I’ve never seen so many lobsters on the same table before. When I scoop out the white flesh from the orange armour plating and eat it, it is sweet and satisfying. I don’t need to eat it, I already had had enough at the first course (parma ham, salad and garlic flatbread), so I didn’t even eat any chicken or beef. However, as I said to my fellow-guest, at home lobster is such an expensive treat that we eat so rarely, so if it’s put in front of me I feel obliged to eat it.
I can’t help asking the person next to me: ‘how can we be eating lobster, when only 200 kilometres away, in the last 48 hours, 100 people died of starvation?’. It’s a bizarre moment, on many levels. One of those is that it’s not actually a Marie-Antoinette moment: the lobster hasn’t been expensively imported. Its local lobster, fished (immaturely, and probably not sustainably) in Mogadishu Bay. I’m in Somalia, where all the indications are that a great famine is imminent. Yes, there hasn’t been rain for three years. Yes, half the country’s livestock (cattle, camels and goats) have died. Yes, there’s no water in the usual nomadic pastoral areas. But it’s not as if there is no food. So, at least in part, this is a distribution problem. And, as I will learn later, a cultural one too.
Coincidentally I had listened to (or Josh and Chuck had broadcast) the Stuff You Should Know (can’t recommend it enough!) podcast on famine the week before I travelled. This was one of the key points they’d raised – the majority of famines are as much a political event as an environmental one. The causes are multiple, the contexts are complex, and things are never black and white.
This is certainly the case with the Irish famine (An Gorta Mór, [The Big Hunger] as we still refer to it). The headline statistics are staggering: Ireland lost half of its 8m population to famine or emigration between 1845 and 1849. But within that there was variation, for example in the numbers of families going to the workhouses, or the proportion of persons emigrating as a percentage of the local ward population. There are actually examples of wards where the population rose during the Famine. The ward where I’m from, Killeavy, in Co. Armagh, is one of those. And there’s a reason – or at least a theory – as to why. Again, it concerns human intervention. In Killeavy, like many other places, there was a dominant landlord, who lived in a ‘Big House’, or, in my case, literally a castle (about to be transformed into a boutique hotel, by the way). And our local landlord had a wife, a wife who actually prepared food parcels and gave them to the local peasant poor (pretty much all of us), to the extent that locally, our population did not change. There was emigration, but the net birth rate also increased, so that overall there was no change, when, almost literally in next-door wards, the population plummeted. Without the strong woman who made an intervention, that wouldn’t have happened. So thank you, Mrs. Foxall.
Part of the answer to my question comes the next day. One of our Somali partners tells us that one of the biggest problems in Somalia is that ‘we let our fish die of old age’. Yes, they have 3,000 kilometres of coastline, most of it sandy beaches that run onto the sparkling sapphire waters of the Indian Ocean. Waters that contain a hell of a lot of fish. And not just food, but energy too: wind and wave power could produce electricity, the sulphur-coloured sands could seduce many tourists. Ok, so security is an issue right now, but it is a reasonable long-term prospect.
The next day we move closer to the famine site, flying in a small Beechcraft over acres of desert, with constantly mottled soils and sands of ochre and orange, dun and beige, and somewhat more surprisingly, several shades of green, combining to strike a magical chiaroscuro from the air. We land on a dirt airstrip, in the safe hands of two young Kenyan women who are our pilots. The airport is little more than a wooden shed, where our passports are stamped, entry – and more importantly exit – taxes are paid. The staff ask us if we’ll pay the exit tax now, as they won’t be around in the afternoon.
At the event, there are local dignitaries present. Like many of the Somalis I’d met the previous day, there are lots of dual-nationals, mainly US or UK, people who had gone into exile during the long years of the conflict (the past 25-30 years in the most recent iteration), made good lives abroad, and now were back, to give back to their country. They are highly educated – degrees from the US Ivy League and the top tier of UK universities abound. One man, slight and serene, with freckles on a rectangular face asks, of all things, about the Assembly election in Northern Ireland las March. He knows voter turnout was up by 10%. He knows that it is historic that the Unionist majority is technically gone, and he knows that the Unionist veto on socially liberal legislation is definitely gone. I am amazed, we are literally in the middle of no-where – and why would anyone in Somalia even care? It’s not as if they don’t have stuff to worry about themselves. ‘I’m from Bristol’, he says, ‘I always followed the Troubles (Northern Irish conflict) when I lived in England.’ I ask him about the marine resources (that lobster is really sticking in my craw now), and he tells me that when the Russians occupied they did instigate a resettlement programme, taught people to fish. Some stayed at the coast, but the culture of pastoralism and nomadism was too strong for others, and so they returned to the land. In relation to the coming famine, he says that the government doesn’t have the means to pay for aid; ‘we don’t plan for the future, we never do’, he concludes somewhat wistfully. He also tells me that the clans are strong. They aren’t against democracy per se, but if they don’t see themselves reflected in the government, then they would have, let’s say, less motivation to enthusiastically participate in it.
