> The Last
Famine-A natural history of hunger.
BY PAUL SALOPEK | MARCH 4, 2012
Early in February, without much fanfare, the United Nations officially
declared the famine over in the Horn of Africa. This is welcome news. Last
summer, when the worst drought in 60 years was wasting the region, 13
million people faced starvation. The misery was most acute in Somalia, where
al-Shabab, the fanatical Islamist militia with links to al Qaeda, had
blocked aid groups from working in the areas under its control. In the end,
an estimated 35,000 Somalis -- along with some Kenyans and Ethiopians -- are
thought to have died; most were children under five. The handling of the
calamity nonetheless has been rated an overall success. Context helps in
measuring such victories. Twenty years ago, a quarter of a million Somalis
perished during a similar wartime drought. And before that, in the Sahelian
emergencies of the mid-1980s, a million emaciated bodies were spooned
prematurely into sandy graves.
Last August, I took a long walk with Daasanach nomads in northern Kenya,
well inside the disaster zone, to see what it was like to move, as most
famine victims do, on foot, through a landscape of chronic hunger. It was a
way to look at hunger beyond the carefully framed shots of television
cameras, and an occasion to ask: When will Africa's vast hunger pangs
I made no pretense of suffering myself. I was joined by my wife, Linda, a
seasoned hiker, and neither of us stinted on our personal food supply: We
carried rucksacks heavy with energy bars and bottled water. Our host was a
rope-thin goatherd named Inas Lonyaman, a smiling, bald-headed elder at 35,
who answered to Mister Inas. He wore sandals cut from old tires and a kind
of faded sarong, and he brought along his usual herding kit -- a throwing
stick and a tiny wooden stool on which to sit. His sterner colleague, Haskar
Lotur, shouldered a rusty AK-47 rifle slung on a rawhide cord as defense
against the Gabra, a competing and similarly armed group of herders. A young
entomology student, Luke Lomeiku, also of Daasanach ancestry, joined us as
interpreter. Lomeiku had equipped himself with a shiny-red plastic thermos
that held perhaps two cups of water, and a butterfly net. Every few hours,
he crept up to shriveled acacias and swept them for insects. But our trek
promised lean prospects for science. Mister Inas's pastures -- located in
the immense, arid core of the Turkana Basin -- were overgrazed to the
appearance of a gravel parking lot. Temperatures in the netted shade of the
thorn trees hovered, at noon, around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. In two days of
plodding across 25 miles of cauterized terrain, Lomeiku captured a single
Mister Inas seemed grateful for the company. Pushing 80 goats through the
coming desert was melancholy work. For three years, precipitation had fallen
erratically, if at all, in his isolated corner of the world, a Kenyan
outback located 500 miles northwest of the famine's epicenter in Somalia. It
was not the focus of the massive international relief effort, in which the
U.S. government played a leading role, having donated by then some $459
million in humanitarian assistance. But the epidemic of hunger here was just
as old and stunting. While an army of foreign journalists and relief workers
converged on refugee camps on the distant Somali border, Daasanach children
were starving in the more typical nomad way -- more or less permanently and
beyond the restless glare of the TV lights. Half of the Turkana Basin's
population of 500,000 livestock herders and subsistence farmers was on food
aid. Indeed, some people had been collecting rations for 30 years. Even so,
Mister Inas, a veteran of many starveling years, ranked the current dry
spell the toughest he had ever experienced. Droughts used to be spaced
further apart, he said. Nowadays, they came brutally hard and fast, and his
goats were dying of thirst. He'd lost half his herd already. His seven
children he parceled out among various relatives to avert starvation. When I
asked how long he was prepared to endure such catastrophes, he shrugged.
"We have no education," he said, knocking his bony forehead with a fist. "If
the Daasanach go to school, then all these troubles will end. But we are
stupid." He talked at length about abandoning the nomad life altogether.
