As I waited for my ride to collect me from the Mogadishu airport, an officer told me an apocryphal tale: A starving goat, blind from hunger, mistook a baby wrapped in a green cloth for grass and bit off a mouthful of emaciated flesh from the baby’s upper arm.
The baby’s anguished cry brought the mother to her knees and she wept in prayer. The next day, a friend I met in Mogadishu repeated a variation of the same tale.
I saw the story as encapsulating much of what everyone needs to know about the goat-eats-baby severity of the current famine in the Somali Peninsula, with more than six million affected, crops wasting away, livestock dead or dying, water and foods scarce. Cholera, typhoid and meningitis finish the job that prolonged hunger has started.
The entwining of wars and famine has multiplied the magnitude of deaths among Somalia’s farmers and herders. More than half a million Somalis have been displaced since November 2016 by drought and desperate hunger, according to the United States Department of State. They have sought solace in refugee camps on the edges of Mogadishu and other towns. Somalia already had about 1.1 million internally displaced people.
The families at the internally displaced people’s camps had left their scorched farms and walked numerous miles in punishing heat, across land stripped of vegetation. Parents go mad with despair at the sight of their babies dying from hunger, thirst or both. Hunger affects children’s memories. More than a million children are projected to be malnourished in Somalia, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Memories of older famines returned. In 1974, I lived in Somalia when the rains failed and a drought worked itself into a famine. Our destitute relatives, who had lost several children and their beasts to the famine, turned up at our doorstep.
Seventeen years later, in 1991, the Somali civil war destroyed the state and created a huge reduction in food production. In 2011, when another famine stalked the nation, I remember standing in the midst of a rainless ruin as the weak wind, as malnourished as the people, blew across a barren land, unable to stir the dust in the cracks of the hard-baked earth. The men and women I met were bereft of every vital element that gives meaning to life. About 260,000 people died of hunger.
Lower Shabelle and Bakool, the two regions most hit by famine and controlled by Al Shabaab militants, are inaccessible. Al Shabaab denies the existence of famine in the areas it controls and has barred humanitarian agencies from reaching those affected. Sadly, the United Nations and the international community have also refrained from describing it as a famine.
I contacted a man whom I will call Mr. Markaawi. He worked with an aid group that ran a camp on the outskirts of the city for those displaced by war and famine. Since the collapse of the Somali state in 1991, one is more likely to fall prey to a bomb when driving on a highway, in a cafe, in a well-appointed restaurant, a luxury hotel, a hospital or at a refugee camp. A journey away from one’s private space in Somalia renders one as vulnerable as a clay pigeon, ready to be shot at.
Friends in Mogadishu, where I was visiting from Capetown, where I currently live, dissuaded me from traveling to the camps outside the capital. Mr. Markaawi helped me meet some displaced families at his office, close to my hotel.
Again and again during our conversations I heard the refrain that the famine had been at work for months before it was being talked about, that the international response had been slow and that disease and child malnutrition and early deaths intensified as the famine spread across southern Somalia, more particularly in the territories controlled by Al Shabaab.
Moreover, the dysfunction of the Somali state, its inability to improve the economy and meet its people’s needs, the long war and the corruption of the political class had forced the Somalis to place greater trust in the international community.
There was a clear sense that the current famine was more lethal than the one in 2011. “We lost a third of the beasts we owned in 2011,” a man said. “Now the devastation is more severe. We’ve lost all our cattle. No water, no food and no seeds to plant.” People took the only option open: They left. Each family in the camp receives $70 from the aid groups to feed and support themselves.
I met Faduma Abdullahi, a 36-year-old mother of eight, who had come to the displaced people’s camp outside Mogadishu from a village in the Kurtunwarey District in southern Somalia, about 100 miles away.
She and her sharecropper husband owned a farm and a house and survived the 2011 famine by bartering for essentials. This time they abandoned their farm and house because nearly everything they had was gone. The couple feared that they and their children would starve to death. “We borrowed the bus fare and came to the camp,” she said. From the $70 an NGO gives them, they pay a fee for a villager to look after their house.
Nobody from the Somali government or a foreign organization had visited their farming village to offer assistance. I had heard of Muslim charities working in the area near her village. I wondered if they ever helped. “We never set eyes on an Arab,” Ms. Abdullahi said.
Many villagers — like a farmer and a teacher whom I shall call Mohamed Mahmoud Mohamed, for his safety — were willing to survive on little and stay, but threats and fear of enforced recruitment by Al Shabaab made them leave. Mr. Mohamed, a 43-year-old father of three, ran a Quranic school with 60 students in his village. He farmed and raised cows when he wasn’t teaching.
Mr. Mohamed had no more milk to sell. His cows died in the famine. His classroom began emptying as the students left with their parents. The absence of rain, water and food forced him and his family to debate whether they should join the exodus. Mr. Mohamed said he wanted to stay and find a way to survive. Then Al Shabaab began seeing him — a teacher of the Quran — as a man worth recruiting for their cause. Mr. Mohamed and his family left.
I spoke to Mr. Mohammed about the tale of the goat and the baby. He was not surprised. “It doesn’t shock me,” he said. “Terrible famines change the nature of both human and animal behavior.”
The United Nations Security Council was told by top officials in March that $2.1 billion was needed to reach 12 million people in several African countries and Yemen with lifesaving aid, but the member states and donors had delivered a mere 6 percent of that amount.
Mr. Markaawi was worried about the gap between what governments and donors pledge and what they eventually deliver. He narrated a folk tale in which a starving woman hears the moo of a cow coming from the heavens and she prays to Allah to bring down the cow so that she can feed her starving children. The cow, when it presents itself to the woman, turns out to be a hyena. I asked him to interpret the folk tale. “I would say that no aid whose main aim is to provide stopgap emergency humanitarian assistance is good enough to do the job.”