A child is weighed at a field hospital of Doctors Without Borders. (Schalk van Zuydam/Associated Press)
Opinion writer

Who is Medina, and why should we be mindful of her?

She tells me she is 40, but she looks more like 30. She smiles beautifully and vulnerably through a cleft lip. She has, she explains, “lost everything” in the drought. And it is nearly true.

Medina’s household once boasted 600 goats. Now most of their carcasses lie exposed, picked over by hyenas, in the whipping, sand-filled wind. Medina’s husband has been gone for four months, seeking more fertile pastures for the 100 animals that haven’t died from starvation. Medina was forced to send away two of her four children to live with an aunt, including her 1-year-old daughter. With the goats gone, there isn’t enough milk to feed the infant.

Medina’s diminished family is down to one meal a day. Breakfast is “strong tea.” The price of a container of clean water for cooking or drinking has gone from about 2 cents to 50 cents. Without rice provided by the Kenyan government and a small cash benefit from World Vision (which hosted my trip), more than Medina’s livestock would starve.

Who really cares about such things, about such people, in an era of “America first”? We are, thank God, sometimes better than our slogans. The U.S. Congress and other donors have been relatively openhanded in trying to prevent another major famine in East Africa. Even the Trump administration sought credit for its generosity at the recent Group of 20 summit.

But why, when it comes down to it, should events in rural Kenya matter to well-fed, largely goatless, non-pastoralists living on the other side of the Earth?

There is a theoretical response: Starvation and resulting mass migrations are destabilizing. Bad actors such as al-Shabab thrive in such chaos. (The day I talked to Medina, there was a terrorist attack in southeast Kenya.) Such terrorist threats are hard to isolate once they are fully emerged (as we’ve seen in Somalia and Nigeria). The prevention of conflicts and threats is more than worth the tiny portion of the U.S. budget — less than 1 percent — that is currently dedicated to foreign assistance. All true.

Yet if this were the only, or even the main, response, it would likely be insufficient. A country without a creed of universal human rights would find excuses for indifference and callousness, as most nations throughout most of history have done.

The United States, however, has been inflicted with idealism since the day of its founding. The assertion is still shocking: that a life on the other side of the world is created equal — honestly, objectively, God-blessedly equal — to our own.

So we are left with a constant struggle and a glorious guilt. There are limits to the resources and capabilities of any nation. But Americans who do not feel a stab of pride at the liberation of Nazi death camps, and the reconstruction of postwar Europe, and the sacrificial spirit of the Peace Corps, and the extraordinary achievements of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief — such people do not fully understand their own country. They have somehow missed one of the primary things that make it lovely — our holding of the truth that Medina is not beyond or beneath the demands of human dignity.

This conviction is now being tested in four nations across East Africa — South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya — where some 20 million human beings urgently need help. Season after season of sporadic and inadequate rainfall, complicated in some cases by conflict, have brought many places to the verge of famine. Here in Kenya, I consistently heard that conditions are “worse than 2011” — which is like an economist saying that conditions are worse than the Great Depression. The analogy holds. In both cases, the assets built over a lifetime — whether measured in stocks or goats — are lost.

The global response, so far, has been better than in 2011. A famine warning was declared last year, and in Kenya, the government and the charitable sector, with help from the U.S. government, have been encouraging resilience with water trucks, school feeding programs, and small cash benefits to buy water and food. But this success is partial and fragile. If the next rainy season, four months from now, is inadequate, the coping mechanisms will break down on a massive scale. And by the time we see images of death on CNN or the BBC, help may come too late for the most vulnerable.

Whatever happens, Medina says, will be “God’s will.” But a failure of compassion would be entirely our own.

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