MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — The old man’s house had become a camp for the displaced. In the back yard, groups of women boiled water for rice. Small children skittered across the dirt, running into the bedroom, where they swirled around the long, skinny legs of Elijah Karama.
“Because of the conditions, they are mine to take care of,” said Karama, 57, more tired than proud.
By conditions, he meant Boko Haram’s destruction of vast areas of northeastern Nigeria, and the hunger crisis that has followed. This city of about 1 million has absorbed an additional 1 million people who fled the Islamist militants who burned their villages and kidnapped hundreds of children.
In Maiduguri, the vast majority of the displaced aren’t living in U.N. camps. Instead, they are eating and sleeping and praying in private homes, whose residents have opened their doors to the newly homeless — the poor housing the poorer.
Over the past few months I’ve reported from Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria, sites of the three largest hunger crises in sub-Saharan Africa. In each country, overstretched humanitarian organizations have failed to raise sufficient funds to feed and house all of those in need. An untold number of people, most of them children, have died of malnutrition and preventable diseases. The United Nations has declared a famine in parts of South Sudan, and says the other two nations are in danger of suffering the same tragedy.
But in each of those countries, I’ve been struck by the way some of the world’s poorest people have stepped in to fill the void. Such generosity in no way erases the massive need for international assistance. But we often overlook the ways that Africa’s most desperate people are managing to help one another.
In the South Sudanese town of Ganyiel, where thousands of families converged in recent months to escape fighting and possible starvation in nearby villages, there weren’t enough tents or huts, so the newly arrived slept outside in the dirt. The U.N. World Food Program couldn’t keep up with the pace of arrivals in the northern town, and malnutrition was growing among those in the makeshift camp.
Yet the families of Ganyiel, with almost nothing of their own, shared whatever they could. That meant splitting tiny portions of corn or fish or fruit. It meant lending bed mats to the elderly, and sharing space in cramped huts. It’s not just that I found their generosity moving but that it truly saved lives. People ate who might otherwise have gone hungry. People found shelter from the 100-degree heat who might otherwise have shriveled in the sun.
“We live thanks to the people of Ganyiel who share their food,” Veronica Nyariel, 43, told me. She wore a pink shirt and a black shawl that had taken on the color of the dirt that she slept on.
In Baidoa, Somalia, I saw another displacement camp that had emerged out of nothing, as thousands of people fled a hunger crisis caused by both drought and violence inflicted by al-Shabab militants. Again, international organizations had arrived, but they hadn’t brought enough food or shelter for everyone.
After Mohamed Iman arrived in Baidoa in early March, he went wandering through the poor, embattled city, which was once controlled by al-Shabab. Months earlier, he had been a farmer. Now he was a beggar. The people of Baidoa gave and gave: food, clothes, shelter.
“Some of them know me, and some of them don’t, but they all help,” said Iman, 56.
It’s true that in each of the three countries threatened by famine, the provider and the recipient of charity are often members of the same tribe or the same ethnic group or, at the very least, victims of the same oppressor. These days, we hear mostly about how tribalism divides so many African countries, and it’s often true.
South Sudan has been decimated by a war that has increasingly fallen along ethnic lines, mostly between the Dinka and Nuer groups. The north-south divide in Nigeria severs the country socially and economically. Somalia is riven not just by the government’s war against radical Islamists but by the countless fractures between clans and sub-clans. In each country, those divisions have contributed to the severe hunger crises.
But the other side of that factionalism is the cohesion within smaller communities and groups, and the charity it begets.
“Whenever there’s a disaster or a crisis, especially in places hard to reach, these communities help themselves before international organizations arrive to help,” said Patricia Danzi, the head of Africa operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Of all the people I’ve met this year, no one illustrated that kind of charity better than Elijah Karama, the 57-year-old in northern Nigeria.
He had retired a few years ago after a career as an electrical engineer, building himself a small concrete house on the outskirts of Maiduguri. But when Boko Haram surged across the region in 2013 and 2014, one family after another arrived at his door.
They were members of the same Kanuri ethnic group, distant cousins he’d never met or heard of. At the peak, more than 70 people were sleeping at his home, crammed together on his floor and in small tents he had erected in the back yard. He bought bags full of rice and beans, running through his savings.
The United Nations had been woefully slow to react to the crisis. There were few camps and little food aid.
There are still several dozen people camping out at his home. “It is compulsory to help them,” Karama said. He pointed to the cluster of people who crouched around him.
“Their houses are gone. They only have what you can see.”