The Last Famine

A natural history of hunger.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

See photos of Salopek’s journey through the hunger zone here. 

Early in February, without much fanfare, the United Nations officially declared the famine over in the Horn of Africa. This is welcome news. Last summer, when the worst drought in 60 years was wasting the region, 13 million people faced starvation. The misery was most acute in Somalia, where al-Shabab, the fanatical Islamist militia with links to al Qaeda, had blocked aid groups from working in the areas under its control. In the end, an estimated 35,000 Somalis — along with some Kenyans and Ethiopians — are thought to have died; most were children under five. The handling of the calamity nonetheless has been rated an overall success. Context helps in measuring such victories. Twenty years ago, a quarter of a million Somalis perished during a similar wartime drought. And before that, in the Sahelian emergencies of the mid-1980s, a million emaciated bodies were spooned prematurely into sandy graves.

Last August, I took a long walk with Daasanach nomads in northern Kenya, well inside the disaster zone, to see what it was like to move, as most famine victims do, on foot, through a landscape of chronic hunger. It was a way to look at hunger beyond the carefully framed shots of television cameras, and an occasion to ask: When will Africa’s vast hunger pangs finally end?

I made no pretense of suffering myself. I was joined by my wife, Linda, a seasoned hiker, and neither of us stinted on our personal food supply: We carried rucksacks heavy with energy bars and bottled water. Our host was a rope-thin goatherd named Inas Lonyaman, a smiling, bald-headed elder at 35, who answered to Mister Inas. He wore sandals cut from old tires and a kind of faded sarong, and he brought along his usual herding kit — a throwing stick and a tiny wooden stool on which to sit. His sterner colleague, Haskar Lotur, shouldered a rusty AK-47 rifle slung on a rawhide cord as defense against the Gabra, a competing and similarly armed group of herders. A young entomology student, Luke Lomeiku, also of Daasanach ancestry, joined us as interpreter. Lomeiku had equipped himself with a shiny-red plastic thermos that held perhaps two cups of water, and a butterfly net. Every few hours, he crept up to shriveled acacias and swept them for insects. But our trek promised lean prospects for science. Mister Inas’s pastures — located in the immense, arid core of the Turkana Basin — were overgrazed to the appearance of a gravel parking lot. Temperatures in the netted shade of the thorn trees hovered, at noon, around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. In two days of plodding across 25 miles of cauterized terrain, Lomeiku captured a single bee.

Mister Inas seemed grateful for the company. Pushing 80 goats through the coming desert was melancholy work. For three years, precipitation had fallen erratically, if at all, in his isolated corner of the world, a Kenyan outback located 500 miles northwest of the famine’s epicenter in Somalia. It was not the focus of the massive international relief effort, in which the U.S. government played a leading role, having donated by then some $459 million in humanitarian assistance. But the epidemic of hunger here was just as old and stunting. While an army of foreign journalists and relief workers converged on refugee camps on the distant Somali border, Daasanach children were starving in the more typical nomad way — more or less permanently and beyond the restless glare of the TV lights. Half of the Turkana Basin’s population of 500,000 livestock herders and subsistence farmers was on food aid. Indeed, some people had been collecting rations for 30 years. Even so, Mister Inas, a veteran of many starveling years, ranked the current dry spell the toughest he had ever experienced. Droughts used to be spaced further apart, he said. Nowadays, they came brutally hard and fast, and his goats were dying of thirst. He’d lost half his herd already. His seven children he parceled out among various relatives to avert starvation. When I asked how long he was prepared to endure such catastrophes, he shrugged.

"We have no education," he said, knocking his bony forehead with a fist. "If the Daasanach go to school, then all these troubles will end. But we are stupid." He talked at length about abandoning the nomad life altogether.

But I’d heard such declarations before. They weren’t credible. For the Daasanach, owning animals means everything — status, wealth, life. And like many disempowered minorities, they frequently said what they thought outsiders wished to hear. Trudging behind him for hours, I became convinced that the surer measure of Mister Inas’s future lay at the opposite end of his anatomy.

