EL RAM, Kenya (Reuters) - It is tempting to romanticize the lifestyle of nomads in Kenya’s northeast -- a land peppered with vast termite mounds which burst from rust-colored soil like fingers pointing to the cloudless sky.
For centuries, Muslim pastoralist tribes have roamed the semi-arid wastelands, in perpetual pursuit of pasture and water, seemingly oblivious to the borders of Somalia and Ethiopia.
Despite the picture-book image, these tribes, neglected for generations by the Nairobi government and colonial administrations, are at the sharp edge of global conundrums of poverty, environmental damage and now the food price crisis.
The nomads are among the most vulnerable people in east Africa’s largest economy, where per capita income is around $580. The government expects growth of 4-6 percent this year.
In El Ram, an isolated settlement 80 km (50 miles) from El Wak on the Somali border, the nomads’ survival is inextricably linked to fluctuations in local and global markets, and political machinations in the distant capital Nairobi.
They earn a meager income from selling milk and, on occasion, livestock. The rise in global food prices means that, like many other Africans, their purchasing power is heavily reduced and now they cannot buy essential supplements.
The semi-nomadic residents of El Ram were also affected, albeit indirectly, by the violence that erupted after President Mwai Kibaki’s disputed election in December. More than 1,200 people were killed and some 300,000 were displaced.
The crisis laid bare tensions over land and tribe. Fights over water, cattle and pasture have long plagued the remoter, lawless corners of Kenya where many pastoralists or cattle rustlers carry machine guns and other weapons.
For El Ram’s residents, many of whom depend on food aid for survival during the dry season, the political crisis meant aid dried up as prices in the market soared.
“Ever since the elections and violence, there have been no food distributions by NGOs (non governmental organizations),” said village elder Mohammed Yakub.
After the vote, trucks carrying aid relief and commercial goods from Mombasa, Kenya’s port and a regional transport node, were temporarily halted for security reasons.
That caused widespread food and fuel shortages throughout east Africa -- inevitably prices shot up.
Displacement of farmers in the food-producing region of western Kenya during the planting season and forecast poor rains almost guarantee a poor harvest. Officials fear agricultural output will drop sharply this year.
Food at the market will remain beyond Yakub’s means.
Perched on a rocking chair held together by fraying grain sacks, he pours milky tea from an ageing flask as his eight children play around him.
“The price for one kilogramme of posho (maize flour) is now 90 shillings ($1.45). It used to be 50 -- people are starving,” he said.
Poor families worldwide spend 80 percent of their income on food, according to the World Bank, and are particularly vulnerable to the sharp rises in global food prices.
Visiting Kenya in April, U.N. World Food Programme head Josette Sheeran blamed soaring global food prices on the “perfect storm” of lower agricultural production, weather shocks, more meat consumption in Asia, shifts to biofuel crops and the hoarding of food stocks.
In Kenya, annual inflation rose to 26.6 percent in April from 21.8 percent in March because of food prices.
Sharp price hikes for essential food and fuel have triggered riots and protests in African countries from Somalia in the east, through Cameroon to Senegal on the western Atlantic coast.
In El Ram, price rises have made lives already lived on the edge even more precarious.
James Odour, drought management coordinator at the Arid Lands Resource Centre in Nairobi, says pastoralists are having to sell more livestock to buy ever smaller amounts of food.
“The life of the pastoralist is now in a dilemma,” said Abdul Sheikh, field coordinator for the Consortium of Cooperative Partners (COCOP), which distributes United Nations aid in northern Kenya.
Sheikh said many pastoralists decided to settle after the long drought of 2005, gathering together in settlements where they remained during the dry season.
But this trend has caused environmental problems as well: when nomadic herders settle near a water source, the nearby pasture is overgrazed. Such settlements are also often entirely reliant on food and water aid during the dry seasons.
Some analysts say these strains cast doubt on the survival of the pastoralists’ lifestyle.
“With the increasing number of settlements, increasing population and the reduction in the number of animals - these people can’t survive as pastoralists,” Sheikh said.
Yakub gestures with his cane towards the open doorway as a gaunt cow saunters past.
“Since it rained last week, livestock have started to recover,” he said, but added that the condition of the cattle was still very poor, making them difficult to sell.
“If we look at the worsening droughts every year, we think that our livestock and therefore our livelihood will cease to exist,” he said.
The chirp of a Chinese-imitation Casio watch calls Yakub to prayer. In the dim light of the mud hut, he kisses the compacted red earth, warmed by his children’s bare feet.