LAIKIPIA DISTRICT, Northern Kenya – It was a shocking sight and the putrid smell almost made me vomit: A hundred dead cows were spread across the dry plain in various stages of decomposition. Flies buzzed around their insides which had oozed onto the dry grass. Organs lay exposed and body parts, legs, heads and ears littered the earth.
Other dead cows were untouched. Jeremiah Lemiruni, a Samburu leader, strode among them, while I kept my eyes fixed to the ground, fearful of treading on some molding skin or rotting corpse. We were followed by a dozen tribesmen in red blankets carrying spears and clubs. They poked sadly at the carcasses as Jeremiah explained: "The older ones were killed by bullets, the rest died from the drought."
A six-hour drive through the Ololoque hills and Samburu bush land of northern Kenya reveals the devastating impact of years of poor-to-no rainfall.
|VIDEO: Drought driving Kenyans into conflict|
Rivers are serpents of dust. Natives dig in the parched riverbeds, seeking precious pools of water deep in the earth. Vultures feed off animal corpses by the roadside while skinny goats and sheep totter forlornly on their last legs. Children roam for half the day carrying yellow plastic containers in search of a running spring or at least a muddy pool. Bushes are brown and the land is bare as far as the eye can see.
Hungry tribesmen desperate to feed their families ambush cars on the dirt roads: our guide whispers that three groups of tourists have been robbed at gunpoint here this year. We travel with two armed policemen.
It hasn't rained here since April and then only a few drops. Before that it was last October and that was a few drops too. Natives scratch their heads and try to remember the last serious rainfall.
And when, hundreds of miles away, the clouds do gather darkly and the skies open, rain gathers in the mountains and rushes in a wall of water through the plains, in flash floods that carry off animals and children. Consistent rain patterns are a distant memory here. The Samburu gather in knots on hilltops with torches and pray for rain but it hasn't helped much.
The drought is so bad that traditional cattle rustling has turned into murder.
In September Pokoti tribesmen attacked neighboring Samburu villagers, seeking to steal their land, not with the usual spears and blood-curdling screams but automatic rifles. Thirty-three men, women and children died in the one-hour gun battle, which only ended when both sides ran out of bullets.
As the drought persists, the threat of violence is growing.
We read a lot about competition for resources; here it plays out at the most basic level: a fight for pasture and water. Police now guard this area of Laikipia to keep the peace, but too late for Jeremiah.
Battle for resources
At 5:30 a.m. he was asleep in his hut of thorn wood and twigs when 200 men from a rival tribe attacked.
They blew whistles to scare the sleeping victims and to give each other strength. They fired guns into the homes of the surprised and terrified herders, and shouted "At them, at them!" as they ran forward, shooting and stabbing men, women and children. Jeremiah and his family ran for their lives, screaming and yelling.
Clansmen sleeping 200 yards away leapt to their defense. Some had guns and fired back at the raiders. After an hour of dawn fighting, shooting and pandemonium, 21 villagers lay dead, 13 were wounded, and 80 cattle were shot. Twelve attackers were also killed – leading to the total of 33 dead. Since then, police have been posted five miles up the road to prevent a repeat attack, and to stop Jeremiah from taking revenge.
"We don't want revenge," Jeremiah said, adding, "God will take care of them. The government and the police will find them and punish them. The most important thing for us is to keep this land."
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Trying to steal the best pasture
The government gave each villager 50 acres of grazing land years ago. But nature decided whose would be fertile, and the land of Jeremiah's clan has held up best in the drought. There is grass for the cattle to eat and a nearby spring provides barely enough water. His animals are dying from the drought too, but fewer than his neighbor's.
Their dawn attack was for a reason as old as herding: to steal the best pasture. For the attackers, it was a matter of survival. Their land had run out of grass, their cattle were dying, so they had to steal their neighbors land. It wasn't about whose grass was greener, but who had any grass at all.
The struggle in these dry lands is not yet about human survival, even if many live on one meal a day: "ugali," a porridge-like, unnutritious mix of corn flour and water. On a good day they also drink milk mixed with cow's blood. Meat is a luxury, although today it is plentiful for all the wrong reasons.
But for those who have no hope of survival at home, migration to town is the only option. There they subsist in quickly-growing slums like Kibera in Nairobi, one of Africa's largest, where they contribute to a whole slew of other problems.
Too many cattle
After reporting all day, our NBC team, Paul Goldman, Krzysztof Galica and I, got into a discussion about these issues with the only other guest at the Maralal Safari Lodge where we were staying: Alastair, a third-generation Kenyan farmer who works on a rhino preservation ranch a day's drive away.
A log fire was crackling in the large stone fireplace in the wood-paneled lounge, as zebras grazed on the lawn outside. The place was a colonial throw-back of dim light, cold, brown water from the only functioning tap and a hint of ghostly G and T's at sunset.
For old time's sake I ordered a gin and tonic. Alastair, big and brawny in shorts and denim shirt, drank beers while he also bemoaned the drought, but warned us not to miss the obvious.
"There are too many cattle, that's a large part of the problem. It's their culture," he said. "The more cattle they have, the higher their status, the richer they are, the more they can offer for a bride (the Samburu bride price is at least eight cows), so the more they raise. But there isn't enough pasture for them all," Alastair added.
The cattle, goats and sheep devour the landscape, munching grass, roots, seeds, anything they can pull from the ground. That erodes the fertile top soil that washes away in the rare rains, browning the land.
So the herdsmen, as they always have, roam endlessly seeking pasture, but today they often don't find any.
"Our cattle are everything for us," Jeremiah had told me. "If my neighbor has a 100 head, I need more. And my other neighbor needs more than me."
Jeremiah was surrounded by dead cattle. Others were prostrate, their legs twitching, eyes fluttering, dying of thirst.
Bond between animal and man runs deep
It is true that cattle equals status here, but for the Samburu tribesmen, as for all the native pastoralists, the bond between animal and man runs deeper, is more visceral, than that. Nature has bonded them.
As we prepared to leave Jeremiah's decimated village, where the 21 victims of the slaughter lay buried in a mass grave beneath the largest, proudest tree, a man and woman called for help from a passing warrior.
He stuck his spear in the earth and together they struggled to raise a dying cow to its feet. It was black and bony and listless, lying exhausted on the ground. The first man hauled it up by the head, the young warrior encircled its thin body with his arms and pulled, while the woman tugged its tail. They managed to get the cow to its feet, where it stood unaided for a moment, before shuddering and sinking to the ground again.
The first man poked its head with his stick and got no response. He turned away, looked towards the heavens and then down at his dying cow. His eyes creased and quivered, and he pursed his lips, fighting back tears. Then he gave a huge sigh, turned around and walked away.
Part of the problem could be solved if tribesmen made do with fewer cattle. But in the plains of northern Kenya, that is as likely as a thunderstorm tomorrow.
How to help?
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Read and watch more reports on climate change from Nightly News' 'Perfect Storm' series. The series continues this week on the broadcast.