In 2011, severe drought, famine and a widespread food crisis produced what was referred to at the time as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. At its height, famine had been declared in over six regions of Somalia. Across the horn of Africa it was estimated that 12 million people were suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Without food and water, hundreds of thousands of people made the long journey to refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia in search of assistance.
Presbyterians in Canada responded with overwhelming generosity and contributed nearly $720,000 to PWS&D’s East Africa appeal. Combined with matching funds from the Canadian government and other sources, PWS&D was able to contribute $2 million to relief efforts.
In partnership with ACT Alliance, Canadian Foodgrains Bank and Canadian Churches in Action, Presbyterians supported 12 projects that provided life-saving assistance to nearly a million people in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Tanzania. Relief efforts focused on meeting immediate needs for food, water and shelter, and long-term recovery activities such as restoring livestock herds, rehabilitating water structures and planting drought-tolerant crops to ensure communities were not as vulnerable to hunger when emergency assistance ended.
East Africa Today
The crisis was officially declared “over” by the United Nations on February 2, 2012 after famine conditions receded in many parts of Somalia. Improvements in the region were largely credited to substantial humanitarian assistance, coupled with long-awaited rains and a successful harvest. However, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Agency warned that the declaration did not mean an end to the crisis in East Africa, but that without sustained support, many were at risk of losing recent gains and slipping back into famine.
While PWS&D’s food, shelter and water distribution programs have completed, we continue to support longer-term initiatives in East Africa to ensure food security in the region and to help prevent another food crisis.
Stories from East Africa
Barb Summers traveled to East Africa to visit PWS&D programs there in July 2011.
“My nearly three-week trip to East Africa opened my eyes to a world beyond what I had ever imagined. The need is overwhelming but the full story rarely penetrates beyond the headlines and photo galleries. There is a story behind the images of sunken eyes, and you might be surprised at the hope, passion and inspiration you will find there.”
The day before I left for East Africa, I was watching a news story covering the humanitarian crisis: millions starving, famine sweeping across the land, people wandering for days through the desert in search of food and shelter. Somalia seemed on the brink of falling apart. Kenya, Ethiopia and other neighbouring countries didn’t seem far behind. And then it struck me. What was I doing? What kind of insane journey into the heart of hunger did I imagine I was capable of undertaking? In my job with Presbyterian World Service & Development, I often travel to developing countries in order to witness the work of our programs to overcome poverty and build new futures for marginalized people. I regularly comfort myself that my good farm upbringing will give me the stamina (and stomach) for another adventure into the developing world.
But this seemed too much. The sunken eyes that stared back at me from the television were simply too grim. I had never undertaken a trip like this before—a situation dubbed the worst humanitarian crisis of our time—where the scale and scope of need is surely enough to weaken the knees of even the most veteran aid worker.
Yet here I was, in the heat of July, packing water purification tablets and malaria pills, heading into the storm.
My nearly three – week trip to East Africa opened my eyes to a world beyond what I had ever imagined. The need is overwhelming but the full story rarely penetrates beyond the headlines and photo galleries. There is a story behind the images of sunken eyes, and you might be surprised at the hope, passion and inspiration you will find there.
My journey to the Dadaab refugee camps near the Kenya – Somalia border was an exhausting 11 – hour drive from Nairobi that I took as part of a 27-vehicle UN convoy with armed escort. Bumping along rough roads, I was jammed in the back of a Land Cruiser with several emergency relief workers, staring out at an unforgiving landscape. There was dry, red sand as far as the eye could see, covered by a thin dabbling of leafless shrubs where it was possible for bandits to hide, and therefore the need for security.
Our vehicles were filled to overflowing with supplies, including food, medical items and tents. Although I was sure all circulation had been cut off at my waist and my neck was sore from trying to avoid hitting my head as we flew over the bumps, as I looked ahead down the long, barren road into Dadaab, it occurred to me that there was another way into the camp. I could have taken the journey that hundreds of thousands have already taken and who knows how many more are undertaking at this very moment. Interviews I later conducted with refugees described how some travel 25 days by foot through dangerous countryside, carrying children and the few household supplies they can manage, and assisting the elderly.
Media stories have done a good job of painting these bleak scenarios. Images coming from the camp entry points are horrifying. People look unbearably weak and gaunt. The faces are haunting and expressionless, as if it takes too much energy to smile or blink. There are heartbreaking tales of parents forced to leave sick children behind in order to save the rest of the family. There are soul-numbing stories of attacks on women.
Rarely do the media reports go much further than the reception centres where refugees continue to arrive to the tune of about 850 every day, a slight decrease from the peak of over 1,000 per day in July and August. It’s easy to understand why the cameras and television personalities are so interested, for the reception centres—to an outside eye—look strikingly bleak.
However, if you step through the main gates, you enter the new world a Somali refugee is greeted with, and it’s one of hope and renewal. My time at Dadaab revealed a place where aid agencies work together with the united goal of helping those in need. Christian, Muslim, secular—organizations from around the world are overcoming religious, cultural and language barriers in a common mission of delivering aid.
