Kenyan government officials Wednesday issued a testy “thanks, but no thanks” to a New Zealand entrepreneur’s offer to help stem hunger with a powdered formula similar to one she developed for dogs.
The ensuing controversy has raised accusations of colonial-era racism and tragic misunderstanding in a nation facing the possibility of famine for 2.5 million of its citizens.
Christine Drummond, the dog-food company owner who made the offer, insisted that the freeze-dried meat powder she wants to send is not dog food, but a new, separately manufactured nutritional supplement that can be mixed with water and tastes “yummy.”
Nevertheless, on the streets of Nairobi, the offer has been condemned as “insulting” and “racist.” Some Kenyans said they would sooner starve than eat a product derived from Drummond’s Mighty Mix dog biscuits. If the powder is so delicious, they suggested, it should be fed to New Zealand children.
“Our children aren’t puppies, madam,” blared a headline in Kenya’s The Nation newspaper, where furious readers sent letters of protest.
For many, the offer rekindled resentment over colonial-era arrogance.
“For us Kenyans, it’s a racial insult,” said Julius Kwea, 39, of Nairobi. “If it’s made for dogs, let it be for dogs.”
Njoki Agnes, a vegetable vendor in Nairobi and mother of four, said the offer was typical of “white people’s behavior.”
“Sending us food made for dogs is taking advantage of the famine situation in our country,” she said.
Reached by telephone at her home in Canterbury, Drummond, 48, said she was only trying to help after a friend’s daughter told her about Kenya’s growing hunger problem. She blamed media in Kenya and New Zealand for reporting that she was offering dog food.
“I have so much heart for Kenyans,” Drummond said. “I want to apologize to the government for what the media has created. I never intended to offend anyone.” She said her powder, consisting of dried beef, mutton, garlic, kelp and other products, is full of energy-boosting nutrients.
“I eat it myself,” she said.
Drummond said she developed the supplement after creating a similar product for dogs, but insisted that the human formula was different, and was manufactured in a separate facility.
Drummond said she has not sold the product publicly, but intends to.
But Kenyan officials suggest that next time, Drummond should offer cash, or work through an aid organization.
“She’s trying to do something without really understanding the culture or thinking about the people she is trying to help,” government spokesman Alfred Mutua said. “And it creates a very negative stereotype about Africa and Africans.”
A freeze-dried meat powder probably would not be understood or consumed in remote, rural areas affected by the drought, government and aid officials said.
Besides, said Mutua, the region that Drummond hoped to assist -- an island in Lake Victoria -- is not among those severely affected by the drought.
Kenya is one of four East African countries struggling to cope with five years of drought that is reaching a crisis point.
In some areas, 80% of the cattle and other livestock have starved or died from illness. Crops have failed. Without rain, aid groups estimate, 5.4 million people in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti will need emergency food supplies soon.
“If the long rains fail in April, it will be real disaster,” said Peter Smerdon, spokesman for the World Food Program in Kenya, which is having difficulty feeding 1.2 million Kenyans, and expects to have as many as 2.5 million to feed in coming weeks.
So far, 40 people have died in the north, according to the Kenyan government.
The World Food Program, a part of the United Nations, is trying to raise $238 million within the international community to provide more than 385,000 tons of emergency food.
Even amid the protest over Drummond’s offer, some are saying the Kenyan government must share the blame for failing to prepare for the emergency. The hunger crisis is another embarrassing setback for Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, who recently fired his Cabinet after spending much of last year in a failed campaign for a new constitution.
Otieno Kajwang, a member of parliament whose district includes the island that Drummond offered to assist, criticized the “lack of government effort to buy food and distribute it to the affected areas.”
He noted that Kenyan maize farmers in other parts of the country have a surplus of crops, which the government could purchase and give to the needy.
He and several other Kenyans said that Drummond’s offer of assistance would have been better received if she had sold the product and donated the proceeds, or donated the product to an aid group that could have sold it to fund its own efforts.
Smerdon said the backlash from Drummond’s well-intended offer threatened to distract attention from the crisis.
He noted that the government of New Zealand recently agreed to give about $275,000 to the WFP for humanitarian assistance in Kenya.
“Sadly, now any good publicity done by that is going to be overshadowed by the dog food story,” he said.
Times staff writers Judith Osewe and Nicholas Soi in Nairobi contributed to this report.