Horny with calluses, flat as slabs of jerked meat, his feet swung from his high, girlish hips like the weights on a metronome: smoothly, tirelessly — I am tempted to say, eternally — as though the surface of the savanna consisted not of burning dust, but greased ball bearings. His sandals rode the earth like skates. It was a gait of superhuman efficiency: transcontinental, very old, designed for chasing clouds, for swallowing endless miles of geography in the pursuit of the country of rain. Once Africa stops producing such supremely educated feet, I thought — only then will the stereotypical images of her dying babies, the bloat-bellied infants of nomads, disappear from the world’s TV screens. The Mister Inases will have become extinct. Or, they will have finally pulled on socks and shoes. And from that point on, the mass hungers we hear about will be protagonized by victims whose soft soles are shod in wingtips, work boots, high-heeled pumps, tennis shoes. They will be urban. Which is to say, they will belong to us.

*          *          *

The Turkana Basin is a freakishly beautiful place. A gargantuan wilderness of hot wind and thorn stubble, it covers all of northwestern Kenya and spills into neighboring Uganda, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. Black volcanoes knuckle up from its pale-ocher horizons. Lake Turkana — the largest alkaline lake in the world, 150 miles long — pools improbably in its arid heart. The lake is sometimes referred to, romantically, as the Jade Sea; from the air, its brackish waters appear a bad shade of green, like tarnished brass. Turkana, Pokot, Gabra, Daasanach, and other cattle nomads eke out a marginal existence around its shores. The basin’s dry sediments, which form part of the Great Rift Valley, hold a dazzling array of hominid remains. Because of this, the Turkana badlands are considered one of the cradles of our species.

Richard and Meave Leakey, the scions of the eminent Kenyan fossil-hunting family, have been probing deep history here for 45 years. Their oldest discovery, a pre-human skull, about 4 million years old, was found on a 1994 expedition led by Meave. An earlier dig headed by Richard uncovered a fabulous, nearly intact skeleton of Homo ergaster, dating back 1.6 million years, dubbed the Turkana Boy. Both Leakeys told me the modern landscape had changed nearly beyond recognition since their excavations began in the 1960s. The influx of food aid and better medical services had more than tripled the human population and stripped the region of most of its wild meat, wiping out the local buffalo, giraffe, and zebra. Domestic livestock — exploding and then crashing with successive droughts — had scalped the savannas’ fragile grasses. While driving one day near his headquarters, the Turkana Basin Institute, Richard pointed at a dusty cargo truck, its bed piled high with illegally cut wood. "Charcoal for the Somali refugee camps," he said with a puckish smile. "The U.N. pays for it."

Leakey is not only a celebrity thinker. He is also an incorrigible provocateur and a man of big and restless ambitions. Bored with the squabbles of academic research ("I could never go back to measuring one tooth against another"), he abandoned the summit of paleoanthropology in the late 1980s to assume the directorship of Kenya’s enfeebled wildlife service, where he became a hero to conservationists by ordering elephant poachers shot on sight. A few years later, he helped organize Kenya’s first serious opposition party, and those activities invited years of police harassment. (A 1993 plane crash, which Leakey blames on sabotage, resulted in the loss of both his legs below the knee; he now gets around — driving Land Rovers, piloting planes — on artificial feet.) At one point, I asked him about heavy bandages on his head and hands at a recent lecture at New York’s Museum of Natural History. He had been suffering from skin cancers, he explained, that metastasized from old police-baton injuries. Leakey tends to view humankind through a very long lens, and pessimistically.

When we met, Leakey warned me that the killer drought throttling the Horn of Africa was another opening act for full-bore global warming. Northern Africa was a canary in the mine shaft. Even worse famines awaited. On the planetary stage, Leakey framed the problem bluntly as a matter of feeding 6 billion excess people. (He put the world’s carrying capacity at 1 billion humans and suggested our species would fall back to that level this century, probably via a pandemic.) Droughts and famines have been integral to the human story, he went on. We have 200,000 years of experience with climate change, yet today, he complained, "We can’t think even 50 years ahead." He said he was glad he was old — he was 67 — because he had seen the best of life. He did offer one palliative for our future of deepening starvation: synthetic foods. Leakey’s oratory was so hypnotic that I neglected to ask what exactly he meant — food grown by bacteria? In labs? I asked whether there was any hope for people like the Daasanach.

"Pastoral nomadism is nearly gone," he said. "We’re seeing the last kicks and wiggles of a dying way of life. The people are getting progressively poorer, and you can’t afford to feed them and their goats forever."

