families suffering from the drought in East Africa, says Chris Bain
If we don’t help them no one else will
Over the last few weeks working on Cafod’s response to the drought crisis in East Africa, it has not been the unfathomably large numbers that have stayed with me – the millions of people and enormous expanse of land affected – but the small stories of individuals trying to survive.
One Cafod aid worker has just returned from Kipsing, a small trading centre 190 miles north of the Kenyan capital Nairobi. She met Mary Namuroi, a mother of three young children, scooping water from a sand dam. Four donkeys are waiting for their turn to drink from the same supply. Mary says the sand dam is the only source of water for people who’ve sought refuge in Kipsing. “A number of people died recently following an outbreak of cholera,” she explains. “We are forced to share water with animals because we have no other way of sustaining ourselves and our animals.” These are all too familiar stories in the dioceses of Isiolo and Marabit where Cafod is working urgently alongside the Kenyan Church to improve water supplies and provide nutritional support and healthcare for the most vulnerable.
These are small, remote communities in areas hundreds of miles from the refugee camps we have seen on our television screens in the last fortnight, unseen by the roll-call of celebrities and VIPs visiting the region to express their concern. The people in these communities have neither the will nor the strength to make it to the camps. If they do not receive help – or the miracle of rain – over the coming weeks, they will die where they are, on the land where they have lived for generations.
Talk to even the oldest people in those communities and they will tell you that this is the most severe drought in their lifetime, with more than 11 million people on the brink of starvation in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti, and areas of South Central Somalia the first to be declared by the United Nations as suffering from famine.
The world has woken up to their suffering, and here in Britain people have given generously to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal, of which Cafod is a member, raising to date £30 million. Cafod’s own appeal – the sums raised by Catholic parishes and schools across the country – stands at almost £1 million, a tremendous tribute to the community in Britain that always puts its hands in its pockets first, deepest and most often to help others in need.
But in my parish and else where, I hear Catholics asking themselves: why are we having to look again at images of skeletal children on the verge of death, weeping mothers unable to help. Has nothing changed since Ethiopia in the 1980s? Has all the money we have raised and given made so little difference?
The sad truth is that the communities we are working with will never know a time of plenty: they are the poorest in the world and they will always live precariously, a situation exacerbated in areas where – through no fault of their own – we see conflict, high food and fuel prices and the steady erosion of grazing land and other natural resources.
Added to that, three years of poor and unpredictable rainfall, culminating in this year’s drought, has led to failures of harvests and the widespread death of livestock. The death of each animal drains some of the economic lifeblood of the community. For pastoralists – people who live off their livestock and move seasonally in search of fresh pasture and water – the impact is catastrophic.
Over recent years, pastoralist communities have become increasingly marginalised as they struggle to hold on to a way of life lived by successive generations in harmony with their environment.
Even now, while attention focuses on the refugee camps, the pastoralists in remote communities suffer in silence and isolation, with only the Church and agencies like Cafod answering their desperate cry for help.
The current crisis has not peaked. Despite the surge in aid to the region, the worst is still ahead. Even if rain eventually comes, the impact of the drought will reverberate in communities facing inflated prices for basic foods, while the reserves of livestock, water and other resources that would normally make them self-sufficient are whittled away to nothing.
There are no easy solutions. Effective responses require many types of action and policy change at the international, national and local level, and the sustained commitment of aid agencies.
Our immediate response is one of food, water and healthcare, but Cafod will also be using its humanitarian expertise to develop longer-term support to address drought, malnutrition and chronic food shortages in the region, building resilience in the pastoralist communities and helping them adapt to the changing climate.
Every donation to Cafod is having an impact on the front line of this crisis, and will do for years to come. The individuals, families, parishes and schools who support Cafod’s appeal will literally make the difference between life and death for thousands of people over the coming weeks.
Today our brothers and sisters are relying on us to give, act and pray. We know one thing with absolute and painful certainty: if we do not help them – with the grace of God – then no one will.
To donate go to Cafod.org.uk/ get-involved/give/emergencyappeals/east-africa-crisis, phone 0500 858 885 or send a cheque to Cafod, Romero House, 55 Westminster Bridge Road, London SE 1 7JB