Saturday, August 13, 2011

Let's come together and feed East Africa's hungry people (column) |

The anthemic force of the song stirred our hearts, but the images of starving people slammed us in the gut. “We Are the World” poured through the airways in 1985, a daily reminder of the famine in Ethiopia, along with grim footage of emaciated children.

Hearing Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and dozens of other stars sing “We are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giving,” offered hope we could stop this “biblical famine,” as a BBC reporter put it. The song raised millions, but not before an estimated more than 1 million died.

Wayne de Jong did more than sing along. The 1984-85 famine motivated him to get involved in combating world hunger. He went to work for Oxfam Canada, and now directs disaster response and rehabilitation for the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee.

De Jong hasn’t given up hope for a brighter day, even as another hunger crisis descends on Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and other countries in East Africa.

“We can’t let people die like we did in 1984,” de Jong declared. “We vowed to never let this happen again. So we need to live up to that promise.”

It’s a challenging promise. The worst drought in 60 years threatens more than 12 million people, a number that’s expected to rise. The United Nations has declared five famine zones in Somalia, where more than 29,000 children younger than 5 have died in the past 90 days and more than half a million are on the brink of starvation, according to The Associated Press.

Somalia has garnered more media attention, partly due to the rebel Islamist group al-Shabab’s blocking of relief supplies and imprisonment of people seeking to flee. But Kenya and Ethiopia also face famine if aid isn’t stepped up, said de Jong, who heads CRWRC efforts in the region.

APTOPIX Kenya East Africa Famine.jpgMuhumed Surow grieves following the burial of his 12-month-old daughter, Liin Muhumed Surowlays, at a camp outside Dadaab in eastern Kenya, 60 miles from the Somali border last week. Liin died of malnutrition 25 days after reaching the camp, Muhumed said. The U.S. estimates drought and famine in the horn of Africa has killed more than 29,000 children under the age of 5 in the past 90 days in southern Somalia alone.

About 3.7 million people need emergency food aid in Kenya and 4.8 million in Ethiopia, according to de Jong. The CRWRC aims to distribute $8.5 million in emergency aid between now and December, and hopes to help more than 100,000 people survive until the next harvest in January.

Working with Anglican, Reformed and other church partners, CRWRC staff in Kenya next week will begin delivering food, drinking water and livestock fodder to 14,000 families. It’s also expanded efforts to supply more than 21,000 people in Ethiopia.

“We’re just trying to keep livestock alive until grazing returns,” said de Jong, noting the drought has dried up grazing grasses as well as food crops.

The agency also is “desperately” looking for ways to help in southern Somalia, where thousands are hiking to the overcrowded Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya. De Jong hopes to work with partner agencies inside Somalia to get food to displaced people so they don’t have to leave the country.

Kenya East Africa Famine2.jpgMinhaj Gedi Farah is a 7-month-old child who arrived severely underweight at the International Rescue Committee hospital in the eastern Kenyan village of Hagadera. Minhaj's condition drastically improved since his arrival. The U.N. says 640,000 Somali children are acutely malnourished, suggesting the death toll of small children will rise.

“The trouble is it’s extremely dangerous to distribute food,” he added. “If you have a truck load of food, you’re not going to get very far before you’re attacked or commandeered. It’s extremely frustrating and heartbreaking. These people are really desperate.”

To those who would throw up their hands in despair over yet another famine, de Jong offers a firm reminder: These are indeed people, not anonymous faces in a newspaper photo.

“These are families who want just the same things that we want for our families. They just want some security, some stability, a future for their children.”

Over the years, he has seen the difference disaster relief and agricultural development have made in their lives. That gives him hope, along with deep-seated Christian conviction.

“That is my ultimate motivation, is serving God by assisting people who are in need, enabling the CRC and other Christians to be the hands and feet of Jesus.”

There’s no shortage of ways to give, if you are so motivated. I’ll be giving to the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

Plenty of nonreligious agencies, such as Doctors Without Borders, could use your help, too. Take your pick, based on agency track records and your personal convictions.

The point is, do what you can. You don’t need a song to prompt you.

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