A Heart for the Hungry: Witnessing the realities of famine in Somalia
World Concern’s Peter Mutua gives a first-hand look into the effects of the severe drought conditions in Somalia and shares the heartbreak of witnessing families who have lost children to starvation.
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People like Peter Mutua sacrifice so much, including having their hearts to broken for the things that break God’s heart in order to help people in great need in really difficult places. Listen as Peter shares a first-hand update on the severe drought conditions in Somalia, and emotionally recounts heartbreaking stories of children lost to starvation. And then, please prayerfully consider how God might be calling you to respond to this crisis. If you feel led, you can donate here: https://worldconcern.org/road
A Heart for the Hungry: Witnessing the realities of famine in Somalia
Cathy: Welcome to The End of The Road podcast. My name is Cathy and I'm your host and tour guide, as we journey together to some of the most remote, challenging places on the planet. I'm so excited to have you along for the ride. So buckle up, we're going to the end of the road.
We're talking today with Peter Mutua. Peter is World Concern's country representative in Somalia, based in Hargeisa, which is in Somali land, in the Northern part of the country. And Somalia is a place that is really struggling in the midst of an intensifying drought crisis right now. And so we wanted to talk with Peter today, and just hear a little bit more about what's happening in this part of the world. If you looked at a map, you would see Somalia in the far Northeastern part of Africa, it actually forms the shape of the horn of Africa. And Somalia, Northeastern Kenya, and Ethiopia are all affected by this current drought that has been worsening for several years. Multiple seasons without rain, where there would normally be rain, that would fill up water points that would create pasture land for animals. None of that has happened, and things are really worsening there.
And Peter, I just want to start off by saying, thank you for joining us today. If the listeners could see you, he's in his car, stuck in some traffic in Nairobi right now. But thank you Peter, for making time to talk with us today.
Peter Mutua: Thank you, Cathy. It's so great.
Cathy: So Peter start off by just describing, for our listeners. Describe what it's like in Somalia right now.
Peter Mutua: Currently we are talking about 50% of the population – 7.1 million people are affected by the drought currently, is not a mean number. And then the situation has been compounded by the global effect, the global crisis, the Ukraine crisis, that has been able also to shift focus in terms of what is happening in the horn of Africa, specifically Somalia, where most people are affected. So currently the crisis is at that, the drought is affecting half of the population. Currently, we are above the 7.1 mark million and still growing. Displacement is on the increase, because currently close to 1 million people are displaced solely by the drought, not by violence or insecurity issues, but by the drought. Malnutrition cases among the children and the five, is also on the increase. Currently also 1.5 (million) children, as we speak, are under acute malnutrition across Somalia.
Cathy: Wow, that's just incredible. Those numbers are stunning. You mentioned 1.5 million children malnourished, in need of assistance. And 7.1 million people, 50% of the population in Somalia, just incredible. And you were talking about the compounding effect of drought over the years. World Concern has been working in Somalia since the early 1980s, and has seen many drought crises as well as conflict, and flooding, and other sorts of things that we've responded to. But I remember clearly I started with World Concern in 2010, so I remember the 2011, 2012 famine. And just to clarify for the listeners, famine is a word that gets thrown around sometimes when people think of a hunger situation. But it is actually one of five emergency phases that the humanitarian world considers, in terms of ranking a crisis. And that final worst phase, is when a famine is actually declared. And it means a certain number of the population is starving, basically.
We're not quite there yet with this current drought crisis, but it seems like it is headed in that direction. This looks like a very similar setup to 2010. Explain a little bit about, the people of Somalia, you mentioned their livelihoods and how they live. They are shepherds, essentially they're pastoralists, they keep herds of animals and that's how they earn their income. That's how they feed their families. So they're also nomadic, many of them are. Where they move around, looking for pasture, land and water, and that sort of thing. So those two things make them, particularly vulnerable to a crisis like this, where there's no water and there's nothing growing for their animals to survive. So we're already starting to see the pictures of dead animals laying out in the desert, and you're coming across that quite a bit. So tell us how life is different right now for people living in Somalia, what are they doing to try and survive, compared to what they would normally be doing to earn income and take care of their families.
