MOGADISHU, Somalia — The goal: Walk 75 miles to find food and water — just to save her six children.
The Somali woman who walked for two-and-half weeks until she found Afgooye, the nearest inhabited settlement to her village, remains indelibly printed on the memory of Mohamed Dahir. The emergency projects manager for Catholic Relief Services in Somalia told the Register that this worn-out mother arrived in town with only three children; she has no idea what happened to the rest.
“As one of them dropped, she tried to save the others and left them behind,” he said. “She is a mother who lives in agony.”
Somalia is one of four areas in the world on the brink of famine, including northeastern Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen, where 20 million people face death by thirst or starvation, thanks to a combination of war and severe drought caused by changing climate conditions.
As the international relief agency of the U.S. Catholic Church, CRS is on the front lines fighting famine in all of these areas, except Yemen, making 2017 a year where CRS’s annual Rice Bowl drive will mean Catholics in the pews are saving people from starvation and thirst.
Dahir, who is coordinating CRS’ emergency efforts in Somalia, said 6.2 million people — more than half the population of Somalia — are at risk of losing their lives and livelihoods from a drought that gets worse by the day.
“Out of these, a million are children,” he said.
CRS has provided cash relief, mainly transferred immediately through mobile phones, to allow people to purchase food, water, and other essential items “in real time.”
Dahir said the lack of rain has made the drought worse than the one in 2011, which led to the deaths of 260,000 Somalis.
Already 450,000 people are internally displaced as a result of the drought. Dahir saw one displaced farmer who suffered a complete breakdown after his animals all died of thirst: 80 cattle and 150 goats.
Dahir said they are expanding their efforts to deal with the cholera that has affected 20,000 Somalis, and reach more communities affected by the drought as resources allow. CRS’ ongoing support of 38 Somali villages, he said, helped them become more organized, self-sufficient and prepared for the food crisis, than the surrounding villages they had not reached.
Rice Bowl in South Sudan
Forty years ago, CRS Rice Bowl was instituted to help the U.S. Church alleviate famine conditions in Africa through intentional prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as part of the 40 days of Lent. The donations (many of them cardboard “rice bowl” boxes stuffed with spare change) are collected at parishes by Easter Sunday, with 75% of the proceeds going to CRS’ privately-funded efforts overseas, and 25% supporting diocesan social services.
South Sudan has officially declared a famine in war-torn Unity state. Jerry Farrell, CRS’ representative in Juba, told the Register that when a famine is officially declared, large numbers of people are already dying from starvation.
“Some people say famine drives conflict, but here conflict drives famine,” said Farrell.
CRS is trying to prevent other areas in this Christian nation that have received less attention from also plunging into famine. They are airdropping food into Duk and Jonglei, which are then received by CRS’ teams on the ground, who will distribute at least a month’s worth of food to between 5,000 to 7,000 people at each site.
Another “red zone,” Farrell added, is Aweil state, which is struck by a “major cholera outbreak” due to thirst-wracked people drinking directly from the Nile.
CRS staff have established an aid pipeline in the Diocese of Malakal to deliver complete food packages, as well as non-food items such as buckets, mosquito nets and tarps.
CRS is expanding its programs to get food to people who cannot eat, and to get people access to clean water. Farrell said the money raised from Rice Bowl will support the recovery and long-term projects these communities need to insulate themselves from famine, such as roads to facilitate the transport of food stuffs and trade; dikes to prevent flooding from destroying fields; and schools to build up the educated population.
And CRS and the local Church are working together to build a national reconciliation effort from the ground up, similar to what was done after the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
The South Sudanese, Farrell said, take encouragement knowing U.S. Catholics are keeping them in prayer during Rice Bowl.
“It’s inspiring,” he said. “It puts a bounce in their step, even though that’s difficult.”
Generating National Support
Bill O’Keefe, Catholic Relief Service’s vice president for government relations and advocacy, explained that while the U.S. government has funded the vast majority of immediate hunger relief, CRS’ privately funded projects have helped farmers get the assistance they need to re-establish their farms with restored soils and drought-resistant crops. This has made communities more resistant to famine. He pointed out this long-term rebuilding helped Ethiopia defy expectations it would experience drought-induced famine in 2016.
O’Keefe said CRS is concerned there is not an adequate international response to the looming famine outbreaks, which have been magnified “tenfold” by their regional conflicts. In addition to Yemen and Somalia, northeastern Nigeria has severe food insecurity due to the fighting with the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram; and Yemen is starving due to Saudi Arabia’s relentless bombing campaign and naval blockade that began in 2015 to influence the outcome of the Yemeni civil war.
CRS is concerned the Trump administration has proposed cutting nearly a third of foreign aid, at a time when the world is facing four famine outbreaks and 65 million displaced people — the greatest number of displaced since World War II.
O’Keefe said they are working with members on both sides of the aisle in Capitol Hill to secure a billion-dollar aid package that would help fend off famine in those countries.
“Most Americans and Catholics want their government to respond to this kind of basic human need,” he said. “Our Lenten prayer and need is that that our country will take up that particular cross and carry it, so our brothers and sisters can survive.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.