Raising a family in a time of extreme hunger

By Divya Amladi
Seynes Awil, 30, with five of her eight daughters outside their temporary home in Fadigaab, Somaliland. Photo: Petterik Wiggers / Oxfam

In Somaliland, one mother rises to the challenge of playing both parents to her eight daughters.

Last summer, drought decimated Seynes Awil’s livelihood. Awil, 30, is the wife of a herder. Before the drought, she and her husband tended to 400 sheep, 100 camels, and seven donkeys. They fed their children meat and milk produced by their animals, and earned a living selling meat and animal fat.

Now, all of that is finished, she says.

An unprecedented hunger emergency is now threatening the lives of Awil, her children, and 20 million others across Africa and into the southern Arabian Peninsula. Famine has been declared in parts of South Sudan. Somalia, Nigeria, and Yemen are reaching crisis points as well.

In the rural area near Banade, in Somaliland, where Awil is from, there is no food or water. With eight children, all girls, ranging in age from 14 to 1, Awil’s instinct told her to get them somewhere with water and access to food. Her husband urged her to go, but chose to stay behind with the three remaining sheep in their herd.

Late fall of 2016, Awil and her daughters arrived on foot at Fadigaab, a village with a handful of water points that is home to hundreds of other families like theirs—displaced by drought from across eastern Somaliland.

Since then, she has had no contact with her husband. She has no idea where he is or if any of their animals have survived. She does have some family, including her father-in-law, in the area, which provides some relief.

People in the community have been welcoming.

“We are all in the same situation and we all give each other a hand,” says Awil. “If anyone has water or food, everyone is willing to share.”

Awil receives government distributions and walks to the water point a few times a day to collect water, which she mostly uses for cooking. The drought has left the water salty and not safe to drink, but without another water source, they have been drinking it anyway.

Her share of government-distributed rice covers just one meal a day—not enough to sustain the family for long. Her girls cry themselves to sleep every night.

“I cannot sleep at night,” she says. “I worry about the future all the time.”

Awil shows her last remaining food stock. Photo: Petterik Wiggers / Oxfam

Awil’s father-in-law, Abdilal Yassen, 70, explains that this drought is different from others he has experienced. “We used to lose some animals, but we would always have some food and water,” he says. “This is different. It is sweeping away animals and people. It is a ‘siba’ [catastrophe].”

Worse, hunger is not the only thing they have to worry about. Awil’s children are sick with diarrhea and tuberculosis and she cannot produce breastmilk to feed her 1-year-old, who has been ill for at least two months. The village clinic is shut down and the closest hospital is 124 miles away. Snakes and insects infesting their hut add to Awil’s concerns.

“We need doctors, medicines, food, and water,” says Yassen. “We receive some help, but so much more is needed before it’s too late.”

In Somaliland, Oxfam is launching a program that aims to reach at least 20,000 people with clean water, sanitation services, and cash assistance for food. We hope to significantly expand our work to help an additional 200,000 people over the next year, and we need your help to do it.

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