Helping pastoralists cope with a changing way of life in Kenya

One year since the launch of Oxfam’s appeal for the food crisis in the Horn of Africa, Polycarp Otieno returns to Wajir in northeastern Kenya, to see how Oxfam’s response is helping communities to recover.

For many years, Abdillahi Jilaow depended on his livestock to provide for his seven children. Like generations before him, people in Wajir adapted to a harsh environment by following a pastoralist lifestyle. But as droughts become increasingly frequent, and pastoralist communities suffer from neglect and a lack of development, more and more are being forced into towns and alternative ways of making a living.

For Abdillahi, the 2011 drought was different to the many that had come before. He lost virtually all his animals, and for the first time he had to move from his rural home into one of Wajir’s growing towns and trading centres.

“I had 30 cows, and 300 goats and sheep,” says Abdillahi. “When I was a pastoralist, life was good. But there were many challenges, and I was often worried when it didn’t rain and I had to move from place to place in search of pasture and water. During (last year’s) drought I lost all my cows and 270 of the goats and sheep. I could no longer stay in the bush, so I moved to Dambas.”

A sundries start-up pays for education

The ECHO-funded “La Nina” program, which in Wajir is run by Oxfam and WASDA, aims to support people like Abdillahi, who have been forced to drop out of pastoralism and have no alternative sources of livelihoods. Abdillahi was soon enrolled in a program to receive cash relief.

“I took 9,000 Kenyan shillings ($107) and used it to start this business,” he says, pointing to a small shop with a wooden table overflowing with various brands of juice, milk, sodas, batteries, detergents and even hair-dye. His business is clearly thriving.

“After deducting my expenses I get a profit of about 2,000 shillings ($24) every month,” he explains. “I plow back some of the profits and save some of the rest. Right now I have 6,000 shillings ($72) in savings!” Abdillahi says he uses part of the profits to buy household essentials like food, and has also bought himself three new goats. The rest of the money is spent on paying school fees to educate his children.

Tailoring to the Dambas market

Guray Hussein Muhamed in her Tailor's shop. Photo: Polycarp Otieno/Oxfam

Just down the road from Abdillahi’s shop, mother-of-three Guray Hussein Muhamed is helping a customer try on a new dress. Her tailoring shop – selling new dresses and school uniforms, and repairing torn ones – is another one in the Dambas market that was set up with cash from the La Nina project.

“Previously my family and I lived a pastoralist life,” she says. “During the drought I lost 32 of my 35 cows. I had to sell another two to pay my children’s secondary school fees. I moved to Dambas and noticed there was nobody offering tailoring services, so when I received the first few payments I bought a sewing machine and materials to sell.”

“I’m not an expert at sewing, but my daughter is. I let her do the sewing and I concentrate on selling. She manages the shop while I travel to buy materials in Wajir town. I make 4-5,000 shillings ($48-60) profit every month and this has helped me take better care of my children. Our food, clothing and money for the education all come from this shop.”

Abdillahi and Guray are just two of the 8,000 people in 61 locations across Wajir who have received cash since late last year as part of the ECHO La Nina project. But without more support for pastoralist communities, increasing numbers of people are likely to follow them into towns.

“If the cash relief hadn’t come, life would have been very difficult,” says Abdillahi. “Although I always trust God to provide for me, it would have been very tough since I only had a few goats left.”

Read more

Blog: One year on from the Horn of Africa food crisis, much progress and many lessons

Food crisis in the Horn of Africa: Progress report, July 2011 – July 2012

Oxfam's response in Kenya and photos from Wajir

East Africa food crisis

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