Category Archives: africa

a version of me died in the congo

One of the jobs I do in this city where one job is never enough is I work on a website. The website covers news from all over the world and sometimes I get a story from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The stories from the DRC – just as an FYI news media love acronyms – they’re usually quite depressing. The DRC has had civil war on and off for the last two decades. Millions have died.

Image

A photo of me on the Congo River taken in 2006.

As you might imagine this means DRC is a pretty crap choice for a vacation.

I know this because I holidayed there a few years ago. Whenever I see DRC news stories I’m reminded of this visit and of the end of the trip in particular, when I burst in to tears in front of a room full of strangers.

The strangers were immigration officers and a couple of cops. Aside from the odd dewy-eyed moment in the darkness of a movie theater I don’t cry in public. Yet this was second time that day I’d cried. The first was a few hours earlier at a cafe where I’d been trying to collect myself after some wild-eyed kid pulled a knife on me in the street.

Because of the shock the tears came uncontrollably. The locals saw this and word got around and pretty soon a couple of “cops” turned up. (FYI – in DRC you must put inverted commas round the name of any public official). The “cops” asked me to accompany them to the precinct. I went because I thought they wanted me to fill in a crime report. But it soon became clear they weren’t interested in the crime. I was led to an office where I met some “immigration officers”.

The men wanted to see my passport. I might be here illegally, they said. When I tried to protest that maybe the recent knife crime should take precedence over my immigration status they got very angry and began shouting. That’s when I started crying.

My memory is of some pretty major league blubbing. Crumpled, wet face. Loud sobs. The whole nine yard. The men in the room were not impressed and if anything their treatment of me grew even harsher after my breakdown. I was escorted back to my hotel and had my passport taken from me. I was taken to a police precinct and forced to sleep on a moth-eaten mattress. The next day I got my passport back and that same afternoon booked a flight out of the DRC and a few days later left and never went back.

That episode left a big mark on me. It shattered an illusion I’d had about myself till then. Till that point I’d wanted to see myself as the adventurous writer, bringing reportage from far flung places, cool-headed in the face of danger. A modern-day Hemingway. But this episode showed me that this larger-than-life person didn’t exist and that the truth was someone much smaller.

For along time after the DRC trip I felt humiliated by my breakdown and I hated the small person I’d revealed myself to be. I couldn’t really talk about it but I know it prayed on me. I got involved in a series of relationships that looking back on it now were quasi-abusive and quit working and got fucked up a lot. I think I was punishing myself. I think I wanted to forget.

In the last couple of years I’ve started to understand the truth of that episode. The main thing is that I’ve begun to come to terms with that smaller person who inhabits me. I see him now as the little boy I once was and the vulnerability he reveals in me I realize is the heart of my humanity and without it I would be just another dead man walking.

I realize too that the truly shameful fear on show in that room in Kinshasa wasn’t mine. It was the men’s. They were afraid to see another man cry because it reminded them too much of their own vulnerability. They had grown used to the idea that they had to stay hard to survive. They had grown used to the idea that a man never lets his guard down, that to show weakness is to be less than human.

Because of this terrible fear men do terrible things. At least in part, this terrible fear is why millions have died in the DRC.

A version of me died in the Congo and, on the whole, I’m glad he’s gone.


africa poems

 God Wind (Lamu, Kenya, 2006)

The women in the water, and they drinking up the sea

The baby for the slaughter – he smile up to you and me

The tourist in the floater, speeding off to take their ease,

Me I’m walking by the water and I’m feeling the sea breeze.

That’s like destiny, a mystery

The God Wind got a hold on me

The sand crabs walking at my feet

Slip into holes – don’t know where they lead.

How come everything duality?

My body ache for raw simplicity

The women drinking up the sea,

They regurgitate a kiss for me

The child lies murdered at my feet

And the God Wind blows to history,

Yeah the God Wind blows to history.

The Wind and the Man (Lamu, Kenya, Jan. 2006)

Palm trees sway, leaves shiver,

Bounce, tickle the air

Fisherman on barnacle spattered rock

Swings a line to the waves

The wind-whipped white-winged waves

Crash

Raucously around the brown man’s legs;

Long slender affairs, half hidden in billowing shorts

Sharp jerk

Flash of flapping silver glitters in the daylight

Brown legs crouch, study the catch,

Eye to fisheye

Still. Then jerks – a frisson of fear

Catches the neck; twist, snap, and the hook goes free. Dropped on the deck to die.

