SCHOOLS in the arid north-western region of Kenya near Lake Turkana usually offer pupils from nomadic communities food to encourage them to come to class.
The dwindling number of children at Lokichare Primary School near Lowdar town shows that the food rations, like the landscape, have dried up.
Those pupils in attendance who trooped out to welcome the visiting BBC team chose to sing a song in the local Turkana language about the importance of washing hands before eating.
The irony is that the ongoing drought means the school does not even have water for them to drink, let alone wash their hands.
The Kenya Red Cross estimates more than two million people and 20 million head of livestock are currently in need of emergency food.
Various humanitarian organisations and Kenya’s government have launched appeals for food assistance for the region.
Aid organisations have given food to the government to distribute it to schools like Lokichare primary.
But headmaster Edward Lodoso Somal says since the school year began in January, no food has arrived.
“We think it is because of lack of transport,” he said, standing in the small windowless kitchen full of firewood and old ash in the stone hearths where the food is usually prepared.
Rose Ogola, a UN World Food Programme information officer, confirmed that food has been allocated to schools.
“We are surprised that there is no food in that primary school you are talking about,” she said.
However, Lowdar is a two-day, 700km journey from the capital, Nairobi — the last 300km along poorly maintained dirt roads.
This poses logistical problems and the government has no suitable vehicles to make the food deliveries.
Children head to the main road to beg for water from passing motorists
Last year, Somal had 280 pupils, now there are less than 90.
Many of the children have left to accompany their parents hunting for food and pasture in neighbouring Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia
Others have run off to nearby trading centres, hoping to receive relief food more easily there.
Droughts are not uncommon in northern Kenya, the last severe one was two years ago.
Somal feels long-term solutions need to be found to help the communities survive.
“Pastoralists should be encouraged to start a habit of selling their healthy animals during the drought period to keep their money in banks and use it later when the conditions improve instead of letting the animals die as they wait for rain,” he said.
In 2009, when the government offered to buy healthy animals from the nomadic communities, they declined as they hoped the rains would come.
They only agreed to sell when their livestock were so thin that many of them died on their way to the national slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Nairobi.
Driving through the Lake Turkana region, there is only sand — and a few acacia bushes that keep the few malnourished goats and camels alive.
Young boys and elderly men beg for food and water along the dusty road in the 40C heat.
Leah Lokala, 27, lives in a homestead — a collection of several grass hut houses surrounded by the desert — in Kalotum, 15km north of Lowdar town.
Nearby there are three famished-looking goats nibbling on thorny scrubs.
She was the only one of the group we met who speaks Kenya’s lingua franca Swahili, an indication that she has attended school for at least a couple of years.
“The drought has killed all the cattle and we now have only the three goats to take care of and we have to travel more than 15km to water them,” she said.
Several kilometres further on towards Lowdar we found a camel, renowned for being the most resilient of desert animals, that could hardly stand.
When the nomads, like the Pokot and Turkana, see their hardy animals dying of starvation, it spells more than just drought.
It often means deadly raids, usually involving pastoralists from neighbouring countries.
Come the rains, heavily armed nomads steal livestock from each other to stock up on those animals lost during the drought.
The authorities also want to stop the movement of nomadic Kenyan communities to other countries, fearing clashes over the scarce water and pasture. — BBCOnline.