Somalia: Famine, Despair, and Resilience
Viewing through computer and television screens the grim images of women, children, and elderly suffering from the agony of protracted civil-war and the worst famine in Somalia does not prepare the human mind for the reality that awaits on the ground. I was confronted with that reality upon arriving in what many consider the land of misery – my homeland, Somalia. It goes without saying that this human tragedy did not develop overnight; it has been in the making for several years. The prolonged drought, unrelenting instability and the ever-present external interferences have created the right condition for the current famine.
In December 2007, in an article entitled, “The War on Terror and the Worst Humanitarian Crisis in Africa,” this author, among others, cited 40 international NGOs who released a joint statement “ominously warning against a gathering cloud of humanitarian catastrophe in Somalia and urging the international community to respond to this man-made calamity…”
Yet, the international community continued to ignore all the warning signs until July 2011 when the UN finally declared certain regions famine-stricken. The irony is that agricultural regions, that were the bread basket of the nation, are now suffering the worst impact of the famine, thus causing food prices to skyrocket in certain markets across the South. Of course, there are a number of factors that caused this, but the one that defies all reasons is the one that implicated the World Food Program (WFP).
According to independent journalist Thomas C. Mountain, “Back in 2006 just as Somali farmers brought their grain harvest to market, the WFP began the distribution of its entire year’s grain aid for Somalia. With thousands of tons of free grain available, Somali farmers found it almost impossible to sell their harvest and faced disaster.”
This seemingly reckless stunt was allegedly repeated the next year. As the plane started to loose altitude and the images on the ground began to form into shape, I was stirred with nostalgic feeling triggered by the familiar soil and landscape. There were an overwhelming number of aqalo or makeshift homes built by the internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the makeshift camps they call home.
Immediately upon arriving at my first destination—a small village by the name Beled-Amin of Beled-Hawo that hosts roughly about 10,000 IDPs—I, and my colleagues, made our way to the camps. As we approached the camps, we were inundated with the IDPs, from children who could barely walk to adults who were weary and exhausted. I don’t know if it was because I was the only female or because they could sense that I was coming from the qurbo or the Diaspora, soon I was encircled by people with heart-wrenching marks of deprivation and desperation. They had many stories to share…They had many inquiries and they had some complaints. Most people come with cameras and video recorders, they gather their stories, raise their hopes, and disappear.
Their haunting stories penetrated my heart like spears of emotions, and I had wished that there was a way that I could rescue them from their dire situations. I made every effort to listen to the many survivors who traveled days and nights from the famine-stricken Bay and Bakool regions in search of food, water and shelter. At times it was too difficult to detach myself from these stories of human sufferings and offer simple words of comfort. Reality sunk in as I was confronted with my inability to meet their overwhelming needs and expectations. For a moment, it seemed, as though they were gazing at my face for hope, and I at theirs for inspiration and admiration for their resilience.
However, I found some solace in the fact that we (thank God) brought small gifts for about 312 families- one month’s worth of food supply for each of these families. These supplies included essentials such as flour, cooking oil, sorghum, and rice purchased with funds raised by the Somali Diaspora and supporters in the US. As ironic as it may seem, the famine has been the single most unifying factor of Somalis in the Diaspora and in the homeland.
Despite negative reports on the missing Somali youth suspected of joining al-Shabaab, the Somali Diaspora youth have remained steadfast in their commitment to contribute positively toward the survival of Somalia. They raised funds for Diaspora-based Somali organizations such as Amound Foundation, Adamiga, as well as Adar Foundation (with which this author is directly involved) to deliver services with very low overhead cost. By and large, these organizations are more effective than their much larger, much more bureaucratic, and much more costly international counterparts. The Diaspora continues to be an integral part of Somali society’s survival. They have so much at stake and indeed a vested interest in finding peace for Somalia. Each and every Somali in the Diaspora has a close relative in the homeland.
Back to Somalia, into Mogadishu, my second destination. As someone coming back for the first time since late 80s, I can sum up my initial experience with one word: traumatizing! Yet, Mogadishu still remains the magnate that it has always been. There one finds people from all walks of Somali life. With improved security in recent months and massive humanitarian assistance from the Republic of Turkey, the spirit of the people was hardly defeated.
I could see the silver-lining through the bustling markets of both the southwestern region of Gedo and Mogadishu where store after store was packed with all kinds of merchandise. And in the streets of Mogadishu where beat-up roads were jammed with cars, where street vendors sold fresh tropical fruits such bananas, mangos, and papaya that fill the air with their magical aroma; and where craftsmen were building furniture such as chairs, beds, dressers and making Futon-like mattresses in the outdoors. However, nothing inspired me more than seeing school children walking back from their schools chattering their way back to their homes, and university student’s proudly walking in groups conversing and trading ideas. This scene has validated to me the notion that Somalia is still a living nation that can dust itself off and emerge from the ruins.