Irish missionaries lead the fight against starvation in Kenya

Irish missionaries lead the fight against starvation in Kenya

Irish missionaries are renowned and respected across Africa, but not many have lived the eclectic life of one man in particular.

This Limerick native taught at Catholic schools, worked as an ambulance driver and in hospital administration, survived malaria, and now serves as the Chancellor of a diocese the same size as the island of Ireland.

Tony Woods (73), a lay missionary, has been working in education and health in Africa for half a century, and is currently the chancellor of the Lodwar diocese in Turkana, northern Kenya.

He faces a monumental and harrowing challenge: to prevent men, women and children in Turkana from dying of starvation.

The failure of subsequent rainy seasons for the last two years has caused the worst drought the region has experienced in generations. Not only has it affected Kenya, but the whole of East Africa, with 25 million people facing starvation – which leads to a drawn-out, agonising death.

The Turkana people are mainly nomadic pastoralists who travel with their livestock in search of water and pasture. Their way of life is no longer possible as there is nothing to sustain their animals. Without their cattle, camels or goats they have no livelihoods, and no way of providing for themselves – let alone a family.

With no other option they are forced to move to hellish slums, and battle to stay alive with rampant disease and frequent violent crime in places like Kibera (the largest slum in Africa and third largest in the world) in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi. HIV is more than twice as common in Kibera than anywhere else in the country.

There are currently 60,000 children in northern Kenya at risk of starving if they don’t receive immediate support, 17,000 of these children are already severely malnourished. The Lodwar Diocese and Trócaire are doing all they can with the resources they currently have. It is not enough.

Tony told The Irish Catholic about his personal hardships over the years, and how the diocese work with Trócaire to deliver life-saving aid. The developmental work done to establish sustainable communities has helped greatly, but a volatile political landscape has left the diocese in a precarious situation.

Political issues

Tony first arrived in Africa in 1964 with the Mill Hill Fathers, who convinced him to go to Cameroon to teach English after he completed his studies in UCD. Over 50 years later he hasn’t stopped working to help people in the country.

Currently the Diocese of Lodwar operates 60% of the preventative and curative health services for Turkana, and provide a large amount of education and water utilities.

“Our medical service has expanded and goes into the places that most others don’t want to go, and that is what we’re really going to be doing from now on,” said Tony.

With the support of Trócaire they operate outreach programmes that deliver life-saving medical supplies to people that are unable to reach it. They travel to communities who are not provided for by local authorities up to 45km away.

“People working for us know when they’re coming, you have to go to a place that’s not so accessible. Same way with water… the diocese has been providing the water sources: most of them,” Tony said.

St Mary’s clinic in Kalokol is located on the west side of Lake Turkana, the dispensary operates an outreach programme. The clinic currently provides supplementary feeding for children between six months and five years old with the help of Trócaire, which is supposed to be an addition to what families can provide at home – which is generally a maize-based porridge eaten once a day.

However, even accessing maize has become an issue as a moth called the fall armyworm has been destroying crops on a massive scale, making it difficult and more expensive to get the staple food. It is resistant to most pesticides.

St Mary’s clinic currently has 1,500 children on its programme, but had to turn 1,200 eligible babies and children away due to lack of resources, which is a common story across the majority of clinics in Turkana.

Lack of resources can only be helped through donations, which have been sparse as the world’s attention is focused on Brexit and US president Donald Trump according to Trócaire.

This comes as the Turkana County Department of Health found that in Turkana South alone 12% of children under five are severely malnourished, which is even worse than areas in Somalia which are on the brink of full-scale famine.

It is critical to combat malnutrition at that age as quickly as possible, as it can irreversibly stunt growth and mental development.

“The only thing now is to contribute, to contribute basically to Trócaire,” Tony said, “because Trócaire is a conduit to which we access funds and they account for it to Ireland.”

Although the government of Kenya has been responding to the crisis, they are overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the situation, and have appealed for international support.

After a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was agreed Turkana’s local government is now supporting the Diocese of Lodwar by paying staff in health centres such as Kakuma hospital – which are extremely expensive for the diocese to run.

But as the crisis worsens even these supports are not enough, and with elections in Kenya next month there are worries that the MOU may be made void.

Mr Woods said: “The salaries have helped enormously. We have got our salaries for Kakuma Hospital, not all of them but certain cadres in the medical field. Our MOU is supposed to go until February 2018, but we have a very dodgy little thing happening here, on August 8 we have an election, if there is a change of Governor we might be finished today…but anyhow we’ll wait and see.

“We’re looking also at even if there was no county government helping us we must now look to how we would survive, would we close some, would we change some for a different use.”

Historically elections in Kenya have been punctuated with acts of extreme violence, mainly after the ballots are counted and the successful candidates announced. After accusations of corruption and riots in 2007 at least 1,200 people were killed and tens-of-thousands displaced.


The Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops has recently warned that attacks on certain villages across Kenya, that are masquerading as terrorism or robbery, are politically sponsored to move people out of electoral areas.

Similar to the process of gerrymandering, which aims to change electoral boundaries to the advantage of certain political groups– observed both north and south of the island of Ireland – this barbaric method of displacing innocent people is causing further anger and suffering.