Peter Mutua: When you look at the population of Somalia, and also their lifestyle, and their habits of living. As you've stated, these purely pastoralists, they keep animals. And the three categories that they value most are, in terms of their priority camels, then we have a sheep/goats, then cattle or cows. Which also they are least, because you'll be able to find them in a few pockets of Somalia. But with camels, and goat, and sheep, those take much of their pastoral life, which is also able to provide their livelihood. Majorly, Somalia is not as dry and patched, or in every inch of the ground, as one would have imagined. But there are pockets of Somalia, both in the five states where water is available, where there is access to arable land, where there's access to good water, where they can be able to do some farming, and some good rivers that also flowing. Like the major river that feeds major part of Somalia through agriculture is, the Shabelle river, which is well known.
So we normally measure the level of livelihood in Somalia using the Shabelle river levels. If the levels go down, people would start realizing that people will get to suffer, because much of the food basket comes along that river line, where they're able to do farming. And that is in parts of Somalia. When you come to other parts that are close to Ethiopian, like where we are currently in Somaliland. You find that, it's only 10% of agricultural produce that are coming from that particular country. The deficit 90%, is fed through Ethiopia and also some parts of south. And now that leaves the country with a lot of dependent on imports, mostly on commodities that they use. Because largely the staple food, one will get a shock to realize that, the staple food for Somalis is rice. And in this country, they don't grow rice.
If you find a home that is working or is earning an income, the basic food is rice. And then wheat flour, is another one which covers major part of the mills. Either they make the chapatis, as we call them, or they make those their pancakes like so. But you find that in any home, if you give a Somali family cash, when you do the cash transfer. The first thing they'll be able to buy is rice, followed by wheat flour, then sugar, and cooking oil. And you look at those four categories of food items, which make part of their meals on a daily basis, morning, breakfast, lunch, and also supper, none is produced in the country. And also when you come to how we evaluate the flow of economy, versus the food availability in this country, we normally look at the price of, for example, the price of a goat.
And then we equate this price of a goat, how much rice, or how much sugar, or how much package of one meal, can it be able to buy? Or how much can that be able to push a family? That's how we normally do what you call, the terms of trade, then we try to compare. So you find that, when the goats or the livestock which they rely most, is not available, or it's not sellable, or they have died. Now that tilts the balance of the availability of food, because they normally use their animals when they sell, to get food. So currently, the situation is at that because the animals are emaciated, they are not sellable. And if they are sellable, they'll not be able to fetch as much price as they could have fetched. And lastly, the debt. So the numbers of the add has also reduced, making the family rely much on what they can be able to have. And that's not withstanding.
Initially, for example, we are able to equate a goat or price of a goat, to 50 USD or 60 USD, for that matter, or in the range of up to hundred. And then that we calculate it to be able to buy food, in now for a family of six persons in a family. And that can be able to push them close to three weeks to four weeks, or close to a month. But now looking at the current food prices, which has increased, everything has changed. The price of the animals has not changed, if anything, it has dropped because of the live weight of the animals, and they're not sellable. So the animals are not fetching much as they should be able to fetch. Even if they fetch the $60, that $60 or $100 cannot be able to purchase enough food, because of the food prices increase that can be able to push the family too, for three weeks or the month.
Then after some time, they're expected to come back again to where they have come from. So also the pattern of their livelihood is changing. And this is also based on the myriad of issues like, this urbanization that is coming in. And also there's also sense of ownership of land and property, that is also setting in, which was not there. So the little land that is remaining there as communal land, that people can be able to traverse, is becoming limited. And Cathy, it's also another, I would say, another space that also provides for violence, conflict. Because in as people as becoming so much indebted, they're also protecting their properties on what they can be able to have for their animals. So when other households move into their land, in search of water in search of pasture, conflict mainly arises. And we'll be able to map... Like the clan conflicts, they normally flare up with the increase in resource demands, more so for the animals.