One anthropological study pegs the number of African pastoralists, classic drought victims, at 20 million. When agro-pastoralists — herders who also scratch out a bit of farming — are included, the total grows to 280 million, about a quarter of the entire African population. Surely they must be accommodated. "There are large aquifers here," Leakey said. "You could set up a Palm Springs-type area — casinos, hotels. There’s no end to opportunities for tourism. Turkana could be the Nevada of Africa."

Meave Leakey was sitting beside her husband, on a shaded rock veranda, as he visualized golf carts in Kenya’s most desolate hinterland. "Casinos," she muttered. She grimaced out over lion-colored plains that were largely bereft of lions now. "Imagine."

*          *          *

At dawn, Mister Inas gulped a cup of gruel made with maize flour donated by USAID, the American development agency. It was impossible to tell whether this food was new aid, sent to combat the famine, or just more of the billions of dollars in international relief that has become a semipermanent fixture in Africa’s ragged margins. Even Mister Inas didn’t know. He’d been collecting rations in a nearby town for so long — in exchange for manual labor on public works or as a reward for having his children immunized — that it all blurred together. Either way, the gruel, beaten cold in a fire-blackened pot by his wife, Eyomo, would be his only meal until nightfall. He set off on the walk from his kraal, or brushy goat corral, having consumed perhaps 500 calories. 

Mister Inas used a repertoire of vocalizations to keep his goats on track. This consisted of a peculiar medley of clucks, chirrups, and whistles. Shouts of "Hah!" put the herd on alert against jackals. "Woup! Woup! Woup!" summoned the animals to water. Or so he told me. I honestly couldn’t discern any significant change in the herd’s behavior. The goats — they had mottled pelts and square pupils that appraised you unnervingly from inside chromium yellow eyes — seemed to graze at will, moving audibly through the scrub across a broad front, like a rustling breeze. With no grass left to gnaw, they stood on their hind hooves, cropping the undersides of thorn bushes as level as topiary.

I wondered how the nomads perceived this scene.

The British anthropologist Colin M. Turnbull, in his classic study of Mbuti Pygmy life in the rain forests of Congo, described taking one of his informants, a man named Kenge, out into the open savanna for the first time. The forest-dweller, adapted to a field of vision cramped by billions of leaves, spotted black dots on a distant plain. "He asked me what kind of insects they were, and I told him they were buffalo, twice as big as the forest buffalo known to him," Turnbull wrote. "He laughed loudly and told me not to tell such stupid stories." When Turnbull drove up to the animals, the astonished Pygmy asked "why they had been so small, and whether they really had been small and had suddenly grown larger, or whether it had been some kind of trickery."

I began to suspect that Mister Inas’s own depth perception was shaped by the gargantuan space of the Turkana Basin. He paid scant attention the termite mounds and dry gulches that corrugated our route and seemed riveted instead by the horizons. He scanned them incessantly, swinging his head slowly back and forth like a Doppler radar. He said he was looking for rain. Quite possibly he was searching for the tippy-tops of clouds peeking above the curvature of the Earth, 60 miles away. I discerned nothing of the sort, though later in the afternoon a high, muzzy overcast developed.

In the past, herders had tended to outcompete farmers in many of Africa’s desert borders. Mobility was the key. If your pastures dried up, you drove your animals toward the slightest hint of precipitation, knowing grass would eventually sprout there. But this strategy worked only when old boundaries were observed. What appeared to me a featureless wasteland was parsed, in the eyes of a Daasanach, by a dense web of regulation and ownership, something akin to urban zoning: The savannas were crisscrossed by invisible migration routes, seasonal pasturage rights, proprietary water holes. In a place as destitute as the Turkana Basin, food aid hadn’t just swollen human populations, but undermined those antique rules. It had also encouraged the nomads, ruinously, to maintain more animals than the fragile pastures could sustain; living on donations, they saw little need to eat or sell off their herds in times of drought. And so, the rangelands eventually wore away, becoming sterile as concrete.

"This country is too crowded," Haskar Lotur, the gunman, snorted. He flicked his skinny wrist dramatically at the ringing emptiness. "Nobody stays in their place anymore."

The sun was devastatingly hot, and Linda and I sucked down bottled water. Seeing our thirst, Mister Inas and Lotur politely declined offers of drinks. They accepted granola bars, but judging from their exchanged deadpan glances, must have found them disappointing. Mister Inas then showed us a few wild plants the Daasanach resorted to during famines: the berries of the kadite bush and a gnarled tree that produced a currant-like fruit called miede. People were forgetting their use. "Today, we eat food aid instead," he said.

