Tag Archives: famine

A daughter’s freedom vs her sibling’s lives

Zeinab, 14, applies her make-up before heading to school inside her shelter at a camp for internally displaced people from drought hit areas in Dollow, Somalia April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

By Zohra Bensemra
April, 2017

As the village wells dried up and her livestock died in the scorched scrubland of southern Somalia, Abdir Hussein had one last chance to save her family from starvation: the beauty of her 14-year-old daughter, Zeinab.

Last year, an older man offered $1,000 for her dowry, enough to take her extended family to Dollow, a Somali town on the Ethiopian border where international aid agencies are handing out food and water to families fleeing a devastating drought.

Zeinab refused.

“I would rather die. It is better that I run into the bush and be eaten by lions,” said the slender dark-eyed girl in a high, soft voice.

“Then we will stay and starve to death and the animals will eat all of our bones,” her mother shot back.

The exchange, related to Reuters by the teenager and her mother, is typical of the choices facing Somali families after two years of poor rains. Crops withered and the white bones of livestock are scattered across the Horn of Africa nation.

The disaster is part of an arc of hunger and violence threatening 20 million people as it stretches across Africa into the Middle East.

It extends from the red soil of Nigeria in the west, where Boko Haram’s six-year jihadist insurgency has forced 2 million people to flee their homes, to Yemen’s white deserts in the east, where warring factions block aid while children starve.

Between them lie Somalia’s parched sands and the swamps of oil-rich South Sudan, where starving families fleeing three years of civil war survive on water-lily roots.

Parts of South Sudan are already suffering famine, the first in six years.

In Somalia, the United Nations says more than half the 12 million population need aid. A similar drought in 2011, exacerbated by years of civil war, sparked the world’s last famine, which killed 260,000 people. Now the country teeters on the brink again.

At the moment, the death toll is still in the hundreds but the numbers will spike if the March-May rains fail. The forecast is not good.

As U.S. President Donald Trump threatens to slash aid budgets, the United Nations says the drought and conflicts in the four countries are fuelling humanity’s greatest collective disaster since World War Two.

“We stand at a critical point in history,” Undersecretary-General for humanitarian affairs Stephen O’Brien told the Security Council in March. “We are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations.”

The United Nations needs $4.4 billion by July, he said. So far it has received $590 million.

Missing from the statistics are the heart-wrenching choices families make every day to survive.

Sheltering under the bare branches of a thorn tree as she waited for a cup of flour, one mother who just arrived in Dollow said she had been feeding her younger children while the older ones went hungry.

Another had left her sick 5-year-old son by the side of the road with distant kinsmen as she led children that could still walk towards help. A third woman bid goodbye to her crippled husband and walked through the desert for a week, carrying their toddler, to the place where there was food.

Hussein traded Zeinab’s freedom for the lives of her sisters.

“I felt so bad,” she told Reuters in the ragged dome of sticks, rags and plastic that shelters her and 14 other relatives. “I ended the dreams of my baby. But without the money from the dowry, we would all have died.”

Zeinab, whose henna’d hands are also covered with her own inky teenage doodles, wears a tight-fitting headscarf and a long, drab skirt. Underneath are a pair of trousers with a spray of coloured rhinestones at the bottom, and an iron will. She wants to be an English teacher. She wants to finish school. She does not want to be married.

“I want something different to this,” she said, as her 2-year-old nephew rolled naked in the sand and his baby brother cried weakly.

Weighed against Zeinab’s dreams were the lives of 20 nieces and nephews, the sons and daughters of her three elder sisters, all married young and all widowed or divorced. There was also her careworn older brother, her gap-toothed younger sister and her middle-aged parents.

Once the family had cows and goats and three donkeys that they hired out with carts for transport. But the animals died around them and Zeinab became their only hope of escape.

For a month, she refused, withdrawing into herself and running away when they forgot to lock her in her room. Finally, faced with her family’s overwhelming need, Zeinab relented.

