KANIGIPUR, NORTHERN KENYA — Driving through northern Kenya’s drought-affected famine district as the midday sun lifts temperatures to over 40 degrees centigrade, pools of water shimmer in the distance, laying between dessicated trees and shrubs, with the mountains of Turkana peering through the haze. But these aren’t pools. There is no water here. By a cruel irony, this parched land taunts its thirsty and hungry people with distant images – mirages – of glistening oases in the distance. There hasn’t been rainfall since 2004, according to Akwari Nubukwi, an elder in the village of Kanigipur in the southern Turkana district. “We use the water from the riverbed, where we dig to find it. But it is just a little water, and even the goats and dogs drink from it”, he told me. The locals who are now suffering without water, whose animals – their main food and livelihood source – are dying, know better to be caught out by the illusion of water. Akwari adds: “Many animals have died. We haven’t had rain for a year. People are losing their animals. We are hungry now.”
Does the answer lie in the past? Under British rule, particularly before the Great Famine in the 1840s, the manufacture of absinthe-potency alcohol known as poitín was a nationwide illegal cottage industry requiring little technical expertise or equipment. This quasi-hallucinogenic brew was widely popularised as both a symbol of defiance of British rule (the Royal Irish Constabulary and its antecedents had special units designed to stamp out the industry/custom, which were met with ingenious schemes to maintain underground production) and a quick, cheap means of getting hammered.