A seagull hovers overhead, pulled sideways by the wind.

Fat Chancer (Khartoum, Sudan, 2005)

You’ve got to make enough money to feed your family

Any way you can, any way you can.

‘Cos life’s no picnic, you don’t know you’re born son

So you play the game and you beat the man.

Keep your eye on the ball and your back to the wall

And don’t show your hand, or you’re in the can.

If you don’t ask questions and keep your head down,

Then you’ll sleep in satin not before too long.

Now look at me, I’ve an SUV

And a home in Spain and a place in France

I like a good vintage and a tome on history,

And I love my kids, don’t get me wrong

But I came from nothing, a fighter from the street

Punched above my weight; I’m a self-made man

You say there’s people starving, I don’t write the rules son,

The system keeps them down? Well, not this one

You’ve got to make enough money to feed your family

Any way you can.

When you’re two… (Khartoum, 2005)

There’s nothing you can’t do

When you’re two.

There’s nothing you can’t be

When you’re free from ideology

And you’re best friend’s a toy monkey.

You brim with the gleaming potential of a dewy May morning

But the cracks between your toes need inspecting.

Ethiopian mountainside (Simian Mountains, Ethiopia, Nov. 2005)

Night falls on the mountainside

In the sky the freshness of a star

Steep valley ridges lose their shape

Their rippling contours merge to black.

The last warmth of sunlight glows on the ridge opposite

And slowly the orange disintegrates to tawny white.

If you look closely you can see it happen,

Watch the world transform before you – timeless moment.

On the far side of the valley fires burn in the darkness

Later on, they will peter out and disappear into the night.

The White Desert (Egypt, 2005)

The sun drops in the desert

The only sound, the scratch of pen on paper:

This orange globe falls so fast in this strange lunar land

Its faint afterglow hangs in the air like an echo, and is gone.

Queer obelisks sprout from the ground

Ancient limestone runes moulded by time

Proud blue sky loses its lustre and turns smoky white

And soon it will be night, soon it will be night.


africa’s sham democracies

(KAMPALA, Uganda) In the closing week of campaigning in Uganda’s presidential elections last month, incumbent Yoweri Museveni held his final public rally at an airstrip on the outskirts of this capital city. The 62-year-old Ugandan ruler stood imperiously in his trademark broad-brimmed hat above a crowd of supporters chanting: “No change, no change!” The event seemed more like a victory celebration than an appeal for votes.

The suspicion that Museveni’s victory was a foregone conclusion has grown since he was comfortably elected to a third term despite widespread accusations of fraud, intimidation and misuse of state funds. International election observers said Uganda lacked a level playing field for its first multiparty elections in more than two decades, while a spokesman for the main opposition, the Forum for Democratic Change, went further: “This election was as free and fair as it would have been under Saddam or Hitler.”

The same story is being repeated across Africa as nations — often in response to pressures from the West — introduce democratic reforms that their leaders are then accused of manipulating to stay in power.

Christopher Albin-Lackey, an Africa specialist with Human Rights Watch, said, “These governments have become increasingly adept at using the trappings of Western democracy for repressive ends.”

One exception to the continental strongmen may be Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was in Washington on Tuesday and met with President Bush in the Oval Office. He called Sirleaf a “pioneer.”

“You’re the first woman elected president to any country on the continent of Africa, and that requires courage and vision and the desire to improve the lives of your people,” Bush said.

It’s still too soon to know whether Sirleaf, who won election late last year, will be able to effect changes in the desperately poor country — 206th in per capita income out of 208 countries on a 2004 World Bank list — that would make democracy work. If she does, it will be a rare African success.

Political reformers and human rights groups said that across the continent, leaders are exploiting democratic processes to give their governments a veneer of respectability.

In Ethiopia, for example, May’s elections were marred by accusations of vote-rigging by the ruling party of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. In the months that followed, more than 100 people died in clashes between police and anti-government demonstrators.

Zenawi, who like Museveni fought his way to power in a coup, has since used the state apparatus to quell dissent, putting on trial more than 80 alleged ringleaders — including opposition leaders, journalists and human rights activists — on charges ranging from treason to genocide.