The weather in Turkana regularly reaches 40°C, and the temperature has risen on average by 3°C since the 1960s according to the local weather station – compared to the global increase of 0.7°C. The increase in temperature has been directly linked to climate change, which is mainly being caused by China, the US, and the EU who are the largest contributors to the Earth’s carbon emissions.

The water table has continued to drop due to the drought, making it more difficult for people to dig shallow wells that are deep enough. The diocese continue to fight to make clean water available for people, even in the most remote parts of the county.

It is not just Ireland and Trócaire that help the Irish-missionary founded diocese, but Catholic communities around the world.

A group called eRko collects large amounts of money from Christmas to Epiphany every year in Slovakia, Austria and Germany.

Tony said: “They have given us a most wonderful thing called a pump maintenance unit, it is absolutely essential because various people will drill boreholes, will do the rock dams, will do other type of things and then go, but there’s no maintenance…

“In a drought situation, it is even more necessary because the water table goes down down down and there’s extra pressure on pumps: people break it. All you’ve got to do is you call up…and if it is an institution like a school or a hospital they will go there first because there are big congregations of people.”

Almost immediately after arriving in Africa Tony had to face one of the most difficult challenges of his life. Before leaving Ireland, he went searching for Paludrine – medicine previously used to prevent malaria – in Doon, Co. Limerick.

Naturally, the small rural chemist didn’t have medication for tropical diseases at the time, and the 21-year-old went to Africa with no protection against the deadly sickness.

“About 10 days after I arrived there was an agricultural show in Bamenda, and that was very near the school (Our Lady of Lourdes College, Mankon). We went down with the girls. Anyhow after a while all I wanted to do was lie down,” he said.

Tony remembers the students running to get one of the sisters who immediately knew what was wrong. A week later he was struggling with malaria, and was in a nightmarish condition. He considered giving up and going home. He was given £100 for emergencies, but at the time he said he couldn’t even think of that.

“I thought I was dying, I was sure,” he said, “The malaria itself: you freeze, you roast, all these things; horrible. And then the depression, the only time I’ve ever felt depressed was after that.”

However nowadays the hardy Irish-man sleeps on a bed on his roof: “I think I’m kind of immune to malaria, I have not had malaria for about 30 years now, I never use nets and they (mosquitos) never come to me,” he said. (Malaria is one of the top 10 sicknesses that doctors see in Turkana.)

In 1968 he arrived in eastern Kenya for the first time, and taught in Kitui for what he thought would be two years, which extended to 32.  He became involved in administrating the Catholic Church-run Kakuma hospital in Turkana in 2001 which included doing weekend runs in an ambulance.

“It was very different from school. That was 17 years ago and I was a lot stronger. At the weekend, I would drive the ambulance. It was easier to have the drivers off on the weekend…it was no bother. The ambulance was just an ordinary pick-up really, just a glorified name.”

After two years in the hospital the former Bishop of the Lodwar diocese, Bishop Patrick Harrington, asked him to become the chancellor.


Trócaire have been involved with the diocese since 1994, and focused on essential work relating to human rights issues during the 1990s. They have been focusing on sustainable development projects by improving agricultural production systems, but the humanitarian crisis has caused them to begin an emergency response in order to keep people alive.

Paul Healy the Country Director of Trócaire in Kenya and Somalia, originally from Dublin, has called for a “response of faith”, as they are running out of funds.

“The Turkana people are suffering tremendously and Trócaire has to be there with them, so what we are appealing for, to the Church community in Ireland, is for a response of faith. As our brothers and sisters in Turkana (suffer) it is a demand of our faith to respond, and to give what we have to support people who are starving,” he said.

“If you go back 40, 50, 60 or even 500 years, you’ll see that the Irish Church never contained within itself, it always went out with its message of justice and peace and inclusivity.

“Trócaire is an extension of that, so the work that we do is based on Catholic social teaching, and we built here in Turkana on the missionary footprint, but the needs here are greater than ever because of climate change, the current drought and the marginalisation of these people.”

With the support of Irish Aid over the coming three to four years they will have developed a programme with communities to regenerate rangelands and produce fodder for people to sell or be placed along migratory routes so that livestock survive.

Paul said: “It has been extremely successful where communities that may have been in conflict before over that simple resource – which is grassland for animals – no longer have that because we’ve been able to produce fodder with the community.”

He described livestock as their “lifeblood” saying, “you see the Turkana people, they’re tall and graceful people, they have a high protein diet because they’ve survived on milk and blood and meat, and that has been for generations, but that all is now exposed to great jeopardy…we have to come up with solutions that will work in the context of climate change and that’s going to be an enormous challenge for the future”.

“It is unacceptable in this day and age, it’s unacceptable to any Christian community who has any sense of justice, it’s a simple thing, 80% of these people are in serious dire straits (earning less than 0.90c a day) and we need to respond to it appropriately as a Catholic Church in Ireland.”

The President of Ireland and the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference last week called on the people of Ireland to respond to the crisis, with national collections for Trócaire taking place on July 21 and 22. Without the donations already received, many children and parents would have already perished.

At this point each donation means more children are admitted to supplementary food programmes, and more families are prevented from moving away from everyone and everything they know, to live harsh existences in slums.