Famine in Somalia: Why are Food Writers Not Talking about the Black Horse?

“When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a day’s wages, and three quarts of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!'” (Rev. 6:5-6 NIV).

I should have brought this up before, but it’s easier to deep-six stuff that’s unpleasant.

Frankly speaking, it’s untenable for those of us who write and read about food not to be discussing the famine in Somalia*, which is getting worse by the day. Brownies, how kids should behave in restaurants, organics, the joys of parsley, lobster salad – nothing about Somalia in the food-related headliners of the day.

Yet news of the famine trickles in here and there.

An editorial – “Starving in Somalia” – in The New York Times (August 12, 2011) was a helpful sign.

But the front-page spread — written by AP stringer Malkhadir M. Muhumed — featured in my local paper the same day brought it all into focus – it’s about the children, those whom everyone professes such compassion for in so many ways, but who are forgotten in so many ways as well.

As with most problems with hunger, it is the children who suffer the most. Somali parents face a decision that most of us will never make:  abandoning their weaker children in their journey of seeking food for the ones still living.

Photo credit: Oxfam

A FEWS-NET (famine early warning system) of USAID report projects the progress of this devastating famine and you you can read the report here: Famine in Somalia: Evidence for Declaration, July 19/2011

For famine to be declared there must be evidence of three triangulating conditions in a given area:

(1) at least 20% of households face extreme food shortages with limited ability to cope;
(2) Global acute malnutrition prevalence must exceed 30%; and
(3) Crude death rates must exceed 2/10,000/day.

The following excerpts from the report demonstrate the severity of the situation:

Worst-case Scenario (July-December 2011):

  • Widespread disease outbreaks such as measles, cholera/AWD, and others Livestock disease outbreaks [Note: The U.N. reports that cholera is breaking out now.]
  • Deyr  rains less than average causing poor crop production and worsening pasture conditions
  • A disruption to the flow of imported cereals price/availability impacts.
  • Conflict increases causing trade disruptions, looting, or population displacement
  • Worsening humanitarian access

Implications: increasing severity, increasing numbers, increased displacement, and extension of the crisis further into 2012 with current or higher levels of severity.

Key Messages:

1.  Evidence indicates that famine currently exists in Bakool agropastoral and Lower Shabelle and that a humanitarian emergency exists across the rest of the south.

2.  This crisis represents the most serious food insecurity situation in the world today, in terms of both scale and severity. Current humanitarian response is inadequate to meet emergency needs. Assuming current levels of response, evidence suggests that famine across all regions of the south will occur in the coming 1-2 months.

3.  A massive multisectoral response is critical to prevent additional deaths and total livelihood/social collapse. Most immediately, interventions to improve food access and to address health/nutrition issues are needed. In the medium term, interventions to rebuild and support livelihoods are critical. Extraordinary measures to provide this response should be implemented.

4.  Tens of thousands of lives can be saved, but the window of opportunity to do so is extremely limited. These assistance needs will persist through at least December 2011.

The Black Horse of the Book of Revelations

Again, the most tragic thing of all: 29,000 children have died in one month’s time and parents are having to abandon their weaker children as families flee, seeking food and shelter.

Somalia is a failed state.  The famine is due in part to the lack of rain, but famines in today’s world often owe their virulence to politics. The radical group Al-Shahab controls much of the area and is actually working to prevent aid from arriving.

Although many people believe that giving foreign aid to other countries in the world drains American pockets, the human and political cost of situations like Somalia’s require concern, as well as cash.

I cannot give you the names of  specific aid organizations to donate to, but I urge you to do something. Today. Send money or write (and send it!) a letter to a congressman, a senator, legislator, or other person with some power to help in this crisis.

I can suggest, too, that everyone who writes about food write incessantly about the famine and hunger and the suffering that goes along with the appearance of the Black Horse.

Photo credit: Wai Keong

*France once governed part of the Horn of Africa, the  Côte Françcaise des Somalis (French Coast of the Somalis, commonly referred to in English as French Somaliland), which is now Djibouti. Although Djibouti is no longer French, the French government recently increased aid to the region because of the terrible famine occurring primarily in the failed state of Somalia. The United States has also increased aid to Somalia. But don’t forget that hunger is not just a problem confined within the borders of Africa. Here in the United States, in spite of all the talk of obesity, there is hunger, too.

© 2011 C. Bertelsen