I have, this week, concluded 50 tons of CAI donor funded food distribution tour at the Somalia – Kenya border region, alhamd’Allah. This project was initiated and executed within 3 weeks after the decision was made to do something, anything, when images of dying and malnutritioned children appeared in the media. It was, for me, unconscionable to simply express pity and remain inactive. All credit for this very successful program goes to Allah (S) for the taufeeq and opportunity to serve at His pleasure, our very generous and ever ready donors and the team put together by Dr. Muhsin Sheriff (Docta) of local Kenya NGO CHEPS for arranging, assessing, planning, travelling, actual distribution and all other incredible, at times seemingly impossible logistics this scale of project demanded; CAI is profoundly indebted to all of these for the incredible opportunity.
The following narrative of the trip is first hand, through my eyes and I take full responsibility for words used in describing events, not very civil for some readers, perhaps. Sometimes, there are no ‘nice’ ways to describe stark realities. Who knows, you may enjoy the chronicle.
The communal bathroom is outside, an unlit smelly shed with no running water; you lug in a lotta. I slip and almost fall upon entry, franticly grab at the wood frame supporting the tin shed; my fingers come away with something slimy, something I cannot see, something smelly; I shudder in disgust and run out to cleanse my hands. You guessed it, there is no soap…I scrub my fingers raw with almost half bottle of hand sanitizer I carry for just these instances. But I still got to go; my bladder is almost a busting. I take a torch this time and (very, very) carefully, reluctantly, return to the toilet shed. The hole in the ground that greets me is super tiny and I wonder for a minute if this is only for number one business. Well, there are no other toilets around so this must be for both numbers. Wow, talk about practicing squatting with precise accuracy!
The generator is switched off at nine sharp and the place engulfs in utter darkness. I drift off to uneasy sleep but the place is so busy with rattling walls and roof, snores, groans, farts and related smells, it seems the entire camp is vibrating with a gusto of workshop energy from some 40 plus humans temporarily dead; I am wide-awake by one. I grind my teeth and tolerate the torment until it mercifully ends with a muezzin calling the faithful to eat sehri (daku); we are given sweet weak tea and some dates for a fast we will observe but pay back later as well.
There are people lined up outside the distribution site by the time we show up and we go to work almost immediately. This camp is all new refugees from war-torn Somalia, in terrible shape. With army like discipline, we disburse the first 10 tons of good nutritious food made up of beans, cooking oil, corn meal (ugaali) and high-energy biscuits for the children. These biscuits, recommended by the WFP, are highly effective in immediate energy for children most vulnerable to diseases due to malnutrition; just 3 pieces are enough to sustain a child for a day. They cost US$2.55 / kilo and comprise:
Typical nutritional composition
Value per 100 gms
Nutrient Content Unit
Fat 22 Gms
Protein 12 Gms
Energy 470 Kcal
Vitamin A 1650 IU
Vitamin C 38 Mg
Vitamin D 165 IU
Vitamin B2 o.8 Mg
Vitamin B1 0.9 Mg
Vitamin B6 o.9 Mg
Vitamin B12 3 MCG
Vitamin E 5 Mg
Iodine 85 Mcg
Niacin 7 Mg
Pantothenic acid 38 Mg
Folic acid 350 Mcg
Calcium 410 Mg
Iron 5.2 Mg
Magnesium 150 Mg
I delight in handing these out, silently urging each child with all my heart to live a long and healthy life. These children are tearjerkers. When I break from the giving, I roam around, snapping photos. There is this one toddler on its mom’s back, bawling away. Mom, who is in line waiting for her share of handout, dances her back in pacification, but the child is inconsolable. In frustration, Mom screws the kanga around, brings the child towards her bosoms and thrusts a shriveled breast into the toddlers open crying mouth. I look away, but the urge to gawk is irresistible; forces me to turn back and stare. The child screams at first, perhaps sensing Mom’s rudeness, then suckles frantically. Alas, the breast is apparently dry, for the child gives up and screams, incensed. There is so, so much helplessness in Mom’s face, I want to weep… We distribute ten tons of food and biscuits here in Dagahley; next stop Dadajibullah.
