real life

'As an aid worker, this is the worst crisis I've ever seen. But there's hope.'

In the small village of Qorijabley, I watch Maryan Axmed tend to one of her last goats as it takes its last breaths and died. It is so symbolic in a way – of the desperate situation facing millions across East Africa and how time is quickly running out.

Maryan is stoic, yet she tells me, “it makes me feel so sad because it is my livelihood” as her baby also cries with hunger.

Before this devastating drought, Maryan’s family had 50 goats and sheep. Now only a handful of sick goats remain. “It’s so difficult. Once these goats are gone I will have nothing,” she says.

Maryan’s sister Sarah has just one weak sheep left alive from 80 before the drought began. “How will I feed my six daughters? I’m worried about whether they will live, or die like these animals.”

Sarah’s family has no food left at all. She is relying on the generosity of her relatives and neighbours to feed her children. They managed to borrow a small cup of rice. It will be the only meal the six children will eat that day.

Water dries up fast.

In the burning sun, it takes Sarah an hour to fetch the only water near her village. The well is green and polluted.

Outbreaks of cholera and acute diarrhoea are becoming more frequent in Somalia and other areas in East Africa, increasing the risk of death on a large scale.

My Somali Red Crescent colleagues are providing water purification tablets and filters to help prevent children from becoming sick after drinking contaminated water.

A Red Crescent volunteer helps Sarah to carry the heavy water container on the hot walk back to her thatched home.

It’s a bleak picture – the heat, the small amounts of dirty water and the stress of the journey. Yet compared to many others, Sarah is lucky.

Image: Peter Caton/Australian Red Cross.
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Even as an Aid Worker, this is the worst crisis I’ve ever seen. If sufficient rains don’t come and the crops fail for the third year in a row, the fear is there will be millions of people pushed into famine.

Life-saving care with mobile health clinics.

In the dry sand of Somaliland, northern Somalia, we watch local nurses at work as 25-year-old Hamda Muhamed Ibrahim looks on nervously, while her four-year-old son Aaden is weighed and measured in the makeshift mobile health clinic. The boy is just over half the weight he should be for his age.

The clinic is simple but welcoming: a few mats cover the sand under the shade of the only trees in the area, alongside a four-wheel drive stocked with medicines and supplies.

Hamda confides: “Two of my children died in the last 18 months. I have only these two children left and one of them is sick now.”

“I am extremely worried because my child has a fever and I took him to the hospital but I couldn’t afford to pay. Whenever I get a single schilling I use it to buy medicine for him.”

Image: Peter Caton/Australian Red Cross.
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The relief is clear in Hamda’s face as vitamins, supplementary food and immunisations are provided. These simple interventions will save lives of children like Aaden.

Hamda is eating just one meal a week to make sure her children have enough to survive.

Like most children in Somalia and across the Horn of Africa, Aaden is in danger of severe malnutrition. More than 6.2 million people are experiencing extreme food shortages across the country, still affected by armed conflict.

Every morning, mobile health clinics scatter across the parched lands to provide emergency nutrition, immunisations and medical care, preventing dehydration, disease and death. The clinics provide life-saving care to areas where there are no other medical facilities available.

Noor Ismail is an experienced nurse working with one of six mobile clinics in Somaliland. He is fearful a catastrophe is just around the corner. “I come to this village once a week and each time there are more malnourished children. The number is increasing day by day.”

Image: Peter Caton/Australian Red Cross.
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Around two-thirds of the children in the area are malnourished, many of them severely. “I’m just sad I can’t do more to help,” Noor says. “If there is no rain soon most of the children will die.”

Generous neighbours sustain life.

Three years of harsh drought is taking its toll on all life in Somalia. Rivers are bone dry, most dams and wells have evaporated. The carcasses of goats, sheep and cows lie rotting in the sun. Animals still alive are little more than skeletons on legs.

Government officials estimate that at least 80 per cent of all livestock in Somaliland has been decimated. A majority of the population rely on goats, sheep and cows for milk and other food.

Hamda tells me that she is extremely sad because before the drought she had 200 livestock but now has just a handful left. This pattern is repeated in villages across Somalia.

Despite the hardships faced by so many families who are living on minimal food and water, they continue to demonstrate incredible strength, resilience and generosity, helping each other through what the village elders told us was the worst drought they’ve ever seen. The situation is desperate, but I see time and again that the people are not desperate.

Image: Peter Caton/Australian Red Cross.

To donate to the Red Cross East Africa Food Crisis Appeal, go to www.redcross.org.au.