“We didn’t want to force her,” her mother said wearily, worry lines etched into her forehead as her daughter sat stony-faced beside her. “I could not sleep for stress. My eyes were so tired I could not thread a needle.”

The dowry was received, the marriage celebrated, and union consummated. Zeinab stayed three days and ran away.

When her family hired cars to drive them the 40 kilometers to Dollow, Zeinab went with them. She enrolled in the local school, where stick walls topped by corrugated iron sheets serve as classrooms for 10 teachers and around 500 students.

Her husband followed.

“He says, if the girl refuses me I must get my money back. Or I will take her by force,” Zeinab said quietly. “He sends me messages saying give me the money or I will be with you as your husband.”

Her family cannot repay even a fraction of the dowry. Their only assets are their two stained foam mattresses, three cooking pots and the orange tarpaulin that covers their makeshift dome. There is nothing else to sell.

Then Zeinab’s English teacher Abdiweli Mohammed Hersi decided to step in. Hersi has seen hundreds of students drop out due to the drought.

One girl left to work as a maid to help feed her family. Her generation was the first where the daughters were sent to school. A boy sickened and died; cholera has exploded throughout Somalia as the bacteria infects dwindling water supplies.

Five girls this year also left for forced or early marriages, Hersi said. Young, reluctant brides are not unheard of in Somalia, but they are less common in good times, he said, at least in Dollow.

“Before the drought, the cases were less,” he said, an inflatable globe hanging from the ceiling of his classroom. “Some parents do give their children to other men to get that money.”

No one knows how many families are making choices like Zeinab’s.

“While we don’t yet have firm data, we understand from some reports that the numbers are small but increasing, particularly in the south and central regions,” said Jean Lokenga, chief of Child Protection for the United Nations Children’s Fund in Somalia.

Other aid groups said most drought-stricken families are too poor to pay dowries after their animals died. None knew of a program to help girls like Zeinab.

Hersi took Zeinab to a local aid group, who took her to Italian aid group Cooperazione Internazionale. The regional coordinator, visiting on a trip with EU donors, decided to intervene.

“We must do something for this girl,” said Deka Warsame, pouring tea for colleagues gathered to hear the story as the call to prayer sounded through the rooftops. “Otherwise it will be a rape every night.”

Her staff held a collection and came up with enough cash to repay the dowry. Warsame told Zeinab the group would mediate a meeting between the men of the two families. Her husband would get back his money if he divorced her in front of witnesses.

Zeinab’s dark eyes flicked up from the floor.

“Will I be free?” she asked.

Copyright Reuters 2017

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More than 100 million at risk of starvation

An internally displaced man looks at the carcasses of his goats and sheep in the outskirts of Dahar town of Puntland state in northeastern Somalia, December 15, 2016. REUTERS/Feisal Omar - RTX2V8OJ

An internally displaced man looks at the carcasses of his goats and sheep in the outskirts of Dahar town of Puntland state in northeastern Somalia, December 15, 2016. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

By Umberto Bacchi
March, 2017

ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The number of people facing severe hunger worldwide has surpassed 100 million and will grow if humanitarian aid is not paired with more support for farmers, a senior United Nations official said.

Dominique Burgeon, director of the emergency division at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said latest studies showed 102 million people faced acute malnutrition – meaning they were on the brink of starvation – in 2016, up almost 30 percent from 80 million in 2015.

The hike was mainly driven by deepening crises in Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia, where conflict and drought have crippled food production, he said. [nL5N1FF5EX]

“Humanitarian assistance has kept many people alive so far but their food security situation has continued to deteriorate,” Burgeon told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

More investment is needed to help people feed themselves by farming crops and livestock, he added.

“We come with airplanes, we provide food assistance and we manage to keep them alive but we do not invest enough in the livelihood of these people,” he said.

“We avoid them falling into famine but we are not good at taking them off the cliff, away from food insecurity.”

The U.N. World Food Programme said last month more than 20 million people – greater than the population of Romania or Florida – risk dying from starvation within six months in four separate famines.