But I'd heard such declarations before. They weren't credible. For the
Daasanach, owning animals means everything -- status, wealth, life. And like
many disempowered minorities, they frequently said what they thought
outsiders wished to hear. Trudging behind him for hours, I became convinced
that the surer measure of Mister Inas's future lay at the opposite end of
Horny with calluses, flat as slabs of jerked meat, his feet swung from his
high, girlish hips like the weights on a metronome: smoothly, tirelessly --
I am tempted to say, eternally -- as though the surface of the savanna
consisted not of burning dust, but greased ball bearings. His sandals rode
the earth like skates. It was a gait of superhuman efficiency:
transcontinental, very old, designed for chasing clouds, for swallowing
endless miles of geography in the pursuit of the country of rain. Once
Africa stops producing such supremely educated feet, I thought -- only then
will the stereotypical images of her dying babies, the bloat-bellied infants
of nomads, disappear from the world's TV screens. The Mister Inases will
have become extinct. Or, they will have finally pulled on socks and shoes.
And from that point on, the mass hungers we hear about will be protagonized
by victims whose soft soles are shod in wingtips, work boots, high-heeled
pumps, tennis shoes. They will be urban. Which is to say, they will belong
* * *
The Turkana Basin is a freakishly beautiful place. A gargantuan wilderness
of hot wind and thorn stubble, it covers all of northwestern Kenya and
spills into neighboring Uganda, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. Black volcanoes
knuckle up from its pale-ocher horizons. Lake Turkana -- the largest
alkaline lake in the world, 150 miles long -- pools improbably in its arid
heart. The lake is sometimes referred to, romantically, as the Jade Sea;
from the air, its brackish waters appear a bad shade of green, like
tarnished brass. Turkana, Pokot, Gabra, Daasanach, and other cattle nomads
eke out a marginal existence around its shores. The basin's dry sediments,
which form part of the Great Rift Valley, hold a dazzling array of hominid
remains. Because of this, the Turkana badlands are considered one of the
cradles of our species.
Richard and Meave Leakey, the scions of the eminent Kenyan fossil-hunting
family, have been probing deep history here for 45 years. Their oldest
discovery, a pre-human skull, about 4 million years old, was found on a 1994
expedition led by Meave. An earlier dig headed by Richard uncovered a
fabulous, nearly intact skeleton of Homo ergaster, dating back 1.6 million
years, dubbed the Turkana Boy. Both Leakeys told me the modern landscape had
changed nearly beyond recognition since their excavations began in the
1960s. The influx of food aid and better medical services had more than
tripled the human population and stripped the region of most of its wild
meat, wiping out the local buffalo, giraffe, and zebra. Domestic livestock
-- exploding and then crashing with successive droughts -- had scalped the
savannas' fragile grasses. While driving one day near his headquarters, the
> Turkana Basin Institute, Richard pointed at a
dusty cargo truck, its bed piled high with illegally cut wood. "Charcoal for
the Somali refugee camps," he said with a puckish smile. "The U.N. pays for
Leakey is not only a celebrity thinker. He is also an incorrigible
provocateur and a man of big and restless ambitions. Bored with the
squabbles of academic research ("I could never go back to measuring one
tooth against another"), he abandoned the summit of paleoanthropology in the
late 1980s to assume the directorship of Kenya's enfeebled wildlife service,
where he became a hero to conservationists by ordering elephant poachers
shot on sight. A few years later, he helped organize Kenya's first serious
opposition party, and those activities invited years of police harassment.
(A 1993 plane crash, which Leakey blames on sabotage, resulted in the loss
of both his legs below the knee; he now gets around -- driving Land Rovers,
piloting planes -- on artificial feet.) At one point, I asked him about
heavy bandages on his head and hands at a recent lecture at New York's
Museum of Natural History. He had been suffering from skin cancers, he
explained, that metastasized from old police-baton injuries. Leakey tends to
view humankind through a very long lens, and pessimistically.
