Famine in Somalia. How to Help. Or Not.

There is a drought in Somalia, growing into famine proportions. Something needs to be done. So, good people are doing something. And I sit here, writing, working, going to the beach, hiding Easter eggs, not really doing anything specifically related to the famine. And, I sit here with a lot of questions about what is being done. It is so hard to articulate them because I really, truly believe the people doing these things are topnotch people. As in, people with deep empathy and compassion, people who love with abandon, who take risks to serve, people who are not after fame or fortune or glory. I don’t want to hurt feelings or to disparage. But I do feel the need to raise some issues, to ask some questions.

And let me just start by saying Somalis are so much more than starving children and people covered in flies. Please. Seriously. Be wise about what images you share.


Research has proven unequivocally that famine is caused by authoritarian regimes, by harmful politics and policies, by corrupt governments, by tyrannical rulers, by war. The root cause of famine is not the lack of rain or a failed growing season. Changing weather patterns contribute to drought but famine, starvation on a mass scale, is a different beast.

Here is an important article about the factors underlying Somalia’s current crisis, by Dr. Mohamud Mohamed Ahmed (Buyow). I wrote to Dr. Mohamud and in his response he stressed the importance of working with local organizations and local authority structures for long term solutions. He wrote, “…short projects and inappropriate responses will not be a long lasting solution to the recurrent droughts. The best way to address the root causes of the famine is  settling with the needy people and identifying the immediate needs and longterm support needs and provide the right intervention that suits the needs of the target people through working with relevant  authorities in that respective area rather than copying projects from other countries  and implementing  them regardless of the outcome and impact.”

He spoke about the historically strong agriculture, livestock, fishery, and business realities in Somalia and that the people need help strengthening those sectors, not just food aid, in order to end long term dependence on outside sources.

The cure for a famine is not a rain shower.

The cure for famine is not to provide meals.

I have seen both scenarios presented on social media as viable solutions.

One campaign promotes their efforts to ‘stop the famine’ by providing millions of meals, boxed in the US and shipped to Somalia. This will not stop the famine. This will give people food for a while. It will effectively delay their starvation, it will not stop it. And, based on history and current threats coming from al-Shabaab in Somalia, it is unlikely that all the meals will actually feed the hungry. So, if you must box meals, at least do so knowing that you are not ending a famine and that you might be feeding a terrorist. Truth in advertising seems important here.

Also, rain…

Rain in a land denuded of forests and trees, either due to systematic stripping or because people, desperate for food and shelter because of conflict and poverty, have been forced to cut their own trees down, can be catastrophic. Floods. Cholera. Typhoid. Malaria. Dengue fever. Diseases which, were they diseases that plagued western countries, might have had vaccinations or effective medicines developed to fight them by now. These diseases descend on the dry land and on weakened people with a vengeance when there is a little rain. And a bit of rain won’t make the agricultural industry boom again. Especially not when that industry has been destroyed by bad management and violence.

Yes, rain is needed so that crops can begin to grow again. But if all the farmers are gathered in feeding centers and it rains for a while one afternoon, that does not mean corn will spring from the ground around them and the people will now be satiated. A rain shower is not going to end a famine.

Some of the bad management and bad control that are contributing to this famine are, in fact, remnants of previous famine relief efforts. Western nations, goodhearted people, bring in food and seed and grain. This undermines what the local economy and farmers had been able to provide, cuts prices, leaves farms fallow, pulls people away from working the land and into feeding centers. Once they land there, it is almost impossible to return to a farm. It may be taken over by a neighbor or by a warlord. The ground might be destroyed. The herd animals die so a nomadic family has nothing to go back to. They are stuck. Perpetually.

So sure, box up your meal and stop the famine.

Sure, pray for rain and stop the famine.

What will you do tomorrow?

And the next day?

And the next day?

What will you do when the millions of boxed up meals ends? When another famine strikes because the underlying causes have not been addressed?

You’ll develop compassion fatigue.

Okay, pack the box of food. And then go to Somalia, make sure a hungry person eats it, make sure that hungry person is repatriated, along with their entire community, to their agricultural region or to their flocks (which have died so must be donated), so that they can become self-sustaining again, they way they once were. Make sure that person doesn’t spend the rest of their life dependent on meals that you box up in the US. Make sure gangs don’t rob, rape, or kill the people. Make sure violence doesn’t force them to abandon their land in the future. Make sure just and good governance is instituted.