In North Africa, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak allowed opposition candidates for the first time in September, rather than give voters only a yes-or-no ballot choice. But opposition leader Ayman Nour was arrested and sentenced to prison on charges that Egyptian democracy advocates contend were trumped up.

Albin-Lackey said rather than replacing state violence, in most cases so-called reforms were being used to complement and conceal brutality that was continuing unchecked.

Though abuses have not gone unnoticed in the West, they have largely gone unpunished in Uganda and elsewhere.

The arrest of Uganda opposition candidate Kizza Besigye after he returned from self-imposed exile at the end of last year led to two days of rioting in Kampala and a storm of criticism from foreign donors. Britain, one of Uganda’s biggest donors, withdrew $27 million of aid in protest.

Museveni’s government remained uncowed, and Besigye was charged with rape and treason, severely limiting his opportunities to campaign. After the election results were announced, a judge cleared Besigye of rape, dismissing the prosecution case as “crude and amateurish.” But Besigye still faces treason charges in the high court, and the army is pursuing terrorism and weapons charges.

In Egypt last year, an international furor followed Nour’s first arrest on charges of forging signatures on election documents, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delayed an official visit in protest. The government released him but did not dismiss the charges.

After Mubarak easily won the election, Nour, who got 7.6 percent of the vote, was rearrested on charges that included insulting the president. On Dec. 24, he was convicted and sentenced to five years hard labor.

Professor Aaron Mukwaya, a lecturer in international relations and security studies at Mekere University in Kampala, said Western governments are caught between a desire to promote democracy and maintain security in notoriously unstable regions.

“The main preoccupation of the West when dealing with Africa is stability,” he said. “They don’t want the whole continent descending into civil war, so they tolerate leaders who are not democratic but who offer peace.”

While this pragmatic approach may have restored relative stability to countries once torn apart by infighting, he said, the abuse of the institutions of power would inevitably lead to disaster.

“Almost all state institutions in these countries are under the direct control of the ruling party. So, for example, during the last elections in Uganda, everything from state TV to the military was mobilized to ensure a Museveni win,” Mukwaya said. “The problem comes when you have a change of regime. Then these institutions are left in tatters because they were never given the chance to develop independently. And then you are back to square one.”

He said even institutions that had managed to maintain a degree of autonomy, such as the media and the judiciary, were punished if they stepped too far out of line.

After demonstrations in October, the Ethiopian government shut down all independent media in the country for more than two months.

In Kenya this month, heavily armed and masked police smashed into the offices of the country’s second-largest media company after its criticism of the government over multimillion-dollar corruption scandals. About 3,000 Kenyans protested the raid in the capital.

“They will allow just enough freedoms to give everything the appearance of normality,” Mukwaya said. “But if you overstep the mark, then you are in trouble.”

Or as Kenya’s Internal Security Minister John Michuki put it at a news conference after the police raids: “If you want to rattle a snake, you must be prepared to be bitten by it.”

This was first published in the San Francisco Chronicle on 22 March, 2006


spectre of mobutu haunts congo poll

(KISANGANI, Democratic Republic of Congo) In a drab, single-storey building in Kisangani, candidates for one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s many political parties are discussing the man who inspires them.

Mobutu Sese Seko led this vast central African state for 32 years, renaming it Zaire and ruling it savagely for his personal gain.

He would reward his friends, and himself, with proceeds siphoned off from the country’s enormous mineral wealth. He would have his enemies publicly hanged, if they were lucky. Otherwise they would be slowly mutilated, one body part severed after another, until they died.

Yet, nine years after the dictator was deposed, to the jubilation of many of his countrymen, and eight and a half years since he died of prostate cancer in exile in Rabat, Morocco, his memory is more than just alive – it is the driving force behind the Union des Democrates Mobutistes (Udemo).

One of his sons, Nzanga, 36, once his official spokesman, is its leader and hopes himself to become president in the country’s first free elections in July. “We would not pretend that Mobutu was perfect. He was a human being so he made mistakes,” said Udemo’s candidate for Kisangani, Christophe Enjimo-Ngado, immaculately dressed in a navy suit and tie despite the equatorial heat.

“But democracy means something different to Africans. What we crave here are strong leaders. Look at what happened to our country after we lost Mobutu – we have seen anarchy.”