When the rains are okay, and there is pasture all over, you find that the clan clashes are at a lower level. When these resources are scarce and everyone is fighting for, "Where can you get water for our animals, or pasture for animals?" Now that's where you find many clash conflicts arise. And the value that is attached to these animals is quite great, because of their custom and also their love for their culture.
Cathy: I think you brought up some really interesting points there. And I was thinking, well, humans are alike all over the world. That when things become stressful, when we feel like our needs aren't being met or food or necessities are scarce, it tends to create fear, and it tends to create conflict with other people. And we see that even with the pandemic. Here in the US, in North America, we see that there's been an intensifying of conflict between people. And so you're mentioning Somalia as a clan-based society. So you can imagine if you have people that are uprooting and moving, and they're moving into an area that is occupied by another clan, a different clan. And now they're having to share their land, their water source, their pasture with others, that could create that sense of possessiveness over necessities. And so that's a really interesting aspect.
So you shared a lot there. I just want to go back and point out a few things. Animals in this part of the world are like a bank account. So the number of goats you have, or the number of sheep, shows how wealthy, how stable, how secure your family's economic status would be. And many, many stories we've read, this is the first thing that people share. When your team sends us stories about how people are affected by this crisis, they often start by saying, "This is how many animals I had. I had 150, and now I have 10." Or one woman said, "I'm down to one goat. I just have one left, and I don't know what I'm going to do." And I also found it interesting that you were talking about the price changing based on supply and demand, but also on the health of the animals.
And so in a drought, when there's no pasture and the animals are emaciated, then the value of what is your bank account now goes down. For our listeners, it's like when the dollar value drops, suddenly you don't have as much wealth or income as you had before, so it creates a real scary situation. And one of the things that I love about how World Concern helps and assists people in a situation like this, is with those cash transfers or vouchers that we've used in the past, where people are able to take this and go to the local market and purchase the oil, the flour, the rice, the things that they need with that voucher. And yet you were also mentioning, interestingly, none of those things are produced in Somalia. They're all imported from other countries. And so as we are experiencing a global hunger crisis and war in other areas, and things like that, that affects the price of all these food items too.
So it really is, as you said at the very beginning, a very complex situation in Somalia. It makes responding challenging, I imagine. So, you and the World Concern team, as well as other humanitarian organizations in Somalia are constantly, I'm sure, strategizing and working on how can we best meet the needs of people. So just summarize for us, what are some solutions to such a complex situation like this? How do you keep families fed? How do you keep them alive, through a crisis like this?
Peter Mutua: I think the way you've been able to put it, Cathy, provides a good latitude of how to understand the whole situation in Somalia. Three basic needs currently that will never be met and also are the highest at the moment, food and water currently, those are the ones on the top. Because you look at the people in need of food, the people in need of water. Complexity as it is, we normally find a niche where we can be able to touch most of the people that are in need, and also areas that can be able to bring a lot of impact. When you look at food access, which currently has to be able to be supported by own production of crops, which is not there. And also water, which is supposed to be provided by some shallow wells, or some rain water harvesting. Those are the key things that, as an organization or as World Concern, we normally look at.
We may not be able to fit in into the areas that are hugely affected. But one, what we normally do in these types of crisis for food access, because these people the food availability in this area is not quite sufficient enough to be able to have one production, that can be able to support the many people that are in need. So we normally use the approach of cash transfer, that can be able to support in a two front. One, it provides the household with a choice, to purchase what they can be able to. And also at the same time, we want also to strengthen the market system that are in the country, or in that, this is a market system country. So the best thing that we can be able to do, is to provide or strengthen the markets that are in existent.
