Somalia has been at war with itself for 21 years. As the government imploded, warlords took over, more warlords came and an Islamist insurgency swept across the country. The lack of a central government has led to a virtual standstill in the provision of education and health care. Tenuous peace has been achieved, as a transitional government attempts to reconcile warring factions, but the challenges of rebuilding are immense – millions live in severe poverty, suffering acute food and water shortages.
225 out of every 1,000 babies born in Somalia die before their fifth birthday. Fewer than 20% of Somalis can read or write and less than 30% have access to safe drinking water. Primary school enrolment is estimated to be 13% for boys and 7% for girls.
The data paints one of the bleakest pictures of human development on the planet. Yet I travelled to Somalia in 2005 with hope, expecting to be inspired by the resilience of humanity in the face of adversity.
I was there to visit a programme delivered by an NGO I was working for at the time. The NGO had been delivering health care services in remote and unstable regions of southern Somalia for more than 20 years. Three hospitals (in Garbahare, Luuq and Bardera) and a network of remote rural health outposts were supplied with medication, equipment and vaccinations for distribution, while local community health workers received regular training on subjects such as maternal and child health, malaria prevention and HIV/AIDS. I spent eight days in Somalia, but it was the final day, at a remote health post in Gedo, that remains etched in my memory.
At the health post I met little Hani Alabis. She was two, yet looked much younger. Very small for her age, with painful sores that covered her legs and hands, she weighed only 6.5kg, less than three-quarters of her ideal weight of 8.9kg. In obvious discomfort, she sat quietly on her mother’s knee but cried every time the nurse touched her, and weakly tried to push away her examining hands. This was the first time Hani had visited the health post. A victim of the recent drought in the country, she was suffering from severe malnutrition and was receiving emergency nutrition through a tube that ran into her nose. Thousands of other children with similar conditions do not survive. Only three out of four Somali children reach their fifth birthdays. Hani was one of the lucky ones; she recovered this time because the health workers caught the malnutrition in time. And Hani’s mother was determined to bring her here: “It was a long way to carry my baby and my husband did not want me to travel. But I knew that if I stayed in the village she would not survive.”
Abyan Samatar, a Somali nurse who had worked at the health post for more than ten years, explained: “We have learned to work around the fighting, it has been difficult but we are managing. We are helping the children who come here but we are failing their mothers. You will see”.
With those words, we moved on to the maternity ward. And in a matter of moments all the clichés I had read before I travelled to Somalia, about the strength and dignity of women in the face of adversity, faded away. There was no dignity in this room. I was hit by a stench of urine; a scene of women dying on the floor in agony, from ruptured wombs, from fistula, the heart-wrenching sound of their pain; the feeling of oppressive heat. These are women that the world has simply forgotten.
I am ashamed that I was overwhelmed in the maternity ward that day. Overwhelmed emotionally, the tears running down my cheeks were visible to all around me. Overwhelmed physically, by the heat, by the stench, and I fainted in the courtyard of the health post. The shame was intense. I was a naïve young voyeur, feeling brave and intrepid to be entering their world, secure in the knowledge that a UN plane at the nearby airstrip was waiting to fly me back to the comforts of Nairobi. I would leave and they would stay.
That afternoon we drove to the airstrip past the village of El Adde. Through the window a young boy of around six or seven caught my eye and, with a steady, cool gaze, mimed shooting me with a gun. He pointed at me and slowly drew a single finger across his throat. His smile was that of an innocent child. His actions mimicked those of the Kalashnikov-wielding men that surround him. This generation of Somali children has never known peace. They are boys-wanting-to-be-men, who play with guns and do not go to school.
Reading Abdi Latif Ega’s debut novel this week, the beautifully written Guban, eight years after my visit to Somalia brought back vivid memories of that day. Guban uses the life of the Haogsaday family as a metaphor for the struggles of the nation. It was a reflection of Tusmo, a young Somali girl entrusted with ensuring the family’s daily supply of water, which was the most poignant:
“Everything that grows here has to put up a great fight to merely exist”.