When we met, Leakey warned me that the killer drought throttling the Horn of
Africa was another opening act for full-bore global warming. Northern Africa
was a canary in the mine shaft. Even worse famines awaited. On the planetary
stage, Leakey framed the problem bluntly as a matter of feeding 6 billion
excess people. (He put the world's carrying capacity at 1 billion humans and
suggested our species would fall back to that level this century, probably
via a pandemic.) Droughts and famines have been integral to the human story,
he went on. We have 200,000 years of experience with climate change, yet
today, he complained, "We can't think even 50 years ahead." He said he was
glad he was old -- he was 67 -- because he had seen the best of life. He did
offer one palliative for our future of deepening starvation: synthetic
foods. Leakey's oratory was so hypnotic that I neglected to ask what exactly
he meant -- food grown by bacteria? In labs? I asked whether there was any
hope for people like the Daasanach.
"Pastoral nomadism is nearly gone," he said. "We're seeing the last kicks
and wiggles of a dying way of life. The people are getting progressively
poorer, and you can't afford to feed them and their goats forever."
One anthropological study pegs the number of African pastoralists, classic
drought victims, at 20 million. When agro-pastoralists -- herders who also
scratch out a bit of farming -- are included, the total grows to 280
million, about a quarter of the entire African population. Surely they must
be accommodated. "There are large aquifers here," Leakey said. "You could
set up a Palm Springs-type area -- casinos, hotels. There's no end to
opportunities for tourism. Turkana could be the Nevada of Africa."
Meave Leakey was sitting beside her husband, on a shaded rock veranda, as he
visualized golf carts in Kenya's most desolate hinterland. "Casinos," she
muttered. She grimaced out over lion-colored plains that were largely bereft
of lions now. "Imagine."
* * *
At dawn, Mister Inas gulped a cup of gruel made with maize flour donated by
USAID, the American development agency. It was impossible to tell whether
this food was new aid, sent to combat the famine, or just more of the
billions of dollars in international relief that has become a semipermanent
fixture in Africa's ragged margins. Even Mister Inas didn't know. He'd been
collecting rations in a nearby town for so long -- in exchange for manual
labor on public works or as a reward for having his children immunized --
that it all blurred together. Either way, the gruel, beaten cold in a
fire-blackened pot by his wife, Eyomo, would be his only meal until
nightfall. He set off on the walk from his kraal, or brushy goat corral,
having consumed perhaps 500 calories.
Mister Inas used a repertoire of vocalizations to keep his goats on track.
This consisted of a peculiar medley of clucks, chirrups, and whistles.
Shouts of "Hah!" put the herd on alert against jackals. "Woup! Woup! Woup!"
summoned the animals to water. Or so he told me. I honestly couldn't discern
any significant change in the herd's behavior. The goats -- they had mottled
pelts and square pupils that appraised you unnervingly from inside chromium
yellow eyes -- seemed to graze at will, moving audibly through the scrub
across a broad front, like a rustling breeze. With no grass left to gnaw,
they stood on their hind hooves, cropping the undersides of thorn bushes as
level as topiary.
I wondered how the nomads perceived this scene.
The British anthropologist Colin M. Turnbull, in his classic study of Mbuti
Pygmy life in the rain forests of Congo, described taking one of his
informants, a man named Kenge, out into the open savanna for the first time.
The forest-dweller, adapted to a field of vision cramped by billions of
leaves, spotted black dots on a distant plain. "He asked me what kind of
insects they were, and I told him they were buffalo, twice as big as the
forest buffalo known to him," Turnbull wrote. "He laughed loudly and told me
not to tell such stupid stories." When Turnbull drove up to the animals, the
astonished Pygmy asked "why they had been so small, and whether they really
had been small and had suddenly grown larger, or whether it had been some
kind of trickery."