At that time, the U.N. World Food Program was helping feed 265,000 people in the Turkana region. The nomads, once canny at eking out a livelihood on the gauntest of Kenyan landscapes, had been settling into ramshackle outposts, essentially rural slums, where each household received a monthly allotment of 10 kilograms of maize. They were losing what relief workers termed "famine-coping mechanisms" — their ancestral survival skills. Cutting off assistance cold was unthinkable; countless people would die. So after having helped fund these supplemental feeding programs for decades, the U.S. government, through its African Development Foundation, decided last year to put its foot down. It earmarked $10 million for a pilot program in the Turkana area that might be called aid methadone — still more aid, but this time in the form of fishponds and irrigated market gardens, all intended to pry people off the old aid.

*          *          *

The Bible is rife with divinely ordained famines. No surprise there. Who were the Israelites, after all, if not rain-obsessed pastoralists and dry-land farmers? "Gladness and joy have been taken away from the fruitful land of Moab; I have made the wine cease from the wine presses; no one treads them with shouts of joy; the shouting is not the shout of joy." (Jeremiah 48:33)

Sharman Apt Russell, in her survey of our primordial craving, Hunger: An Unnatural History, quotes a 4,000-year-old inscription on the tomb of an Egyptian noble: "All of Upper Egypt was dying of hunger to such a degree that everyone had come to eating his children." Two-thirds of Italy, she reminds us, starved to death during the black plagues of the 14th century. Five-hundred years later, a microscopic potato fungus scythed down a million Irishmen (and women and children) and sent at least a million more into famished exodus. And proving once again that we humans are perhaps the worst crop of pestilence of all, she cites the 2 million to 3 million Ukrainians methodically starved to death by Stalin’s forced collectivization. A grim coda: The deadliest famine recorded — ever — was man-made and happened within living memory: The Great Leap Forward, Mao’s rush to industrialize the countryside, killed tens of millions of Chinese between 1958 and 1962. "Hunger," Russell writes, "is as big as history."

Reaching back much deeper in time, some scientists argue that, by repeatedly winnowing our species’s ranks, droughts and famines made us fully human.

For example, a so-called "thermal hypothesis" of evolution, supported by evidence of sweltering temperatures in the prehistoric Turkana Basin, posits that repeated, hot, waterless interludes encouraged our apelike ancestors to finally rise up off their knuckles; bipedalism minimized the body’s exposure to intense solar radiation. Sweat glands replaced fur. Standing up, we caught a breeze.

Closer to the present, sediment cores drilled at Lake Malawi in southern Africa suggest that an awesome "mega-drought" struck just as our species was gaining a tentative foothold on the continent, nearly killing off Homo sapiens altogether. This epic dry spell began 135,000 years ago and lasted for 50 millennia. The sands of the Sahara and Kalahari deserts merged, smothering the woodlands and savannas where we evolved. The drought unleashed what very nearly became our last famine. Geneticists calculate a population of survivors no larger than 10,000. (Researchers at Stanford University narrow that bottleneck even more; they contend that only 2,000 anatomically modern humans escaped extinction, and they are the forebears of every single person alive today.) The stragglers migrated to the African coasts, where for millennia they scavenged "famine food" at low tide: mussels, snails, clams. The switch from red meat to seafood proved fateful. It elevated our intake of omega-3 fatty acids — brain food: a new diet that may have inadvertently accelerated the development of verbal skills. Such "water’s-edge" theories of human evolution have gained credence in recent years with the discovery of enormous shell middens at coastal shelters in South Africa and Eritrea. The sites date to the time of the super-drought.

"Place a species under stress, and you can’t tell what will happen," Meave Leakey told me. "It could go extinct, or new mutation will arise, in this case, maybe something that led to advanced language."

What seems clear from the fossil record is that the great Pleistocene famine nudged us out of the African nursery. For the first time, we began marching beyond the continent in earnest, eventually to conquer the world. Empty bellies transformed us into the wandering ape.

*          *          *

We walked, squinting for hours through hot panes of light. Mister Inas steered his goats toward Lake Turkana. It was the animals’ second day without water and time to quench their thirst. I knew we were nearing the lake because livestock began to multiply on the threadbare savanna. The air grew thick with dust and was filled with the clanking of neck bells and the calling of other nomads. I asked Mister Inas how he kept track of his animals in all the traffic, and he stared at me with genuine incredulity. "I know my goats," he said.