Events since the elder Mobutu was forced from power have helped to obscure the memory of his crimes. In the power struggle that followed, the country was plunged into a civil war that lasted six years and led to the deaths of an estimated 3.2 million people.

The resurgence of the Mobutu clan is another bizarre twist in the country’s faltering progress towards its first democratic elections since winning independence from Belgium in 1960. The elections may yet be derailed by continuing instability in the east and an infrastructure almost non-existent in places, after years of war.

With campaigning officially under way last week, voters also face being overwhelmed by an excess of candidates.

In the rush to embrace democracy, 33 hopefuls have thrown their hats in to the ring for the presidential vote, including Nzanga Mobutu and the current president, Joseph Kabila, the son of Laurent-Désiré Kabila – whose rebel army drove Mobutu from power in May 1997.

In Kisangani, the capital of the mineral-rich Province Orientale, where much of the recent fighting has occurred, the five parliamentary seats are being contested by no fewer than 157 candidates.

Located on the Congo river amid dense tropical rainforest, the city is also the centre of operations in the country for the United Nations, which is overseeing the elections and has been trying to raise voter awareness.

Tens of thousands of polling stations have been set up across this vast country – almost the size of Western Europe – with local people recruited to publicise the poll because large areas are cut off from radio and television. Some observers have accused the international community of forcing elections that have little chance of being truly democratic on a country beset by huge logistical and security problems. In last December’s referendum on a new constitution only 15 million, less than a quarter of the population, voted.

One UN election official, Ludovic Le Moing, said, however: “No one is pretending these elections will be totally democratic, but what they represent – a chance for this country to move forward, to create stability – is more important. There is a huge collective will here to see that happen.”

Although some rebel leaders have laid down their arms to contest the elections, 17,000 UN soldiers – the largest peacekeeping force in the world – remain ready for the possibility of post-election violence.

One senior UN commander said: “In the end there will be only one winner. What the losers decide to do is an unknown, so we are bracing ourselves for trouble.”

In the blazing afternoon heat, 64-year-old Lola Assani-Andre sat on the steps of his rundown hotel in central Kisangani. It provided refuge for families fleeing the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, and was used as quarters for officers of the Congolese army, who stayed a year and left without paying their bill.

A parliamentary candidate in the forthcoming vote, he said: “We are sick of war here. If this election means a safe future then I want to be part of it.”

This was first published in London’s The Telegraph newspaper on 30 April, 2006


driving out the devil is a ratings winner in congo

(KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo) The young Congolese woman lay screaming on the dusty ground, arms thrashing wildly as a white-gowned preacher gripped her head and prayed.

As she fainted, thousands of spectators in Kinshasa’s Tata Raphael stadium roared with excitement – yet another public exorcism was reaching its climax.

In the run-down arena that once hosted the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman, today it is the battle to save souls that draws in the crowds.

Editing footage of the spectacle in a television studio, the Rev Augustin Betu, an impresario of some of Congo’s top devil-hounding talent, watched his colleague’s performance approvingly

. “The preacher is driving out the demons,” he said. “They have taken possession of her and only the power of Jesus can send them away.”

Although the Democratic Republic of Congo will next month hold its first democratic elections since its independence from Belgium in 1960, televised exorcisms rather than political debates are dominating the airwaves in a country where the majority of the population still believes in black magic, the broadcast networks are saturated with a dozen religious channels competing for converts, most of them owned by Christian cults led by charismatic preachers.

Mixing the razzmatazz and showmanship of American-style televangelism with traditional animist beliefs, the exorcisms are the centrepiece of most of the stations’ output.

At his television studio on a hillside overlooking the capital, Mr Betu – the manager of Radio Télévision De L’Armée Eternelle – was sifting through footage of various “miracles”, including a blind woman apparently being returned to sight and a disabled man, who seemed to regain the use of his legs.

“If someone is possessed by a demon, it is often because another person has put a curse on them,” he said. “Only prayer can drive out the evil spirit.”

All across the sprawling city of Kinshasa, shops offering protective fetishes against evil curses compete alongside churches run by the Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Congregations gather daily in their thousands to witness exorcisms. Many are performed by self-appointed pastors, who are keen to distance themselves from traditional African beliefs and talk up their Christian credentials.

“The only tradition we are a part of is the Christian one,” said Prophet Naama Sikatenda, the head of the Church of the Living God, which claims to have 65,000 members at more than 200 churches across this central African state. “We are not interested in fetishes and witchcraft. We use only the power of prayer,” he said.