When the refugees arrive at Dadaab, it’s not a time for mourning but celebrating. The long trek is over. They have come with the dream of a place where they will find food, clean water, shelter and maybe even somewhere to call home.
The weak are immediately given high-energy biscuits and I literally watched the colour return to the faces of those who ate. Children, once mute and silent out of weakness, almost immediately start to mumble and gargle, some even finding the energy to playfully poke at a sibling.
The biscuits are washed down with water—such a relief after so many days in the hot, dry desert. They then enter a waiting area, where program staff explain over megaphones how the system will work. And what a system! It is a finely-tuned assembly line of aid agencies from around the world. The World Food Programme provides food rations. UN’s refugee agency distributes tents. The Muslim community has rallied to provide clothing. Doctors Without Borders provides vaccinations for children. There are agencies working in women’s rights. Agencies building wells and latrines. Agencies that deal more with behind-the-scenes work like conducting needs assessments and gathering statistics to highlight any weaknesses. Our church’s partners in Dadaab are through the ACT Alliance and they have a variety of functions, most notably and impressively to oversee day-to-day camp management, ensuring everything is operating effectively and that refugees receive the dedicated, compassionate care they deserve. The reception areas process thousands of people every week. Although there is still a backlog of about 40,000 refugees, the miracle of the whole process is how quickly and effectively it’s working.
No doubt about it, there are incredible challenges to tackle. As well as dealing with the moment – to – moment needs of refugees, tension between the local Kenyan host community and the new arrivals is thorny. Negotiations are often heated and complex. However, unique solutions are created. Aid groups employ local community members to work on the construction of new camp sites, providing them with a valuable source of income during a year when food is expensive and sparse, and also ensuring they’re involved in the planning process. The host community has become much more supportive and cooperative.
More than 38,000 refugees have been relocated from the outskirts of existing camps into new sites; a testament to the staff who are able to get new sites up and operating within incredibly tight timelines. I visited an area where church partners were working to designate a new camp and provide homes for another 90,000 refugees. Shrubs were cleared and white lines were drawn across the sand at a hurried pace, each family plot with one tent measuring 10×12 metres. It was like watching an entire subdivision going up before my eyes.
In such close quarters, disputes and conflict are inevitable. Community Peace and Safety Teams (CPSTs) have been established for exactly this reason. Estimates indicate there is one security officer per 1,800 people. Obviously, response times are slow and the strain on services offered is high. Instead of relying on outside help, camp staff recruit the refugees themselves to take on roles as CPST members, each one serving as a resourceful blend of volunteer firefighter, police officer, counsellor and medic. They receive training in how to resolve issues, negotiate, handle complaints, identify medical issues and ease tensions. With the particularly difficult or violent cases being referred to the police department, the CPSTs have been effective at dealing with issues of domestic violence, brawls, encroachment and robberies.
When a fire broke out in the local market a few months ago, the results could have been devastating. Team members acted quickly and the fire was brought under control before much damage was done. When two young men started fighting at a water tap over who could draw water first, the situation quickly escalated with each man’s family and friends getting involved. Sticks and stones were used as weapons, women were biting and scratching, and people hit one another with jerry cans. The local CPST member was quick to jump in and soon managed to calm the opposing sides.
Life at the camps is far from easy—there are religious tensions, supply shortages and health issues, not to mention the hyenas that come at night and threaten small children. But it’s so much more than the stark images peering back at you from your television screens. People have set up small businesses within the camp proving how hard it is to keep a true entrepreneur down. Families celebrate and give thanks for the food rations and water taps. Children are accessing educational opportunities. And dedicated aid workers wander among the tents, knocking on flaps to give greetings, addressing people by their names, and asking how they are doing.
There is a whole world of hope and help that is rising from the dusty landscape.
It’s very Canadian—and dare I say, very Presbyterian—of us to ask, “So how do we fix this?” I understand the sentiment but I don’t think it’s the question we should ask.
I’ve given up looking for a “solution” to the crisis in East Africa in the way we usually think of solving problems. This is not a Rubik’s Cube where all the colours will magically align. Life rarely works that way—especially when you’re dealing with complex governments, generations of abuses and corruption, plus changing economic and climatic systems. We have to stop trying to find simple answers to complex problems. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do what we can to help.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.” (Proverbs 3:5) The situation in East Africa is too much for me to comprehend or figure out on my own, but I trust that ultimately God is in control. Our role is to respond to needs as best we can with the gifts God has given us.
Wendy Oketch is one of the relief workers I met at Dadaab. She’s a single mother and only 24 years old, and she’s given her life to helping others. With all that she sees and does, and the amount of hours she works, I think I expected her to be bitter, worn out and cynical. Instead, her words still resonate in my head: “At the end of the day, I can say that I helped someone else. That’s what keeps me going.”
That’s enough for me, too. Perhaps if we stop trying to focus on finding the solutions for tomorrow and concentrate on those we can help today, we will not only be more effective, but we will be better able to have realistic conversations about how to provide aid and how we can work together to create lasting change.