The lake was another desert — an oxidized mirror shining up dully at the overcast. Its gray surface was swept by a sultry wind that didn’t cool the skin. Muddy waves gummed the beach, and the grass on the shore was nibbled down to a vegetative five o’clock shadow. There was a famous drought story here.

Back in the early 1970s, in an effort to break the cycles of starvation in the Turkana region, Kenyan officials had delegated the Norwegian development agency Norad the task of retraining local herders to fish. The lake swarmed with tilapia and Nile perch. The idea was to wean the people off their boom-and-bust livestock economy, swap animal for fish protein, and make the nomads productive, sedentary citizens. The Scandinavians built a modern freezer plant near the lake. They taught people how to cast nets. And they distributed 20 large, modern fiberglass skiffs. The project was a colossal failure. As it turned out, freezing the catches cost more than the fish were worth. And, astoundingly, the foreigners hadn’t bothered to ask whether the milk- and meat-addicted nomads even liked fish. (They didn’t.) A decade after donors had sunk millions into the scheme, the Turkana pastoralists were as poor and hungry as ever. Many gave up and returned to the bush. A few of the more enterprising families found a novel use for their upturned fishing vessels as crude shelters.

Lake Turkana’s beached fishing fleet became an icon of asinine philanthropy in Africa.

That said, the earnest Norwegians had been onto something. They were simply premature; it took more decades of lethal droughts for the idea to catch on. Today, big cooler trucks loaded with fresh fish rattle between Lake Turkana and markets in Nairobi, a two-day drive away. Fishing keeps several thousand ex-herders marginally employed, though admittedly, with the price of their catches inflated 16-fold between the lakeshore and the supermarkets, urban middlemen are the real beneficiaries. And critics may get the last laugh. Lake Turkana’s fish stocks are already collapsing.

Mister Inas watered his goats near two Daasanach men drying their fishing nets on the shore. They were the only human beings visible for hundreds of yards along the beach. Mister Inas pointedly ignored them. Bent at their work, they returned the snub. Men who don’t possess hoofed animals are despised as worthless in Daasanach culture.

A few steps away, a 6-foot crocodile lay rotting in the surf. Its skull was pierced by two neat bullet holes. A few weeks before, a child had been dragged into the lake by a croc. Several herders had seen it happen. "There was nothing they could do," Mister Inas said. "They just ran to tell the family that their boy was swallowed by a crocodile." Later, one of the boy’s relatives walked to the lake with a Kalashnikov and shot the first crocodile he saw.

Mister Inas invited me to join him for a bath. He grinned when I declined, but he wasn’t swaggering. The proximity of so much water, even brackish water, was a luxury not to be passed up. He hitched up his wrap, revealing a pair of blue soccer shorts, and, with a look of intense bliss, waded into the murky shallows on the pin legs of a heron.

*          *          *

Lodwar, the frontier outpost that serves as the capital of the Turkana District, is located across Lake Turkana, about 120 miles southwest of Mister Inas’s barren pastures. Roads are scarce in northern Kenya. So the simplest way of getting there was by plane. A Cessna flown by Leakey’s bush pilot deposited us at the town’s airstrip. Two huge jet engines, relics of a previous crash, lay bleaching atop boulders next to the runway like a negative monument to air safety. The airport terminal consisted of an open-sided hut. Signs of humanitarian engagement were everywhere.


White Toyota Land Cruisers with long whip antennas and logos of various relief agencies stamped on their doors crowded a dirt parking lot. There were large numbers of listless young men on the unpaved streets, and the streets themselves were littered with thousands of squashed plastic water bottles — refuse from donated rations. At the airport, a forlorn souvenir booth featured a Japanese flag and the sign, "Japan-Kenya Livelihood & Peace Building Committee." It sold beaded belts, wooden carvings, and a single copy of a book on anthropology written by an Irish Catholic missionary. The lonesome clerk was startled that I wanted to buy the book.

Later, while escaping the sun in what was possibly the slowest cybercafe in the world — downloading a single email took 17 minutes and a notice on the wall warned, perversely, "No Idlers Please" — I read a document that someone had been composing at my rented computer: "Incident Reporting Sheet for the Kenya Field Monitors."

