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Kenyan festival drums up appetite for climate adaptation

by Isaiah Esipisu | @Andebes | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 17 June 2015 08:30 GMT

Fatuma Shufkisho, an agricultural extension officer from Saku sub-county in Kenya's Marsabit County, displays a watermelon, which she says grows well in the arid region. TRF/Isaiah Esipisu

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How do you get climate information to herders spread over vast distances? A festival might be the answer

LOIYANGALANI, Kenya, June 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - At the Marsabit-Lake Turkana Cultural Festival in Kenya's Marsabit County, Mariam Lemuska is not listening to the drums or the music. Instead, she is learning to make injera, an Ethiopian sourdough flatbread.

Lemuska, 39, comes from a pastoralist community that survives mainly on meat, milk and animal blood. But worsening drought is increasingly leading to more animal deaths, and Lemuska, of El Molo, is ready to look for new ways to feed her family.

"Our animals have always died whenever the drought is intensive, leaving us with hunger and starvation. I need to learn about these alternative ways of survival," she said.

As she watched, an agricultural extension officer demonstrated some potential optional staples, including sorghum, milk and honey cake and pumpkin chapati.

Once a year, the communities of vast Marsabit County - the largest county in Kenya - gather to celebrate their heritage. But as climate change takes hold in the arid region, the gathering has also turned into a showcase for ways to adapt to the region's shifting conditions.

"We must capitalise on the number of people present here, because it is a challenge reaching out to everybody given the huge size of the county, poor infrastructure, and a poor telephone and communication network," said Guyo Galicha Iyya, the county drought coordinator.

At the exhibitions, officials from the county government advise people to embrace animals like goats and particular varieties of sheep rather than cattle, because the smaller animals eat and drink less and are hardier.

At other stands people are taught how to harvest rainwater, and how to grow drought-tolerant crops - including some developed for the area by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation - as one potential alternative to herding.

"With the changing climatic conditions, there is an urgent need for the residents to diversify their sources of livelihoods," said Fatuma Shufkisho, an agricultural extension officer from Saku sub-county.

The fair she said, is a place for people to try alternatives, including new dietary possibilities such as sorghum chappati.

The three day festival, which takes place in the township of Loiyangalani, was initiated by the local administration in 2008 as a way of promoting peace among the pastoralist communities in the county, and celebrating their cultural heritage.

Ethnic communities who regularly attend include the El Molo, Rendille, Samburu, Turkana, Dassanatch, Gabra, Borana, Konso, Sakuye, Garee, Waata, Burji and Somali people.

The festival focuses on music and culture. But the growing crowds around exhibits on climate change adaptation are a clear indication of growing concern by the county's people and leaders.


"Under normal circumstances, spreading such information in Marsabit is a nightmare," said Jonah Samana, the programme manager for the Hunger Safety Net Project, a government-driven initiative that gives vulnerable households cash aid instead of food aid.

Marsabit has a population of just 300,000 people spread over 71,000 square kilometres (27,400 square miles). Mombasa County, by comparison, has a million people in just 219 square kilometres (85 square miles).

"We have always had to rely on non-governmental organisations and volunteers to reach out to the people who live far from each other," Samana said.

Getting information to families is particularly difficult because nearly all of the residents of Marsabit are pastoralists living a nomadic lifestyle, he said.

"They always migrate in search of greener pastures, making it difficult to bring them together for any kind of capacity building," Samana said.

The vast distances also make it hard for residents to get into town to attend trainings, said Iyya, the drought coordinator.

"For example, it is 700 kilometres (435 miles) from Iliret to Marsabit town, on a very bad road, and 300 kilometres (185 miles) from Loiyangalani to the head office, with public transport charging up to 2,000 shillings ($22) one way," he said. That means a trip to Marsabit and back, including lodging for the night, can cost three goats.

Emanuel Lekulo who trekked 10 kilometres (six miles) from El Molo to the Loiyangalani festival, said besides enjoying the music he had learned about diseases that regularly affect his goats and how to vaccinate his animals against them.

"Many times we lose our animals to diseases we do not know anything about. But today I have been given a mobile telephone number of an extension veterinary officer whom I can easily contact in case of a problem," Lekulo said.

"It was worth attending the festival because, apart from the fun, I have learned a lot."

(Reporting by Isaiah Esipisu; editing by Laurie Goering : ) ;))

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