The Leveller

Ben Ehrenreich on famine in East Africa

In Haro Sheikh the journalists kneeled to photograph a tortoise. It was nearly a metre long, with short, spikily scaled legs tucked beneath its shell. A black liquid stained the dry red earth around it. Beside it was the carcass of a donkey, white bone showing beneath what little flesh remained. A few metres away a warthog lay rotting, and beyond that a camel. For miles outside the village – and outside every village I passed through in Somaliland, the self-proclaimed but unrecognised state that comprises the northern part of Somalia – thousands of sheep and goats lay strewn in varying states of decay. The contents of their stomachs, it was easy to see, were mainly colourful shreds of plastic ingested in the absence of natural pasture. I asked a group of men in Haro Sheikh if more camels, the most valuable livestock in the local pastoral economy, had died. They all began pointing at once. ‘Behind that tree,’ one said. ‘And another there.’ ‘And there.’

I had left Hargeisa, Somaliland’s nominal capital, early that morning in a small convoy of 4x4s belonging to Save the Children, the charity leading the drought response here. We drove east for hours through the open plains. Termite mounds rose like fingers from the earth, some of them as tall as the thorn trees that were among the only signs of life. Under normal circumstances, rain falls here in two wet seasons a year: the short, autumn deyr rains and the longer, spring gu rains that last from March to June. Last year, the gu rains were sparse and the deyr never came. Animals began to die in January. Although the landscape seemed barren, it would take only a little moisture for it to burst into life. One good rain and the grass seeds would germinate: overnight, a low fuzz of green would spread across the earth. Another few showers and the grass would grow tall, providing grazing for gazelle and antelope, and the domesticated ungulates on which the local economy almost entirely depends. But spring brought no relief; by mid-May there was still no sign of the gu rains. The grass never grew and the animals starved. Here and there, outside a cluster of patchwork tents, we passed a field that had been tilled. The earth had been turned and perhaps planted – even meagre rains can be sufficient for a single harvest of sorghum or maize – but nothing had grown.

There had been no sign of government aid in Haro Sheikh since March, the villagers told me. What little help they received from relatives in the diaspora, mainly in the US, had by now run dry. Nearly half the village came out, plastic jerry cans in hand, to greet the two water tankers that Save the Children had brought in to fill a covered reservoir. The women wore headscarves in purple, blue and green. Droughts are nothing new here. Under normal circumstances, the rains fail every few years, and shepherds can expect to lose perhaps 5 per cent of their flocks, and to replenish them when the rains return. But the failure of three wet seasons out of four was almost unheard of. Not even the oldest people in the village with whom I spoke – sunken-cheeked men with beards hennaed orange – could remember anything comparable.

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[*] Naomi Klein wrote about the conflict shoreline in the LRB of 2 June 2016.