In 1983 and 1984, drought spread across the northern rangelands of Kenya and herders in lowland Samburu lost substantial portions of their livestock. Food aid arrived when 50 to 75% of the cattle had already died, and after poorer pastoralists were hungry enough to sell their remaining productive animals. No pastoralists died of the immediate effects of the drought, but many were so impoverished that their longer-term prospects for remaining as herders look dim.
This essay discusses the timing and content of famine relief as it applies both to Samburu and other food-stressed areas. It focuses on the process of food acquisition during the northern Kenyan drought itself. The more “indigenous” food strategies of herding, hunting and gathering offered limited benefits. Equally, however, commercial channels for procuring food proved inadequate. Herders could not reliably sell animals to obtain cash for purchased food, nor were the grain and sugar staples always available even when cash was on hand. Lacking means to provide for themselves, Samburu came to depend on varied kinds of handouts.