It looked like a particularly macabre Damien Hirst exhibition. The taut carcasses of animals and half animals, skin parched and twisted in varying forms of agony, scattered across the sand: cattle, goats and even the remains of a camel, an erstwhile “ship of the desert”, rib cage bleached white by the scorching sun.
“This is someone’s wealth, just like stocks going down the drain,” says Mohamud Osman, surveying the carnage around the scrappy settlement of Barkukay, several hours’ drive through swirling dust storms from the town of Wajir in northern Kenya.
In Wajir county, where a majority of the 780,000 population are ethnic Somali pastoralists, many have been forced to abandon an itinerant lifestyle that relies on finding new pasture for their animals. “We call them ‘pastoral dropouts’,” says Osman, the son of a herder himself, a UK university postgraduate and now an emergency response co-ordinator for Save the Children.
Abdi Bilow, 52, says his herd of 100 cattle has dwindled to just three scrawny cows. “It’s unlikely they’ll survive, they have nothing to eat. We try to feed them these thorny acacia trees, which they force themselves to swallow,” he says. “After the first one died, I prayed for rain. Then they continued dying. After two and a half months this happened,” he says, gesturing to the carcasses.
Like pastoralists elsewhere in the Horn of Africa — where the worst drought in living memory is moving into its sixth season — those in this remote region of Kenya, bordering on Somalia and Ethiopia, depend on animals for milk, meat and income.
The World Meteorological Organization is forecasting yet another failed March to May rainy season when, in normal times, 60 per cent of annual rain is expected to fall. Abdie Gulie, a herdsman, laments: “The livestock is gone. And now we are thinking the humans may be next.”
The drought in Wajir, an area about three times the size of Wales, is part of a much wider emergency that has gripped swaths of the Horn of Africa in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. The drought has killed an estimated 9.5mn animals and tipped some 26mn people into “food insecurity”, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The crisis is competing for attention with a plethora of other humanitarian disasters caused by conflict, severe climate and the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which pushed up food prices. The UN identifies 10 other humanitarian emergencies affecting 230mn people in countries from Haiti to Lebanon and from Yemen to the Sahel and South Sudan.
In the settlement of Higley, where dozens of families live in compact, igloo-shaped dwellings made from branches and scraps of tarpaulin, virtually all the animals are dead. Mohammed Hussein Aden, 66, the village elder, says he is thinking of shaving off his henna-dyed beard, in recognition of the unfolding tragedy. “My grandfather told me about this kind of drought once, but I have not seen anything like it. What we know is how to herd animals and move from place to place. We know nothing of settling down.”
With little prospect of growing anything in the dusty moonscape, people rely on outside help. Until a few days ago, Aden had been thinking of walking to a refugee camp he heard about in Ethiopia. Then the local government delivered a small quantity of ugali maize meal, oil and beans.
Still, it is not enough. “People are not lighting their fires,” says Adey Jimale, a mother and grandmother. On a five-point scale used by international organisations to determine the level of hunger in a region, much of Wajir is at “emergency” level four, where five is famine.
In Jira, yet another dust-blown settlement, where Save the Children recently installed a solar water pump, Ladhan Osman siphons water off into a yellow jerry can. On her back, she carries her one-year-old daughter, Fatuma.
Fatuma’s father left the day she was born, says Osman, and has never returned. Of the 300 camels they once owned, only 40 survived. “My husband took them away to find pasture.” Does she think he will ever return? “If it rains, he will,” she says.