People may have walked hundreds of kilometers to get to the food. Now what? They are effectively stuck in the feeding camp until you, who brought them there with your meal, help them go home. Will you do that? Will you stay involved and engaged for that long? Will you fund organizations who will do those things?

Sorry to say, but in the case of the outsider, the answer is most likely no. No, you will not stick it out for decades, a commitment some compare to a marriage. That long, that much effort. Nope. You will move on to the next crisis or to the next Netflix show.

Who will stay?


Somalis in Somalia and Somalis in the diaspora around the world, most whom still have relatives living in Somalia. These are the people who have proven track records of caring for Somalia. Remittances from abroad make up almost a quarter of Somalia’s GDP. Money transfer is keeping people from starving, is helping them set up small businesses or reestablish farms. Somalis who care about good governance and sustainable food security need to be supported.

Somalis who know the culture, region, and people intimately. There are Somalis leading aid work. Get behind them, support them.

This means you might not get your face on a brochure. You might not get a great selfie opportunity. You might not get the praise for risking your life to go to Somalia to see what people are already telling you, if you would just believe them. You might not get the glory of praying for rain and seeing it fall and tweeting about it.

But you might be able to make a difference, just without your left hand knowing what your right hand is doing.

If you are willing to support Somalis helping Somalia, then here are some ways you can get involved.

*There are loads of Go Fund me campaigns being run by Somalis: Somalia Famine Relief, they are partnering with the American Refugee Committee and the International Refugee Committee. And Somalia Famine Relief 2017, run by a group of Somali youth in Minneapolis (go Minnesota!), they are partnering with a Somali-run NGO Read Horn of Africa.

*Technology and social media are both playing large parts in responding to this crisis. Here is how some Somalis are using both to help.

*Abaaraha has developed a crisis mapping system to help aid providers see the big picture and know where there are urgent needs.

*If you have Somalis in your community, talk to their community leaders. Maybe at a mosque, maybe restaurant owners or shopkeepers. Find out what they are doing and ask how you can participate. I know Minneapolis restaurants recently had a Dine Out for Somalia evening, with the goal of raising $150,000 for famine relief. The list included almost 50 restaurants, most of them Somali, Horn of Africa, or Arab cuisine. You can still donate: Dine Out for Somalia.

What if there weren’t only Somali restaurants participating? What if they weren’t primarily Somali diners? Do you, non-Somali American, really need to start your own organization, project, or fund? Get behind what Somalis are already doing, join with them. I suspect you’ll find your donation of time, resources, or money will go further and you’ll be able to see more long-term impact both in your own life and in the lives of people you hope to serve.

*There are so many Somalis helping Somalis, unrelated to famine relief. But all development is positive and can move the entire region in the right direction. Saada Moumin is one such woman, with her school for low-income and special needs children in Djibouti.

*And, sure, I’ll encourage you to pray for Somalia. But keep in mind that you are not the only one praying. Millions of Somalis are praying, both in Somalia and in the diaspora. There are Somali Muslims praying and Christians who care about Somalis praying and I even know some Buddhist Somalis who pray. Don’t fool yourself that when God provides an answer to prayer, it was solely your powerful and effective righteousness that brought it. You are not standing alone in your hope and faith. You are not the hero.

*Read When Helping Hurts. Seriously. If you haven’t read this yet, read it now.

Now, with humility and generosity and critical thoughtfulness, go out and try to do something wise and good.









Dadaab Refugee Camp

I just finished reading City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence.

It is a really sad, vivid, frustrating book. Frustrating not because the book is badly written but because you finish reading it and feel helpless and angry and overwhelmed by all the injustice in the world.

dadaab refugee camp

I know I haven’t been blogging much lately and this post certainly doesn’t do much to fill that hole. I just wanted to take my small corner of the internet to recommend City of Thorns. In my nit-picky way, I was bothered by what came to feel like the author’s rather annoying style of writing. Many sentences could have been clearer and he should have used much more active tense. I got weary of gerunds and commas. His Somali words needed someone else to help with spelling and I remain endlessly curious (even after perusing in detail the end notes and looking some of them up) about where he got some of this information. But – don’t let that all turn you away, most people won’t even notice these things.

