From delivering emergency food supplies to building earth dams to collect rainwater, the response to the East Africa drought is an impressive sight
Visiting the villages being saved by aid in East Africa while others wait in vain for drought relief
From delivering emergency food supplies to building earth dams to collect rainwater, the response to the East Africa drought is an impressive sight. Report and photographs from Somaliland by Rob Hastings.
Even the ground is unwelcoming here. It’s bad enough that the dust y earth, starved of moisture for longer than anyone can remember, spits in your face the moment a breeze picks up. But it’s the black stones scattered about this godforsaken place that seem like the environment’s final insult on the people of Fadhigab. The rocks look as if they have been lobbed out of a volcano by the Devil – and that’s probably how most of the people here feel, too, as they try to survive in the camp during the harshest drought in living memory.
I look down at my feet to protect my eyes as the wind whips up and grains of Somaliland bombard us once more. The group who have been standing around me to share their stories do the same; the tree we’re sheltering underneath, the only one to be seen in this barren landscape, offers a little protection from the sun but not this blasted dust.
And as I reach for my sunglasses in a reflex action, my squinting eyes move from my feet to theirs. Everyone here is wearing flipflops. They don’t have much of a choice, of course, but how do they walk around here in flipflops without breaking their ankles?
When the wind stops, Hadija and Sarah show me how it’s done. They lead me from one side of the camp to another, so Hadija can show me the hut where she lives – and the hut next door, where her neighbour lived until she succumbed to malnutrition along with one of her children. Three more of her children were left behind in this life, and Hadija is looking after them as well as her own.
“They are not on the list to get food or help from the aid organisations so I share some of mine with them. I cook for them. I keep my children and their children together,” Hadija says. “I felt powerless and hopeless but I just pray to God for help.”
Sarah comes with us. Her manner is of someone who seems lost. Perhaps everyone appears that way in this unforgiving desert, but after losing one of her own children, a daughter, Sarah has more reason than most.
I follow unsteadily behind the pair as we wander past the three shiny metal water tanks. There are 500 families here, but only enough supplies for 200 has been arriving. It is delivered by ActionAid and Oxfam, two of the 13 leading Disasters Emergency Committee charities working to combat the unparalleled drought in East Africa.
The people here are all nomadic pastoral farmers – or at least they were until their animals died – and they will stay with their animals until the last moment. It took a humanitarian disaster for them to finally abandon their lands and walk the long journey here in the hope of finding water. Originally they were seeking a well; now they can only hope for more tanks like these to arrive.
Ok, ok. I’ll stop. This is all too bleak, I know. The uncertain fate of people like Hadija and Sarah – uncertain is perhaps the most optimistic way of putting it – needs to be reported, but there’s only so much most of us can read about devastating tragedies like the East Africa drought before feeling too guilty or too helpless to go on.
Well, there is good news of a sort: for a start, without wishing to be too pious about these things, everyone can help. You know how.
Second, while some places, like Fadhigab, remain in the most desperate straits imaginable, the aid system is working very well in many other areas, thanks to the money that has already been donated – along with many more millions provided by UK taxpayers through the Department for International Development, and by other countries through the United Nations. The tireless efforts of committed aid workers on the ground should continue to save lives as long as the funding continues to allow it. And seeing their work is inspiring.
Take the emergency drought relief in the village of Dhabarmamac, a few miles from Fadhigab. The stories of the people here are just as desperate as those down the badly potholed road and dirt track; they too have had to leave the bodies of their animals behind to seek sanctuary. But the happiness and relief on their faces as families each collect a month of rations is a sign of how hope can still survive in the hardest conditions.
The food they receive comes in three sacks and is as basic as it gets – 25kg of rice, 25kg of flour, 25kg of sugar, as well as a can of dates and a jerry can of cooking oil. Malnutrition is still a risk for children even with this help, 25-year-old Said tells me, and the most needy families here are also given $200 in cash to spend on essentials in the nearest town, which is an hour or two’s drive away in a truck.
“We know the food is coming from Britain and we are very grateful for the donations,” says Said – though he leaves us under no illusions about how badly the help is needed. They have no cooking equipment and only the clothes they are standing in. As he welcomes me to his hut, where we meet his mother and his four children, he says: “We have to sleep on the floor, we have no mattress or sheets.” It’s hard to imagine how Said feels when he sees his family living like this – trauma from the drought is creating mental health problems as well as physical ones in a part of the world still scarred by its civil war a generation ago – but at least they have food.
Aid projects here in East Africa are not just about short-term provisions, however, no matter how urgent those are. Resilience work to give people greater independence and allow them to withstand dry periods is also hugely important.
While eastern Somaliland has barely received any rain, western parts of the territory have fared better – and to take advantage of what precipitation they do receive, several earth dams built around the villages of Ijara and Boodhley collect the precious fruit of the cloudbursts. They were built by bulldozers hired using British charity donations, and present an idyllic scene as sheep, cows, camels and goats all drink from the pools, providing the people here with a steady supply of milk and meat.
We meet one farmer in Ijara named Mohammed, who used to walk for five hours to take his three camels and four cows to a watering hole before coming the five hours back. Now he can stay local and save their energy, with hopes of breeding more animals. In contrast to the people in Fadhigab, who all appear much older than their ages, such is the harshness of life there, Mohammed is sprightly for 63. “The food we eat and the milk we drink are fresh, so it keeps me fresh as well,” he says with a smile.
Absalam, another farmer near Ijara, is growing maize and sorghum while his goats trot around the fields. The soil here has been productive after ActionAid helped to pay for a tractor to plough his land, and his thick growth of crops looks impressive as they blow in the breeze. “Without the tractor, I couldn’t have ploughed this huge area, and it would have been like this,” he says, gesturing at the dusty earth around the fringes.
The people here remain vulnerable to the whims of the weather. The rainfall in Ijara has been reasonable, but ideally would have been heavier. Absalam will need more clouds to visit if his crops are to carry on growing, but for now he is happy.
Absalam is 43, and the father of 16 children. This is the highest number of any parents we met during a week in Somaliland, but it is common for couples to have as many as 11. In a deeply religious country with limited education in rural areas, where men and women stick to traditional roles, family planning is of little concern.
In times of plenty that is not a problem, but clearly it puts a strain on families when conditions become tough. The drought highlights concerns about education and employment opportunities for women in this part of the developing world, where training to allow them to do more than purely mothering could be of great use.
Some aid money is therefore also being spent on building basic classrooms like the one we visited in Boodhley, where a group of local women, ranging from teenagers to a 70-year-old, were having a maths and writing lesson. The whole community are hoping to benefit from this, as they plan to begin selling the cooking oil they make from their crops using a machine provided by international development funds. Armed with maths skills, the women can help the business develop.
For the people of Fadhigab, all of these projects can only sound like distant dreams. Earth dams would have no water to collect, and there are no crops to eat, let alone turn into cooking oil for sale. Emergency aid is the only answer here, but should the people survive, long-term answers are needed as well.
Even if it rained today and carried on raining for the next month, it’s too late for the pastoral farmers who have already lost all their livestock to leave the camps and move back on to the land and carry on as they were – they will remain in need of help for many months to come, at the very least.