Effects of the East African Famine

In my home state of Texas, we are experiencing the worst dry spell in 60 years this summer–one that has cost Texas farmers and ranchers several billion dollars. While the current drought is undoubtedly a bad one, it doesn’t begin to compare to the drought in northeast Africa. The deaths due to famine as well as the disruption of lives and livelihoods the African drought has caused are staggering. Tens of thousands of people in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Djibouti are estimated to have already lost their lives. 3.2 million Somalis—half the total population—are suffering from extreme hunger, and nearly 1,500 Somalis are arriving in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp every day. While international donors and various nations’ governments are providing emergency foreign aid to the most severely affected regions, the drought is also having severe ripple effects in areas not directly affected by the dry spell.

Last January, I traveled with three other Harvard students and a University of Texas student to Wema Children’s Centre in western Kenya to help the orphanage stay afloat. Already barely scraping by, the orphanage directors worked two jobs to ensure that they could feed Wema’s 150 mouths a day. Although the orphanage, located in the Bukembe region of Kenya, is not directly affected by the lack of rainfall, it was hit hard by the skyrocketing food prices resulting from the damage to crops.

One of the directors, Teresa Wati, frequently emails me in desperation as she has had to reduce the number of meals the children receive every day. “Food prices have gone up nearly 60 percent” she writes. “We have started rationing meals for the kids at Wema, and other kids in the village have stopped going to school and started working to make extra money so they can eat.” Life is in a tenuous balance at Wema, and some of the children were already suffering from poor nutrition before these latest difficulties. Now, teachers and cooks are demanding higher pay so they can make ends meet as well. Additionally, more children have been placed in the care of Wema, as villagers in the surrounding area have too many mouths to feed as food prices rise, and so relieve some of their burden by putting a child under the care of the orphanage.

Amanda Nguyen ’13 travelled to Wema for the first time this August to continue the work we started in January, and was struck by the incredible domino effect the drought has caused in the region. Though international aid is pouring in (and rightfully so) to the people that need it the most in northeastern Africa, places like Wema are silently suffering. They, too, are in great danger if the drought continues and their needs are overlooked for too long.

It is sometimes too easy to become inured to suffering taking place halfway across the globe when the sheer magnitude of the tragedy is blurred by inconceivably large numbers of dead or of people seeking help in refugee camps. Nicholas D. Kristof ’81 of The New York Times wrote an article in Outside Magazine about the “tragedy of the masses” that describes this effect on people who read about human tragedy from afar.  Perhaps if I had never travelled to Kenya and met those who are affected, I would read about the drought with great, but detached, concern.

But when I remember seven-year-old Purity, with whom I played duck-duck-goose every day, or four-year-old Zena, who was picked on during play time every day for being the smallest, these troubles hit me hard. When I read about the drought and famine, I see the faces of the children at Wema and I wonder if they are frightened and going to bed hungry or sick from malnutrition. For this reason, I urge those who have the means to make a donation to an organization providing disaster relief in Africa, or to make a donation to Wema Children’s Centre.

Meredith C. Baker ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House.

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