Wars in Yemen, northeastern Nigeria and South Sudan have devastated households and driven up prices, while a drought in east Africa has ruined the agricultural economy. [nL8N1G06JS]

Famine was formally declared in February in parts of South Sudan, which has been mired in civil war since 2013.

In northeastern Nigeria, once a breadbasket for the country, a seven-year insurgency by Boko Haram militants has uprooted some 1.8 million people, forcing many to abandon their farms.

The government says it has clawed back most of the territory it lost to the jihadist group and tens of thousands of refugees are hoping to return to their crops, although security remains a concern. [nL4N1G65JP]

Burgeon said the FAO had raised less than a third of the $20 million it needs within the next two weeks to support almost 2 million people in the upcoming planting season in Nigeria – an investment he said would save money in the future.

“If you don’t support those who want to return to their area to crop then you have to agree that you will have to provide massive aid assistance at least until the harvest in 2018, which is unbearable,” he said.

Lack of funding was also hampering the agency’s response in Syria, where food production dropped to an all-time low in 2016, Burgeon said. [nL8N1DG4UO]

“A lot is going to food assistance and barely anything is going to help farmers who have decided to stay on their land,” he said.

The soaring cost of seeds, fertilisers and tractor fuel was pushing many farmers to leave, making it more difficult to restart the economy once peace or stability returned, he added.

“What we need to do is to help them stay and crop their land and be there for the future,” Burgeon said. “To survive is not enough.”

Copyright Reuters 2017

(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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More Food No Answer to Africa’s Hunger

A Malawian subsistence farmer surveys her maize fields in Dowa near the capital Lilongwe, February 3, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

A Malawian subsistence farmer surveys her maize fields in Dowa near the capital Lilongwe, February 3, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

By Alex Whiting
September, 2016

TURIN, Italy (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As a young university student of agriculture, Edie Mukiibi believed the latest hybrid seeds which promised bumper crops were the answer to improving the lot of maize farmers in his part of Uganda.

He persuaded many to buy the seeds, while working part-time promoting them in Kiboga district in central Uganda.

But the consequences were “terrible”, he said. It was 2007, a year of drought, and the new seeds turned out to be less resilient than traditional varieties.    “The farmers lost almost everything – every bit of maize crop they had. When I went back to talk with the farmers I could feel their pain,” Mukiibi said.     Even worse, the new crops could not be grown with any other crops, so the farmers were left with nothing to fall back on except the bills they had run up for the pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers the maize required, he said.    “This is when I started working with farmers … to diversify (their) farming,” said Mukiibi, now vice president of Slow Food International, a grassroots movement of farmers, chefs, activists and academics campaigning to improve the quality of food and the lives of producers.

He said he wanted to help farmers use “local seeds, local knowledge, and traditional ways of managing resources”.

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CAUSE OF MALNUTRITION

Large companies are increasingly taking charge of food production in Africa and pushing for greater quantities of food – but these are not the answer to cutting hunger in Africa, he said on the sidelines of Slow Food’s annual festival in the Italian city of Turin which opened on Thursday.      “We need to think more about the real causes of malnutrition in developing countries, and we need to realise the problem is not production, the problem is how do we keep the food we have in circulation,” Mukiibi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In Africa, food lost during or after harvest could feed 300 million people, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.    Mukiibi, who is based in Mukono district just east of the Ugandan capital Kampala, said people can go hungry in one part of Uganda while bananas are rotting in the fields and in stores in another part.    “We need to encourage small-scale producers that they are still important in the world of food,” he said, adding that thousands in Uganda have lost access to land bought by foreign companies producing food for export.

Many are given jobs on the newly created industrial-sized farms.    Traditionally, Ugandan farms grow different crops on the same piece of land. Five acres may be planted with coffee and in between the coffee plants, bananas and cocoa are grown, as well as yams and beans for the family to eat, he said.    The crops support each other – in times of drought coffee plants extend their roots to banana plants which naturally hold more water, he added.    “This is a … very, very productive farming system in Africa.”

Copyright Reuters 2016

Reporting by Alex Whiting, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change.

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

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