Women facing drought in Kenya are resorting to the potentially life-threatening practice of binding their stomachs with rope in order to stave off hunger.
“I tie this rope tight around my waist to hold my stomach in and avoid feeling hungry.”
Zippora Mbungo, 86, a farmer from Makima in Kenya, describes how she does the stomach binding:
“I tie this rope tight around my waist to hold my stomach in and avoid feeling hungry. Most of the time we have very little food as a family so I give to my grandchildren first, leaving little or nothing for me. On many occasions the food available to us is maize and I am too old to chew on dry maize. That is why I tie this rope around me.”
“Mostly it is women who tie a rope around in the Makima area, but there are men who do so too especially those who are widowed or old and poor and do not have someone to look after them — one of them lives next door to me.”
“Women discovered the rope tying trick after we experienced frequent periods of drought and crop failure in our region. Tying helps one to walk and work even when you are starving. Only the rich people around here don’t tie a rope in times like this.”
“This is one of the worst droughts I have ever seen in my life. When the last bad drought hit my husband was around. Now that he passed away it makes this drought the worst I have experienced.”
Women say the traditional practice, which helps them to cope and work without food, has become even more widespread as the drought worsens.
Philip Kilonzo, Hunger expert for ActionAid Kenya, said: “This practice shows just how desperately hungry women are because of this drought. But it can be lethal – women have died after suddenly untying their stomachs once food is available.
“It is a risky process. The tying is not done at once but gradually as food shortages increase. Women continue to tighten the sheet of clothing or rope to reduce the size of their stomach. The practice gives a false sense of energy among women and because of the hunger you can see some women collapse. But the worst part is not in the tying but untying the stomach to adjust to food availability – this is where most people die. The untying just as the tying process has to be gradual. People have died from sudden untying of their stomach after they get food.”
ActionAid workers on the ground report that where donor-funded food distribution programmes are reaching communities, some women are beginning to loosen their bindings. But with the rains not due till October, the food crisis is likely to deepen, with more women putting themselves at risk as they bind themselves.To make a donation to the DEC East Africa Crisis Appeal visit http://www.dec.org.uk, call the 24 hour hotline on 0370 60 60 900, donate over the counter at any high street bank or post office, or send a cheque. You can also donate £5 by texting the word CRISIS to 70000.