But not everyone is convinced. Willy Kabwe, the editor of the Congolese daily newspaper Le Potential, said many exorcists had switched to Christianity because it offered more potent powers of casting out.

“The irony is that many of these pastors were witch doctors who have embraced Christianity because the tribal beliefs are now seen as primitive,” he said. “Many of their congregations come to the church because it is seen as a more powerful ally if someone tries to curse you.

“They retain the same beliefs, but do it under the guise of Christianity.”

He pointed out that while most of their followers remain impoverished, in a country ravaged by decades of war, many television preachers had become wealthy celebrities.

The high profile of the television shows has finally prompted Congolese authorities to begin taking a close interest in preaching practices – after years of pressure from human rights groups.

One channel was shut down after its leader was accused of inciting his followers to attack members of another cult. And Prophet Sikatenda has drawn criticism for claiming to have cured Aids victims.

Human rights groups have long claimed that – away from the gaze of television cameras – exorcisms involve the abuse of orphaned children who have been thrown out of their homes, accused of witchcraft after the untimely death of a parent or other family hardship.

Joel Kabongo, the head of Radio Télé Sango Mala (Good News TV), a religious channel independent of the cults, said: “Whether what they are doing is magic or fabrication I don’t know. But they are exploiting vulnerable, naive people.”

First published in London’s The Telegraph newspaper 4 June, 2006


no lawyers but rwanda’s village courts could pass death sentence

(RUBILIZI, Rwanda) Inside the beaten-up shell of a building wrecked during Rwanda’s genocide, a local man rises nervously to address the village court.

He points at another villager, sitting with a group on wooden benches, and declares that the man had incited soldiers to rape a girl during the 1994 atrocities.

No sooner does he finish speaking than a woman in a headscarf speaks up, saying that she had seen the accuser looting the home of a genocide victim. He snaps back that she could know this only if she had taken part in the looting herself.

In the hamlet of Rubilizi, 20 miles outside the capital, Kigali, the true story of the genocide is in danger of becoming blurred by rumour and recrimination, as it is in so many communities in Rwanda.

Human rights groups claim that the village courts, set up in 2001 to deal with a crippling backlog of genocide cases, are being hijacked by villagers using the pretence of genocide allegations to settle land disputes and family feuds.

In the country’s Gikongoro province, a genocide suspect was brought to trial recently for raping a woman who, it later emerged, had falsely accused him because he owed her family money.

Known as gacaca – the Rwandan word for the grass on which many of these hearings take place outdoors – the courts combine traditional tribal practices with modern legal concepts.

Presided over by elected “wise persons”, no defence lawyers or prosecutors are allowed to take part in the hearings. Instead, the public can interrupt, either for or against the accused. Nevertheless, the judges, often relatives of suspects or victims, can hand down sentences of up to 30 years.

“Given the very basic legal background the judges have, and the enormous pressure they are under to get this process finished, the chances to abuse the system are very high,” said Hugo Jombwe-Moudiki, the head of mission in Rwanda for Lawyers Without Borders, the Belgian human rights group. With fewer than 13,000 people tried, out of an estimated 750,000 suspects, the government is pushing for results from the country’s 10,000 gacaca courts, which have been working only in a limited way but are about to operate fully nationwide.

In an effort to speed up the process, the government announced recently that it was planning to give the gacaca jurisdiction to try “category one” suspects, which include those involved in orchestrating the genocide.

The change in the law would give village judges the power to hand down the death sentence and has led to protests from Belgium – the former colonial power – and other European donor governments. A final decision on the law is expected soon.

“Victims want to see justice done,” said Mr Jombwe-Moudiki. “But if you force unprofessional judges to come up with results no matter what, it’s going to lead to the kind of mayhem we are already starting to see.”

Controversy over the possible use of the death sentence by gacaca judges has also stalled the progress of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The main suspects – those accused of masterminding the killing – are on trial in the neighbouring Tanzanian town of Arusha.

Since it was set up in 1994, the United Nations-mandated court has convicted just 20 people and acquitted three, but requests to transfer some of the trials to Rwanda to speed up the process have met opposition from defence lawyers who want immunity from the death sentence for their clients.

