As the US Congress debates an omnibus farm bill, it is considering a small change that advocates say could make a big difference to the world's hungriest people -- allowing the US government to buy some food in Africa to feed the famished, rather than shipping it all overseas from the US.
The Bush administration, with odd-bedfellows support from liberal Democrats, has called for allowing the purchase of some food in poor countries to quicken responses to emergencies. But even so, its proposal would not have prevented the paradoxical deepening of hunger here during a long-term project to combat hunger in the harsh, arid reaches of northwestern Kenya.
Families participating in a US-financed irrigation project from 2002 to last year were promised payment in corn for clearing the land and digging canals. The Kenyan government objected to the importation of US corn because the country was awash in a bumper harvest that had caused corn prices to plunge.
The result: US officials, prohibited by law from buying the corn locally, could not deliver it. As the impoverished families waited in vain for sustenance from the US heartland, malnutrition among the youngest children worsened and five people died of hunger-related causes.
Ikai Moru, 19, still recalls the hunger that gnawed at her and her mother as they chopped down thorny acacia trees on their tiny plot, hoping one day to reap a bountiful harvest from the parched earth. She watched her mother grow thinner and paler, and finally sicken and die.
"My mother was a very hard worker," Moru offered in a brief epitaph.
Through sheer grit, the 2,000 families finished the irrigation system last year and are successfully farming. But long-term projects to help Africa's rural poor feed themselves are chronically underfinanced, charities say.
Across Africa, the US is more likely to give people a fish -- caught in the US -- that feeds them for a day than to teach them to fish for themselves. Since last year, for example, the US has donated US$136 million worth of US food to feed the hungry in Kenya, but spent US$36 million on agricultural projects to help Kenyan farmers grow and earn more.
And even that small budget for long-term projects in Kenya is expected to dwindle. The US Agency for International Development (USAID), in seeking to concentrate scarce resources, has dropped Kenya from the list of countries eligible for undertakings like the irrigation project here.
Such efforts are dwarfed by the epic scale of the need. Viewed from a prop plane buzzing like a mosquito overhead, the irrigated land here shimmers as a tiny oasis in a vast, dun-colored landscape.
With the guidance of the Christian charity World Vision, which implemented the project, the families hacked an irrigation system from the barren landscape with machetes, hoes, and shovels, clearing 404 hectares and digging 159km of canals along the Kerio River.
Moru will soon be feeding her four younger brothers and sisters with an abundance of sorghum and corn harvested from their half-acre farm, fulfilling her mother's dream.
The success is noteworthy, but the families' sacrifices also illustrate the risks of a US food aid system that is designed to benefit domestic agribusiness and shipping interests and enmeshed in an intricate framework of farm subsidies.