AF-Kenya-FoodCrisis 1stLd-Writethru 02-04

Aid agencies warn millions face hunger in Kenya

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AP Photo NAI105, NAI104, NAI103, NAI102, NAI101


Associated Press Writer


KINANGO, Kenya (AP) — Millions of Kenyans risk hunger this year, according to the government and the U.N. World Food Program, unless international donors grappling with their own financial crises step in to provide massive aid.

The World Food Program sent out teams this week to assess the extent of the crisis after yet another rash of crop failures caused by prolonged drought; the agency says historical data suggests 3.2 million people will need aid.

In many of the worst affected areas, this is the third consecutive failed harvest. WFP estimates that $135 million will be needed to tackle the crisis through the expansion of emergency projects.

"This is a very alarming situation," WFP spokeswoman Gabrielle Menezes said as she led a group of journalists across a field filled with dry and broken cornstalks. "People already hit by high food prices are struggling to feed themselves."

Among those suffering are families like Njira Mejuma’s. When the young mother’s harvest failed last year, she earned money to feed her family by breaking and selling rocks for road construction under the baking Kenyan sun.

When it failed again this January, her five children joined her.

"We’ve had to choose between food and clothes," Mejuma said, gesturing at her young sons. Their torn rags failed to protect their soft skin from the rock chips flying from their hammers. Flies gathered on the wounds.

"We have to do this just to eat," she said. "Next we will have to take the children out of school" — a desperate measure in a country where most parents believe education is the only escape from the poverty trap.


The crop that usually feeds the family lies withered in the dust and there’s no money to pay for school uniforms and books this year. Food prices have shot up. The combined labor of Mejuma and the stolen afternoons and weekends of her children only yields around US$50 a month.

Almost all of it goes to food.

In southeastern Kenya, which has been worst affected by the drought, widespread hunger has not yet fully begun to bite.

But farmers’ stores, which should be bursting with a new harvest, are as empty as their pockets. Local television has screened pictures of families boiling underripe wild fruit to soften it enough to eat and living off of roots they would normally feed to livestock.

Aid workers say the situation will worsen in coming months.

The government, wracked by scandals in its oil, tourism and cereals boards, has appealed for international aid. But there is growing anger among Kenyans over official corruption and politicians’ cushy lives — the government’s annual entertainment budget tops $32 million.

The World Food Program says the only solution is to fund long-term projects to help farmers resist poor harvests, like breeding drought resistant seeds or funding irrigation projects.

"These are the programs that can make a real difference for the future and prevent crises like this one," said Menezes.


But most donors preferred to fund emergency response programs that will make the evening news, she said.

Kenya can expect little help from east African neighbors, which are also facing hunger crises.

Another drought on the Horn of Africa has hit food supplies there. Uganda does not have enough food to export and Tanzania has had to put export restrictions in place.

Even donor countries are affected, with pressure on governments to fund programs in their own recession-hit countries rather than send scarce resources abroad.

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