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Portrait of poverty

Like the rest of Africa, Kenya is waging a war to halve its hungry by 2015 – a United Nations' Millennium Development Goal. But has that battle reached poverty's heartland?

Margaret Kitetu has seen many faces of poverty during her 60 years, but she says the worst was a drought so bad that some in her poor rural community hunted stray dogs for food.

In her locality, where the Katelembo community of 250,000 forms part of the Kamba tribe of eastern Kenya, poverty still dictates life and death choices.

"There is never enough food," sighs Kitetu, who scrapes together about US $0.17 (17 cents) a day from menial work, several kilometres' walk from her home. The money must feed her- and the eight mouths she inherited from a husband, son, and two in-laws.

"Many days, we have nothing at all to eat," she laments. Kitetu's whole wealth – and insurance against starvation – is a black baby goat playing in the craggy dirt ground outside the shack she calls home.

Many people in Kenya are destitute. More than half of its 33 million people live on less than US $1 a day, many in overcrowded city slums infested with rats, overflowing sewers and disease. But the stark poverty of the slums often pales against that of the countryside, where three-quarters of the population lives.

Rural communities across Africa are the real battlegrounds of poverty. The World Food Programme says that 25,000 people die each day of hunger and hunger-related causes. Most will die in rural communities, like Kitetu's in Kenya.

The struggle for food is not new to the 2.5 million ethnic Kamba, who have been peasant farmers and small herders for generations; they have managed to squeeze life out of the thirsty, semi-arid lands they call Kambaland. But after more than two decades of receding rains – in a continent bearing the brunt of climate change – the Kamba's precarious lifestyle has been pushed to the edge.

Kamba mythology is infused with tales of Mulungu, the benevolent Supreme Being who placed the first Kamba man and woman on the fertile Mbooni Hills of Mount Nzaui, then nourished all of Kambaland with rain and blessed it with crops and livestock. But myth no longer resembles the reality of Kambaland, which is one of the least developed and poorest areas of Kenya.

In 1984, when the present cycle of droughts began, more than 800,000 died across Africa. And 1997 was the year in which some people in Kambaland ate stray dogs to keep from starving, say Kitetu and other residents.

"Reports that people ate stray dogs in Kambaland are nothing but the truth," says Kioko Mutuku, an economist at the University of Nairobi, himself a Kamba.

In 2000, the drought was the worst in 37 years. The Kenyan government had to launch an urgent appeal to feed four million people, according to the Red Cross. And the country was again hit by a severe drought in 2004-2005.

Mutuku says he can see the effects of climate change first hand. "I remember the big old trees of my childhood, but these don't exist anymore. They have disappeared," he says.

Aid and environmental groups around the world warn that Africa must brace itself for the worst assaults of climate change, which have yet to come. They say the continent's 220 million rural poorest will be hardest hit, and least prepared for the shocks.

But for Kitetu's community life is already hanging by a thread. "It often happens that people collapse and die from hunger while walking to work because their bodies are too weak," says Kitetu, whose husband died this way.

Without rains and agriculture, for most people the only choice is to walk 10 kilometres or more for so little money that it barely pays for a full stomach.

Felix Kitua works in a stone quarry a 15-kilometre walk from his home, earning less than US $1 a day on average. He has a wife and eight children to feed. "We depend only on whatever I can make, this is our only income," says Kitua, who is in his late fifties. "The children usually stay home, because they are too weak from hunger to get to school and sit through classes." "Sometimes they do attend, but only when we have a little more food," he says.

Free primary education is one of the few government benefits that have penetrated into Kambaland, and it is the only lifeline out of poverty for the majority of the population. But hunger competes with education, and it usually wins, Kitua says. "Whenever I have money I choose to buy food for my family, rather than school uniforms," Kitua says. Only about one-third of the children in Katelembo attend schools.

There are no factories or industries in Katelembo. Only half of the families have a member with any kind of permanent job, and the rest depend on casual labour or menial work, many kilometres away.

In a largely male-dominated society where men traditionally worked in farming, the loss of agriculture has set the males adrift, devastating the community. Women like Kitetu often find themselves struggling to provide for their families.

In the mornings, young men who would once have been working in the fields congregate in groups of 20 or so by the dirt roads. They hang around until evening, when some hope that money coaxed from a working family member can get them a few drinks of a cheap, illegal brew, and provide a temporary escape from their surroundings. Every year, dozens either go blind or die from toxic alcohol added to the brew.

Most of the men hanging around are squatters whose forefathers either owned land that they sold off, or came here to work as farm hands for other landowners. Now, the sons or grandsons have become squatters on tiny parcels of the same land that their forefathers once ploughed.

Sometimes, when things really get bad, the people of Katelembo get small handouts of food from the UN's World Food Programme or the Red Cross. Often, people hope for handouts from aid organisations, religious groups, or local tribal chiefs.

During the drought seven years ago, out of desperation some people planted the corn that was part of their emergency World Food Programme rations, fearing their families would starve once the food aid stopped coming. The corn kernels were not intended for planting, but luckily Red Cross seeds and fertilisers did arrive just before the rainy season for 25,000 farmers and their families.

But stories like this are rare. More often, the Kamba feel forgotten, even by the Nairobi governments that have pledged to help the poorest.

Kenya's official anti-poverty drive does underscore rural development as a priority. It calls for better irrigation, subsidies for seeds and fertilizers, and better information for farmers, and promises emergency food reserves, early-warning drought information, and help with production and marketing of traditional food crops.

The people of Katelembo say all that is news to them. They have seen no such help in their district, and in their locality agriculture is dying. They complain that local leaders such as politicians and legislators show little interest in Katelembo, unless it is just before elections, when they show up with cheap gifts and bribes in exchange for votes.

Senior officials at the Ministry of Planning and National Development in Nairobi admit to shortcomings in implementing the anti-poverty strategies. The planning minister, Henry Obwocha, says no effort has ever been made to build up food reserves or set up an early warning system anywhere in Kambaland.

David Ekwee Ethuro, vice-minister at the planning ministry, is surprisingly forthright about the shortcomings. "The government has been very good at producing papers," he says, "but has been very poor at implementing them."

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