Suk–Suk, whispers Abdi Noor, Suk-Suk repeats one of the policemen at the back, Ayeah! acknowledges the driver. We have just spotted a giraffe herd to our right and both Docta and I scramble to take photo shots. I am surprised to see them, did not think they wandered so north in Kenya. There are very, very many, I am told and live amiably with the local population, feeding and thriving on thorny leaves of the all-weather Acacia tree, a diet other animals cannot digest or reach. I was even more surprised to spot a pair of cheetahs, few hyenas, water hogs and many other animal species. All of them are in peril, expanding out from their natural habitat in search of non-existing water.
Suk-Suk and ayeah! are two Somali words I easily pickup from the rapid tongue that flows like a Ping-Pong ball between the four Somalis onboard. Suk-Suk means halt or wait and ayeah, an automatic response or acknowledgement in a one-way conversation. Somalis are loud people and talk spontaneously, all at once, so our car is a hotbed of very rapid and noisy conversation amongst the four Somalis while Docta and I (try) and catch up on sleep.
Where Dagahley distribution is precise and disciplined, Dadajibullah is the contrary; mob-like and unruly. Perhaps it is a more despairing situation; perhaps we are not involving the local sheiks or imams? It takes us seven very hard, long hours to distribute eighteen tomes of food to a boisterous crowd. The women are vocal and feistier here, some ready for a go at fistfights with volunteers struggling with heavy loads. We prevail in the end, using strong-arm tactics of stopping distribution and using local armed guards to keep vigil.
The next three days are a whirl; get up early for sehri of dates and tea, pray, hit the road, distribute to the starving masses, break fast, eat whatever is available to ease hunger pains… The distribution at Wagalla (7 tons), Della (3 tons), Baed (2 tons), Bulla Forest (3 tons), Haggar (3 tons) and Mau Mau (1 ton) go off without incidents, mainly because all logistical arrangements have been taken care of via local sheiks, camp leaders and local mosque imams. Somali’s, both genders, regardless of age, love hawking and spitting; nay, it is a national pastime, no less. We would be gathered in a group, discussing logistics when one would start with a deep hawk and a spit, to be immediately taken up by another person. Khaaak…thuuu! Khaaak…thuuu! Khaaak…thuuu! I object at this disgusting behavior a couple of times, the guys pay me no heed; one simply covers his prize with a quick flip of dirt with his feet as token atonement.
I am really tired by day three and ready to return home; Docta looks exhausted; this is his third distribution trip to these remote areas in less than a month! Both us dread the long trip back to Nairobi so we look for alternatives. There is an airport in Wajir but miraa (a mild narcotic, consumed mostly in Somalia and Yeman) traders operate most flights to Nairobi. One could get a seat, but it is not guaranteed, the flight might come, but might not, the pilot might take you, but might not if he has a full load of the stuff… Our friend Abdi Noor makes a few phone calls and like magic, two seats are confirmed on a regularly scheduled East African Airline flight. Hurrah, I am ecstatic.
Suk-Suk, cautions Abdi Noor, not so fast, we still have tomorrow’s full day of work…
Docta and his team will distribute CAI’s final food consignment, about three tons of high-energy biscuits and seven tons of food this weekend insha’Allah; this will conclude our food aid program. It was my observation that the core food crises is easing with more (Islamic) aid agencies setting up shop. I also now believe long term food aid is not sustainable; rather, efforts should be put into water recourses and farming. Shallow wells dug by refugees and water used for farming is the best short-term solution to this massive problem, both in host country and well into Somalia proper. CAI will, insha’Allah, assist all those that choose to dig a shallow well and use the ready available water for farming. An investment of US$100 per family to secure the well and ways to use the water is, for now, the only viable solution until political games of those in power are played out.
View photos here.