Anklets, necklaces and elongated earlobes with dangling earrings jangle musically as the Maasai women of Narosura, Kenya, say a passionate prayer then sing and dance in celebration for today’s food distribution.
It’s a harsh life here and the failing rainfalls of the last few years have made things nearly unbearable. The drought has recently become a headline story in Canada, however it’s nothing new to the people living here and they’ve been steadily tapping into their small reserves and selling off their few animals in order to provide immediate relief from hunger and hold back famine.
The Canadian Foodgrains Bank food distributions are not simply filling empty stomachs, but the rations also play an important role in helping people get back on their feet again.
Nailepo Sikut is using the money she saves from buying food in order to pay for her children’s school fees and buy them clothing. Both her and her husband are unemployed and they’re unable to farm any land since the soil is too dry.
She tries to find work as a labourer, whenever possible, but she admits that before the distributions she struggled to feed her six children. She was frequently unable to bring home any food for the family so they went to bed hungry, hoping tomorrow would be a better day. They were slowly selling off the few items they had in order to buy food and they were unable to purchase household necessities.
Nailepo walked four hours to get to the distribution centre in Narosura, where CFGB local partners, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee and Nazarene Compassionate Ministries, distribute corn and beans to 600 vulnerable families in the area. Long-term agriculture work is also helping people learn new farming skills so they can mitigate their risk to drought and improve crop yields.
Fredrick Tiambarti is one of the volunteers working in the community garden where staff use a “best practices” model to demonstrate good farming techniques. Fredrick’s own fields were in dire need of assistance.
Last year’s harvest was almost a total failure, producing just two bags of grain—not nearly enough for his family of four. The food distributions ensure Fredrick still has food to eat, while the community garden has taught him valuable agricultural skills.
“I now know how to space out the corn when I plant it,” he says. “And I know how to build basins to irrigate my crops.”
It’s a two-hour walk to get to the community garden where he spends a full day working, but he doesn’t mind the journey. “I walk fast,” he says with a laugh. Besides, he’s grateful for the knowledge. He’s hopeful next year will be a better harvest on his farm, even if the rains don’t come as expected.
At the distribution centre, Nailepo has loaded up her grain bags on her back and wraps a leather strap around her head to balance the weight. It’s a long journey back to her thatched-roof home, but she is happy. There won’t be empty stomachs in her house tonight because tonight she comes home with food.
Residents of Ethiopia’s southwestern Goro district say they have never seen such total and complete crop failure before. Without the expected rainfall, and mixed with an aggressive infestation of armyworm, people in the area have found themselves without any harvest at all.
You wouldn’t guess it from the rich, green landscape. It’s what people call a “green famine.” The scenery is lush, but the food is scarce.
Canadian Foodgrains Bank member agencies are working to bring emergency relief to people suffering from acute and prolonged food shortages. As the drought and crop failure has worsened, the need for assistance has become vital.
Food production in Ethiopia hinges on the rains. They are life giving and the only weapon against the harsh dry season. And since most people in the region rely almost exclusively on their small plots of land to feed their families for the year, the failing rains have made farming a difficult, unreliable business—with devastating results.
Climate change in Goro means rainfall is erratic and unpredictable, so it is nearly impossible for farmers to know when to plant their crops. And while some recent rains have given everything a rich aura of green, residents know the moisture won’t stay for long, and it’s already too late for this year’s crops.
Many children in the Goro area only eat one meal a day and it’s usually the nutrient-poor injera (a local bread) with a bit of tomato sauce, if they’re lucky. As food production continues to decrease, and food prices skyrocket, the situation is only becoming more and more exacerbated. Canadian Foodgrains Bank is supporting projects to meet the immediate foods needs, while also addressing long-term issues around mitigating risk to future drought and famine.
At the Wolte’i Chefa distribution centre, food rations are distributed to families struggling to get enough to eat. The rations of wheat, beans and famix—a nutritional supplement designed especially for children and pregnant mothers—means people don’t have to sell off their few assets in order to buy food.
Ahmed Mohammad is one of the people receiving food and taking part in the work projects. His wheat crops failed to grow because of the rain shortages during the growing season and he was unable to recover even the smallest harvest. After lining up and having his ration card stamped, he collects his grain bags happily. “We suffer a lot,” he says. “I fear for the future.”
But today he has food and the rations will last for a month, until the next distribution. In the mean time, he will take part in the work of the program that is helping mitigate risk to future droughts and climate change, in the hopes that next season’s harvest will be more abundant.
The program also leads food-for-work initiatives that repair infrastructure, build roads and invest in community development projects. As well, people are learning improved agriculture techniques and accessing farming tools.
“Climate change is wreaking havoc here,” says Doe-e Berhanu, program coordinator for Lutheran World Federation, the local partner working in Ethiopia. “But we’re helping keep people alive and we’re preserving human dignity. Despite all the challenges, there’s good work happening in Goro.”