We leave the dusty desert town, about a 40-minute drive from the airstrip. As we trundle through town there is a group of young men carrying bundles of khat, thin bleak branches heavy with dust-coated leaves. When chewed, as is the local custom, it gives a high a little like speed (I am told), and it is a daily habit – in the afternoons- for many. There’s a paved road for most of the way, with plenty of bushes and trees pushing up out of the arid silica. There must be water underneath, somewhere, though, for there are so many of them, and though some have pale leaves like birch or silver ash, others sport spikes of darkest green, the colour of Scotch Pine.
We land in another desert town, but this time it’s a big town, in Somaliland, with a serious airport, serious buildings. We have dinner – again with multiple courses, including the local specialty of camel steak, which is delicious. Again I ask the person I’m sitting beside about eating lobster in the time of famine. I have now learned about the potential of the ‘blue economy’, so I say ‘why don’t people eat fish?’
She looks at me, mock-aghast. She has a PhD, amongst other degrees, and worked as a midwife in the NHS in London for many years. She too is back, to build her society.
“What kind of a man eats fish?!” she says, only half-joking.
The clear inference is, not Somali, or Somaliland men. Or not manly ones, anyway. The other thing she tells me is that cows are like mobile ATMs. The act like cash assets that are (usually) easily liquidized. When a family needs cash, they just sell a cow. When there’s no cow to trade, they can’t buy rice or water. I guess it’s harder to lug fish around. Especially without refrigeration. Or salt-water tanks.
She then tells me that earlier that day she had seen the first cases of children with severe malnourishment present at her hospital. She says it is unprecedented for the time of year, and predicts that the coming famine is not analogous to the 2010 famine, or the 1992 one, or even the 1984 famine (the ‘Live Aid’ one, remember?), but one in the 1950s. She fears that, even if aid does come to Somalia, it won’t reach Somalialand, given neither recognizes the other as a state, but most of the international community only recognizes Somalia as such.
The ‘sea-as-solution’ theme is echoed the next day by another Somaliland partner. The sea is the future, he says. Our people are a pastoral people, but that way of life can no longer be sustained by the land. That way of life is going to have to change. In one sense it’s a reality that Darwin identified: one must adapt or die.
We leave Somaliland and fly back to Nairobi for the flight to Europe. Nairobi is a big, bold and bustling city of over 3 million people. And it’s green, very green – with trees everywhere, palm trees and bougainvillea trees that are 20 metres high. In fact it has a national game reserve within the city limits – evidenced by the gang of zebras that run across the central reservation of a 10-lane highway as we drive to the airport.
But even here there is evidence of people moving from the rural to the urban. I am told to look out for the Massai women on the street, in their traditional dress. They are here because there is no food and no water in their traditional homelands.
So the situation, it seems to me, is that everybody knows the famine is coming. The most vulnerable people have already started to die. But it’s not like last time, or the time before, or the time before that. The government knows it, the aid agencies, know it. The EU, the world’s biggest humanitarian aid donor, sensibly combines humanitarian aid with support on political engagement, support in the security sector and support on development aid. But the lessons from the past are stark. Stuff You Should Know had recommended a piece in Spin (http://www.spin.com/featured/live-aid-the-terrible-truth-ethiopia-bob-geldof-feature/) about the debacle of the Live Aid expenditure in Ethiopia, that I read.
The gist of it is that, despite being warned by Médecins Sans Frontières, Bob Geldof went ahead and gave the money to a regime who abused it, and certainly had no logistics plan for transporting aid beyond the ports in a time of war. It remains salient for today’s Somalia. The situation is different – there is a newly elected President (also a US citizen) who needs to put together a government that balances the outcome of the electoral results with the ambitions of the clans, balance the needs of the Federal States and autonomous areas, and the declared independence of Somaliland, with central government, as well as deal with the presence of Al-Shabab waging a guerrilla war in the country. On top of this there’s the famine. So yeah, I guess he could do with a little help.
The following week I am in New York, and Somalia is a tangential item on the agenda. The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA) has a rep at the meeting and she confirms everything I’ve seen and heard, and adds to it. At the moment, in areas made insecure by the presence of Al-Shabab, mortality rate due to the drought is 7%. In areas controlled by the government, the mortality rate is under 2%. But disease associated with famine – mainly cholera – is on the rise. ‘But,’ she says firmly, ‘this is preventable, we know how to deal with this.’
I’m not an expert like the OCHA rep. I was in Somalia for only 72 hours. But I share with you what I saw, and heard because you are going to be asked to give, again, and soon. I would encourage you to do so, even though there are so many competing worthy causes. But don’t just leave it at clicking on the websites – ask the organizations to whom you give money, ask your government, how they are going to protect the aid, how they are going to transport it, and how they plan to use longer-term development aid to increase stability in Somalia and the Horn of Africa in general. In other words: how come the fish die old, and the people die young?
Kate Fearon is a founder member of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition. She is a resident of Co. Armagh, on the Irish border.
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