No Somali mother should have to choose which child to pick up and feed, and which toddler to lay down and "leave him behind to his God on the road."
The world has food and resources enough that no parent should be forced to face such a "Sophie's Choice." This dilemma is triggered by the worst drought the Horn of Africa has faced in 60 years. This crisis is affecting 12 million people in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and my home country of Somalia, which is the epicenter.
Somali people are suffering and dying not just because the rains failed, but also because the policy of the U.S. and the larger international community toward Somalia has failed.
Somali people like me are angry, frustrated and heartbroken, but we don't give in to despair. Somalia's problems are systemic, complex and interwoven, not susceptible to easy, instant fixes. Yet we must not sit down and do nothing in the face of misery. We must plant seeds of hope, so that the Somali people may begin to re-envision how food security is linked to a durable peace and respect for human rights.
Here are five seeds of hope for Somalia.
1. The strength of our women: I have always believed, as an African, that solutions and the future of Africa are actually in the hands of Africans, especially women. Even if governments don't have all the solutions, individuals, especially women, can empower themselves and take care of their own families and strengthen communities. For example, I admire the spirit of Dr. Hawa Abdi and her foundation, one of Somalia's first NGOs, whose Hawa Abdi Village provides health care, training for nurses and midwives and education for women and children. She and her two daughters save lives every day, mostly of malnourished children from all clans. They also work to end sexual and gender-based violence. When you support homegrown, local solutions like this, it is transparent. You know how you are helping a person; you can actually see her become more self-reliant.
2. The strength of our families: Aid agencies such as Save the Children are indeed saving the lives of children as they arrive in feeding centers. They've already helped more than a million people across East Africa. But more people are at risk of famine, and more aid is needed now, even as we look toward long-term solutions, led by African community leaders on the ground.
I was born in Mogadishu, and my family fled to Kenya and received asylum there in 1972, when I was in my teens. My father had been a diplomat to Saudi Arabia (which is today the largest Muslim donor to Somalia relief efforts). So I went from a privileged life, being driven to school by a chauffeur, to "Fetch for yourself." I have learned that true wealth is not measured by possessions but by relationships, especially the sense of kinship. In Somalia, we never knew the word "orphan." A child in need would simply be taken in by extended family or a clan member. We'd take care of our own. The idea of displaced people and refugees was alien. The fact that this is no longer the case in Somalia shows the rending of our social fabric. To reweave the social safety net, therefore, we must support families in staying together and providing for themselves.
3. The strength of our communities: The last time I saw my Uncle Ibrahim was in Baidoa, a city in south-central Somalia, in 1992. I had gone there with a BBC film crew to document the famine there. Uncle Ibrahim said, "Just make sure that Somalis don't leave Somalia in droves, because then who is going to take care of Somalia if all the Somalis leave?" As bad as the famine was 19 years ago, I never thought it would get this bad, the kind of mass exodus we're seeing now. The world's largest refugee camp is now Dadaab, Kenya, which has become Kenya's third largest city. About 1,500 Somali refugees arrive in Dadaab every day, according to UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency. They need food, shelter, medical care and security. They also need viable, durable solutions on where to resettle or how to return to Somalia in the long-term, because the goal cannot be to park them in refugee tents indefinitely.
At the same time, some Somali communities are showing resilience and a greater degree of self-sufficiency. And that is a foundation to build on. For example, the drought is most severe in Northern Somalia, where the land is more arid. But the North has not seen famine, because the clan elders there are overseeing social peace, and the Somaliland government is maintaining a reasonable level of security that allows for the flow of food aid and international assistance. That's why a lot of Somali people displaced from the South are heading not across international borders, but up North to Somaliland. So not everything in Somalia is a complete failure; there is reason to hope. And one big reason is the durability and flexibility of our social fabric, when the strands are properly woven together.
4. The strength of international sisterhood: I believe in the power of an individual to make a difference. I have my eye on a new initiative, Sister Somalia, a collaboration between A Thousand Sisters, Prism Partnerships and the Elman Peace & Human Rights Center in Mogadishu. Their website states:
"No place in the world has been more written off than Somalia. And in Somalia, no one has been more written off than women. Violence is rampant and women bear the brunt of it: rape, torture, forced marriages to terrorist insurgents, on top of the utter vulnerability of just trying to keep themselves and their children alive. When a woman is raped, then ostracized, where can she go? Nowhere. In fact, Somalia was recently ranked as one of the five worst places for women, and due to the security situation, it is also likely the least served. Sister Somalia aims to change that."
Their aim: to launch Mogadishu's first sexual violence hotline, while serving 300 women a year with counseling, medical services and business starter kits.
5. The opportunity to re-envision: When the immediacy of this crisis fades, and the news cameras move on, what then? I don't have all the solutions. No one does. But it's time to convene Somali leaders, and African regional leaders, and start imagining alternatives. Since the militant organization Al-Shabaab has pulled back from most of Mogadishu, an opportunity now exists to fill the void with a stronger interim government that respects human rights and that is less corrupt, more credible, more transparent and more accountable. This is not merely an opportunity to create a security envelope in which food aid can be delivered. This is a potential opening to re-envision how Somali people can rebuild their livelihoods, their communities and their state governance.
Iman is a super model, entrepreneur, Ambassador for Save the Children and human rights activist.
The Morning Email helps you start your workday with everything you need to know: breaking news, entertainment and a dash of fun. Learn more