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Published: October 8th 2009
Chango was literally beside himself. The old, scarlet-bearded proprietor of the Cold Drink Hotel seemed to be everywhere at once: reassuring the customers, scolding the cooks, greeting the newcomers who came through the curtained doorway. His prayer cap was askew, his myopic eyes squinted into the gathering darkness, where a few chickens scratched at the dust in the yard. The news from the kitchen was grim. First came word that there was no more fish; then the goat meat, too, was finished.
,” he said apologetically to a table of frustrated clients. “Hakuna nyama
Chango, born Mohammed Abdi Karim, tugged at the bright red threads of his beard. He had seen a lot in his time, but the commotion this week was a first. “There has never been anything like this in Loiyangalani,” he said. “Never, never, never.”
The old mama squatting by the cooking fire chuckled merrily. Chango tugged at his beard and took off his prayer cap and twisted it in his hands.
“I was the first to open a hoteli
, and I have never seen this before,” he said, gesturing with open palms to the dirty plates and mugs heaped atop the tables.
Goats nibbled at the scraps of food on the ground. The solitary light bulb on the wall flickered. Stars scattered across the sky and gusts of wind rattled the doum palms.
,” said Chango. There was no food left. There were no cold drinks in the Cold Drink Hotel, either.
The old mama got up, tossed a pot of water into the dirt, and stood there with her hands on her hips. Then she disappeared into the darkness.
The anticipation surrounding a visit by Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki - the first visit to Loiyangalani by a sitting president - stirred this hot, dusty, windswept town on the shores of Lake Turkana to life. A sluggish town populated by a mix of the north’s nomadic tribes, Loiyangalani was ill-equipped for the whirlwind that accompanied a presidential visit. The guesthouses were booked; the restaurants were overrun; and the arrival of foreign dignitaries and Kenyan politicians turned the single dirt road running through town into an endless cavalcade of Range Rovers and SUVs.
It was a grand spectacle for the Kibaki administration, which used the visit to announce the launch of an emergency relief program to
battle the famine threatening Kenya. A prolonged drought had crippled the country, with the rains failing for the fourth successive season. The effect had been catastrophic. Dried riverbeds had withered crops and displaced wildlife. Blackouts, even in Nairobi, had been widespread in a country reliant on hydroelectric power. More than 40 drought-related deaths had already been counted, with experts fearing those numbers would rise in the months ahead.
In the arid north, the suffering had been enormous. Livestock had been decimated by the drought. Pastoralists, like the Turkana, Samburu and Rendille tribes of Loiyangalani, were forced to trek hundreds of miles in search of grazing land. Scarce water sources on the barren plains around the lake led to fierce clashes between neighboring tribes. In Loiyangalani, and across the broad, wild north of Kenya, the situation was dire long before a convoy of army trucks filled with relief supplies pulled into town, kicking up a storm of dust.
In the town center that afternoon, the newcomers who arrived in anticipation of the president’s visit met with quizzical stares from the villagers. Waves of crisp-suited, clean-cut men swept through the street with cell phones pressed to their ears. Their polished
shoes seemed to repel the dust that was everywhere. Paunchy politicians, shaking the stiffness from their legs after the long drive from Nairobi, haggled with curio sellers and pressed handkerchiefs to their moist foreheads.
The locals were bemused.
“It is the first time for us to see this,” said a trader named Hassan. “All these people with fat stomachs.”
Hassan remembered the promise made by President Kibaki to visit the region in 2005, before canceling just days before the hoped-for event. The Turkana, he said, were used to the empty promises of their leaders. “All they do is talk and talk and talk,” he said. Whatever pledges were being made in Parliament - or would be made from the dais the next day - were only as good as the political will to follow them through.
“For three days people will eat chapati
, and then what?” he asked.
Hassan had few hopes for the president’s visit. He had watched the town’s elders shrink before his eyes. He had seen friends depart with their livestock to the far north, along the border with Ethiopia, in search of pastures. Instead of watching the spectacle at the stadium,
he planned to spend the afternoon working on his truck.
“I will watch Kibaki when the plane arrives,” he said, tracing an arc through the sky with his hand.
Despite Hassan’s reluctance, most of Loiyangalani was eager to welcome a man it had seen only on news broadcasts on this town’s solitary TV, or in the odd newspaper rescued from the cab of a lorry making the long drive from the south. The next morning women and children lined the acacia-studded hill overlooking the airstrip; elderly men squatted in meager scraps of shade, searching for the tell-tale glint of sunlight off the approaching plane’s wingtips.
Beside the airstrip the great northern tribes were bedecked in beaded necklaces and ostrich feathers and pendants made from animal bones. Their faces and necks were smeared with ochre, and they sang and danced and jangled as the president’s plane touched down on the tarmac. There were songs of welcome, and songs of thanksgiving. There were songs praying for the arrival of rains that were already long overdue.
