Africa’s famine: Seeing is believing

Facts and figures may be correct, but they only tell half the story of the world’s worst food crisis in a half century.

Dadaab Refugee Camp, KENYA –

As with most natural disasters, numbers swirl around the drought on the Horn of Africa like so many dust particles. 
They float up from the tyres of aid agency Land Cruisers in great billowing clouds they blow in from donor conferences like a sandstorm sweeping in from the east they get in your eyes, and cloud the air making it almost impossible to see through the statistics and understand what is really going on.
Consider a few of the big ones: in Somalia alone, four million people are still starving nationwide three million of those live in the South. Of these, 750,000 people risk death in the next four months if they do not get aid immediately. 
According to the United Nations agency responsible for monitoring food supplies in Somalia, almost half a million children are suffering from “severe acute malnutrition”. About 75 per cent of those are also in the south. 
More than 900,000 Somalis are seeking refuge in neighbouring countries – 90 per cent of them in Kenya, Yemen, Ethiopia and Djibouti. The Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya – already the biggest in the world – has 450,000 of them, and will almost certainly reach half a million by the end of the year. In Ethiopia, the camp in Dolo Ado has taken in 83,000 refugees in the last nine months. 
UN-estimated mortality rates among children under five are alarmingly high, with an average of 15.43 deaths per 10,000 individuals daily, well above the famine threshold of two deaths per 10,000 people per day.
The numbers are of course vital in describing the vast scale of this crisis. Without them, the logisticians trying to deal with it would never be able to get a handle on their jobs.

But once you get on the ground and start seeing those towering numbers in terms of real people with tragic stories, the fog starts to clear a little, and you begin to get a sense of what it means in human terms.

‘Tragedy and loss’
Think a bit more about those last set of figures. If you were in southern Somalia, and your five-year-old child was in a school of a thousand other children, malnutrition would be killing one or two of their classmates every single day. It would probably be only a matter of days before a friend of your child’s would be among the dead. 
In just two months, 90 would have died, and at that rate there is a one-in-ten chance that your own child would have been among them. And that is just amongst the under-fives. When you consider the impact of this famine on the old and the frail on illnesses attacking those with immune systems already weak with hunger on the consequences of exhausting treks through the desert, death comes to almost every family in one way or another often many times over.
This is not hypothetical. It is true of almost every one of the thousand people who walk into Dadaab every single day.
Each has a name and a face and a chilling story of tragedy and loss. 
Consider 70-year-old Rahma Ali Hussein and her sister Fatuma Mursal, who thinks she is 90. They lived with their extended family in Dinsor in the Bay region of southern Somalia. Like farmers everywhere, they hung on to the land, hoping they would be able to survive until the drought broke. 
But the al-Shabab fighters, who still govern over much of southern Somalia, kept out most donors and kept in civilians who wanted to flee. One by one, Rahma’s and Fatuma’s relatives died, until all that remained were the two resilient old sisters, their granddaughter, her child, and a couple of goats.

‘Colossal’ price
That was when they decided they had no choice but to risk al-Shabab’s checkpoints and walk with the goats to Dadaab in neighbouring Kenya. Neither knew how far it was, but it would be two and a half months on foot before they would reach the refugee camp. 
Once they arrived, they joined a queue, registered their presence, received a package of food and added their names to the refugee statistics.
I met them as another group of local refugees who had formed their own aid agency, replaced the tattered rags they arrived in with a new set of clothes and a few shreds of dignity. They told their story matter-of-factly, with flat unemotional voices as though it was not unusual and in a way they were right. 
Their tale – or variations of it – has been repeated hundreds of thousands of times across the region, and so because of that, outsiders tend to see each one as nothing remarkable.
That seems to miss the point completely the extraordinary thing is just how many of those tales are piled one on top of the other in a heap so big that it becomes impossible to see the detail. In the end, our eyes glaze over, we lose sight of what it all means and wind up looking only at colossal numbers again.
Of course, sometimes the numbers do reveal something important, and here is one set we ought to consider. In the summary of the same UN report that detailed the statistics I began with, there is a graph that compares the amount of money the UN reckons it needs for a particular part of the crisis, with the amount actually donated.
The numbers show that international donors have promised 119 per cent of the amount they need for food assistance – a lot more than is actually needed.
Almost all of the emergency food goes to distribution points in centres like Mogadishu and Daddab – places that draw people away from their homes and their fields, into huge camps where they are easy to reach. But food aid is high profile it looks good on television news programmes at home, and often the money gets spent in the donors’ own country buying food from farmers with their own powerful domestic lobbies.
But for less visible things like assistance for agriculture or education in Somalia that would actually encourage people to stay in their homes and so recover once the crisis has passed, the UN has received 29 per cent and 18 per cent respectively. 
For once, the numbers appear to speak for themselves.

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