And that can only be done when we provide some, or we get some cash into the local market, that can be able to support the local economy as well as provide people to access food in these communities. So in terms of food access, currently during drought, the choices are quite limited. Because doing food distribution is quite hard in Somalia, quite hard. Because you look at the logistics in terms of, where to get the food and how to transport the food. Also looking at the vastness of the land, and also the remoteness of the community, the way they are placed. And also now the complex situation of security, that is quite a huge challenge. So the best option that we normally get to address food access in times of crisis like now, is using the cash based modality. Where it can either be a cash transfer, or we normally lire or partner with the merchants, that'll be able to provide vouchers for the communities to be able to access the food.
And that has been working quite well. Water access is a challenge at the moment, and the water that is normally utilized in Somalia, comes from shallow wells, about 40%. Then largely 50% is harvested water, either through after dams or water dams, that are from open runoff. And then I would say, a transition technology that has been born only in Somalia, where we normally construct underground water tanks, that they can be able to collect sub-surface runoff. And then the water goes through some filtration process. It can be able to harvest a whole field, the water run from the sub-surface runoff then it goes deeper into the sub-surface water tank, that is constructed. So that by the time the water get into the sub-surface tank, it's filtered, it's clean water that can be utilized. It may not be that clean, because when the water is at the tank it's chlorinated or treated for the last drop usage, like drinking and cooking.
So those three methods we normally use, for them to be able to harvest waste water, or to provide access to water. And then lastly, which is being utilized currently is the, deep wells that are done by using drilling rigs. And you find that then now this provide the huge volume of water for the communities, because of their capacity to be able to obstruct much of the water from underground. So these three aspects of water harvesting or water technology have been utilized in Somalia for ages. So you can imagine that is a year and a half of no rain at all, or not sufficient rain. So you find that, the least harvested water one and a half year of ago, cannot be able to sustain the community now. Thirdly, that is also becoming a major issue, is the element of children under five or in that bracket of years, because of under nutritious food they take, that has been causing a lot of malnutrition.
In a second day in a row, we've been able to see the rise in cases of malnutrition cases. Because we look at the current situation of the severe acute malnutrition, currently is on the rise, with a bracket of more than 200 children in the severity bracket. That is something that is alarming, and the others are still coming up. And as an organization, we've been trying to intervene also, to ensure that the children under five are not left behind. By providing some nutrition pockets of supplements, that can be able to prevent the children from getting to severe malnutrition. But of course, we are not covering much of the Somalia. So the huge pocket, where the 1.5 (million) children are, there are really bad cases of acute malnutrition.
We want to thank our listeners for joining us at The End of The Road. And we hope you're enjoying hearing the incredible stories of what God is doing in the world's most remote, challenging places. We also want to invite you, to prayerfully consider taking the next step and getting involved. You can support the life changing work of World Concern, and help reach more people with God's love and meet critical needs, by making a donation at worldconcern.org/road, that's worldconcern.org/road. Your support is critical to keeping this ministry going and growing, so thank you. And now, let's get back to our conversation.
Cathy: Have you met some families? I assume that you have. You've traveled around Somalia, you've seen the situation firsthand, your team assesses different communities and how they're impacted by this. And they actually sit and talk with families, and hear their stories, and ask them questions about how they're surviving and what's going on. So when you meet a family, that is really suffering and you see that there are little ones, children that are clearly malnourished, they're thin, they're wasting away. Just share a little bit of your heart, and your thoughts, and your prayers for those families. Is there a family that stands out in your mind when you think about, somebody you've met, that's really been impacted by this crisis?
Peter Mutua: It has not been easy Cathy.
Cathy: No, I'm sure it hasn't.
Peter Mutua: Yeah. Several cases that keep on haunting us, as if we never did enough.
Cathy: Oh, bless your tender heart Peter, for these families. It's so hard, I'm sure to see them and see them struggling.
