Famine in Africa

Reporter’s Notebook: Horn of Africa

Scott Tong Jan 5, 2012

On skinny cows, cell phones and spaghetti 

The U.N.’s 9-seater turboprop lands smoothly on the dirt strip on the edge of Somalia, a few clicks north of the equator. I step out, and squint.

The bright, tan monochrome of dirt and ghastly-looking shrubs hit me even more than the 104-degree heat. This is impression number one of this inhospitable place: the brightness. 

Number two: the children (chanting Koran verses in the video above).

It’s not so much the sheer number of them. Or their appearance (they aren’t all thin, and in any event it’s hard to see beneath loose, traditional Somali garb).

It’s the ratio of kids to grownups. Parents truly are hard to find.

The average Somali woman bears six children, compared to four in Kenya and two in America. Population bulge serves as a key ingredient in Somalia’s slow-motion disaster, along with increasingly frequent drought, ecological ruin, a complete lack of governance, and of course war.

Photos can’t capture the scale of Dadaab, Kenya. It’s largest relief camp on earth. One long row of U.N. dome tents follows another. The newly pitched tents are obvious: they retain some of their original white exterior. The older ones have over time morphed in with the background of sand, bushes, and the occasional passing camel.

“Hallo Hallo”

Young boys beckon “hallo hallo” as I trudge through the sands of Dadaab, hunting for interviews. The girls are more shy. As I roam, my interpreter Mohamed warns me to stay near the outer edge of the camp, for safety. It’s widely assumed the Islamic militant group al-Shabaab has infiltrated Dadaab.

The person I recall most vividly: 35 year-old Mahmoud Abdurahman.

He walked 30 days to get here, along with a wife and – luckily — one surviving donkey to pull the cart carrying his four young children. They left behind an ailing neighbor, later to hear ghastly word of his death.

Soon after his family arrived in Dadaab, Abdurahman lost his 18-month old daughter to illness and malnutrition. The next day I wanted to come back and talk to him more, but interpreter Mohammed shook his head. The man will ask you for money, he warns.

Permanent Settlement 

There’s a feeling of permanency here. Some Somalis have lived off U.N. rations for 20 years. Each family has a card, indicating how many members of the family, entitling them to a corresponding amount of sorghum, cooking oil, and what they call maize (corn).

At the end of the grain line, I interview two people who complain the food’s not enough. It’s less than they’re promised.

Soon, though, men claiming to run the food distribution kick me out, saying I don’t have authorization to be here (I don’t) and threatening to confiscate my mic.

Later, I hear allegations of corruption against these men: that they skimp on rations, doctor the scales, and sell off the “surplus” food at a private warehouse one block away. “Everyone knows,” Mohammed says.

Over time in these camps, an informal service economy has popped up. At least that’s what an economist would call it. It’s really a series of tents-with-alleged-experts-inside.

I find a blacksmith, a cobbler, tailor, and a couple small store owners, catering to what the refugee market demands: single-use dandruff shampoo packs, coconut oil, candy from who-knows-when, “Eve” brand beauty soap and — in a nod to Somalia’s Italian colonial heritage — spaghetti.

Here’s what I missed, the first several times walking by: the shallow mounds of new graves.

In the makeshift cemetery, several graves appear freshly dug. A good number are child-sized.  Several mounds lay covered by sticks, placed to ward off hyenas coming to dig after dusk.

All is not well in the camps. Terrorists are believed to be here. Aid workers have been kidnapped. And in the Ethiopian camp of Dolo Ado, medical sources whisper of famine conditions inside the camp.

Some of the deadliest diagnoses have existed since the Middle Ages: measles, malaria, cholera, pneumonia. 

Of course the animals are dying, too.

We repeatedly come upon piles of cow and camel bones, carcasses. When animals starve to death, Somali Muslims say they don’t eat them because they’ve not been slaughtered properly.

Cows trudge by slowly, hip bones protruding. Hardly anyone wants them. They’re too weak to give milk. They munch on sticks to survive. They have barely any market value, in this condition, in this drought.

I took a few videos of these skinny cows, which made quite an impression on my first-grader Daniel back home. I’ve been back for weeks, yet he still ends his days with a  prayer for “the skinny cows in Africa.”  

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