It was a memo from an intergovernmental security commission that summarized a recent spike in fighting between nomads in the Turkana region. In one skirmish "Toposa bandits" had maneuvered 25 stolen donkeys belonging to a Mr. Namocho toward the Sudanese border. Armed Turkana "warriors" gave chase, cutting off the rustlers and igniting a firefight with "negative impact on human lives." Another raid at a settlement called Kibish involved a herd of pigs. Two thieves were shot dead "as intensive cross-fire exploded in the air."

The bloodiest episode by far was the coldblooded murder, nine days before, of eight ethnic Turkana women in the Todonyang area near the border with Ethiopia. The aggressors were Merille from Ethiopia — kin to the Daasanach. Snapshots accompanying the report, all the more wrenching for their amateur quality, featured crude graves and babies with horribly bruised faces. Their dead mothers had dropped them trying to escape the gunfire. The extreme brutality of such attacks baffled me until a Turkana businessman who ran a development organization in Lodwar explained their logic. "Nothing demoralizes the enemy more than killing their women," he said. "Women are targeted because it is a war of ethnic survival. And between the Merille and Turkana, access to shrinking pasturelands equals survival." Roughly a hundred nomads annually, from various ethnic groups, have died in battles in the Turkana region in recent years.

*          *          *

Outsiders tend to see their pet causes played out in African famines. Everyone brings something to hunger’s table.

Anti-globalization groups condemn stock market speculators for jacking up the costs of the world’s food staples (thus pricing the poor out of their next meal). Washington worries about famine’s role in political instability, particularly if relief is diverted to terrorist groups. (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was obliged last summer to rescind the threat of legal sanctions against aid groups working in parts of Somalia controlled by the Islamist al-Shabab guerrillas; millions of civilians might have died otherwise.) Nowadays, the latest meta-concern to be piggybacked onto the backs of the starving is global warming. Some reporters, agreeing with Richard Leakey, have labeled the bloody clashes in the Turkana Basin one of the world’s first "climate-change conflicts." Like most other imposed narratives, though, this one is blinkered.

"At this stage, I don’t think there is any hard evidence to show conclusively that droughts are getting worse in the region, compared with the past," Philip Thornton, a leading climate scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, wrote me in an email. "To call this a ‘climate change war’ may well be simply wrong."

Nobody disputes that the Horn of Africa is reeling through a period of harrowing droughts. Water levels in Lake Turkana have sunk 50 feet over the past 40 years. And Mister Inas and other herders insisted that the recent dry seasons have broken all records for longevity. But the point Thornton and other climate scientists make is that events in one lifetime aren’t a reliable enough gauge of what droughts loom ahead. Long-term rainfall statistics collected in the region — going back to British colonial times — are ambiguous, sometimes oscillating just as radically as today. And according to the most recent report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international agency spearheading the study of the man-made pollutants that cause global warming, East Africa is expected to get wetter, not dryer, in coming decades. "Even if East Africa does become wetter, this does not imply that the climate will be more conducive for agricultural production," Thornton cautioned. Increases in temperature are likely to lead to decreased crop yields.

In Lodwar, the people closest to the violence naturally had their own interpretations.

"I would put climate change second or third," said Epem Esekon, a senior administrator at Lodwar’s hospital. "The redrawing of land boundaries under Kenya’s new constitution comes first, then maybe climate, then maybe guns." Local violence has erupted in Kenya over political boundaries overhauled in 2010. In addition, Esekon said, pastoral groups had clashed and stolen each others’ livestock using spears. Now an abundance of cheap assault rifles from wars both defunct and active in South Sudan and Uganda had upped the ante of such raids.

Esekon’s hospital had already discharged the survivors of the assault on Todonyang. But other victims of such carnage were lying about. One Turkana man, shot through the back by competing Pokots, curled glassy-eyed with pain in bed No. 20. The bullet’s exit would was two inches above his navel. He had limped four days to seek medical help.

"There is a lot of grass in the area where they are killing us," Peter Akure Lothike, the chief of the area where the skirmish took place, told me. He spoke affably, even as he toted a Belgian FAL assault rifle through the stifling ward. "The Pokots increase their cattle raids about now, to pay for their children’s school fees."

And I thought again of Mister Inas’s antediluvian feet. The Pokots, it seemed, were walking out of their last famines as nomadic herders. They were headed for the shoe stores.