Peter Mutua: There's one time we were in the field, and then we were also doing the nutrition distribution with the children, and then the severity of the cases of children affected by this drought was so hard. And then we go to a family and we find one of the child, is not responding, not at all. The mother tries to breastfeed, nothing is coming out from the mother. Then we watched helplessly to see what we can be able to do. We tried to do the simple, what you call the oral rehydration drink, just to be able to make sure that the baby can be able to have something. Then we realize we are not doing much. Then we pick the mother and the child, and then we put them in the car, just to take them to a nearest health facility. Which was 50 kilometers away. Then we didn't even make 10 kilometers…
Cathy: Did the baby pass away?
Peter Mutua: That baby passed away.
Cathy: I'm so sorry. Oh, that is so hard.
Peter Mutua: So now we are stuck, do we go to the dispensary, or we go back? So we say, we go back. So going back, we meet another mother crying, carrying a baby, the baby has died still. That was so humiliating. But we are stuck in that village for three days, just trying to see whether we can be able to reach as many children as we could. But in the span of the three days that we were there, we were able to lose five children on our watch.
Cathy: So hard. And as you said, there's just nothing that can be done at that point, they need to be hospitalized. And as you said, there isn't even a hospital nearby. There's a health clinic that's 50 kilometers away, but it isn't even a fully equipped hospital. So it really makes me think about how urgent it is, that we get those nutrition packets, the Nutributter, the Plumpy'Nut, the Nutripackets that we're giving to these kids. Those work when a child is malnourished, but not when it's too late, when it gets to the point where they need to be hospitalized. So it just makes me think about how urgent it is that we can intervene. And it's really, I would say, just a plea to the listeners today to prayerfully consider how you can help, because this is real and children are dying. And you and your team can only do so much Peter, and my heart just aches for you as you try so hard to intervene and to help in these situations.
And in some cases, it's just too late, but we have a great God who sees everyone and whose heart is breaking also for people, and for mothers that are losing their children. So it's at times like this, I think that the only thing that we can do is pray. So when you come home, when you come back from a visit like that to a village, where you were for three days and five children passed away in that timeframe, you must just fall on your knees in prayer when you get back home. And so what do you pray for, for those families? And what would you want other people around the world to pray for right now, for the families in Somalia?
Peter Mutua: Many at times when you go to the village and you meet these needs on a face to face, I say, sometimes interact with the problems on paper. And when you get to the field, you are able to get the real need. And at times when you compare to what you are looking at in the paper, and what is staring at you. It gives you a shock even of your life to realize, many times we complain that we need this or we don't have this. But there are people that even what we are asking or we feel with is not enough for us, many people cannot be able to get that. When you look into these communities and where they are, the greatest thing that I normally pray for them, one, is how they can be able to meet their needs.
Because you go to a community, you find there are so much placed within the community. And the first question that comes to your mind is, what are they doing? Even in this remote place, where there's no market, there's no access to water, there's nothing which is close by, it's only vastness of the land that you can be able to see. So praying for them, even your prayer, prayer that you say, you cannot be able even to pray for every need that they have. But I normally pray fast for their enlightenment, for them to be able to get to understand, there's still a God who cares for them. They don't lose hope to the level that, they cannot be able even to stretch a hand for help. I know as an organization you can't be able to meet to every need that they have, but my prayer is always to them that, if these people can be able to have a level of enlightenment even to be able to see a way for how to care for their family, that to me becomes part of the prayer.
The other great thing that I normally pray is, I thank God for this communities, because despite being on the other side of the faith defied, they've never seen us as aliens or as different people from who they are. But they look at us as people who are responding to the real need. And my prayer always to them is, "God, can you make them closer to us, even not only through the need, but also deeper into their hearts for them to be able to understand there's a God who is always near and can be able to do much more." And I remember in one community that we went ,and we find our community is in a place that there's no access to market. And we get to that village with two vehicles, then they see like a relief has come. Women surround your car as if you are providing everything for them, then you don't have anything.