I began to suspect that Mister Inas's own depth perception was shaped by the
gargantuan space of the Turkana Basin. He paid scant attention the termite
mounds and dry gulches that corrugated our route and seemed riveted instead
by the horizons. He scanned them incessantly, swinging his head slowly back
and forth like a Doppler radar. He said he was looking for rain. Quite
possibly he was searching for the tippy-tops of clouds peeking above the
curvature of the Earth, 60 miles away. I discerned nothing of the sort,
though later in the afternoon a high, muzzy overcast developed.
In the past, herders had tended to outcompete farmers in many of Africa's
desert borders. Mobility was the key. If your pastures dried up, you drove
your animals toward the slightest hint of precipitation, knowing grass would
eventually sprout there. But this strategy worked only when old boundaries
were observed. What appeared to me a featureless wasteland was parsed, in
the eyes of a Daasanach, by a dense web of regulation and ownership,
something akin to urban zoning: The savannas were crisscrossed by invisible
migration routes, seasonal pasturage rights, proprietary water holes. In a
place as destitute as the Turkana Basin, food aid hadn't just swollen human
populations, but undermined those antique rules. It had also encouraged the
nomads, ruinously, to maintain more animals than the fragile pastures could
sustain; living on donations, they saw little need to eat or sell off their
herds in times of drought. And so, the rangelands eventually wore away,
becoming sterile as concrete.
"This country is too crowded," Haskar Lotur, the gunman, snorted. He flicked
his skinny wrist dramatically at the ringing emptiness. "Nobody stays in
their place anymore."
The sun was devastatingly hot, and Linda and I sucked down bottled water.
Seeing our thirst, Mister Inas and Lotur politely declined offers of drinks.
They accepted granola bars, but judging from their exchanged deadpan
glances, must have found them disappointing. Mister Inas then showed us a
few wild plants the Daasanach resorted to during famines: the berries of the
kadite bush and a gnarled tree that produced a currant-like fruit called
miede. People were forgetting their use. "Today, we eat food aid instead,"
At that time, the U.N. World Food Program was helping feed 265,000 people in
the Turkana region. The nomads, once canny at eking out a livelihood on the
gauntest of Kenyan landscapes, had been settling into ramshackle outposts,
essentially rural slums, where each household received a monthly allotment
of 10 kilograms of maize. They were losing what relief workers termed
"famine-coping mechanisms" -- their ancestral survival skills. Cutting off
assistance cold was unthinkable; countless people would die. So after having
helped fund these supplemental feeding programs for decades, the U.S.
government, through its African Development Foundation, decided last year to
put its foot down. It earmarked $10 million for a pilot program in the
Turkana area that might be called aid methadone -- still more aid, but this
time in the form of fishponds and irrigated market gardens, all intended to
pry people off the old aid.
* * *
The Bible is rife with divinely ordained famines. No surprise there. Who
were the Israelites, after all, if not rain-obsessed pastoralists and
dry-land farmers? "Gladness and joy have been taken away from the fruitful
land of Moab; I have made the wine cease from the wine presses; no one
treads them with shouts of joy; the shouting is not the shout of joy."
Sharman Apt Russell, in her survey of our primordial craving,
An Unnatural History, quotes a 4,000-year-old inscription on the tomb of an
Egyptian noble: "All of Upper Egypt was dying of hunger to such a degree
that everyone had come to eating his children." Two-thirds of Italy, she
reminds us, starved to death during the black plagues of the 14th century.
Five-hundred years later, a microscopic potato fungus scythed down a million
Irishmen (and women and children) and sent at least a million more into
famished exodus. And proving once again that we humans are perhaps the worst
crop of pestilence of all, she cites the 2 million to 3 million Ukrainians
methodically starved to death by Stalin's forced collectivization. A grim
coda: The deadliest famine recorded -- ever -- was man-made and happened
within living memory: The Great Leap Forward, Mao's rush to industrialize
the countryside, killed tens of millions of Chinese between 1958 and 1962.
ry%22&f=false> writes, "is as big as history."
Reaching back much deeper in time, some scientists argue that, by repeatedly
winnowing our species's ranks, droughts and famines made us fully human.
