Africa’s poor rescuing people from famine
IN SOMALIA, South Sudan and Nigeria, sites of the three largest hunger crises in sub-Saharan Africa, overstretched humanitarian organisations have failed to raise sufficient funds to feed and house all of those in need.
An untold number of people – most of them children – have died of malnutrition and preventable diseases. The UN has declared a famine in parts of South Sudan, and says the other two nations are in danger of suffering the same tragedy.
But in each of those countries, some of the world’s poorest people have stepped in to fill the void. In the northern town of Ganyiel, in South Sudan, where thousands of families converged in recent months to escape fighting and possible starvation in nearby villages, there weren’t enough tents or huts, so the newly arrived slept outside in the dirt.
The UN World Food Programme couldn’t keep up with the pace of arrivals, and malnutrition in the makeshift camp was a growing problem.
Yet the families of Ganyiel, with almost nothing of their own, shared whatever they could. That meant splitting tiny portions of maize or fish or fruit. It meant lending bed mats to the elderly, and space in cramped huts. Their generosity saved lives.
People ate who might otherwise have gone hungry. People found shelter from the 37ºC heat who might otherwise have shrivelled in the sun.
“We live thanks to the people of Ganyiel who share their food,” Veronica Nyariel said. She wore a pink shirt and a black shawl that had taken on the colour of the dirt that she slept on.
In Baidoa, Somalia, at another displacement camp that had emerged out of nothing, thousands of people have fled a hunger crisis caused by both drought and violence inflicted by al-Shabaab militants. Again, international organisations have arrived, but they haven’t brought enough food or shelter for everyone.
After Mohamed Iman reached Baidoa in early March, he went wandering through the poor, embattled city, which was once controlled by al-Shabaab. Months earlier, he had been a farmer. Now, he was a beggar. The people of Baidoa gave and gave: food, clothes, shelter.
“Some of them know me, and some of them don’t, but they all help,” said Iman, 56.
It’s true that in each of the three countries threatened by famine, the provider and the recipient of charity are often members of the same tribe or the same ethnic group or, at the very least, victims of the same oppressor.
But the other side of that factionalism is the cohesion within smaller communities and groups, and the charity it begets.
“Whenever there’s a disaster or a crisis, especially in places hard to reach, these communities help themselves before international organisations arrive to help,” said Patricia Danzi, the head of Africa operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Since clashes in April, the UN’s protected camp in Wau, South Sudan is the most congested internally displaced camp in the country, with almost 40000 inhabitants. South Sudan’s civil war, now into its fourth year, has killed more than 50000 people and plunged parts of the nation into famine, while accounts of government soldiers killing civilians based on their ethnicity have fuelled desperation.