Kenya's Poor Hungry in the Midst of Plenty

Nick Wadhams in Nairobi, Kenya
for National Geographic News
May 30, 2008
Part three of a special series that explores the local faces of the world's worst food crisis in decades.

On a muddy track that creeps between wooden stalls in Nairobi's Kibera slum, Difna Bosibori sells bundles of kale for about ten Kenyan shillings (seven U.S. cents) each.

But business has been horrible. There is simply no way she can hide that for the same price she is selling bundles half the size they were a few months ago.

"I haven't even sold a quarter of my stock," Bosibori said. "So when I go home, I cook less for the children, and I go hungry sometimes because I only eat if there's enough left over."

Places like the Kibera slum are on the front line in the global crunch over rising food prices. Half of Kenyans live on the equivalent of less than a dollar a day, and people who were already struggling to survive now find that spikes in food prices mean they must eat less—and sometimes not at all.

The slum is a telling example of what some experts call the new face of hunger—a situation in which shops and markets have plenty of food, but not enough customers who can pay for it.

Empty Stomachs

Kenyans first saw food prices rise in the wake of violence sparked by a disputed December 27 election that killed 1,200 people, destroyed thousands of shops, ruined countless businesses, and displaced at least 350,000 people from their homes. Many of these people were farmers who sold produce to their neighbors.

Since then, prices have gone up for just about everything—from kale, fish, and onions to flour, corn, cooking oil, and charcoal.

Now global food price hikes, as well as rising fuel costs, are likely to exacerbate a national economic swoon brought on by the violence. Already, Kenya's government is warning that some traders are hoarding crops in anticipation of even higher future prices.

Kibera, where tin-roofed homes sit tightly along dirt footpaths, is one of the world's largest slums. People here say they no longer eat to feel sated, but just to survive until food prices go down again. Once important dietary staples like meat, beans, and sugar are now considered luxuries.

"You have to sleep with an empty stomach, if there is nothing. All you can do is go to sleep," said Ainea Wasuka, 56, who had brought his HIV-positive niece to a clinic in Kibera.

"Even today, this morning, I have not taken even tea. I don't know what I will eat for lunch or for supper."

Tomatoes that were once considered too soft and rotten to sell now remain on the shelf, sold at a loss. Hand-painted signs advertising cow stomach at 80 shillings ($1.25) a kilogram (2.2 pounds) are now irrelevant and ignored.

The crisis has become so severe that Kenya's camps for internally displaced people have had to enforce strict registration policies, because people who were not displaced are moving into the camps.

Some are looking to get a share of the compensation money promised by the government. Others are just desperate for free food.

Bracing for the Worst

No one quite knows how the violence will affect domestic food supply.

But Kenyans are bracing for even greater shortages—and higher prices—in the coming months. Displacement camps are full of farmers who were expelled from their land, much of which remains fallow as the planting season starts.

"I hope I am wrong, but the indicators for the potential huge problem are there," said Father Ed Phillips, a U.S. priest who provides food and medicine to HIV/AIDS victims in Mathare, another Nairobi slum.

"If this should happen, I do not know what I will do. I have over 12,000 patients under care, and if you factor in other family members, you are talking about, as a minimum, 36,000 people being impacted."

The crisis exists far beyond the slums. Some Kenyans say they are relying more heavily on public transportation rather than spending what little they have on fuel, which is far more costly than it once was.

"You see, food prices have gone up, but people aren't getting any more from their jobs," said a Nairobi insurance broker named Isaac.

"If the situation does not improve within three months, people will just be starving."

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