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A fast for Somalia: students rally for famine awareness

Published: October 21, 2011
Section: Front Page


Whether in the form of a tornado demolishing much of Joplin, Mo., an 8.9-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Japan or severe flooding in Pakistan, Mother Nature has produced a slew of natural disasters—each of which require massive amounts of aid to help rebuild and recover. The ongoing famine in Somalia is still causing massive harm, however, plaguing the population with hunger and yet receiving little media attention. But Brandeis students are recognizing the problems associated with Somalia and giving aid, as evidenced by the “24-Hour Famine” event that took place in the Shapiro Campus Center from Friday, Oct. 14, to Saturday, Oct. 15.

“The media is structured to cover breaking news, and it moves on to the next thing very quickly,” said Kate Alexander ’12, former director of the Justice League and current policy director for Positive Foundations. “It’s our responsibility to recognize that structure of the media and not to assume that no more coverage means no more famine.”

Sponsored by Positive Foundations, The Girl Effect and the Justice League, the event was built around a 24-hour fast during which there could be reflection and a chance to educate the community. The event began with Will Fenton of Oxfam International as the keynote speaker. Oxfam International is an organization that works to help people in need across the world through microloans. During the course of 24 hours, there were a range of advocacy and team-building activities. There was also a panel on poverty and hunger run by Brandeis professors, as well as a candlelight vigil in honor of those suffering from the famine.

Fenton suggested that famine is man-made. “Drought is natural, yes, but history has taught us how to respond to drought. We could have prevented this with smart investments in life-saving programs but we didn’t and famines like this will continue to occur until we learn from our mistakes,” Fenton said.

“The famine in Somalia has killed 30,000 children in the last three months,” Fenton said. “Without urgent assistance, more than 160,000 children in southern Somalia will die in the coming weeks.”

At the end of the fast, participants shared in a feast and a reflection period. Throughout the entire event there were opportunities to donate money and canned goods. Any money donated would go to MADRE, an organization working with Womankind Kenya to help 20 malnourished families escaping the Somali famine. Any canned goods went to the Waltham Food Pantry.

According to a U.N. News Centre article from January 2011, the United Nations declared a famine on July 20 in the two southern Somali regions of Southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle, and emphasized the magnitude of the impact on children.

“In the two regions of Southern Bakool and Lower Shabellle, acute malnutrition rates are above 30 percent, with deaths among children under the age of five exceeding six per 10,000 per day in some areas. In the last few months, tens of thousands of Somalis have died as a result of causes related to malnutrition, the majority of them children,” the U.N. news article stated.

A series of consecutive droughts brought the country to the point where nearly half the Somali population, or 3.7 million people, were estimated to live in crisis.

While this provoked significant media coverage, it declined in the face of many other issues.

One issue that could play a major role in aid to Somalia is the current state of the economy in the United States, as well as the economies in Europe.

Alexander admitted that not enough money has been taken in for aid and insisted that the international community should be prepared to deal with future crises better.

“The United Nations asked for $1 billion to deal with the effects of the famine but has only received one-third of that,” Alexander added. “But the truth is, we only have to respond now because we didn’t respond earlier.”

Alexander also addressed the issue of balancing help needed domestically versus help needed in Somalia and made it clear that aid to Waltham and aid to people in Somalia are not mutually exclusive.

“There’s no reason why aid can’t go in both directions,” said Alexander. “The fact is that our government’s budget won’t be balanced on the backs of the poor. Investments in food aid domestically and internationally will have long-term effects on reducing our spending overall, whether that’s because of improved national security or a larger, healthier, self-sufficient working class.”

Alexander also explained that the issue goes beyond food aid and that national security is intimately linked to Somalia. According to her, through sending aid, we can destabilize terrorist organizations.

“Earlier this week, we learned that Al Qaeda is distributing food aid in Somalia. This is a clear example that if we don’t step up to save lives, we open the door for terrorist organizations to intervene, save lives and recruit them for their own purposes,” Alexander said.

One student who asked not to be identified expressed skepticism that students would mobilize further to raise awareness about the famine.

“I just don’t think there are enough people at Brandeis—undergraduates—who are willing [to try] to understand what people are going through, people who are in [situation’s like that in Somalia] on a daily basis.”

The student also spoke of how powerful the event was and suggested that it may have overwhelmed students unwilling to be confronted with harsh realities.

“It seemed like people approached the event and then walked away when they realized how intense it was,” the attendee said.

“We can prevent this famine from happening in the future but that depends on the actions of individuals,” said Alexander. “Any one of us can step up and save lives, and I promise it works.”