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Commentary: Famine in East Africa

November 25, 2011

(Don Golden is a church activist and vice president with World Relief in Baltimore, Maryland, and co-author with Rob Bell of Jesus Wants to Save Christians, a call for Christians to engage with the great causes of our day.)

Don_GoldenI recently traveled to the Turkana District of northern Kenya with Kenyan pastors, World Relief staff, and a media team to witness firsthand an underreported food crisis in the Horn of Africa.

During the twenty-five-hour trip along treacherous roads from Nairobi to the worst-affected areas of the district, I was mindful that World Relief had already lost one vehicle. But Turkana's remoteness may be the easiest barrier to overcome for any organization attempting to help the Turkana people.

In the United States, we cover Africa one story at a time, and lately the story has been neighboring Somalia. Having reached phase five on USAID's Famine Early Warning System, Somalia is ground zero for an ongoing catastrophe. For Somalis, famine has meant the total collapse of communities, the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of people, the deaths of tens of thousands of children, and the creation of refugee camps that inevitably foster disease, dependency, and disempowerment. When the occasional image of famine in Somalia reaches America, I ask myself: Does it have to get this bad before Turkana gets help? How long until this kind of crisis is a thing of the past? When will starvation be relegated to the history books?

Among the many dysfunctions revealed by the persistence of famine in the developing world are distrustful attitudes toward the institutions we create to prevent such tragedies. The U.S. government monitors global food shortages and the threat of famine. Experts warned that a food crisis was brewing in the Horn of Africa months before it arrived. Why do we repeat the mistakes of Rwanda and Srebrenica by ignoring the United Nations and other institutions entrusted with helping us prevent such tragedies?

In Turkana, a stronger dose of prevention could reduce the threat of famine and help turn the fortunes of a great indigenous people. Turkana is a place where the hope of preventing a tragedy should motivate us to act now, while there is a chance of making a difference. Outside of al Shabaab-controlled Somalia, some of the worst nutrition indicators recorded by the World Health Organization are from Turkana, where in many areas four out of ten children are malnourished and one in ten is severely malnourished. Indeed, most of Turkana is well above the 15 percent malnourishment rate WHO considers to be "crisis" level, and USAID has declared a phase four emergency in much of the region, which means rates of malnutrition are so high that people will die without food assistance.

But Turkana has not captured the attention of the world and funding has been hard to secure. As a result, more than 200,000 vulnerable people have a minimal level of food. Indeed, with its limited resources, the World Food Program can distribute food only once a month in the hardest hit areas of the region.

Additional challenges arise from the Turkana way of life. The Turkana are pastoralists, deeply committed to their livestock and traditions. For a Turkana to come down from the hills and give up his cows, camels, and goats is to effectively give up his reason for existence, to give up hope. But the Turkana's nomadic way of life is now threatened as the hope of food drives thousands to leave their traditional ways behind and settle in make-shift communities where they wait patiently for sporadic distributions of food.

One local pastor we met on our trip, David, epitomizes the resilient culture of the Turkana. He had been a street kid in the small town of Lokitaung and is now a 42-year-old widower with two children whose wife died earlier this year of malarial meningitis. Like so many, David and his family left their pasture in the hills and settled in a new community. Yet he refuses to give up on his people — or on the hope that a viable future is possible for them, a sentiment that runs deep with the Turkana.

As we drove the fifteen hours from Nairobi to Lodwar and encountered communities desperate for food and water, my awareness of the complexity of the situation grew. While food is desperately needed, the provision of food alone is likely to create more dependency, further disempowering the Turkana and making local participation in problem solving less likely. For the Turkana to flourish again, long-term aid is needed.

Driven by a mutual hope that is shared with the Turkana, World Relief is working with local churches and other community-based organizations to help cultivate long-term solutions to a desperate situation. As climate change leads to greater drought and claims more pastureland in the region, the world of the Turkana will continue to shrink. Prevailing water and food shortages require innovative local solutions and a more vigorous international response.

In conjunction with Kenyan churches, World Relief is distributing food and providing supplementary feeding for the severely malnourished in Lokitaung and Kerio. To address the critical water shortage in the region, World Relief will start community water committees and work with Living Water International to refurbish existing bore holes and dig new ones. But we need partners. Amid the arid, challenging terrain of Turkana a food emergency is unfolding and a quick response is key to avoiding the same fate that has befallen Somali. Stand with us for the Turkana at www.worldrelief.org/turkana.

-- Don Golden

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Posted by Philippe Boucher  |   November 25, 2011 at 09:09 PM

The link at the ned does not work. When going to your site there is a video about what would you do with $100 and the conclusion that $100 would be a big help BUT you don't provide any detail about that help in Tukana. Don't you think you should also post a short video about the situation there instead of only people telling what they would do with $100? I think it would have more impact. All my best wishes for your work

Posted by Philippe Boucher  |   November 25, 2011 at 09:12 PM

I see there is a video posted on your blog in August.
What about the situation now?

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