When drought began in October 2016, most herders in the North Rift hoped it would end sooner. They believed their indigenous livestock would endure the long, dry spell and continue fetching high prices.
But the skies remained blue, animals became emaciated and several died. Desperate farmers sold cows for as low as Sh1,500 — the same price as two hens.
Pasture was completely depleted. Even the shrubs and thorny branches herders relied on to feed animals were no more.
The semi-arid areas of Keiyo South, Keiyo North, Marakwet East and West in Elgeyo Marakwet county, as well as Tiaty, Baringo North and South in Baringo county, experienced a ravaging drought local elders say was last witnessed in the 1950s.
As major rivers and streams dried up in December last year, herders in Kabargoi, Keiyo North, held on to their cows, banking on the state’s promise to buy livestock at better prices so the farmers could re-stock in April.
It is noon in Rokocho, Kabargoi location, and herders are braving the searing heat in search of some branches for their remaining cattle. They helplessly witnessed many of the cows die.
Herder Joseph Yego explains how he and his Rokocho neighbours lost their cows after failing to find pasture for them.
“I have already lost 10 cows and the remaining cows are facing death. We have exhausted all shrubs that animals feed on during droughts,” Yego says.
A distraught Yego appeals to the state to buy the remaining livestock at better prices after they sunk to their lowest.
“I can’t even take my remaining cows to our animal market for auctioning because a cow is now selling at Sh1,500. We will have no livestock by the end of March since it may not rain anytime soon,” he adds.
He recalls how the state promised to buy cattle from farmers in January as effects of the lingering drought became a reality.
Yego says the low prices of livestock have mean herders can’t afford foodstuff, including maize, from the Elgeyo Marakwet highlands and Uasin Gishu county.
He says: “Cows are so emaciated that we can’t slaughter them. The only remaining animals here are goats but lack of water remains our biggest challenge.”
Yego’s neighbour Victor Korir is visibly agonised as he sits under a withering tree, counting his losses. He has already lost eight cows to the severe drought. His neighbour Chebaino is worse off, having lost 40 cows with the rest facing death.
Korir says on average, a cow fetched Sh50,000 at animal auctions in Kaptara and Cheptem animal auctions on the scenic yet drought-prone area before the prices plummeted.
He yearns for the day the skies will open up and enable them to resume green grams and watermelon farming – a new venture that earned them good cash before the ravaging drought began.
Emsoo MCA Christopher Cheboiboch accused the state of not implementing the drought mitigation programme.
“The national government said it will buy livestock in an animal off-take programme but there has been no action since January,” he said.
On January 12, the meteorological department urged livestock farmers in North Rift to brace themselves for massive losses of livestock and increased human-wildlife conflict, warning that the drought will continue until April.
Elgeyo Marakwet meteorological services director Simon Cheptot said the county and neighbouring ones would continue to experience a long, dry spell.
He said herders in drier areas of the Kerio Valley are counting losses as several animals have died following the long drought.
The weatherman says delay of short rains that are usually experienced in March will result in an acute shortage of food in the country’s grain basket counties of Elgeyo Marakwet, Nandi, Trans Nzoia and Uasin Gishu.
He adds: “Education of residents has been ongoing. It is unfortunate that they have not been heeding our calls to sell their livestock.”
By February, herders in parts of West Pokot and Turkana were crossing over to neighbouring Uganda after the drought became unbearable.
Erastus Ewoi, a resident of Lopii village in Turkana South, says he has seen his 70 goats and 10 cows die one after another because of the drought.
“We move long distances in search of water and pasture. Even the wells that have never dried during the frequent droughts that affect this area have since dried,” he said.
Ewoi says women and children are the worst hit, since they are left without any food as men move long distances to save their remaining livestock from the scourge of drought.
In parts of the county, the effect of the drought that has now degenerated into a famine has led to the death of two people. They starved to death as the only source of food — relief food from the state and humanitarian organisations — could not reach them in time.
In Elgeyo Marakwet, one person in Soy North has already died due to starvation. The county is mobilising resources from its budget to supply some relief food to avert further deaths.
The county has supplied Sh6 million relief food as the drought persists.
A consignment of 2,500 bags of maize and beans were dispatched to seven wards worst hit by the drought.
Deputy Governor Gabriel Lagat says the food has been distributed to Endo, Sambirir, Arror, Emsoo, Tambach, Soy North and Soy South wards.
He urged the national government to fast-track the animal off-take programme to buy the remaining animals and avert further losses.
The county assembly, while seeking Sh60 million to mitigate the drought in February, said at least 10,000 families were starving due to the drought.
Marakwet traditional astrologers, who mainly observe stars to predict rain patterns, says light rains will be experienced in the better part of this year, painting a bleak future for the North Rift ahead of the March-April planting season.
John Kwambai, a Marakwet elder and traditional astrologer, says rain patterns change in a four-year cycle.
Kwambai said the current cycle ends this year, paving way for another four years of heavy rains from next year.
The 2018 heavy rains, the elders say, may present other disasters, including landslides and flooding.
Marakwet astrologers’ weather predictions are so accurate that the meteorological department often compares notes with them.
“We are now in the last year of a season and we expect heavy rains from next year,” Kwambai says.
Keiyo traditional astrologer Kiprop Toroitich from Kocholwo, Keiyo South, said both the Stars and stomach contents of animals slaughtered in traditional ceremonies, which have traditionally been used to predict rains, have indicated that light rains will occur this year.
In Tiaty in Baringo county, area MP Asman Kamama describes the drought as the worst in history.
“Camels, donkeys and goats survive the longest in droughts, but they have died in this drought as well. We have also lost several people,” Kamama says.
Latest reports by Unicef indicate that at least 2.7 million Kenyans, 1.1 million among them children, are facing starvation in 23 counties in Kenya.
Other counties worst hit include Tana River, Kilifi, Kwale, West Pokot, Tharaka-Nithi, and all the counties in Northeastern.
According to Unicef, 174,000 children are out of school due the severe drought.
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