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Africa Food Crisis: through the eyes of a photojournalist

In Africa to cover the ongoing food crisis, photojournalist Jake Lyell recounts his experience of travelling to ChildFund-supported communities in northern Kenya to document the impact on children and families. This is his story.

Attempts to cultivate the dusty land in northern Kenya have always been fruitless. Instead, families here are semi-nomadic herders of camels, sheep, and goats. The herds are their only source of sustenance; milk, meat and they use them to barter for other types of food from the market, like beans and cornmeal.

The seasons here are dry, and getting drier. Persistent drought for the last year has knocked the region off its feet. Pastures for livestock have vanished. Hunger is widespread and malnutrition, especially among young children, has risen to heartbreaking levels.

My team and I have just spent the day recording stories in a remote village in Marsabit County where ChildFund is providing food amid the crisis. Driving along the 60km road to another small vilage, a two-hour journey, feels more like exploring a distant planet than it does a jaunt through the Kenyan countryside.

The landscape is marked with nothing but volcanic boulders as far as the eye can see. Not a spot of green, nor even a small bare tree, interrupts the expanse of stony wilderness. Only the occasional herd of camels or goats, or the carcasses left behind, remind us that we`re still on Earth.

At one point, goats swarm our 4X4, feverish at the smell of the water, while the herdsman calls out for his own sake while hoisting an empty jerry can: “Maji!, maji!” (Water! water!). We hadn`t packed enough of our own to be charitable, but we give him what remains at the bottom of our plastic bottles.

Half an hour before we reach our destination, our vehicle stops at the sight of a tiny, silhouetted form sitting in the road under the blazing sun. Bleating only occasionally, the kid goat is trailing its umbilical cord and covered in amniotic fluid. Just born within the last couple of hours, its mother has betrayed her instincts and abandoned her newborn, knowing she cannot provide it any milk.

I pick up the goat, and lay it on my lap as we drive on. I think to myself: how can a herder leave his most valuable commodity behind? Goats are like gold here. But with each flock we pass during the drive the answer becomes clear. We ask the herders to take in the baby goat. In response, they shake their head or wag their finger.

“It won`t survive,” they say.

“There`s no point.”

“It`s not even worth cooking.”

Arriving back at the Catholic mission where we are lodging, the brothers agree to take in the goat and raise it. It seems there may be hope for this kid after all.

As the week wears on we spend most of our time visiting families and communities in rural villages for whom surviving in the drought is the daily gauntlet. Sitting down inside her manyatta, a cloth and animal-skin-covered dwelling, 32-year-old Gumato, a mother of four, shares her struggle with me. Her husband and eldest son, who is 12 years old, have left the area with their surviving animals to seek out water. They`ve been gone for weeks.

Jillo, Gumato`s 18-month-old daughter, wears a hand-me-down Sunday dress €“ dirty and tattered, as if it`s the only outfit she has. She sits at her mother`s breast, but her attempts to nurse are futile.

“The baby suckles but there`s nothing there for me to give her,” Gumato confides.

“I can`t produce milk because we don`t have food,” she adds.

Like the baby goat we found along the road, Gumato and Jillo are fortunate, at least for today. Our team would never have come to their manyatta without bringing provisions to get the family through the coming days. And of course, ChildFund is doing everything it can in terms of providing food, water and emergency support to communities here.

I have covered food crises in this region before, but this is a situation beyond the worst I have seen. Aid experts are now predicting that we may see declaration of famine in not just one, but four, African countries this year. Watching this slow onset emergency unfold, with thousands more children and families impacted each day, is an unimaginable horror.

Global action is so desperately needed. If the rains fail yet again, Jillo, her family, her community, and many others like them face a terrifying future. Because the terrible truth is that families here know all too well what prolonged drought and food shortages mean; they know that many may not live to feel relief or the long-awaited arrival of the rains.

Jake Lyell is a photojournalist and visual storyteller who focuses on communicating the human experience. Working in partnership with ChildFund and other NGOs for over a decade, Jake has extensive knowledge of international development, emergency response and poverty-alleviation issues.

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