Eat your dinner, young man, there are starving children in Africa

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by Cynthia Vukets on August 26, 2009

 

The boy on the right has pellagra - a skin disease caused by lack of vitamin B

The boy on the right has pellagra - a skin disease caused by lack of vitamin B

Neatly tilled plots of land line the road to Ndalani. But there is nothing growing and no water for the fields. Our car kicks up puffs of red dust as we drive and a skinny goat gazes disinterestedly at the approaching vehicle, too hot and lazy to even move out of the way.

We’re looking for children. We’ve heard dozens of kids in this area have been getting sick with a “mysterious illness” no one can diagnose or treat. But as we leave the highway and drive past village after village (really just two or three huts grouped together), we don’t see a soul.

Getting out of the car at one such cluster of two houses and some abandoned, broken-down buildings, I get the distinct feeling we’re in a ghost town. I look back and an old man cycles slowly into view, his bike creaking and wobbling as he pedals. Then he’s gone and we’re back in an eerie, Wild West kind of scene.

An old man pedals towards us on a rickety bike

An old man pedals towards us on a rickety bike

 

This area in Eastern Kenya is one of the hardest hit by food shortages in the country. The car bumps across a concrete bridge erected over a riverbed that is now completely dry. We pass only one well, where a little boy helps an old woman fill up jugs attached to their donkey.

Villagers we finally meet tell my colleagues (I’m just gazing on, their language washing over me along with the dust clouds) that they haven’t had milk or meat for longer than they can remember. They point out the direction we need to go to find these mystery children.

After trekking past several huts, snooping around and seeing no one, our self-appointed guide – an old man from Ndalani – spots a child walking up the path. He speaks to her and she runs off, coming back five minutes later with about 15 of her friends in tow.

Two of them are showing signs of the disease we’ve heard about. One 10 year-old boy seems to be pretty sick. Our photographer gets him to take his shirt off. Squinting into the sun, the boy holds out his arms and shows us the back of his neck. His skin is dry and scaly, and his face and neck are webbed with dark patches. He’s very thin.

 

We passed this hut but no one was home

We passed this hut but no one was home

The consensus in the newsroom even before we got out here was that these kids are suffering from pellagra, a nutritional deficiency. It’s easy to understand how that could happen. The only water source is a dirty river that runs through Makindu – a nearby truckstop town. No food. The government estimates 10 million people are relying on food aid to survive in a country of 35 million. In northern parts of Kenya hundreds of children are dropping out of school because they have to spend all their time searching for food or working to get a little money to buy some food.

As we’re leaving a mother drags her son over to the car and shows us his neck. She asks if he has the same illness as the other kids. But we’re not doctors. Even if we could diagnose him, what could she do for him?

To read John Ngirachu’s article on pellagra in Ndalani, visit http://www.nation.co.ke/News/-/1056/638276/-/uln8m6/-/index.html