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David Weiss

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Gold -- the Color of Impending Starvation

Posted: 02/ 6/2012 10:53 am

As you drive through Kitui and Mwingi provinces in southern Kenya, you notice the fields of golden corn around you on all sides. Only gradually do you realize that this is when the crops should be green and productive. But they are not. The golden brown color is the color of the withered stalks that never reached maturity. It is the gold of another failed harvest.

December's rains were disappointing. The distribution of rainfall was uneven; some areas of Kenya received enough, others, such as this one, received little. The river beds have already completely dried up, leaving behind dust and rocks. The only plants really thriving are the massive cacti that dot the landscape, as well as rough shrubs that are well adapted for the semi-arid climate. Three years have gone by since this part of the world saw any substantial rainfall. The next rains are not expected until April, by which time the meagerness of the harvest will be felt intensely by the people living in this region -- there will, once again, be hunger and starvation.

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This is what David Humphries, CHF's Director of Communications, described to me after his trip to Kenya a week ago. It doesn't have to be this way. There are crops that can survive these kinds of conditions. Every season, based on the predictions of rain, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) stipulates which hybrid form of corn will likely produce the best harvest. But many of these farmers have no way of knowing what KARI recommends -- they buy whatever seed they can get hold of. CHF International, with funding from USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, has been working in this region for the last five months. We have provided education to whole communities and given seed vouchers, for the KARI certified seed, to 616 of the most vulnerable families and farmer groups in the region. Some of the education is basic -- how far apart to plant the corn seeds, planting beans between them to enrich the soil with nitrogen - to more advanced, such as which types of crops are most likely to survive these kinds of weather conditions and how to capture atmospheric moisture. Everyone faces the same challenges -- the lack of rain, insects preying on their crops, fungal infections in the soil -- but those who received the certified crops and education find themselves in a far better position. Their crops have produced a harvest, enough to get by until the next rains. Most importantly, they are armed with the knowledge of how to avert a catastrophe in the future.

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Knowledge is the most important facet here in avoiding future disasters. Joyce and Esther (pictured right), for example, are members of chwindiaa, the widows' association in Kitui. Despite their age and vulnerability, they and their fellow widows have managed to harvest enough to live by and enough to sell a little at the market. Muthoki Mutiso, another widow who attended CHF's community education program, has taken the responsibility of educating the rest of the community in how to plant and raise corn and other crops effectively. She is well known in the community for her hands-on training, vigilantly supervising the younger generation as they plant the crops.

Providing seeds averts immediate starvation, but education changes lives and livelihoods in the long term. This is said to be the worst drought in East Africa in 60 years. But compared to the famine in Ethiopia of 1983-85 which sparked worldwide action, the number of people who have died is much reduced. The current famine is thought to be affecting 13.3 million people and while the instability in Somalia makes it difficult to determine the exact number of people that have died, all reports agree it is significantly lower than the 400,000 lost in the Ethiopian famine. This is cause for optimism. Education makes a difference. The disaster risk reduction activities by governments and NGOs over the last 28 years have proven to be an effective investment in the Horn of Africa. Otherwise we would be seeing many millions more in a catastrophic situation.

The international community should not be satisfied with putting off the crisis for a few months at a time, or even a few years. If we continue to invest time, money and effort now into the education of farmers in the Horn of Africa, we can avert future famines and, in turn, avert refugee crises, conflict and instability in the region. Every cent invested in education now will make a profound difference in the long term. Although the drought in the Horn of Africa has long since faded from the headlines, unless we continue to plan long term we may never be very far away from the next crisis. But if the will is there, despite climate change and the worsening situation, we could begin to see an end to such headlines for good.