LONDON — Somalis traditionally did not number years but instead gave each a name that immortalized important events or crises.
Nineteen eleven was the year of forbidden food, meaning a hunger so profound that people were reduced to eating haram foods that Islam proscribes; nineteen twenty-eight was the year of registration, widespread drought forcing northern Somalis to finally submit to registration by their British colonizers in return for aid; nineteen seventy-four was the year of the long-tailed, an interminable drought in the whole region that contributed to the fall of Haile Selassie.
Famines have visited the Horn of Africa so regularly in the past 25 years that there has been no time for new poetic appellations.
As a child in the mid-1980s in Hargeisa in northern Somalia I suffered from malnutrition. My hair was just a pale fuzz on my head; I was small and sickly. The local hospital was starved of supplies and maintenance, and my mother got me treated by German aid workers in a sprawling refugee camp, some twenty miles away.
I was one of the lucky ones. My family had enough financial and social capital to ensure that I got whatever help was available in the dysfunctional, collapsing state. Other children must have died or been left with the long-term effects of severe malnutrition such as stunting or brain damage.
Today six million people are at risk of starvation in Somalia, and another fourteen million in South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen. It is the gravest emergency since the Second World War, according to the United Nations. The 2011 famine had hit the southern areas of Somalia, which are most hobbled by long-term conflict and poor administration; the current drought has affected all the states in the Horn of Africa.
Somaliland is dependent on livestock exports for 70 percent of its income. Lack of rain in three consecutive years has meant that 10 million goats, sheep and camels have already perished. Food prices have escalated and families must decide whether to stay with their livestock, in hope that the rains will arrive and be strong, or become refugees in their own country, looking for aid in whatever dusty camp has space for them.
My family migrated to England in 1986 when I was four but we maintained the ties with our ancestral home. Along with my extended family in the Somali diaspora, I help support a primary school near the Ethiopia-Somaliland border. The school, which opened four years earlier, served about a hundred students from a pastoral community near a settlement called Camp Rooble. Last year, our email discussions around the school moved from administrative matters to urgent requests for water supplies and food. And then the nomads had to disband the settlement, abandon the school, to look for water elsewhere.
Famines were commonplace across the world, but the last five decades have seen them generally limited to Africa, particularly to East Africa. Temperatures have risen in already arid parts of the continent, by one Celsius in Kenya and 1.3 Celsius in Ethiopia between 1960-2006. Communities across the region report droughts occurring every one to two years rather than the previous every six to eight years.
This climatic transformation is also seen in West Africa and when combined with conflict, food price spikes, and political and economic marginalization the result is famine, even in countries as wealthy as Nigeria.
The people facing drought and hunger aren’t passive victims, simply waiting for charities to save them. Families, especially women, make superhuman efforts to get by before they are finally forced to ask for help: meals reduced, new trades found, possessions sold, children dispersed, miles crossed.
My paternal grandmother in “the year of registration” walked dozens of miles through a desert painted red with the blood of goats, killed for their hides before they died and became worthless. She approached a relief center in Bulhar, with my father strapped to her back, only to be warned to return home, as an epidemic had spread through the camp. I don’t know how they both survived but they did.
In 2011 international donors were slow to respond and delivered aid after the majority of the 260,000 victims of famine had already perished. Today news of death from cholera or thirst even from areas without roads is shared on Somali social media within the day. Young Somali activists across the globe have created social media groups such as Caawi Walaal, Abaaraha and Somali Faces, who identify with the victims of the drought in a visceral, familial way.
Although they have been able to raise modest amounts of money, their network of local volunteers can reach remote places where the larger charities can’t. The young professionals behind Abaaraha used a Kenyan open source platform, Ushahidi, to gather real-time data from those affected by the drought and to coordinate Somali relief efforts.
Somalia is often described as a failed state, but famine is a symbol of failure in both a local and global community. The funds needed to prevent famine in Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan and Nigeria are far from being met by the international community, the United Nations’ Appeal for Somalia is reportedly under target by 57 percent and underfunding has already cost lives in all four countries. Contrary to humanitarian concerns, President Donald Trump’s administration is focused on military interventions in both Yemen and Somalia.
A few weeks back, at the London Conference on Somalia hosted by the British government, 40 countries sent their representatives. Antonio Guterres, the U.N. Secretary-General described the drought as Somalia’s “most pressing concern” but security and the intensifying war against the Shabab sucked most of the oxygen.
As Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, proceeds, people on the verge of starvation are turning their hunger to a spiritual cause. It opens up the question of how the richer Muslim countries will respond to the tragedy threatening their impoverished co-religionists.
In the late 1980s, at the beginning of the Somali civil war, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the first to send aid to refugee camps in eastern Ethiopia, but it came with strict instructions that young girls must be covered and the freedom of women restricted.
Perhaps, for this Ramadan, the Gulf countries can take the third pillar of Islam, charity, more seriously than they take hijabs and weapons purchases? In supporting those that have managed to survive this far we are honoring the sentiment found in both the Quran and the Talmud, “Whoever saves one life, is considered to have saved the whole of humanity.”
Nadifa Mohamed, a British-Somali novelist, is the author of the novels “Black Mamba Boy” and “The Orchard of Lost Souls.”