A joint publication by Saba Michael and Erin Brodwin
It might not be a four-letter-word, but the term Famine, now used to describe the state of mass starvation in Somalia, is not thrown around casually. Since its last bought with widespread hunger nearly 20 years ago, Somalia has been capable of doing little to prevent this year’s scarcity from claiming the lives of some 3.7 million Somalis – almost half the country’s population.
Drought is compounding the problem; an estimated 12 million suffer from lack of access to potable water. Local media have affectionately dubbed the region hardest hit – an area straddling Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia – the “triangle of death.”
Somalia’s stark reality is a déjà vu characterized by images of pot-bellied, malnourished children and women waiting in lines for government-rationed portions of rice and grain. The scenario poses important questions for policy-makers, Somali citizens, and activists globally. Most importantly to Somalians, however, might be this: Will this famine, like that of 1992, be met with indifference by countries and organizations with the privilege to offer help?
An entire generation of children will die by the famine’s projected “end date.” Yes — while organizations and non-profits with enough money are able to project an end date for Somalia’s famine, they have been unable as of yet to offer any concrete solutions to its reality, where 2,000 people each day die of hunger.
Rather than war or disease, these deaths can be attributed only to the simple lack of access to food, a basic human right. Starvation, unlike technological innovations enabling the release of the latest touch-screen gadget or breakthrough developments in the relationship status of J-Lo and Marc Anthony, is not sexy. Hunger lacks the appeal of freedom fighting politics in Palestine, is absent the glamor of youth revolutions in what is now dubbed the “Arab Spring.” As a result, Somalia’s pressing issue of starvation remains on the back burner, garnering little attention from mass media. The press it does receive is revealing, however – Somali representative K’Naan and pop-star-turned-humanitarian Bono have interestingly been able to grab a couple of news headlines for the sake of the country.
Many attribute the lack of humanitarian aid given to Somalia to a general distrust of aid groups. Some claim that the insurgent group al-Shabaab has worsened the situation by placing restrictions on the type of materials aid groups are able to deliver.
According to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “The terrorist group al-Shabaab has prevented humanitarian assistance from coming in, and it has killed and threatened aid workers. There are also credible reports that al-Shabaab is preventing desperate Somalis from leaving the areas under its control.”
The Associated Press has published the following statement regarding the situation:
While some groups claim they have been able to deliver aid, reality tells us this – al-Shabaab maintains control of both areas of Somalia identified as “famine areas” – Southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle. Although the insurgent group’s members have discussed allowing western aid agencies to deliver food, the organization’s failure to reach a consensus on the matter has lead to a stalemate, worsening the situation for those most in need.
Some aid groups, like the International Committee of the Red Crescent (ICRC), that have succeeded in establishing community-based partnerships with Somali organizations, have made major headway in relieving mass suffering. Working with the Somali Red Crescent Society, ICRC is expanding therapeutic feeding programs for children suffering from severe malnutrition in the areas most in need of care – isolated rural areas in southern Somalia.
Adding insult to injury, Somalis are enduring forced famine in the midst of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month in which participants choose to fast during daylight hours as an observation of patience and spirituality.
Despite the world’s willingness to disregard Somalia’s urgent call for help, Somali youth have taken it upon themselves to revive their friends and family.
The inchoate struggle among Somali youth spans national borders, acting as a catalyst for unification among young people in Somalia and the United States. In the face of Somalia’s history of political and social upheaval – the country has seen everything from dictatorships to a de-facto government to tribal warfare – Somali youth have created a movement using the tools of communal advocacy and fundraising.
In San Diego, CA, one such group, called the Somali Youth League, held a fundraiser dedicated to raising awareness about the famine.
The group’s president, Mr. AbdulMalik Buul said of the international nature of the Somali youth movement, “We have come together as a force for change. The youth here in San Diego, in Minnesota, and throughout the world have united in an effort to end this famine, and to prevent this devastation from defining our people. We are committed to changing Somalia; this will begin locally.”
The group has a critical history of political activism – the original Somali Youth League was the first political party to emerge in the struggle for Somalia’s independence in 1960.
Local efforts stem beyond the hustle of fundraising amongst the youth. When mainstream aid organizations refuse to answer Somalia’s desperate call for help, doctors, professors, and students with local activist bases are leaving their homes to volunteer. Dr. Ismail Mualin, a resident of San Diego, CA, is planning to join a medical camp created by Dr. Hawa Abdi.
The camp Mualin will attend began as a one-room hospital for women on Dr. Hawa Abdi’s 1,300 acre farm. Twenty years later, her home has been transformed. How a sprawling humanitarian medical camp, Abdi’s farm supports more than 100,000 Somalis.
The answer to Somalia’s famine is not simple, but it relies on the power of community-based movements, both local and global, that are grounded in local knowledge and empowered by the passion of those with the capacity to understand – and be willing to join – the struggle for a more just world.