A Wealth of Kindness Among Somalia's Poorest

Mana Abdurahman embraces Asha, who has not been told that her family was killed in a bombing in Mogadishu.
Mana Abdurahman embraces Asha, who has not been told that her family was killed in a bombing in Mogadishu. (By Stephanie Mccrummen -- The Washington Post)
 [Map: Marka, Somalia]
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 10, 2007

MARKA, Somalia -- After she escaped the urban battleground of Mogadishu, walked 20 days in the blasting heat, slept in the sand, dreamed of explosions and watched her four children get sicker and skinnier, Asiya Ali arrived one recent evening at this unfamiliar seaside town.

There was no international relief effort to greet her, only the setting sun and a town full of people already strained by the worst crop failure in recent memory. And so, scared and tired, Ali said, she turned to the only resource she had left: her clan.

"I'm Bimal," she told anyone she found wandering the soft sand streets of Marka, a process that led her to Fatima Mohamed, a distant relative she had never met.

"She cooked tea for us, gave sugar for the children, gave us tomatoes and bread," Ali recalled. "She said, 'Welcome.' "

Nearly a year after Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia with U.S. support to oust an Islamic movement there, the Somali capital of Mogadishu remains locked in a brutal urban war that has driven an estimated 600,000 people -- more than half the city's population -- into the countryside.

U.N. officials say Somalia has descended into the continent's worst humanitarian crisis, a situation veering toward famine in some areas.

Yet in the narrow streets that wind through this town of whitewashed buildings, it is difficult to find even one encampment of displaced people or a family that has been turned away.

Instead, the tired and hungry arrivals -- about 15,000 of them this year -- have been quietly absorbed into the grass-roofed houses of local residents such as Mohamed, who estimates she has hosted 10 families over the past year. Most of them, she said, are related to her through clan -- Somalia's intricate network of families, some of which trace their ancestry to Adam.

"We have nothing at all," Mohamed said. "But we do what we can."

While other parts of Africa, notably Sudan's western region of Darfur, have comparable levels of child malnutrition, there are few places where the gap between need and response is so great. The shortfall has been attributed to Somalia's lack of security, its often uncooperative government and the current focus of so many aid groups on the crisis in Sudan.

More than 200,000 of the people who have fled Mogadishu are living along a single road leading out of the city, a 10-mile stretch thought to be the largest single gathering of displaced people in the world.

The rest have fanned out to points north, west and south, arriving by truck, by donkey and on foot in towns such as this one about 50 miles from Mogadishu.

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