For example, a so-called "thermal hypothesis" of evolution, supported by
evidence of sweltering temperatures in the prehistoric Turkana Basin, posits
that repeated, hot, waterless interludes encouraged our apelike ancestors to
finally rise up off their knuckles; bipedalism minimized the body's exposure
to intense solar radiation. Sweat glands replaced fur. Standing up, we
caught a breeze.
Closer to the present, sediment cores drilled at Lake Malawi in southern
Africa suggest that an awesome "mega-drought" struck just as our species was
gaining a tentative foothold on the continent, nearly killing off Homo
sapiens altogether. This epic dry spell began 135,000 years ago and lasted
for 50 millennia. The sands of the Sahara and Kalahari deserts merged,
smothering the woodlands and savannas where we evolved. The drought
unleashed what very nearly became our last famine. Geneticists calculate a
population of survivors no larger than 10,000. (Researchers at Stanford
University narrow that bottleneck even more; they contend that only 2,000
anatomically modern humans escaped extinction, and they are the forebears of
every single person alive today.) The stragglers migrated to the African
coasts, where for millennia they scavenged "famine food" at low tide:
mussels, snails, clams. The switch from red meat to seafood proved fateful.
It elevated our intake of omega-3 fatty acids -- brain food: a new diet that
may have inadvertently accelerated the development of verbal skills. Such
"water's-edge" theories of human evolution have gained credence in recent
years with the discovery of enormous shell middens at coastal shelters in
South Africa and Eritrea. The sites date to the time of the super-drought.
"Place a species under stress, and you can't tell what will happen," Meave
Leakey told me. "It could go extinct, or new mutation will arise, in this
case, maybe something that led to advanced language."
What seems clear from the fossil record is that the great Pleistocene famine
nudged us out of the African nursery. For the first time, we began marching
beyond the continent in earnest, eventually to conquer the world. Empty
bellies transformed us into the wandering ape.
* * *
We walked, squinting for hours through hot panes of light. Mister Inas
steered his goats toward Lake Turkana. It was the animals' second day
without water and time to quench their thirst. I knew we were nearing the
lake because livestock began to multiply on the threadbare savanna. The air
grew thick with dust and was filled with the clanking of neck bells and the
calling of other nomads. I asked Mister Inas how he kept track of his
animals in all the traffic, and he stared at me with genuine incredulity. "I
know my goats," he said.
The lake was another desert -- an oxidized mirror shining up dully at the
overcast. Its gray surface was swept by a sultry wind that didn't cool the
skin. Muddy waves gummed the beach, and the grass on the shore was nibbled
down to a vegetative five o'clock shadow. There was a famous drought story
Back in the early 1970s, in an effort to break the cycles of starvation in
the Turkana region, Kenyan officials had delegated the Norwegian development
agency Norad the task of retraining local herders to fish. The lake swarmed
with tilapia and Nile perch. The idea was to wean the people off their
boom-and-bust livestock economy, swap animal for fish protein, and make the
nomads productive, sedentary citizens. The Scandinavians built a modern
freezer plant near the lake. They taught people how to cast nets. And they
distributed 20 large, modern fiberglass skiffs. The project was a colossal
failure. As it turned out, freezing the catches cost more than the fish were
worth. And, astoundingly, the foreigners hadn't bothered to ask whether the
milk- and meat-addicted nomads even liked fish. (They didn't.) A decade
after donors had sunk millions into the scheme, the Turkana pastoralists
were as poor and hungry as ever. Many gave up and returned to the bush. A
few of the more enterprising families found a novel use for their upturned
fishing vessels as crude shelters.
Lake Turkana's beached fishing fleet became an icon of asinine philanthropy
That said, the earnest Norwegians had been onto something. They were simply
premature; it took more decades of lethal droughts for the idea to catch on.
