An interview with Free the Children’s Craig Kielburger that helps demystify the ongoing famine.

JUST 12 HOURS after returning from East Africa, co-founder and ambassador for Free The Children, Craig Kielburger, sits down with Matador to discuss what is truly going on at ground level in terms of fighting the widespread famine, and what he witnessed while traveling drought-affected regions over the last two months.

MATADOR: Where exactly were you?

CRAIG: In various points, ranging from the Somali-Kenyan regions of Dadaab to parts of Northern Kenya and Turkana to the southern regions…Free the Children has had projects in 14 geographic regions across the country in the past 12 years.

So we were covering everything form the port where food was being loaded, to Nairobi where relief efforts were being coordinated out of, to the border regions where people are crossing out of Somalia into Kenya to refugee camps, to ordinary people who are not externally displaced but internally displaced as a result of the hunger.

Also, [I was in] communities that have been affected by a severe lack of rainfall and drought, but you still don’t see the hunger or the displacement because long term development has worked, so looking at both a time of great need but also at the success stories that have worked.

What we get are just snippets that we see on CNN or BBC, but what we’re wondering is what exactly is happening down there that you think the media doesn’t cover?

I think the first news that the media hasn’t officially covered is that the situation is getting worse. I think it was a news story 2 or 3 weeks ago, it dominated the front page, Anderson Cooper, CNN, BBC, what not, the global networks were there…but the story that I don’t think is being sufficiently told is that it’s been two years, four planting seasons in a row that have failed.

“You can prevent human suffering. Drought is god-made but famine is truly man made. It’s from lack of planning.”…Craig Kielburger

So you have a population that has eaten through the little food that they have saved and the livestock has been decimated because of the drought, so you have a community facing extreme hunger today.

There’s been a story that when the rains come in October, things will improve, but that’s really not the case because the planting season’s already been missed.

So at best, it will have a negligible effect or at worst, the rains are expected to bring cholera which we’ve already seen in Somalia into the camp regions in north Kenya, for example.

The heavy rainfall often causes more difficulties than it does salvation for people. And you’re really going to see the hunger at its peak in November/Early December, so when the world community celebrates winter holidays, preparing for Christmas and Hannukah, that’s when it’s gonna be the most dire. Although the story of East Africa has started to leave the headlines now that it’s Libya or other regions captivating the national news, the reality is that we’re expecting it to get far worse before it gets better .

 All photos courtesy of Free the Children

And hence the need for both short term aid that’s desperately necessary: the food aid we receive today but also long-term aid to figure out how to prevent this from ever happening again.

I’d say the second story that hasn’t been sufficiently told is that…I’ve been to communities, where Free the Children, for example, has a history of operating under boreholes and there are drought irrigation systems and drought-resistence crops in those communities. Although rain hasn’t fallen, you still find people in those communities who are able to feed themselves right next to communities where people are desperately hungry. It shows that international development does work.

You can prevent human suffering. Drought is god-made but famine is truly man made. It’s from lack of planning.

We have to help today, and we have to help in November/December when it’s at its worst, but ESPECIALLY, we have to help again in 12 months because that’s when we have to start looking at sustainable solutions to keep this from ever happening again and that’s where donors, charities, media, and international government agencies have to renew efforts because this is very preventable…this human suffering should not exist.

From what we see, there’s all these logistical problems. Once TV media started covering the famine, the first thing they started talking about was how difficult access was because of some of the militant groups around the area. So what other challenges are you facing on the ground?

You’re looking at the entire region – 12.5 million people – who are facing severe food shortages, many children facing acute malnutrition. When you have a need of that size, it’s breathtakingly difficult to even know where to begin.

In our case, we started food distribution through our schools, targeting children who are most vulnerable; through medical clinics targeting pregnant or breastfeeding mother, because they also are the most vulnerable. It’s about making very difficult choices when you have very limited resources.

Who do you target?

You have to look at children and mothers, and particularly mothers who are either pregnant or breastfeeding. It is heart-wrenching when you have to make those decisions because it means that other people don’t receive a sufficient amount of food. And the choices that we make, as difficult as they are, are not as difficult as when you take a look at the communities and the choices that they have to make….

All photos courtesy of Free the Children

I met a man named Abraham Ali at the refugee camp, and he was waiting there to be processed, standing with his son who was 6 years old and he was telling me about how he left southern Somalia when his crops failed. When he realized he couldn’t feed his family anymore, he started walking with his four children and his wife.

He described how they walked for 21 days, and his children, one-by-one, started to fall, and he’d bury them on the side of the road. Then his wife died, and he had to bury her on the side of the road also. He said that he wanted to simply lay down himself and die, except that he had one child left who he managed to get to the camp, and simply because of that one factor that motivated his life, he kept walking.

I look at that story of Abraham Ali, and he was just one man among thousands…there’s 30,000 waiting to be processed at the camp to gain entry, and what amazed me the most was that there was no international news agency waiting there to hear his story. That he was now one of the countless faces and his 6-year old child who was with him was one of countless faces too.

So yes, the logistics are overwhelmingly difficult, and yes, the challenges faced by the community are significant, but when you look at the challenges faced by ordinary people who are walking, who are leaving their land, historic land, everything behind. When you look at families who have to make choices like “who gets to eat today?” the choices faced by aid agencies, logistical challenges pale in comparison.

We simply do what we can providing the aid both short term and long term to prevent this from ever happening again.