Somali voices remain eerily silent in press reports about raging famine

Sunday August 7 2011


My column last week on how the aid industry is scrambling to gain a slice of the donor pie that is rapidly growing in response to the famine crisis in Somalia and northern Kenya generated a lot of reader response, particularly from Somalis in the diaspora.

Many thanked me for highlighting the factors that contributed to the crisis, and for showing another side of Somalia that is little talked or written about.

It occurred to me that the narrative about Somalia is being written mainly by non-Somalis (and I include myself in that category). Somalis simply are not telling their side of the story, or just don’t have access to forums where their voices can be heard.

In almost all the stories of the famine in Somalia reported in the press, for instance, I have yet to come across an interview with a Somali government official or professional. The famine victims quoted are only allowed to talk about their hunger and their arduous journey to refugee camps.

Because Somali voices are so silent, I would like to use a part of this column to share with you some of the e-mails sent to me by Somalis in the diaspora.

Mohamed, a Somali who has been living in Finland for the last 21 years, had this to say: “I am disturbed about the images and reports coming from Somalia (my parents are still living in Baidoa).

I visited Nairobi twice and I had the feeling that (members of) the international community believe that they will lose a job if Somalia is saved and gains sovereignty.”

Fatuma wrote to say: “Somalia has definitely become an unfortunate place where vultures feast.”

A Somali agricultural economist based in Nairobi suggested that perhaps the food production data on Somalia had been “doctored” by the United Nations monitoring agencies there to portray a dire picture of the situation there.

I know that the article hit a nerve because this is what Mark, a foreign aid worker, wrote in anger in response to my suggestion that those working for the aid industry lived the high life in crisis zones:

“I work for an international organisation, am foreign, and have a nice house by Kenyan standards. But so what? I earn every single bit of it. I deal with corrupt local officials everyday to prevent them ripping off my programme, go to dangerous places and deal with the insecurity of living in Kenya and working around the border with Somalia.”

Without intending to, Mark confirmed what I tried to argue in my column – that the aid industry fosters corruption and breeds insecurity.

The most interesting stories on the famine were found on blogs and non-commercial websites, such AlertNet, a Reuters Foundation service that reported that many Somali refugees were foregoing food as their arrival at refugee camps coincides with the start of Ramadhan.

Mohamed Dubow Saman is quoted saying: “Because of the famine, we’ve been going for days without any food anyway. That was a fast without reward. At least this fast is inspired by God.”

Now, who would have thought that a famished Somali Muslim would be so keen to observe Ramadhan?

For me, one of the absurdities of the famine story is that in some parts of Kenya, such as western Kenya, farmers are experiencing bumper harvests that are rotting due to lack of storage and transportation.

Meanwhile, the Turkana Rehabilitation Programme has reported that farmers on the banks of the rivers Turkwel and Kerio have harvested more than 930,000 kilos of grain from land once considered barren.

This shows that irrigation, planning and investments in agriculture can make even the most perennially drought-stricken areas of the country food secure.

To its credit, the government has announced a plan to expand irrigation in the region where 90 per cent of arable land is apparently unused.

It thus does seem bizarre to me that the government is appealing for food aid when there is plenty of food to go around.

Why are surpluses from highly-subsidised US farms – in the form of food aid – being flown into Kenya when our own farmers have produced enough food to feed the whole country?

Surely some military trucks and planes can be organised to buy and transport the food to famine-struck areas?