In Horn of Africa, Food Crisis Creates Shame

Near Adigrat, Ethiopia -- In many ways, the denuded, desiccated area near the Ethiopian-Eretria border fits the popular image of what a drought and concomitant food crisis looks like.

At a water point constructed with support by the local Roman Catholic archdiocese, Abebo Berhe filled her jerry can and discussed the future.

"It's not been normal," she said recently, noting that there had been little rain in her region in the last third of 2011. "And when there's no water, what can we do? This is the only water point we have."

Was Berhe worried about the potential for continued poor harvests in the region? "We are worried about food if there is not sufficient rain. These farms are having trouble. So yes, we do worry about food."

So do Ethiopian humanitarian workers like Legesse Dadi, an agricultural specialist with Catholic Relief Services in Addis Ababa. He sees an emerging pattern of climate change-induced drought slowing chipping away at the stability of rural areas. "The frequency of drought is eroding resources, so people don't have that much to save for the 'problematic' days,'" he said.

One result? Large cities like Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa or Kenya's capital Nairobi are now swelling with people who have had trouble making a go of it on the land.

Those pressures are all part of a tragic and preventable mix. While the food crisis in the Horn of Africa has eased a bit since 2011, it is far from over, as a recent report indicated.

Calling the Horn of Africa crisis the worst emergency of its kind so far this century, the report by Oxfam and Save the Children said that more than "13 million people are still affected, with hundreds of thousands placed at risk of starvation. One estimate suggests that 50,000-100,000 people have died."

Perhaps most tragically, the report said, the crisis "unfolded despite having been predicted. Although brought on by drought, it was human factors which turned the crisis into a deadly
emergency. Tragically, the 2011 crisis is not an isolated case. The response to drought is invariably too little too late, representing a systemic failure of the international system -- both 'humanitarian' and 'development.' "

While the East Africa food crisis continues, and another looms across the continent in West Africa, one possible outcome of the crisis (which seems to have barely pricked the consciousness of the American public in the last half year) is that the popular image of an African food crisis as a solely rural phenomena may start to change.

Food crises are more and more affecting not only the rural poor, but the one-time farmers and laborers who have migrated from the countryside to urban areas seeking a better life.

These carpenters, day laborers and street merchants of the city now live, as my Church World Service colleague Sammy Matua notes, in "high-risk backyards" of urban areas -- slums where water-borne diseases are prevalent, where the crowded "squeeze of living" puts undue pressures on people. "People are struggling, they feel shame, and the food crisis creates that shame," Matua said.

The shocks are perhaps no more so evident than in Mathare, one of Nairobi's largest slums.

At a Catholic-supported feeding program for young children, carpenter Marselus Odongo Ragweli, 52, recounted how two of his six children, ages 4 and 1, have depended on food supplements at the Baraka Health Center to recover from serious food deficiencies.

He recalled how the youngest son, Philip, the 1-year-old, had the appearance of a much older person, with wrinkled skin, before he received the food -- a peanut-based protein supplement called Plumpy'nut.

Ragweli said it has been difficult for him and his wife to make ends meet in recent months, particularly as his carpentry work has fallen off due to Nairobi's increasingly tight economy. One reason? The family has been forced to skip meals.

The supplemental feeding has improved Philip's health -- his skin, his weight, his countenance -- and Ragweli said he doesn't know what the family would have done without the food provided by the clinic. "There's nothing else we could have done," he said, rubbing his rough, calloused hands, "You can't steal."

That point of honor -- to remain honorable even at a time of desperate want -- is heard often among those living in Mathare, said Carolyne Munyi, the feeding program's nurse-in-charge. Yet she worries that such pride may become harder to sustain. The cycle of food crisis after food crisis -- felt acutely by Kenya's urban poor -- is now occurring far too frequently, she said.

"I don't know how some women are surviving," Munyi said of the increasing number of parents who came in with their children to be fed.

It is true that, at the end of the day, the work of the clinic -- however limited in its scope -- is doing good and is saving lives. "It's very, very nice and very satisfying to see the improvements, the changes," Munyi said.

Still, she is worried about what the future portends. Munyi foresees more cases of hunger, more broken marriages, more domestic and sexual abuse as 2012 begins. "I think it's going to get worse," she said. "You want to give your children something, at least that one meal. They want food on their plate but they can't afford it."

She paused. "A hungry man is an angry man."

Chris Herlinger, a New York-based freelance journalist, is a writer with Church World Service who reports frequently on humanitarian issues. He was recently on assignment in East Africa for National Catholic Reporter and Catholic News Service.