As unprecedented hunger grips the Horn of Africa, impoverished families are running out of time
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Philip, a herder who lives in the rural Kenyan village of Nakorio, this summer took a visitor on a troubling tour. Among the sights: the shriveled carcasses of dead animals lying on the dry, dusty ground around Philip’s home. Only a tenth of his herd is still alive, Philip said: “They are dying daily.”
The visitor was Edgar Sandoval, CEO of the international relief group World Vision. Sandoval saw other troubling signs in Nakorio, a rural community in Kenya’s drought-hit northern Turkana region. For example, the village chief told Sandoval he’d been hearing more arguments coming from inside people’s homes. One family with 18 goats is down to its last animal. Some mothers now watch over their hungry and out-of-school children alone while their husbands travel to nearby towns in search of work. And inside the village dispensary, Sandoval saw a nursing mom who could not produce enough milk to feed her baby, and other moms brooding over their emaciated kids. Martha Losike, who has worked as the dispensary’s nurse for six years, said the situation was “never this bad.”
Nakorio is emblematic of a struggle with hunger that now grips the Horn of Africa and is unprecedented in the modern era. Multiple factors have converged to produce a deepening humanitarian crisis. Parts of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia have suffered through four consecutive failed rainy seasons and now face the worst drought in more than forty years. Water sources have evaporated and pastures have withered in a region traditionally home to nomadic herders and small-scale farmers. More than 7 million livestock have died. Families fleeing hunger and seeking urgent medical care are trekking hundreds of miles to larger cities in search of help.
Meanwhile, crop-devouring locusts, pandemic lockdowns, the war in Ukraine, inflation, and persistent regional conflicts all compound the misery. More than 18 million people now face acute food insecurity—one stage away from a formal famine declaration—according to the World Food Program. Aid workers in the Horn of Africa are calling for more support and attention to prevent an “explosion of child deaths.” But with the world’s attention focused elsewhere, they fear help won’t arrive in time.
ON THE OUTSKIRTS of the Somali capital of Mogadishu, forests of tiny makeshift tents have popped up like mushrooms. Aid workers say Somalis arrive daily as the worsening drought has displaced more than 800,000 people in the country. Many come with tales of family members dying from starvation. Malnutrition treatment centers in Somalia recorded at least 448 deaths between January and April. The numbers are still growing, with many cases likely unreported.
“We finish doing [food] distributions and a whole new group of people will arrive the following day in desperate need,” said Mark Smith, World Vision’s vice president of humanitarian emergency affairs.
In some of the country’s worst-hit regions, the World Food Program has seen water prices rise by up to 72 percent since November, forcing people to walk further in search of water.
Elias Kamau, World Relief’s Kenya country director, has noticed a similar movement across northern Kenya. In a village in Turkana, residents dug holes in a dry riverbed, hoping to find water. Kamau met a woman who had walked more than 27 miles from her community in Todonyang to the town of Lokitaung, where she found a household with members of her tribe.
“They didn’t have much food either, but they said, ‘We can’t allow her to live in the open,’” Kamau said. “They have a very strong social fabric.”
When the Kenyan government began imposing pandemic restrictions in March 2020, only essential businesses received clearance to operate, and authorities promoted cashless transactions. Both factors hurt small businesses and workers’ ability to send money back to families in rural areas, said Joseph Kamara, World Vision’s humanitarian lead in East Africa.
Now, amid Russia’s war with Ukraine, fuel costs have skyrocketed, making food transportation more expensive, Kamara said.
The Ukraine war also disrupted the regular supply of products like wheat and fertilizers. Between 2018 and 2020, Russia provided 32 percent of African wheat imports while Ukraine contributed 12 percent. “Farmers are saying they can’t farm because they don’t have access to fertilizers,” Kamara said. “It’s like a combination of different factors that have created this huge tsunami.”
INSIDE A TEMPORARY CLINIC in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, Rabih Torbay, the CEO of Project HOPE, watched a 4-year-old girl who had suffered for months with severe malnourishment. As she lay partially responsive next to her mother, Torbay thought she looked more like a 2-year-old. And she wasn’t the only child the mother had to care for. “When you give food to the baby, they have to share it with the other kids as well,” Torbay said.
In November 2020, the Ethiopian government, with support from Eritrean forces, launched an offensive against local Tigray Defense Forces, touching off a war. The fighting displaced more than 2 million people and left at least 400,000 on the edge of famine.
At one of the camps on the outskirts of the central city of Debre Birhan, Torbay met a family first displaced by the drought and then the conflict. “All three children were moderately malnourished,” he recalled. “They were getting to a point where it could become risky for their lives.”
The region’s health system is another casualty of war. Doctors Without Borders last year warned that armed groups had vandalized and looted medical facilities, rendering the majority of them nonfunctional. The destruction extended to neighboring regions, like Afar.
In response, Project HOPE has set up six mobile clinics, and Torbay said it has plans to expand to as many as 30. It is also training local health workers who can see patients in homes or in the clinics, and who can also alert Torbay’s group to local needs.
Yet even as desperation climbs, international aid has dropped. Norway announced in March plans to redirect $300 million from various global crisis zones to Ukraine, and the United Kingdom followed suit. Overall aid to Africa has declined for two years straight.