Today, big cooler trucks loaded with fresh fish rattle between Lake Turkana
and markets in Nairobi, a two-day drive away. Fishing keeps several thousand
ex-herders marginally employed, though admittedly, with the price of their
catches inflated 16-fold between the lakeshore and the supermarkets, urban
middlemen are the real beneficiaries. And critics may get the last laugh.
Lake Turkana's fish stocks are already collapsing.
Mister Inas watered his goats near two Daasanach men drying their fishing
nets on the shore. They were the only human beings visible for hundreds of
yards along the beach. Mister Inas pointedly ignored them. Bent at their
work, they returned the snub. Men who don't possess hoofed animals are
despised as worthless in Daasanach culture.
A few steps away, a 6-foot crocodile lay rotting in the surf. Its skull was
pierced by two neat bullet holes. A few weeks before, a child had been
dragged into the lake by a croc. Several herders had seen it happen. "There
was nothing they could do," Mister Inas said. "They just ran to tell the
family that their boy was swallowed by a crocodile." Later, one of the boy's
relatives walked to the lake with a Kalashnikov and shot the first crocodile
Mister Inas invited me to join him for a bath. He grinned when I declined,
but he wasn't swaggering. The proximity of so much water, even brackish
water, was a luxury not to be passed up. He hitched up his wrap, revealing a
pair of blue soccer shorts, and, with a look of intense bliss, waded into
the murky shallows on the pin legs of a heron.
* * *
Lodwar, the frontier outpost that serves as the capital of the Turkana
District, is located across Lake Turkana, about 120 miles southwest of
Mister Inas's barren pastures. Roads are scarce in northern Kenya. So the
simplest way of getting there was by plane. A Cessna flown by Leakey's bush
pilot deposited us at the town's airstrip. Two huge jet engines, relics of a
previous crash, lay bleaching atop boulders next to the runway like a
negative monument to air safety. The airport terminal consisted of an
open-sided hut. Signs of humanitarian engagement were everywhere.
White Toyota Land Cruisers with long whip antennas and logos of various
relief agencies stamped on their doors crowded a dirt parking lot. There
were large numbers of listless young men on the unpaved streets, and the
streets themselves were littered with thousands of squashed plastic water
bottles -- refuse from donated rations. At the airport, a forlorn souvenir
booth featured a Japanese flag and the sign, "Japan-Kenya Livelihood & Peace
Building Committee." It sold beaded belts, wooden carvings, and a single
copy of a book on anthropology written by an Irish Catholic missionary. The
lonesome clerk was startled that I wanted to buy the book.
Later, while escaping the sun in what was possibly the slowest cybercafe in
the world -- downloading a single email took 17 minutes and a notice on the
wall warned, perversely, "No Idlers Please" -- I read a document that
someone had been composing at my rented computer: "Incident Reporting Sheet
for the Kenya Field Monitors."
It was a memo from an intergovernmental security commission that summarized
a recent spike in fighting between nomads in the Turkana region. In one
skirmish "Toposa bandits" had maneuvered 25 stolen donkeys belonging to a
Mr. Namocho toward the Sudanese border. Armed Turkana "warriors" gave chase,
cutting off the rustlers and igniting a firefight with "negative impact on
human lives." Another raid at a settlement called Kibish involved a herd of
pigs. Two thieves were shot dead "as intensive cross-fire exploded in the
The bloodiest episode by far was the coldblooded murder, nine days before,
of eight ethnic Turkana women in the Todonyang area near the border with
Ethiopia. The aggressors were Merille from Ethiopia -- kin to the Daasanach.
Snapshots accompanying the report, all the more wrenching for their amateur
quality, featured crude graves and babies with horribly bruised faces. Their
dead mothers had dropped them trying to escape the gunfire. The extreme
brutality of such attacks baffled me until a Turkana businessman who ran a
development organization in Lodwar explained their logic. "Nothing
demoralizes the enemy more than killing their women," he said. "Women are
targeted because it is a war of ethnic survival. And between the Merille and
Turkana, access to shrinking pasturelands equals survival." Roughly a
hundred nomads annually, from various ethnic groups, have died in battles in
the Turkana region in recent years.
