The rolling mountains in the distance are known locally as Louwa Le Ukinchu, or Cattle Mountains. For generations, people have travelled there to find water and pasture for their animals. But today, the streams that run down Cattle Mountains are dry.
Most families in Isiolo, 300 kilometres north of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, are pastoralists: they rely on cattle, goats, sheep, donkeys and camels to make a living. These animals aren’t simply a source of food and milk – they’re living banks, the main assets that people own. When their animals die, as they’ve been doing at an alarming rate, pastoralists don’t have the means to feed their families.
The devastating drought that’s hit large parts of northern Kenya has forced pastoralists near Cattle Mountains to travel further than ever before in search of water and pasture to keep their animals alive. The effects are visible in the expansive dry scrublands: abandoned farms, makeshift homes and empty schools.
Antony Akadeli, a teacher at Ndonyo Lengala primary school, says: “Out of 108 pupils at our school, we have resumed classes with only 35. Some parents have promised to send children to school, but only if the school will provide food. This shows the desperate situation families are in. I have been told many pupils have migrated to far off places and the bigger boys accompanied the men to the mountains with their livestock.”
Kipsing: families split up, no clean water
Kipsing, a small trading centre near Cattle Mountains, hosts several communities that have abandoned their villages due to the drought.
Women, children and the elderly are often left behind as men move with the remaining livestock in search of water and pasture. 80-year-old Tapio Lekalaile says: “I have been left to look after ten of my grandchildren. At my age, this is a huge responsibility and I do not know when their parents will come back from the mountains.”
In the middle of town, Mary Namuroi is scooping water from a sand dam. Four donkeys are waiting for their turn to drink from the same supply. Mary says the sand dam is the only source of water for people who’ve sought refuge in Kipsing:
“A number of people died recently following an outbreak of cholera. We are forced to share water with animals because we have no other way of sustaining ourselves and or animals. We are hopeful that we will get assistance so that we can get clean water for ourselves.”
Christina Lina, who owns a butchers shop in Kipsing, says:
“I had to close my business last week as there are no goats left in Kipsing to be slaughtered. The men have taken all of the goats to the mountains to search for pasture. We don’t know when they will be back. Life has become very difficult for everyone because of the drought. Whatever little we have is shared.”
The worst drought in memory
The people who live near Cattle Mountains are resilient: they’ve coped for generations with variable weather, and the search for pasture is part of their lives. But this drought, coming so soon after another major drought in 2009, is worse than any they can remember.
Le Patina Lentokoko, another grandparent caring for young children, says: “Food aid has ensured our survival. But the food is limited. Our priority is to feed the children. The drought will continue, but if there is no rain by September, people will die.”
Caritas members are working to provide food for the most vulnerable, improve water supplies and ensure people reach vital healthcare, as well as helping people prepare for future disasters more effectively.