The gacaca courts have also been blamed for helping stir up the kind of ethnic tensions that fuelled the genocide, in which an estimated one million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in a three-month killing spree presided over by an extremist Hutu government.

There have been widespread reports of survivors being murdered to prevent them giving testimony, while clandestine groups aimed at discouraging Hutus from betraying the “genocidaires” are alleged to be operating in rural areas.

Hutus – the ethnic majority – claim that the courts are heavily influenced by survivors’ groups and are biased because they ignore atrocities committed by the Tutsi rebel army, which took power after the genocide.

With a national period of mourning beginning last week to mark the 12th anniversary of the genocide, many Rwandans are keen to put the past behind them.

But, with the trial process having barely scratched the surface, and the continuing fascination with Rwanda in the West – shown with the release in Britain, a week ago, of the film, Shooting Dogs, starring John Hurt as a missionary caught up in the genocide – it is likely to be a long time before the ghosts of the past are laid to rest.

First published in London’s The Telegraph newspaper on 9 April, 2006


failure of kenya’s rains puts 2.5m at risk of famine

(NORTHERN KENYA) Nomadic farmers in the arid wastelands of northern Kenya are dying with their cattle, as charities warn a famine on the scale of Niger is threatening the region.

So far, scores of people, mainly children, have died and the UN has warned that 2.5 million people are at risk of starvation because seasonal rains failed for the second time in a year. The Kenyan government has declared a national disaster and called for 11 billion Kenyan shillings, about £90m, to be jointly raised by Kenya and the international community.

In the worst-hit north-eastern region close to the Somali border, many pastoral farmers have lost their entire livestock because rains expected in April and then October failed to arrive.

Local media has reported nearly 50 fatalities but it is feared the toll may be many times higher since most deaths are likely to have gone unrecorded because of the Muslim practice of burying the dead on the same day of death.

Relief efforts have intensified, with the Government sending the army to distribute supplies and the Kenyan Red Cross initiating a programme to buy cattle from destitute farmers.

The scale of the crisis has shocked aid agencies in one of Africa’s more stable and affluent countries.

Oxfam’s humanitarian programmes co-coordinator for Kenya, Josie Buxton, said the current level of aid had to at least double.

She said: “At the moment, it looks extremely serious and there is a very real risk that we could have a Niger-type scenario on our hands.”

In the north-eastern district of Wajir, the village of Qu’laley lies in dusty bushland, about 200 miles from the Somali border.

Scores of hungry families have been arriving every day from the bush in search of water and food aid.

The rotting corpses of cattle litter the area, scattered between the nomad’s makeshift straw huts.

Outside their huts, veiled women prepare a porridge made from maize to feed their remaining livestock, which lie around listlessly in the sun. Othowa Jimale-Ali stands over the simple grave of his baby daughter dug in the scorched earth and marked poignantly by a leafy branch – one of the few pieces of greenery found in this dusty land.

The six-month old, called Fatima, died three days ago from chronic diarrhoea almost certainly caused by a weakening of her immune system because of malnutrition after her mother was unable to breastfeed.

Othowa, 50, said: “I’ve never known it like this, all the land is dry and there is nowhere to take our cattle. I have lost 50 cows now. It is the will of God and we must trust he will bring us rain.”

Within Kenya, blame for the crisis has been levelled at the long-term policy of mass deforestation, which has turned arable farmland to arid desert.

Kenyan Nobel prizewinner, Wangari Maathai, said major deforestation, started by the British during colonial rule and continued legally and illegally after independence, had reduced indigenous forest cover to just 1.7 per cent.

“The tragedies this country are facing today such as drought, famine and poverty have been exacerbated by the gradual degradation of our environment – including indigenous forests,” the Ms Maathai said.

Ms Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her devotion to Africa’s forests, said Kenya needed at least 10 per cent of its land mass under forest cover to safeguard agriculture, health and water supplies.

Medical superintendent Dr Eliud Aluvaala said that, despite fact-finding visits from government officials and the UN, the hospital had yet to receive any help.

He said: “It’s no good sending fact-finding missions – that won’t feed the children who are starving.”

Ms Buxton also criticised the response to the crisis. She said: “This is something that is happening time and again in Africa. A humanitarian crisis unfolds that we can see coming a long way off and yet despite warnings, nothing is done until it is too late.”

First published in London’s The Independent newspaper on 13 January, 2006