* * *
Outsiders tend to see their pet causes played out in African famines.
Everyone brings something to hunger's table.
Anti-globalization groups condemn stock market speculators for jacking up
the costs of the world's food staples (thus pricing the poor out of their
next meal). Washington worries about famine's role in political instability,
particularly if relief is diverted to terrorist groups. (Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton was obliged last summer to rescind the threat of legal
sanctions against aid groups working in parts of Somalia controlled by the
Islamist al-Shabab guerrillas; millions of civilians might have died
otherwise.) Nowadays, the latest meta-concern to be piggybacked onto the
backs of the starving is global warming. Some reporters, agreeing with
Richard Leakey, have labeled the bloody clashes in the Turkana Basin one of
the world's first "climate-change conflicts." Like most other imposed
narratives, though, this one is blinkered.
"At this stage, I don't think there is any hard evidence to show
conclusively that droughts are getting worse in the region, compared with
the past," Philip Thornton, a leading climate scientist at the International
Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, wrote me in an email. "To call this
a 'climate change war' may well be simply wrong."
Nobody disputes that the Horn of Africa is reeling through a period of
harrowing droughts. Water levels in Lake Turkana have sunk 50 feet over the
past 40 years. And Mister Inas and other herders insisted that the recent
dry seasons have broken all records for longevity. But the point Thornton
and other climate scientists make is that events in one lifetime aren't a
reliable enough gauge of what droughts loom ahead. Long-term rainfall
statistics collected in the region -- going back to British colonial times
-- are ambiguous, sometimes oscillating just as radically as today. And
according to the most recent report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change, the international agency spearheading the study of the
man-made pollutants that cause global warming, East Africa is expected to
get wetter, not dryer, in coming decades. "Even if East Africa does become
wetter, this does not imply that the climate will be more conducive for
agricultural production," Thornton cautioned. Increases in temperature are
likely to lead to decreased crop yields.
In Lodwar, the people closest to the violence naturally had their own
"I would put climate change second or third," said Epem Esekon, a senior
administrator at Lodwar's hospital. "The redrawing of land boundaries under
Kenya's new constitution comes first, then maybe climate, then maybe guns."
Local violence has erupted in Kenya over political boundaries overhauled in
2010. In addition, Esekon said, pastoral groups had clashed and stolen each
others' livestock using spears. Now an abundance of cheap assault rifles
from wars both defunct and active in South Sudan and Uganda had upped the
ante of such raids.
Esekon's hospital had already discharged the survivors of the assault on
Todonyang. But other victims of such carnage were lying about. One Turkana
man, shot through the back by competing Pokots, curled glassy-eyed with pain
in bed No. 20. The bullet's exit would was two inches above his navel. He
had limped four days to seek medical help.
"There is a lot of grass in the area where they are killing us," Peter Akure
Lothike, the chief of the area where the skirmish took place, told me. He
spoke affably, even as he toted a Belgian FAL assault rifle through the
stifling ward. "The Pokots increase their cattle raids about now, to pay for
their children's school fees."
And I thought again of Mister Inas's antediluvian feet. The Pokots, it
seemed, were walking out of their last famines as nomadic herders. They were
headed for the shoe stores.
* * *
Russell, in her book on hunger, uncovers the world record for fasting.
"Mr. A.B.," a patient at the University Department of Medicine in Dundee,
Scotland, was a morbidly obese young man who weighed 456 pounds. In June
1965, under medical supervision, he stopped eating. In fact, he didn't eat,
according to the Postgraduate Medical Journal, for more than a year -- a
boggling 382 days. Occasionally he was plied with vitamins. He drank water.
