author Lucy Murunga visited him and his family on July 12, 2011. Please pray for Tipen’s family and for the many other children in danger of losing their lives because of hunger.

Ways you can help

Pray that God would provide for Tipin’s grandmother, as she grieves his death while trying to provide for his surviving siblings. Pray for relief from the drought across the Horn of Africa, and provision for enough food and water.

Make a one-time gift to our Horn of Africa Food Crisis Fund. Your donation will help provide emergency food and care to children and families suffering from hunger and malnutrition, as the worst drought in 60 years rages on.

Give monthly to provide support for children affected by hunger worldwide. Your monthly contribution will help bring assistance like emergency food aid, clean water, agricultural assistance, nutritional training, and more to those in greatest need.

Sponsor a child in East Africa. Your love and support for a child in need will help provide essentials that will equip him or her to better cope with disasters, like the ongoing drought and food crisis.