Climate change diaries: Kenya

August 11th, 2009

Hello, my name is George Kamau. In my country, Kenya, Maasai’s herdsmen and agro-pastoralists are being displaced and loosing their traditional livelihoods as global warming destroys their rangelands. It is important to realise that the damage caused by climate change is not a distant concern in Kenya – it is here now and will be the future. This is why I tell the stories of Ngotiek Sankiti and Catherine Senja as they struggle with the new climate threats.

Ngotiek Sankiti, 51, has lived all his life in Oloika, Kajiado district – 150 kilometres south of Nairobi. A former successful pastoralist who had over 500 cattle, he is a witness of the challenges brought by changes in weather patterns across the district in recent years.

“Before the long droughts in 2005/6, I enjoyed societal prestige because of the cattle in my boma (livestock shed). The long dry spell attacked the grass, our water sources and later had a big impact on our only source of livelihood, livestock,” he said.

His words are echoed by Catherine Senja, a widow eking a living out of small-scale businesses by selling the famous Maasai red shukas. Senja is a victim of climate change impacts around the expansive semi-arid district.

“When I got married, my husband and I had 500 goats and 490 cattle. However, the drying up of the reliable water points and the eventual wilting of the once green grass in the area has eaten into my herd. As we speak, I am bitter to proclaim that I only have 49 goats and 5 cows! The worst of all is zinaendelea kuisha! (The herd population decreases every month).

To feed the remaining herds the two families have to trek for about 12 kilometres every day to the nearest hill with green grass and a fresh water source. “The cattle have to be driven for about 10 kilometres every day to Ewaso Nyiro River for water. The distance sucks life out of our remaining herd”.

According to recent data from the Kenya Meteorological department, incidences of drought have increased fourfold in the region in the past three decades. In fact, one-third of herders living there have already been forced to abandon their pastoral way of life because of adverse climatic conditions.

During the last drought, so many cattle, donkeys and goats were lost that 60 per cent of the families who remain as herders need external assistance to recover. Their surviving herds are too small to support them.

What is worrying about the recent findings is that they reveal how a system of nomadic pastoralism – a system that has, over the centuries, been able to cope with unpredictable weather patterns and regular drought – is now being threatened by these conditions made more extreme by climate change.

This is a reality for all those who, like Sankiti and Senja, have been forced out of their traditional lifestyles to settle at the Oloika settlement. Nearby are dry patches of land and bones, the last of once thriving food crops and healthy animals – victims of the worst drought in living memory.

The families who until last year herded these animals across the district and beyond now huddle in this semi-urban settlement, their children rendered prone to malnutrition and other illnesses, but at least they are close to a reliable source of water, thanks to Practical Action working in Eastern Africa. From once self-sufficient livestock producers, they are now reduced to dependence on relief food handouts.

‘Our whole life has been spent moving, but we are desperate people. People who have lost our livelihood,’ says Sankiti, one of the elders at the Oloika settlement. ‘We didn’t settle here by choice, it was forced upon us.’

Everywhere are tales of huge livestock losses. In one roadside settlement, which now depends on selling merchandise – mostly shukas, food stuffs and milk from the few remaining animals – Isaac Lepilal recounts the dark days of the drought. It is shocking. His stories reveal that the community lost more than 300 sheep and goats and 150 cattle in a single day. And while torrential rains did come to the region for the first time in more than six months, it was too late for the communities who no longer have animals to put out to pasture.

Isinya is another sizeable community along either side of the region’s main road to Kenya-Tanzania border. Members of Isinya’s women association explained how the periods of rain have got shorter and the dry spells longer – changing the pattern of seasons on which the pastoral communities depended.

And while there were always droughts, they said, “Decade after decade it has been getting more severe. It has only been getting more and more serious.”

The future

Sankiti and Senja are representatives of a group of Maasai pastoralists who have borne the brunt of global warming; representatives of the people most likely to be wiped out by devastating change in weather patterns commonly referred to as global warming.

They are representatives of the three million pastoralists living in Kenya – part of a generation faced with the elimination of their great grand fathers’ way of life, a way of life that has sustained them for thousands of years.

They are a section of the hundreds of thousands of nomadic herders who have already been forced to forsake their traditional culture and settle in Kajiado’s growing urban centres following consecutive droughts that have destroyed their livestock in recent years.

They are the people destined to become the victims of world climate change. And as climate change activists, policy makers and government ministers are readying to travel to Copenhagen in December for this year’s UN Climate Conference, Sankiti and Senja will be many hundred miles away from their deliberations – thinking how to cope with the changes.

Drought in Kenya
A report on the current situation in Kenya

Stop Climate Injustice
Make the link between climate change and poverty

Working to adapt
Practical Action’s work to help communities adapt to climate change


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