I traveled to the world’s largest refugee camp in Dedaab, Kenya, with Ambassador Tony Hall, a legendary leader in the fight against hunger and now director of the Alliance to End Hunger. Dedaab is 50 miles from the Somalia border and home to three-quaters of a million refugees. This is story of just one of them.
Amina started her journey from war-torn Somalia towards the refugee camp with her husband, four children, and a small herd of goats. Three months later she arrived in the world’s largest refugee camp in Dedaab, Kenya, with no husband and only two children. Because of the warring factions in Somalia, the drought in the Horn of Africa turned into a famine. To stay was certain death for her entire family either from starvation or murderous rebels. Fleeing was their only hope.
Amina and her clan are called pastoralists because of their nomadic lifestyle looking for green pastures upon which to graze their goats, cattle, sheep, or camels. Their homes are tents made of goatskin or cloth.
Amina’s husband had been abducted by Al Shebaab, then executed. She found others to travel with for protection. They would sell a goat and travel as far as they could with the proceeds. Then they would sell another goat. Finally, they found the bus the United Nations High Commission on Refugees patrolled the porous Somalia/Kenya border. The bus was sent from Dedaab because the fifty-mile stretch from Dedaab to the Somali border had turned into “visions of hell.”
Like other refugees who make life or death journeys, the horrors along the way are literally hell on earth. Two of her children grew weak and were close to death, but they had to keep moving. So she lay her children in a makeshift shelter or covered them with branches. She hoped to get far enough away she couldn’t hear the cries of the children dying or the wild animals devouring them.
The life Amina will live in the refugee camp holds very little hope other than the sustenance of food. 85% of the refugees are women and children- the men have been killed or abducted. She will most likely be raped- repeatedly. Her daughters will be forced before puberty to have female genital mutilation with rusted knives, broken glass, or sharp rocks. Her daughters won’t be educated- only a few of the boys will find hope through education.
She was given 21 days of food rations to make the decision to become labeled a “refugee.” A term they hate, but find necessary to survive. After 21 days, she will give up many of her rights just to get food.
Firewood for cooking will be a huge issue over the course of time. She, along with the other women, will be sent to gather it. If the men go, they will be killed or maimed. So the women go, knowing they will most likely be raped, but their life will be spared.
She had nothing left except her two children and the clothes on their backs.
But she had her faith. She said God would take care of her.
And she had a small community of people whom she trusted based on survival. They shared as they traveled based upon a Swahili saying: Maanta waa aniga, berina waa adiga -Today it’s me; tomorrow it’s you. It would be like me sharing with you today if I have food, because tomorrow I might not have food and I will need you to share with me. Community based on survival.
I am a theologian by education and profession for twenty years, but I confess I am deeply humbled by the faith of the impoverished. I have met thousands of the world’s poorest people and find their faith inspiring. Faith gives them the ability to interpret their circumstances and suffering in a positive light. Perhaps the strongest component of faith within the community of the poor is a belief in a better life-after-death. Religion is not the opiate of the hungry masses; it’s often the only hope that keeps them going. It is tragic that some radicals turn religious beliefs into a justification for violence.
The Power of Community
I stopped my neighbor recently and said, “Maanta waa aniga, berina waa adiga -Today it’s me; tomorrow it’s you.” I told him the combination to the keypad on my garage door and told him if he ever ran out of food, he was welcome to raid my fridge and freezer. I also told him I expected him to return the favor if I was hungry. He asked if I was on medication. Or if I needed to be!
We base community in the U.S. on shared beliefs and values. A hundred years ago, people of Little House on the Prairie era learned to live with each other in a small geographic region seldom more than ten miles apart. However, because of transportation opportunities, we choose our communities now based on stylistic, economic, and shared value systems. People think nothing of driving 30 miles to attend a faith community in another city.
But for the impoverished, sharing is based upon survival; we base community on convenience.
You can read more stories like this in my book, Hunger Bites: Bite Size Stories of Inspiration.
If you would like these writings delivered once or twice a week into your inbox, sign up here. I promise not to spam you or give/sell your info to anyone.