Words from Kenya

Dry Season Rain

There were thunder storms and heavy rain showers along the Laikipia Isiolo border at the start of the week. This was a culmination of moody weather and threatening rain from the week before. While we have seen a lot less rain than areas to the south of us it is even more unusual here.

Rain over Sanga

Not that the odd day or two of rain in February is unheard of, but rather that all of January seemed more like July (cold and cloudy) and most of February has been offering heavy rain cloud, light drizzle and eventually some really heavy downpours. Today I saw photographs of snow in the Aberdares followed some minutes later by a report on the decline of glaciers on Mount Kenya

“The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that only 10 of the 18 glaciers that covered the mountain’s summit a century ago remain, leaving less than one third of the previous ice cover. The #LewisGlacier, the largest on #MtKenya, has decreased by 90% in volume since 1934, with the highest rates of ice volume loss occurring around the turn of the century.”

Mount Kenya Trust

Are the glaciers to be saved after all? Global heating causes drought and heat waves, not snow and rain… surely?

Rain over Borana

One thing people often forget about global heating is that heat in the atmosphere creates more storms, of every kind, even the cold and wet ones. The inexorable change that global heating will have on East Africa is that rain will come in more damaging storms, dry periods will be more frequent and sustained, and yes, with increasing temperatures the glaciers will melt. This in turn will effect all the springs at lower levels that are ultimately fed by water from the mountain. With our ever increasing population these changes are going to be harder and harder to manage succesfully.

The abject failure of NGO and government led peace meetings

During the last 15 years I have witnessed countless peace meetings being held in various parts of northern Kenya; between conflicting groups of herders and between conflicting communities. People never tire of having them yet there is very little evidence that they are ever effective.

Peace meetings are a great selling point for NGO’s and government bodies though, who are hoping to raise funds from donors. They involve various expenses including (but by no means limited to) catering, transport, accommodation and even conference facilities. They look great in NGO pamphlets. Glossy pictures of locals sitting around in a circle somewhere in the bush, the NGO’s local rep standing in the middle talking sense into these poor misguided people. Because of course a photogenic, age/sex/identity appropriate youngster is going to sort out problems in an afternoon that these groups or communities haven’t been able to sort out themselves in months or years.

It should be obvious, even to the money hungry NGO/GO’s and their donors, that you are never going to enforce peace from outside without some form of effective policing. And of course, effective policing is largely absence from most of the northern half of Kenya.

Without policing any peace initiative needs to be driven from the ground, it must come from the people themselves, they have to want it. That means they have to really want peace, not just want the cup of tea and the t-shirt that comes with the peace meeting. Without a real drive and desire for the violence to end, by the people involved, these meetings are just photo ops.

Peace meetings are in general nothing more than a box ticking exercise for NGO’s and an abdication of responsibility for government bodies. They hold the meeting, task a group of elders to make everything right and then leave. We should not let NGO’s or the government get off so lightly by buying into these meetings. We should hold these bodies, that have been funded to help maintain peace, to account. Peace is not measured by how many peace meetings you have it is measured by how safe it is to live in one of these communities, how often your livestock is stolen and how many days you have without the sound of gunfire.

How do you maintain social distance during a natural disaster?

I have heard many people pondering how terrible it would be if, in the middle of this covid-19 crisis, we had a natural disaster that forced everyone to come together in rescue centres. Yes it would, and that is exactly what has been happening over the last couple of days in western Kenya.

Torrential rain causing mudslides, flash floods and the rising waters of Lake Victoria are costing lives, washing away homes and flooding whole communities. People are currently sheltering in groups on higher ground, crammed together in makeshift shelters and many are still totally cut off from aid. Here is this mornings report in the Kenyan Daily Nation newspaper.

After mudslides, experts warn of Lake Victoria backflow

The 25 year anniversary of the Rwanda genocide reminds us that the destructive effects of violence continue long after the last shot is fired

In the drama of the latest viral moment, or breaking news from journalists tasked with finding the newest ‘bang bang’, we easily forget how extensive and serious the long term effects of violence are. I have seen first hand how violence leaves it’s mark on the individuals and communities involved. Time may obscure the effects on individual and collective psyche but, though new life events can help create distance, I am not sure the effects of violence every really go away.

