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Africa's Hungry Horn

Video
Adults, children, and animals alike in El Barde, Somalia are struggling with unprecedented levels of hunger that is spreading across the country. Video by Miguel Juarez for washingtonpost.com

Aid groups in both countries are overwhelmed. The political insecurity in Somalia has rendered it the worst humanitarian disaster in Africa, judging by the scale of unmet need. And with roads menaced by militias, a thriving business of aid worker kidnappings, piracy on the seas and an often-uncooperative government, little international relief is in sight.

No Buyers

This speck of a town is itself a portent, having reached emergency status recently, according to the U.N. World Food Program. More than half of the 28,000 people who live here have qualified for food aid.

Herders such as Ali watched their livestock die for lack of grazing grass, and made their way into town with whatever scrawny beasts they had left. But a weakened cow is not worth much: one bag of sorghum instead of three, for instance, if a buyer can be found.

In the market, Hussein Abdirahman sat all day without selling a single skinny goat, a couple of dozen of which lay listless in the sand. His 40 others had died. Even if he managed to sell one, he said, the price would be less than half what it used to be.

"It's a big stress for now," he said. "If we don't sell the goats, we ask the shops for credit. If they don't have credit, it's the end of the day."

The skyrocketing prices of imported food plus the devaluation of the Somali shilling -- it has lost 125 percent against the U.S. dollar in the past four months-- have put basic goods out of reach for most people, who are buying less and less. Shopkeepers who once had money to provide credit are in such dire straits that they are eating their own food stocks.

Across the way from Abdirahman's goat sale, shopkeeper Mohamed Nour said he has done his best to help, extending $3,000 worth of interest-free credit to people in town, but he has come to the end of his generosity. "There are so many people coming now, and I can't give to all of them," he said. "I've given almost twice what I gave last year."

Children Wasting Away

From the air, El Barde appears vulnerable, just a cluster of huts in a wider expanse of advancing brown and fading green. Up close, its streets are full of twiggy bushes and the dried skeletons of cattle and goats.

As the situation has deteriorated, about one in every four children under age 5 has become dangerously underweight. At a screening center, aid workers said the numbers are steadily rising -- in April, about 25 children a day were meeting the grim definition of malnourished, weighing less than 80 percent of what they should. This month, it has been about 60 a day, among them Abdi Ali Osman, a smiling 5-year-old in a long line of children waiting to step on a scale.

"He is still not increasing his weight," said Hussein Mahat, a worker with the International Medical Corps, which runs the screening center, a straw shelter with a couple of scales and a few notebooks to record names and weights. The frequent problem, Mahat said, is that families share the supplementary food intended for the children.

When children keep losing weight, they are moved to a second straw shelter next door, one for children only 75 percent of their healthy weight. So far, about 45 children are enrolled there.

The World Food Program is struggling to keep up, doubling the amount of food it distributes in Somalia.


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