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Amidst U.S. Heatwave, a Lesson on Drought and Famine in the Horn of Africa

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In the midst of this intense heat wave I was looking forward to picking up my 8-year old from her day camp and getting our favorite treat -- Philly water ice. Over the course of the work day I strategized: passion fruit and mango with vanilla custard, or lemon peel and pear. Facebook prowls accompanied my water ice distractions and that's how I stumbled on UNICEF's posting.

My newsfeed is dotted with causes I care about. Global Giving's post encouraged a baby shower for the birth of a new nation, South Sudan, Momsrising discussed how to protect children and families in the US budget battle, and UNICEF's update, accompanied by a graphic dust storm photo said:

Somali refugees walk through a dust storm at a camp near the town of Dadaab. A worsening drought crisis threatens 10 million people in the Horn of Africa. The drought has resulted in famine in parts of southern Somalia and widespread malnutrition in Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya. UNICEF and partners are working to treat acute malnutrition and provide other critical assistance.

I had heard bits about the worsening famine, but sweating from our high temperatures at home, this news struck me hard. I could escape the heat and humidity with air conditioning, high speed internet, and cool treats. But for families in the Horn of Africa, their suffering seemed to be heaped on more suffering -- violence, lawlessness, growing fundamentalism and terrorism on top of drought, all fueling the intense famine. In my work life, I help schools, families and diverse organizations gain a global perspective and make connections with the larger world -- and our connections with that troubled region seemed closer this record-breaking summer.

When I picked up my youngest daughter, I told her about my concerns that day.

Me: "Today I read about the famine and drought in the Horn of Africa -- do you know what a famine is? A drought? Let's look up Horn of Africa on the globe and computer when we get home. ... I want to do something to help those children. Do you think we should skip the water ice?"

Daughter #3: "Yes, I heard about the famine and drought in the car yesterday on NPR. Weren't you paying attention? No, let's not skip our treat; how would that help them?"

She had a point, and we proceeded to a nearby shop. When we got there we found police directing traffic and the strip mall closed, due to a heat-induced power outage. So we continued to another neighborhood, where the line for water ice snaked around the building and by the time it was our turn, our favorite flavors were sold out. We compromised with other choices and took about an hour longer than the simple errand should have, but it struck me that these little inconveniences contained lessons worth exploring.

Our car-ride conversation went something like this: While we live in comparatively great comfort, look at the disruption in our lives when it's so hot, even just by a few degrees. Places we want to go are closed. More police are on the street. Things become inconvenient. Some of the things we like are not available. It's uncomfortable to be outside. This makes me think about what those families are going through in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia, where there might be no reprieve from drought and heat until October. What can we do to help?
Together we came up with a few action steps:

• We wanted to make an immediate contribution to food for kids, so we texted "FOOD" to UNICEF (864233) where $10 will be added to my mobile phone bill. The link here lists many others that offer reliable relief.
• For that initial $10 donation we decided to buy one large water ice and split it, so that saved about $4, Sophia donated $2 from her own money and I'll pay the rest.
• We looked up some of the photos from the crisis to envision what is actually going on. Then we watched National Geographic: Africa Desert Odyssey episode on Netflix instant stream. This shows a different region, but it gives a glimpse into pastoral life with extremely limited water supplies -- without the violence and intense misery, so I feel more comfortable showing an 8-year old.
• We turned the air conditioner down in the house, to save energy and to feel a bit warmer, in solidarity with the families we had just learned about.
• My daughter started planning a lemonade stand with friends. Instead of charging per cup sold, they ask for a donation to the famine relief effort. Like Alex's Lemonade Stand, neighborhood efforts can benefit favorite causes.
• We also talked about the larger issue - our connection with the family of humanity. In Growing Up Global I describe a metaphor that I grew up with, how humanity is like a single human body. Children get it: Even if a tiny splinter enters the tip of your pinky, the pain can disrupt playing or learning for the whole person. Likewise, difficulties experienced by others even in places we've never heard of can disrupt peace and prosperity for everyone. Metaphors from the familiar help build understanding about abstract or distant concepts.

Our small steps alone will not solve the crisis, but actions like these help build compassion, connection, greater understanding of the world's challenges from a young age, and even cultivate creative problem solvers. Collective action builds momentum and benefits the U.S., too. When we support humanitarian efforts in places like Somalia, the allure of terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab, an Al-Qaeda affiliate might be diminished, and when we hear of elderly nearby that don't have air conditioning or a newly unemployed or homeless American family we will be more willing and ready to think of ways to help, have empathy for their plight, and perhaps be a champion of justice -- this is good for the whole human family.