If you want to understand even a teensy bit of what refugees go through in today’s world, read this book. Somali, Ethiopian, Sudanese, Syrian, Yemeni, it doesn’t matter. The specifics of course will differ for each individual story and region, but broad issues are the same the world over. If you’re curious about the Westgate shopping mall attack in Kenya, if you don’t understand why Somalis and Kenyans have such deep hatred for each other, read this book.

I know others are reviewing the book and will give much more thoughtful responses. All I can do is suggest that you read it.

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp.

Modern Nomads Journal

modern nomads1

I love artists. I love when people living abroad use their authentic talents to delve into their host cultures and I love when they do it in collaboration with local artists who can teach the foreigner, provide insight, and give broader perspectives, like how does this event fit into the historical realities of this location…

That’s why I love this project: Modern Nomads Journal. It doesn’t hurt that it is beautiful and expertly crafted. It also doesn’t hurt that writers I’ve worked with at EthnoTraveler, like Abdi Latif Dahir, are featured in interviews or that a female Somali playwright tells her story and her dream inside the pages of this 88-page journal.

Last week they launched a kickstarter campaign to fund the first printing of the journal, to which I happily contributed. This week they are busy launching their Somali-language magazine Dhugasho and I am happily promoting the English-language journal to Djibouti Jones readers. Head over to their kickstarter page, donate if you feel so inclined, and look forward to getting a copy of this lovely journal in your mail box (actual mail box).

Journal Introduction

There are few nomadic societies that have been catapulted into the 21st century as dramatically as the Somali. 20 years of war have scattered hundreds of thousands of Somalis all over the world. People who were born in little desert villages and grew up herding camels are now young professionals in London, Toronto, or Minneapolis. And as their large families often live in a dozen different countries, many Somalis live uniquely international lives as modern nomads.

But while most of those who have left their country as refugees keep up their connections with home, and try to preserve their rich cultural heritage and history, a new generation of diaspora Somalis is growing up that has never seen the Horn of Africa. Raised in Western or Middle Eastern cities and surrounded by American, European, or Arab friends, they are more interested in pop culture than camel culture, and often barely speak their mother-tongue or know their place in the clan system.

As new catastrophes force new refugees into the West, and old diaspora members return to their home country, the clash of cultures within Somali society is being fought wherever Somalis live. Whether a family in the Netherlands, trying to teach their children the old traditions and values, or a family in Mogadishu, struggling with an influx of “Westerners”, every Somali is confronted with cultural change, and everybody has to ask themselves what it really means to be Somali.

We want to capture a cultural heritage that is in the process of being lost forever, and help the Somali people to remember and treasure their past. At the same time, we are hoping to document the amazing changes that are happening within Somali culture, and to catch a glimpse of the new rich and diverse society that is emerging out of the ashes of a long civil war.

Follow Modern Nomads Journal on Instagram and be sure to check out their Kickstarter campaign, less then three weeks to go!

And a personal side note, Djiboutian artists (story-tellers, photographers, poets, writers, painters…) I would love to connect with you and to hear how you are sharing your story and art with the world…please leave a comment or contact me.

Don’t forget to sign up for Stories from the Horn, Djibouti Jones’s monthly newsletter coming to your inbox on April 1

The Bookshelf: About Somalia, By Somalis

somali books

Once we decided that we would be moving to Somalia back in 2003, the first thing I did was head to the Hennepin county library. I searched for every single book about Somalia and I found about fifteen. That included government papers and reports and children’s books. Granted, I didn’t know much so I didn’t know that I should google specific author’s names, like Nuruddin Farah or Waris Dirie. But still. There weren’t many books available.

Now? Hennepin County is home to more Somalis than any other county in Minnesota and there is even a book called Somalis in Minnesota (People Of Minnesota). The library has followed suit and the last time I was in Minnesota, I searched for books about Somalia and found hundreds, including articles in magazines and newspapers.

Now there are so many I wouldn’t know where to start. Back then, I simply checked out every single book and worked my way through them all. Now, no way. But here are some I’ve read, loved, hated, thrown against a wall, or read over and over again.