And that particular time we told the staff, this is need, and we cannot be able to come out of this village without addressing the need, however small we can. So we needed food, we needed water, and we're able to measure the stuff, provided some cars. And then we were able to send for water through a water bus or water lorry. Then we were able to send the elders to the nearby market, to purchase food for the women and also for the children. So when you pray, you lack words even the way you can be able to put a prayer for these people. But I normally pray that their basic needs can come to light and also can be connected to an enlightenment, for them to be able to see beyond even where they are, there's a God who's also watching over them. And above all, for them to be able to have a wider understanding of, "How can you be able to make our lives better, even when we are here."
So as we keep on praying, I know there are so many people that are praying about Somalia and also the people. Keep on praying, let's not get tired about their needs. We look up until our God that is able to provide, even in a way that we don't know. But as we pray, let's pray for their hearts. Because there's a lot of bondage when you look at these people, because Somalia is a part of their community. And that part of their community is also enshrined in their culture and also in their religion, so to speak. So if you can be able to pray, even for emancipation, growth in terms of how they be able to feel human beings, even in times of need. That can be something that, I keep on praying every moment. And I also appeal for corporate prayers for these people.
Cathy: That's wonderful. I just had this thought while you were sharing that, you and your team there are really the hands and feet of Jesus, in this situation. You are actually showing people that tangible, practical love in action. That description of coming into a community and people surrounding the car, and they have such great needs, they're just hoping that maybe there's some help coming along. And then to have you guys be able to give them something, and let them know that they're not forgotten, they're not alone. And be able to provide for some of their practical needs, as well as pray for them. So it's in those situations that, our practical actions express God's love, God's heart for them. And if they don't know the God that loves them and cares for them, then they see that expressed in these actions. So I think about how the body works together around the world.
And so for our listeners who are here and may have resources that they can give, that they can support, it’s part of the chain of action that God is using his people to help. So I just love that. I love that we're able to do something, we're able to give, we're able to support and to donate. And then you and your team, you're the ones that then carry that gift to people. And in doing so, express God's heart for them. So I think that's just an incredible and a beautiful expression of that. And so thank you for doing that critical, really important work. Thank you for your willingness to serve, your willingness to go and live and work in a really difficult context, a really challenging place. And doing life saving really critically important work, as well as sharing God's love with people, through these tangible acts of helping.
So I want the listeners to know that, they can be a part of this. They can be praying. They can be giving and supporting World Concern, in order to empower your team to go out and do the incredible work that you're doing. In a crisis like this, it's meeting those urgent lifesaving needs. On an ongoing basis, long term, you and your team are really empowering entire communities to be better prepared for these droughts and crises that we know are going to happen again. As well as training folks on farming techniques, and agricultural practices, and even caring for their animals and adding to their variety of livelihoods that they do. So it's not just an immediate impact that you're having, but it's a long term impact as well. So I'm just aware and just hearing what you shared today, and thank you for so honestly sharing your heart for people, and your prayers for people.
But I'm just really aware of how much you sacrifice, in order to be in a place like this, to live and serve in a place where sometimes the solutions aren't even really clear. There isn't much that can be done, but your presence there is making a difference. So thank you, Peter, for your service for all that you're doing. And thank you for sharing your heart with us today.
I want to thank our listeners for joining us today. I hope your mind has been expanded and your heart has been touched by what God is doing around the world. If you like what you're hearing on The End of The Road, please give us a five star rating and review us on Apple Podcasts, or hit the bell symbol on Spotify, to be notified when there's a new episode released. Stay in the know and never miss an episode by texting the word podcast to 34444. I want to thank Crista Ministries, World Concern’s, Parent Organization for making this podcast possible. And I also want to thank Casey Helmick and the whole team at Terra Firma, for their production, and editing, and consulting expertise, for helping us bring these stories to life and bring them to you. Thanks again for joining us today, we look forward to more stories at The End of The Road next time.