*          *          *

Russell, in her book on hunger, uncovers the world record for fasting.

"Mr. A.B.," a patient at the University Department of Medicine in Dundee, Scotland, was a morbidly obese young man who weighed 456 pounds. In June 1965, under medical supervision, he stopped eating. In fact, he didn’t eat, according to the Postgraduate Medical Journal, for more than a year — a boggling 382 days. Occasionally he was plied with vitamins. He drank water. He lost more than 250 pounds. "He must, at times, have felt like a god," Russell writes. "He lived like a tree, a rowan or oak, on air and sunshine. He lived more like a spirit than matter. Did he try and walk through walls? Did he think of himself as a ghost?" Whatever else Mr. A.B. may have felt, a gutting loneliness surely must have haunted him. Our bodies are like beads, rings of flesh wrapped about a hollow tube. What strings us all together is bread — bread and stories.

The longest I have survived without food is eight days. I remember the experience well. It occurred while I was on hunger strike in prison, five years ago, after being detained while reporting on the Darfur war in Sudan. What lingers is a strange placidity, an unexpected and feverish clarity. By the third or fourth day without eating, I could feel myself weakening, but almost in compensation the surfaces of the everyday world appeared to take on a luminous polish; calls to prayer broadcast from a nearby mosque, the orange sunsets seen through window bars, the glossy red bodies of ants rummaging about my cell: Everything seemed freighted with deeper meanings. I began to understand how prolonged periods of hunger underpin bouts of mysticism — why the eyes of the starved, sunk brightly in their skulls, burn like a clairvoyant’s. Scientists tell us it’s actually the effect of ketones being released into the bloodstream by the liver’s metabolization of stored fatty acids. This is the same mood-altering byproduct that accumulates with lengthy exercise — the biochemical buzz of "runner’s high." Of course, I never approached the phases of malnutrition suffered by famine victims: agonizing intestinal cramps, bleeding gums, painfully inflamed joints, and finally, a coma-like stupor. I didn’t get anywhere near that.

When we staggered back from our trek through the hunger zone to his kraal at dusk, Mister Inas ordered a kid goat slaughtered. I would reimburse him $25 for it later. But the simple gesture remained an act of surpassing generosity; goats were his family’s sole bank account. That capital was ominously depleted. Mister Inas hadn’t tasted meat for three months.

We crouched around a sparking fire, under dust-bleared stars, roasting gobbets of goat on upright sticks. The offal, bundled in the butchered animal’s abdominal sack, went to the women "because they need soft things to eat"; Linda scored the intestine. It became apparent, as we cracked open the bones for marrow, why generations of Western anthropologists fell in love with nomads. Even in the middle of a drought, Mister Inas’s encampment of brush huts, which would be abandoned in a few days, buzzed like a playground. It burbled with gossip and laughter. Naked children horsed about in a moonlit wadi until midnight. Even grim Haskar Lotur softened, pressing his Kalashnikov on me for the night, ostensibly as a defense against starving hyenas. He advised me to be sure of my target; people wandered the dark, too, to relieve themselves. The rifle was adorned about the muzzle with a hairy goatskin fetish. It belonged in a gallery of contemporary art.

The United Nations expects hunger to return again this year to the Horn of Africa. The next dry season begins in May. From that month on, it simply becomes a waiting game.

Aid workers employ a highly mathematical definition for the word "famine": It means that at least 20 percent of families in a region face extreme food shortages and acute malnutrition affects more than 30 percent of the population; there must be two starvation-related deaths per 10,000 people every day. Richard Leakey says these numbers toll, like a distant bell, for all of us. For a certain Dr. Francis Kuria of the Inter-Religious Council of Kenya, who published a well-reasoned column in the Daily Nation of Nairobi that quoted both the Roman poet Virgil and his country’s bleak ranking on the Human Development Index, they ring the end, at last, for a venerable way of life and a 10,000-year-old economy. Of the nomads he wrote: "It’s time for the Turkana to leave their wastelands and settle down." The optimists are few. Mostly, they are the desert wanderers themselves.

The last we saw of Mister Inas, he stood on the savanna, waving under shrouded skies. Two days later, rain poured down on the bone-colored dust of the Turkana Basin. The newspapers reported the drought broken. As many as eight people were killed in flash floods.

<p> Paul Salopek, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent, is at work on The Mule Diaries, a book about wandering. </p>

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