The president looked dazed and stricken in the blistering heat. He shuffled down the line, accompanied by the robust Prime Minister,
Raila Odinga, nodding benevolently to the dancing tribesmen. They had been preparing for this moment all week: the men’s basso profundo rumbles, the women’s high ululations, could be heard singing from the town’s bomas at dusk each day. Now their faces were concentrated with passionate intensity. The president looked mild, avuncular, pleased.
Nearby a herd of cattle lowed and kicked at the dust. As part of the government’s rescue plan, the Kenya Meat Commission was purchasing cattle from herders for Ksh 8,000 (around $107) a head. “It is a very good price,” said an economic adviser to the Prime Minister, “considering what some are being sold for now.” In previous weeks, many desperate pastoralists were cutting their losses and selling their emaciated beasts for whatever they could get - some for as little as Ksh 500 a head.
The government, said the adviser, hoped to buy 300,000 cattle across the country to relieve the burden on the despairing herders. The 20 bulls swishing their tails nearby would be bought for immediate slaughter that day, as a gift to the local communities.
The president shuffled along to the ceremonial purchasing of the bulls, and the crowd shuffled along
beside him. Photographers surrounded the unfortunate livestock. The cattle looked unmoved. Polite applause followed the president’s announcement. Then the dignitaries poured into their waiting vehicles for the drive to the soccer field, and there was a disconsolate jangling of bells from El Molo ears and Turkana calves as the tribes jogged in the dust behind them.
During the night heavy winds toppled the dais, and in the hours before the president’s arrival, there was still a commotion of workmen hammering at the podium and nailing the threadbare red carpeting to the floorboards. Now, as the presidential convoy pulled onto the soccer pitch, the dais was draped with bunting, the flags hung listlessly, the VIPs fanned themselves in the shade of the pavilion. The military band, in gold-braided blazers, struck up a patriotic tune. Heads craned in the crowd to get a glimpse of the president’s balding pate as it emerged from his vehicle.
The president climbed the steps to the dais and took a seat beneath a picture of himself.
The speeches of foreign dignitaries underscored the international effort being launched in Kenya. The relief program was part of an ambitious joint effort by the World Food Program and the Kenyan government, which hoped, with the help of foreign donors, to distribute Ksh 24 billion ($320 million) in aid to the country’s hardest-hit regions.
A convoy of lorries carrying the promised relief supplies idled in the shade. In the past month, the government had distributed more than 132,000 bags of corn, 62,000 bags of rice, 30,000 bags of beans, and 18,000 cartons of vegetable oil. But the situation remained bleak. A government report cited as many as 10 million Kenyans facing starvation in the coming months.
Critics maintained that the emergency relief was months too late to stem the growing tide of hunger. Non-governmental organizations and international observers had been sounding the alarm bells in Kenya since the start of the year. According to government sources, President Kibaki had only been briefed on the full scale of the crisis a month before.
From the podium, the president assured the crowd, “Our work is to help all Kenyans wherever they are, and to ensure no one dies of hunger.”
He added, cryptically, “Whatever you have been told, we shall do.”
The great tribes of the north sang their praise across the parade ground, bells jangling on their ankles, feathers bobbing on their heads.
As the cameras circled, the president and prime minister distributed scoops of maize and beans to village elders. Then the drivers took to the wheels of the waiting convoy, carrying the relief supplies into surrounding villages. The VIP convoy soon followed: first the president, then the prime minister, then the MPs and dignitaries poured into their vehicles and drove through the blistering heat, bound for Nairobi and the temperate south. The crowd began to thin.
For a long time afterward, the dust hung in the air.
In the evening, outside a rondavel at the town’s Palm Shade Camp, local elders sat on the grass, drinking Sprite through plastic straws. They were waiting for a chance to petition Joseph Lekuton, the young, charismatic, Harvard-educated MP who was the Turkana’s staunchest advocate in government. Now and then faces emerged from the rondavel, looking hopeful and uncertain.
“He has done so much for this place,” said a young curio seller named Radash. “Politicians always talk. But he really does things.”
Late in the evening, there was still no sign of Lekuton. More bodies disappeared into the rondavel, emerging minutes later with their hats in their hands. The MP’s handlers circled among the waiting crowd, looking at their watches, exchanging nervous glances. It was impossible to tell what promises were made, what alliances forged, in that dim, stuffy hut. The door swung open. The door swung shut. Bottles of water were brought from the kitchen, promising a long night ahead.
On the lawn, the elders looked warily toward the sky. The rain had abandoned them. Darkness fell. Stars flickered. The elders were grim, their faces were lined, their legs were like bedposts. They had spent the day waiting for this moment. They had stood in clouds of dust when the sun was like a furnace, they listened to the speeches and the polite applause, thinking, Soon, soon
. They had recited their lines, they rehearsed their pleas and remembered their grievances. Now they sat with their hands on their knees and looked up hopefully each time the door creaked open. Men filed out, smoothed their pant legs, exchanged terse words of departure. Soon, soon
, they thought.
A man wagged a finger as a small crowd pushed forward. He said they had to wait.
And they would wait.
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