Somalia: History, Humanity and Hope

09/21/2011 09:37 am ET | Updated Nov 21, 2011

I'm an obstetrician... worlds away from any titling of "historian." But as awareness of global issues broaden and occupy greater leverage in our thoughts, I find myself more and more interested in the history of events, people and places. History indelibly tells the story of the past. It is the body of actions -- whether courageous or treacherous -- that transforms yesterday into today. It is the triumphant or tragic voice of an individual or the collective movement of a people. History, in the unfolding of who and where we are, translates the journey of our lives. I sought to know this journey when it came to Somalia. As purged in other recent writings, the events in East Africa have me emotionally caught. I've been pulled by compassion and challenged with existential perplexity. I've been hungry for a better understanding as to how the famine developed and how mass starvation could still exist in modern society.

I first learned of the famine in early July. It was in the form of a simple "tweet" by the humanitarian aid organization CARE. Stark terms such as starvation and dying were tagged unnaturally with women and children. I made my first donation that day and since that time have held an indivertible focus on expanding coverage of the crisis.

A few weeks later, I made a quick stop at the book store amassing four new books about global public health. I began with, An Imperfect Offering written by Dr. James Orbinski, past president of the international humanitarian-aid organization, Doctors Without Borders. Doctors Without Borders won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. Several chapters turned out to be a crash course on Somalia during the early 90s. The famine of that era became exponentially exacerbated by conditions consequent of rival clan warfare. MSF and other organizations like CARE, World Vision and the Red Cross had already set up feeding centers and hospitals to address the crisis. In the words of Dr. Orbinski, they were there, "to give assistance to people suffering from starvation" amidst "a civil war that was becoming more brutal by the day." He asked what I and so many others still ask today: "What choices led to civil war and famine, leaving hundreds of thousands of people to suffer in this way... ?" The answers are not simple, and subsist within a multifaceted frame work of both manmade events and environmental factors. The eye witness account by Dr. Orbinsky felt uncomfortably real and penetrated with the type of raw intensity that's difficult to forget. Incomparable numbers of people died as direct causalities of war. Hundreds of thousands more died from starvation and associated illnesses. And under the thick cloud of conflict, aid organizations needed armed protection to guard the lives of aid workers and to secure food and medical supplies from organized theft.

Almost 2 decades later, the harsh face of famine returns. An untoward overlap of a fractured infrastructure, complex political unrest, worsening drought conditions, rising food prices, and failing crops that has left Somalia strained of resources and struggling to support its people. Yet this is not Somalia's entire story. There were times when this region flourished...

Archaeological findings reflect advanced civilizations in Somalia thriving as early as the second millennium BC. By the 15th century, Mogadishu was a prosperous city with sophisticated architecture and an advanced trade network with other empires such as Egypt, Greece and Rome. Why did things change?

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Somalia's previously known autonomy shifted in the face of emerging European imperialism. There was intersecting occupation by French, British and Italian forces that extended well beyond World War II. Somalia ultimately regained independence in 1960. But it was left with the enormous challenge of negotiating a new stability and new identity within a country divided by historically derived geographical, political, cultural and economic differences. What followed was a tumultuous and complex timeline of changing political and military alliances entangled within a civil war that plunged Somalia into its current fragile state.

I speak from the humbled perspective of a person thousands of miles away and generations removed from the great history of Somalia. A distinguished history marked with beauty and achievement but also marred with significant challenges and tragedy. In the 1st millennium BC, Somalia was noted as a nation of "longevity" where people lived to be centenarians. Under current conditions, an entire generation of children may be crippled by infectious disease, starvation and malnutrition. How does the heart process such tragedy? How do we -- a brilliant global generation -- abound with talent and resources help to solve this crisis?

OXFAM, ONE, the World Food bank (WFP) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are just a sampling of organizations with tangible programs, innovative ideas and active campaigns dedicated to long term and practical solutions to prevent future famines. These solutions include policy changes, agricultural development, and simple technologies to protect the environment and tackle climate change. Many of these concepts are somewhat distant from our daily consideration, yet are vital components to the greater platform of stability. In fact, my only experience akin to farming was the small backyard garden my parents planted each year. I loved fried green tomatoes and fresh sliced cucumbers. Those were enjoyable urban treats of my childhood, not crops we relied upon for survival.

Brandon Bannon, a photojournalist who recently visited the Dadaab refugee camp wrote: "What you see on the surface looks like extreme fragility, but it's actually tremendous resilience and the extraordinary affirmation of their will to live." I amplify and honor his observation that Somalis still resonate a spirit of resilience and a will to live. His words mirror the remarkable history of a great people.

Through hope, I believe in the future of Somalia and a new destiny forged through the trajectory of progress. I believe in our collective capacity to continue saving lives and assisting with long term solutions. I believe in the effectual spirit of humanity to help nurture a more balanced world. And as stated within the greater vision of the Gates Foundation, I believe "that every person deserves the chance to live a healthy, productive life."