Maryland relief agencies combat famine in Africa

Refugees wait for family members to complete the registration process.
Refugees wait for family members to complete the registration process. (Jonathan Ernst/Lutheran World Relief)

Waves of refugees arrive daily to Kenya, some having walked weeks through unforgiving desert with virtually no possessions, and yet local relief workers report optimism among the millions threatened by the historic famine and drought spreading through the Horn of Africa.

"Everyone looks hungry and wiped out," said Bruce White, a Catholic Relief Services adviser who returned earlier this month from Kenya. "But there is a sense of hope because there is help. I asked one man what he wanted here and he said 'peace.'"

Jonathan Ernst, a Baltimore freelance photojournalist, reached the refugee camps in eastern Kenya last week and is reporting to Lutheran World Relief. He has seen a "huge crush" of refugees arriving daily. "The refugees vary from clearly emaciated in need of immediate attention to others who are only a little less desperate," he said.

Then, he added: "But I don't see total despair. Those coming here seem to feel lucky."

The growing numbers of starving refugees from Somalia, a war-torn nation suffering the worst of the famine, are straining the agrarian population in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia. Camps in Dadaab, a city in eastern Kenya near the Somali border, were built to accommodate 90,000 but have seen the arrival of more than four times that number. The United Nations reports "high levels of acute malnutrition" throughout the east African region, with the numbers needing humanitarian aid increasing daily.

The mounting crisis that threatens an estimated 12 million people in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia has prompted the Baltimore-based agencies — and other relief organizations in Maryland — to increase staffing and resources there. Many of the organizations have been in the region for decades, working to help build an economic future for the third-world populace. Now they are switching their focus to simply rescuing them from starvation.

Lutheran World Relief had worked with farmers in East Africa, teaching them modern agricultural practices while helping them reap plentiful harvests and increase their herds. The organization is channeling donations to aid those in the camps and help local residents maintain what economic progress they have made.

In an effort to assist the indigenous population, Catholic Relief Services will soon launch a five-year effort to build another camp, also in Dadaab to house 25,000 people and will use local labor to build the water and sanitation facilities. The organization will train area residents to be solid-waste managers, latrine attendants, community mobilizers, and water and sanitation service providers.

IMA World Health is channeling famine relief donations to its partners on the ground in East Africa, said Chris Glass, spokesman for the organization based in the Carroll County town of New Windsor. He and Richard L. Santos, president of the nonprofit, left Friday for a health project in Tanzania but will also check into the situation in neighboring Kenya.

The White House announced earlier this month a $105 million grant for humanitarian aid to East Africa. The United Nations estimates that nearly $3 billion is needed to combat what it terms the region's worst food crisis in 60 years. Private contributions to relief efforts have raised about one third of that amount, said Timothy McCully, Lutheran World Relief's vice president for international programs.

"We continue to advise the U.S. government to continue to play a strong role," McCully said. "We are called to step up and help once again. We must show the world what our values are and extend our hands to these people."

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley issued a plea for donations last week. He said he had given to USAID and urged residents to contribute whatever they could.

Catholic Relief Services says the camps in eastern Kenya are recording as many as 1,500 arrivals daily, and the organization's on-site workers predict that those numbers will increase as long as the drought persists.

Many refugees are farmers who have lost their livestock and have seen their land turned to dust. Nearly 70 percent of the new arrivals are women and children, relief workers said.

"While Somali refugees are bearing the worst of the crisis, the local population is equally at risk," said McCully. "There is a shortage of food, livestock and water. There is not enough aid, and more has to be delivered immediately."

A lack of rain triggered the crisis, but the area suffers from a long history of failed infrastructure and policies, he said.

"Short-term aid is vital and long-term is equally vital to avoid crises in the future," McCully said. "We need to rehabilitate the irrigation systems to expand the acreage that can be farmed. Then farmers can plant more in the next cycle."

Drought, which has persisted for nearly three years, also has pushed the cost of food and fuel far beyond the means of many. Programs that helped farmers increase staple and cash crops are at risk, as many are forced to sell off assets, particularly livestock, at reduced prices to buy food, McCully said. Without the animals, families fall from subsistence to poverty, he said.

Lutheran World Relief plans to continue to push for "long-term investment in the region's agricultural base" to alleviate this crisis and prevent more famine in the future. Its workers will still focus on small farms, bolstering the role those rural operations play in farmers' households and in the national economy. Rather than ship tons of food, seed and farm tools, the agency will use its funds to support local economies.

Still, relief workers say they must now address the immediate catastrophe, providing food, water, shelter and safety for famine victims. The next few months are critical because the lack of rain will likely mean another meager harvest, experts say.

Relief organizations also are trying to keep Americans focused on the more pressing needs. Lutheran World Relief sent Ernst, the Baltimore photographer, to Dadaab to provide accounts of the work there.

As Ernst toured the camps, he saw "people who are trying to make a life for themselves." The tents are arranged in blocks, each with about 80 families, and the blocks organize into a kind of community, he said. They elect a representative, a security officer, even a first-aid officer.

He said the children are making do, organizing spontaneous soccer games, often with a ball made of anything available.

"Most of these people cannot go home," he said. "I think they are trying to find a new sense of normal, or as much of normal as they can make of the situation."

White, from Catholic Relief Services, was at the same camp. He said that when refugees arrive, they are interviewed and given an ID bracelet, as well as food, hygiene kits and tarps to make a shelter. "You get a square piece of desert, and that's your home," White said. "It's a city of people living in tents or in huts made from sticks and tarps."

He described efforts by refugees to persevere as "the spirit of humanity peeking through the dust and grime."