Katherine Zimmerman, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said Western governments have somewhat fixed dollars designated for humanitarian aid. Those funds are now spread “very thin globally,” she said. Perceptions may also play a role in decisions to divert funds away from African nations. Zimmerman, who researches global Salafi-jihadist movements on the continent, said the West views Africa as a long-term problem with a long list of challenges, including unreliable partners.
The rise of Islamist groups has also made it difficult for aid groups to reach some areas in East Africa. Al-Shabab, for example, controls parts of southern Somalia and has banned aid groups and kidnapped their workers, claiming relief teams are spying for Western governments or promoting Christian agendas.
WORLD VISION’S KAMARA says the compounding crisis has had harrowing ripple effects. Pastors and community leaders are reporting more cases of teen pregnancies and gender-based violence. One father, whose daughter dreamed of becoming a doctor, decided to marry her off to get money to care for the rest of the family. When the World Vision team asked the father why he made that decision, he replied, Give me another option.
“As a father myself of a girl of a similar age, that was heartbreaking,” Kamara said. Many aid groups are focusing on emergency interventions. World Vision is providing care and nutrition through health clinics, access to clean water, and other forms of livelihood support. The ministry has introduced new businesses such as basket-weaving and charcoal burning while also creating market access for products. “The situation is so dire that they’re open to new ways,” World Vision’s Sandoval said.
Elias Kamau’s team in Kenya also has worked through its network of church and community leaders to introduce more adaptable agricultural practices. They have encouraged people to breed chickens and have introduced a goat cross-breeding project that mixes the drought-tolerant Turkana goat with the bigger, stockier Galla breed. And they are encouraging people to introduce more drought-resistant crops like cowpea, kale, and watermelon. The farmers are learning to use no-drip irrigation systems and mulch to avoid evaporation.
The efforts have yielded some fruit. When Kamau visited the village of Manalongoria, nearly 2 miles north of Lokitaung, a village elder showed off his watermelon plants, explaining that he sells the fruit at Lokitaung to get money for food. “It has created some resilience in the families that have been able to practice farming,” Kamau said.
The team also launched a poultry project for women in the community. Kamau said they encouraged the women to use some of the money from their egg and chicken sales to build savings. They coupled that with lessons on financial literacy and Biblical principles in the marketplace. Several of the women later used their savings to buy goats and start small businesses.
International governments are also trying to step up to the task. In April, the United Nations and European Union co-hosted a roundtable in Geneva that generated $1.39 billion in pledges for humanitarian assistance to the Horn of Africa. The United States—the largest single-state contributor of aid to East Africa—pledged an additional $200 million, bringing its total to $361 million for the year.
Still, the pledges fall far short of the $4.4 billion funding appeal presented by humanitarian groups working in the region.
Back in Nakorio, Sandoval’s team introduced a different kind of crisis intervention. They have trained pastors to lead a program called Celebrating Family. Sandoval said it spurs conversation on how families can apply a Biblical worldview, both in planning their livelihoods and keeping their marriages strong despite struggles.
He sees such resources as necessary to keep families from breaking, even as gnawing environmental pressures force them to bend. Sandoval says Christians around the world need to find their way into that suffering and hope.
“With so much happening, it’s easy to turn away from the pain, but having been in Turkana, as Christians we need to be stepping towards, not away.”
Russia’s grain blockade
Ukraine is the world’s fifth-largest exporter of wheat and supplies nearly 70 percent of Somalia’s grain and half the world’s sunflower oil. The Russian blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports has prevented 20 million tons of grain from leaving the country.
That grain is at risk of rotting if it isn’t moved soon, and Ukraine’s farmers need their warehouses emptied before they can harvest their next crop. Nearly one-fifth of the country’s grain silos have been damaged in the war or are in regions occupied by Russian forces.
Under a deal brokered in July by Turkey and the United Nations, 17 grain vessels gained permission to depart for the Middle East and Africa. The first one—filled with 26,000 metric tons of corn—arrived in Djibouti at the end of August.
But the deal to move grain out of Ukraine still faces obstacles. In early September, Russia’s Vladimir Putin threatened to restrict grain shipments again, claiming they were being diverted to European Union markets instead of going to developing nations. To minimize Putin’s influence, France and Romania agreed to a deal allowing grain exports to come through Europe by land. Those shipments will provide food for both Europe and the developing countries that need it most.
Kyiv has also accused the Kremlin of stealing Ukrainian grain from farmers in occupied territories and selling it for profit. Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry claims Russia has stolen an estimated 400,000 metric tons of grain worth more than $100 million. The ministry believes the grain is being transported to ports in Crimea—illegally annexed by Russia in 2014—and smuggled into the Middle East.
Russia and Ukraine together supply one-third of the world’s wheat, and Russia is the world’s top supplier of fertilizer, an essential source of nutrients for crops. The war between the two nations, now entering its eighth month, is a key factor in rising food prices and has prevented many Ukrainian farmers from planting this year’s crops. Even if grain shipments reach their destinations and the food supplies are fairly distributed to the world’s most needy, experts warn the scope of the hunger problem is far bigger than the grain problem.
World Vision lists the Middle East and East Africa as the Top 2 “hunger hotspots” on the globe. The countries facing food insecurity or catastrophic levels of hunger include Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Haiti, Honduras, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the countries in the Horn of Africa. —Jill Nelson
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