He lost more than 250 pounds. "He must, at times, have felt like a god,"
2felt%20like%20a%20god%22&f=false> writes. "He lived like a tree, a rowan or
oak, on air and sunshine. He lived more like a spirit than matter. Did he
try and walk through walls? Did he think of himself as a ghost?" Whatever
else Mr. A.B. may have felt, a gutting loneliness surely must have haunted
him. Our bodies are like beads, rings of flesh wrapped about a hollow tube.
What strings us all together is bread -- bread and stories.
The longest I have survived without food is eight days. I remember the
experience well. It occurred while I was on hunger strike in prison, five
years ago, after being detained while reporting on the Darfur war in Sudan.
What lingers is a strange placidity, an unexpected and feverish clarity. By
the third or fourth day without eating, I could feel myself weakening, but
almost in compensation the surfaces of the everyday world appeared to take
on a luminous polish; calls to prayer broadcast from a nearby mosque, the
orange sunsets seen through window bars, the glossy red bodies of ants
rummaging about my cell: Everything seemed freighted with deeper meanings. I
began to understand how prolonged periods of hunger underpin bouts of
mysticism -- why the eyes of the starved, sunk brightly in their skulls,
burn like a clairvoyant's. Scientists tell us it's actually the effect of
ketones being released into the bloodstream by the liver's metabolization of
stored fatty acids. This is the same mood-altering byproduct that
accumulates with lengthy exercise -- the biochemical buzz of "runner's
high." Of course, I never approached the phases of malnutrition suffered by
famine victims: agonizing intestinal cramps, bleeding gums, painfully
inflamed joints, and finally, a coma-like stupor. I didn't get anywhere near
When we staggered back from our trek through the hunger zone to his kraal at
dusk, Mister Inas ordered a kid goat slaughtered. I would reimburse him $25
for it later. But the simple gesture remained an act of surpassing
generosity; goats were his family's sole bank account. That capital was
ominously depleted. Mister Inas hadn't tasted meat for three months.
We crouched around a sparking fire, under dust-bleared stars, roasting
gobbets of goat on upright sticks. The offal, bundled in the butchered
animal's abdominal sack, went to the women "because they need soft things to
eat"; Linda scored the intestine. It became apparent, as we cracked open the
bones for marrow, why generations of Western anthropologists fell in love
with nomads. Even in the middle of a drought, Mister Inas's encampment of
brush huts, which would be abandoned in a few days, buzzed like a
playground. It burbled with gossip and laughter. Naked children horsed about
in a moonlit wadi until midnight. Even grim Haskar Lotur softened, pressing
his Kalashnikov on me for the night, ostensibly as a defense against
starving hyenas. He advised me to be sure of my target; people wandered the
dark, too, to relieve themselves. The rifle was adorned about the muzzle
with a hairy goatskin fetish. It belonged in a gallery of contemporary art.
The United Nations expects hunger to return again this year to the Horn of
Africa. The next dry season begins in May. From that month on, it simply
becomes a waiting game.
Aid workers employ a highly mathematical definition for the word "famine":
It means that at least 20 percent of families in a region face extreme food
shortages and acute malnutrition affects more than 30 percent of the
population; there must be two starvation-related deaths per 10,000 people
every day. Richard Leakey says these numbers toll, like a distant bell, for
all of us. For a certain Dr. Francis Kuria of the Inter-Religious Council of
Kenya, who published a
l> well-reasoned column in the Daily Nation of Nairobi that quoted both the
Roman poet Virgil and his country's bleak ranking on the
> Human Development Index, they ring the
end, at last, for a venerable way of life and a 10,000-year-old economy. Of
the nomads he wrote: "It's time for the Turkana to leave their wastelands
and settle down." The optimists are few. Mostly, they are the desert
The last we saw of Mister Inas, he stood on the savanna, waving under
shrouded skies. Two days later, rain poured down on the bone-colored dust of
the Turkana Basin. The newspapers reported the drought broken. As many as
eight people were killed in flash floods.
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Received on Sun Mar 04 2012 - 17:44:16 EST