These mental and emotional wounds, and the scars they leave, can all too easily develop into deep seated prejudice and even restart conflicts. I have watched that happen here in northern Kenya. You do not easily forget those that killed your family, or took away your home or livelihood. Memories of the fear, the loss and the pain (physical and emotional) can be buried, but when they surface they retain a horrific clarity.

Security, development and prosperity help greatly to move people forward and away from past violence. If those things are missing however, then these wounds can fester and become the trigger for new violence, even many years later. Those who wish to instigate violence for their own ends regularly use these wound to do just that. I have witnessed this too and it is a grim reality for the vast number of people who live in poor or marginal parts of the world with weak security mechanisms.

We have yet to count the true cost of modern conflicts such as that in Syria or the Yemen. European history is a great lesson for this. Look at how the first world war and the second world war are still such an integral part of European culture and heritage, even generations later. Every town has it’s memorials to those that died in these wars, every family can tell you which father, brother, uncle or cousin was killed in action and even the land the war was fought on is still scarred. These wars ended 100 years and 74 years ago respectively.

Western European countries were rich before the wars and massive post war investment hastened recovery. This was not the case in Eastern Europe where poverty hampered development and reconstruction, the scars from those wars lasted longest and most damagingly there. 25 years since the Rwandan genocide may seem long to some, but as the article by Nita Bhalla below shows, the effects of that war are still being lived every day by the people who survived it. Then consider what lies ahead for those countries and places that are currently suffering war and violence. The story of violence does not end with the ceasefire and the aid programs, when the cameras leave the story of violence has barely begun.

Read this:
Rwanda’s genocide survivors tormented by horrors 25 years on. By Nita Bhalla – Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Cyclone Idai, climate change and famine in Turkana

The effects of Cyclone Idai have reached beyond the devastation of parts of Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. According to the latest Kenya Meteorological Department report it sucked so much moisture out of the atmosphere that the southeast winds, those that normally bring Kenya rains at this time of the year, are pushing only dry air in our direction.

The rainy season, originally forecast to be on the wetter side of normal, has been delayed by Cyclone Idai. It may be that we get very little rain at all because conditions in the southern Indian Ocean are currently ripe for more cyclones. Another, Cyclone Joaninha, has been sitting just to the east of Madagascar for the last few days and is also using up moisture that winds would otherwise have push onto Kenya.

Recent deaths in parts of Turkana and Baringo counties have been linked to hunger driven by drought. If climate change is responsible for the increase in strength and number of Indian Ocean cyclones this year then it will also be responsible for making the dry conditions across the north of Kenya much worse.

I hesitate to call the current situation in northern Kenya a drought. We have been through a normal dry season which followed on from slightly less rains than normal in the previous Oct-Nov rainy season. Conditions are dry but not dramatically more than normal. What is different these days, as opposed to 20 years ago, is the number of people trying to live in a marginal environment.

Population increase has been most dramatic in the very areas where there is the least development and the most hostile environment. Fewer people would make the current conditions look a lot less like drought and a lot more like a dry season. Famine, though, has hardly ever been recorded as a solely environmental issue. It is always at least partly social and for social, read political. Too many people for the carrying capacity of the land, and little or no social support is the main driver behind hunger in Turkana, Baringo and other parts of northern Kenya.

Climate change, and an increase in the number and severity of Indian Ocean cyclones, draining the moisture out of the atmosphere through which our rainy season winds are blowing, will make matters a whole lot worse. It is quite possible that this year we will now see very little rain across most of Kenya, during what is normally regarded as the most important rainy season of the year. This will impact not just those already suffering in the northern half of the country but also many others who rely on these rains for crop production to sustain themselves and fellow Kenyans.

Of course climate change, like famine, is a man-made problem. Just this time it’s not one that many Kenyans can be blamed for. Like those that have suffered so badly from Cyclone Idai, climate change is something people in Africa struggle to deal with but have had very little to do with causing.