Defend Truth


East Africa: The makings of human tragedy in the hell on Earth


Khadija Patel pushes words on street corners. She is passionate about the protection and enhancement of global media as a public good and is the head of programmes at the International Fund for Public Interest Media. She is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian in South Africa, a co-founder of the youth-driven, award-winning digital news startup The Daily Vox and a vice-chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute. As a journalist she has produced work for Sky News, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Quartz, City Press and Daily Maverick, among others. She is also a research associate at WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand). 

Decades of war and famine brought unimaginable suffering to millions of Somali people. Profoundly disturbing are the reports from the area, as our aid methods are simply not working.

My own image of Mogadishu is the burgeoning Somali community of Mayfair, Johannesburg. Away from the devastation of a war that much of the world has chosen to forget, the Somalis of Mayfair wield the heavy guns of entrepreneurship. Through an ongoing conversion of ramshackle properties into inns and restaurants, the Somali quarter of Mayfair has become a hub of business. A Somali women sells tea and coffee on Bird Street from a tiny kiosk carved out of the facade of a house that was a hotel before it eventually became a supermarket. 

Across the road, beside the Somali-owned tuck shop competing with the Pakistani-owned Zahra Tuck Shop on the next corner, men mill around the khat vendor. Khat could as well be spinach, nobody bats an eyelid at a semi-narcotic amphetamine-like stimulant sold without any qualms on a busy street corner. But then nobody really bothers with the Somalis.

Here, when the rest of Mayfair has retired in front of TV screens, the Somali quarter continues to hustle for life in South Africa. These are the few thousand that consider themselves lucky. Lucky to have escaped Somalia alive, lucky to survive the refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia, lucky to have survived the journey to South Africa. For hundreds of thousands more, luck has dissipated in the struggle to eke out life from the ravages of a ceaseless war and a crippling drought.

Of the quarter of Somalia’s 7.5 million population the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) believes displaced either internally or living outside the country as refugees, less than 10,000 are in South Africa. An estimated 10 million people in the Horn of Africa are believed to be facing a “humanitarian emergency” as the region grapples with its worst drought in 60 years. Several seasons of failed rains compounded by spiralling global food prices means the drought will affect more than 12 million people across Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Somalia though, is set to be the hardest hit.

The UNHCR  warned this week that  “one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises” is being turned into a “human tragedy of unimaginable proportions”.

More than 135,000 Somalis have fled the country so far this year and last month alone, 54,000 people fled across the two borders, into Kenya and Ethiopia. At the Dadaab refugee complex in north-eastern Kenya where three camps, Dagahale, Ifo and Hagadera, make up the severely overcrowded and chronically underfunded Dadaab complex, about 1,300 people are arriving every day from Somalia. Christina Patterson describes the passage of Somalis into Kenya like this: “Thousands walking for days on legs so weak that they can hardly bear the weight of the skeletal body they support, with muscles so wasted that every step hurts, to a place where they might, or might not, get the food and water and shelter they need to keep alive.” In Ethiopia, two refugee camps, Bokolmanyo and Malkadida have already reached capacity and aid workers are struggling with the unrelenting wave of new arrivals.

Officials are stopping short of calling the situation a famine just yet. It’s a humanitarian emergency that may well be a famine shortly, but right now it’s not a famine. And while aid workers, overwrought UN officials and the legion of do-gooders in East Africa try their best to prevent the worst before it happens, it begs questioning why contingencies were not in place. The “humanitarian emergency” has been months in the making. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation repeatedly issued warnings about the effects of La Niña, a weather pattern known to wreak drought in Africa and yet very few contingency plans have been put in place. As it currently stands, the FAO claims a shortfall of about 40% in the money needed to tackle the crisis and a UNHCR appeal covering the needs of protection, food, shelter, health services and other supplies for refugees will be issued imminently and so urgent is the situation that the UNHCR call will extend not only to governments but also to individual donors and the private sector.

And if a UNHCR call does not adequately express the gravity of the situation, Somalia’s Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Shabaab group has announced it will begin negotiating the terms under which aid agencies will be allowed back into the country. Al-Shabaab had banned aid agencies in 2009 believing the groups could host spies or promote an un-Islamic way of life. Little boxes of foodstuffs parachuted into Dadaab sure does make for good television. The pictures of docile refugees waiting obediently in long queues for their little package tells us that a little does go a long way and that the situation, dire though it is, may well be remediable. There’s little doubt that aid is desperately needed in East Africa. If there is anything human left about us as a world then we will prevent a human tragedy from unfolding.

But for how much longer will aid stave off the worst?

In Somalia and Ethiopia 65% of the population are pastoralists, making their living by raising livestock. The drought has seen scores of animals die of dehydration, cruelly cutting off millions of people from their only source food. If anything, this serves to remind us that the global food system is mired in abject failure. A system that allows 925 million people to go without food daily is flawed by nature. A system that forces millions of people to leave their homes and walk for days on end to seek sustenance is not working. Emergency aid to East Africa will go a long way to feeding hundreds of thousands in the short-term, but it will not solve the crisis. People, be they Somali, or North Korean will still go hungry – not because there is not enough food to go around. There is plenty – but there is a spectacular imbalance in the way that food is distributed. We produce far more food than we actually need.

According to UNHCR, there are more and more tales of children younger than five dying of hunger and exhaustion during their journey to Dadaab. The children who do make it to the complex are in such feeble conditions when they eventually reach Kenya that they die within 24 hours despite the emergency care and therapeutic feeding they immediately receive. We need to ship off as much aid to East Africa as we possibly can, but now, more than ever before we need to reassess the food system and make certain it begins to work for more than a privileged few. DM


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