Books By Somalis

(*I go by the idea that the best practice is to go first to those who know best – Somalis. There was a recent hashtag on Twitter #cadaanstudies, cadaan means white, in which Somalis were complaining about the ways westerners co-opt their stories. I see the point, though I believe outsiders can also contribute to cultural discussions and often have valuable input. But here I want to highlight the diversity and talent of Somali writers. Personally, I find books written about the United States by non-Americans are incredibly helpful and insightful and I will never say that we can only write who we are. Otherwise how could a female author write a male character or how could a living person write anything historical? Anyway all that is for another day perhaps…on to these books!)

In the United States of Africa (French Voices) by Abdourahman Waberi, a prolific novelist. He also wrote Transit, The Land without Shadows, The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper, and Passage of Tears (all translated from French)

Understanding the Somalia Conflagration: Identity, Political Islam and Peacebuilding by Afyare Abdi Elmi

Black Mamba Boy: A Novel is by Nadifa Mohamed who also wrote The Orchard of Lost Souls: A Novel

Waris Dirie is the author of several books

Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad, also has been made into a movie
This book is probably best known for its horrific depiction of Female Genital Mutilation, a tradition which Dirie continues to campaign against.

Desert Children

Desert Dawn

Ayaan Hirsi is also the author of several books


Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations

The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam

Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now

Hirsi is a controversial figure among Somalis and Muslims. She has served in the Dutch parliament and worked with the film producer Theo Van Gogh who was killed by a Dutch Muslim the year after their film Submission came out.

Nuruddin Farah, author of several novels

From a Crooked Rib


and many, many more novels about Somalis and Somalia. His work is highly regarded in the literary world.

Nomad Diaries: Life, War and America by Yasmeen Maxmoud. This one…ah, this one. Could have used a better editor. Tough to recommend other than for the fact that as I read it I felt like I was living inside a Somali’s mind. It was interesting in that although she changed the name of the housing complex that features in the novel, I not only know exactly where she is writing about, but I also lived there.

Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (Mouthmark)by Warsan Shire is a powerful book of evocative and at times erotic poetry.

Keeping Hope Alive: One Woman: 90,000 Lives Changed by Dr. Hawa Abdi, an incredible story of courage and bravery from southern Somalia.

What I’m reading this week

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott. Super interesting historical look at the role four specific women played in the American civil war. I had no idea there were so many female spies or that they could hide such serious weaponry up inside those hoop skirts. This was a different era in the treatment of ‘ladies’ and so they could get away with quite a lot. I am left with some questions about her research and facts but the story is fascinating so I’m letting those questions slide. This is a long one and I’ve had a busy week, so just one book this week.



*post includes amazon affiliate links

Other books by Somalis or about Somalia that you’d recommend? Have you read any of these and what do you think? What are you reading this week?


Growing Up In Dadaab Refugee Camp

I’m working on various projects, both written and otherwise, so am happy to share with you today someone else’s words.

Mohamed Asad Hussein is a young Somali writer. I recently discovered his blog when a friend from Minnesota shared it with me. He lives and writes from Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya. He was among the first to be born there, meaning he has lived his entire life between nations. He is a talented writer with a valuable perspective and a unique story. I’m always happy to connect with writers and especially writers like him, Somalis telling their own stories.

refugee camp

Here is an excerpt of his essay (keep in mind that he is writing in his second language, a courageous feat that would be laughable if I tried to do so in Somali or French): Story of My Family in Dadaab Refugee Camp

My family is one of the few who have been in Dadaab refugee camps since the early 1990s. Our story goes beyond Dadaab, stemming its edges from Ethiopia, setting its home in Somalia, and throwing its shadows to Kenya.

My parents had hitherto lived in Ethiopia before they sought sanctuary in Somalia when skirmishes amongst Borana, Gabrii, Gujii and Garii sent them away from the country, starting a journey which would find them in Dadaab camps, though they never envisaged they would spend decades in a refugee camp.

Shariff Hussein, as my father is called, settled in Luuq, a small town in Southwestern Gedo in Somalia, where his first children, Maryan and Ibrahim, were soon born. Then war promptly broke out when the Siyyad Barre regime was ousted in 1991. My family moved again to Baidoa. Here Dhaahiro was born.

Click here to read the rest: A Story of My Family in Dadaab Refugee Camp

*image via Flickr

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