Shukri Sheikh Ali thought this year would be different. It was to be a time of rebuilding, of recovering, of returning home. Instead, she is starting over once again from scratch, her land thirsty for rain and her village emptied by conflict as Somalia once again faces the threat of a cascading and critical food shortage.
Three years ago, drought and famine forced Shukri and her family to leave their village of Anbaray in Lower Shabelle in southern Somalia. They resettled in a displacement camp near the airport in Mogadishu, the country’s conflict-shattered capital, where they lived for more than two years. In late 2013, they thought it was finally safe to go back to Anbaray and prepare their land for planting.
“When we decided to go back to our village, we were so excited,” she says. “We were so happy. The thing on our minds was to start rebuilding our lives, our farms, the life we knew.”
To help them in their first months back home, they were given a mobile phone through which they received a monthly cash allowance from Concern Worldwide, an international aid and development organization, with funding from the European Commission. However, their plans to piece back together a life in Anbaray soon started to unravel.
First, the rains were late. When they did come, the showers were sporadic and the soil too dry, so the beans, corn, and vegetables Shurki was hoping to harvest remained unplanted, their land once again fruitless for the fourth year in a row.
It was not the drought, though, that ultimately pushed them to abandon Anbaray.
In February, the joint African force for Somalia, AMISOM, and Somali government forces shouldered their way through parts of Lower Shabelle in an offensive against Al Shabaab. As the frontline consumed villages around them, Shukri and her family decided to flee Anbaray once again for the relative safety of Mogadishu, settling in a displacement camp on the seventh-kilometer road marker, now known as “K7”, of the infamous Afgooye corridor, the road between Mogadishu and Afgooye that is home to one of the densest concentrations of displaced people in the world.
Shukri is among the tens of thousands of Somalis uprooted by conflict in the past three months. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that approximately 50,000 people fled their homes between March and May. The largest reported driver of the population movements is conflict. However, as the months go on, the number of people leaving their villages due to drought rises dramatically, from just 90 in March to 1,200 in May.
The pattern disturbingly resembles what happened three years ago when Somalia succumbed to famine for the first time in decades. Conflict fueled displacement and failed rains raised the alarm that harvests would likely fail, leaving hundreds of thousands without enough to eat. But the international community was slow to respond and 260,000 people, most under six years of age, lost their lives.
While the current signs are not as grave as those leading up to the colossal humanitarian tragedy three years ago, they suggest that Somalia could once again descend into food crisis. The late and possibly altogether failed rains, combined with a conflict that is forcing people from their homes, preventing them from planting, or trapping them with little to no way in or out, is eroding the delicate progress many Somalis have made in the past three years—a deterioration that could have deadly consequences. Despite this, only 12 percent of Somalia’s humanitarian funding needs have been met so far this year.
Maey Omar, 40, also fled to Mogadishu from her village near the strategic town of Qoryooley in Lower Shabelle, which is now under control of AMISOM and government troops. She now lives with her six children underneath a patchwork of wood and shredded sacks alongside tens of thousands of families at K7.
“I brought all my children here alone,” Maey says, sitting in the sand underneath the sweltering midday sun. “When the fighting broke out, there was no sign of my husband. I do not know if he is alive or dead.”
A mother of six children, whose ages range from four to 14, Maey explains how they trekked on foot 120 kilometers from town to town. For most of the trip, she carried on her back her son Nour, six, who is mentally and physically handicapped.
“I knew no one [in Mogadishu],” she says. “We were resting under a tree on the roadside and someone approached us and said that we could come here.”
Maey receives a monthly cash allowance of $93 from Concern, which is also providing safe drinking water and building latrines in K7, but she says that it’s not enough. “It covers food, but we need more than that,” she explains, cradling her youngest in her lap, who doses off against her chest.
Like Shukri, Maey was preparing her 20 hectares land for planting sesame, corn, and beans before the conflict enveloped her area. She says that even if she had stayed, the crops probably would not have grown because of there was not enough rain. Her village now deserted, Maey has no plans to bring her family back to Qoryooley. “There’s nowhere to go,” she says.
Their only option now is to wait under a patchwork of twigs and scraps, the ground beneath them red and sandy, and see what the coming months bring.
Read this story in The Huffington Post.
Orlando Albinho spent much of his 40 years collecting coconuts from the tops of leafy palm trees and selling them in the local market or to nearby factories that made soap and oil from the dried white flesh.
Three years ago, everything changed.
What used to be miles upon miles of coconut groves in and around Quelimane, the provincial capital of Zambezia in central Mozambique, are now forests of matchsticks, their slender trunks barren and stripped of their leaves.
“Now all [the coconut trees] have died…and [with them] all of the jobs,” Albinho says, gesturing towards what remains of his livelihood—a modest pile of some two dozen small coconuts stacked up by the sandy roadside. “Now it’s all bad.”
He sells each one for no more than eight meticais—the equivalent of 25 cents. The smallest and least developed coconuts go for even less—about 17 cents.
A native of Madjimanos, a small, coastal community in Zambezia, Albinho is among tens of thousands of people in Mozambique who relied on coconut trees—or coqueros as they are locally called—for their livelihood and food security. That is until an insect-borne infection known as Coconut Lethal Yellowing Disease spread across the country, reducing entire coconut groves to bleak graveyards of a once thriving industry.
Mozambique was once one of the largest coconut producers in the world. According to a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in 2011, Mozambique produced approximately 62,000 tons of copra, dried coconut meat, which was used for export, oil production, and local consumption.
Today, reports estimate that as much as half of the country’s coconut trees have been destroyed, making it impossible to sustain the same level of production. Many of the coconuts that are harvested today are also dramatically smaller.
The disease, which has been found across the world from Jamaica to the Philippines and even southern Florida, is caused by a virus-like bacterium that is spread by insects. In Mozambique, the problem was exacerbated by rhinoceros beetles, which laid their larvae in fallen trees and attacked newly planted saplings.
“When the disease begins, the leaves become yellow and then the coconuts fall to the ground,” says Alberto Simão, 45, who like Albinho, relied on coconuts to provide for himself and his family. Then the top falls off and it just leaves the trunk. We lost a lot of coconut trees.”
Abandoned coconut plantations that used to export copra now dot the landscape around Quelimane, their windows and doors shuttered, their lawns littered with the skeletons of coconut trees. And Albinho and many of the more than one million people estimated to depend on coconut trees in Mozambique are struggling to adapt to a new reality of dramatically fewer coconuts to collect and sell.
While some investments have been made to curb the spread of Coconut Lethal Yellowing Disease, what farmers urgently need is support to grow a wider variety of crops so that they are no longer overly reliant on just one source of food and income. Concern Worldwide is providing seeds, tools, and training to farmers throughout Zambezia Province to cultivate tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and lettuce as well as staple crops like sorghum and rice.
But of all the plants and techniques introduced, Barbara Hladka, an agronomist working for Concern, believes that the plant with the biggest potential to replace the lost income from coconut sales is sesame. The organization has been providing seeds to farmers and supporting them with best practices on growing it.
“We are seeing buyers coming to some of the most remote communities in Zambezia to purchase sesame directly from growers for as much as 40 meticais ($1.30) per kilo,” says Hladka. “This is much higher than what farmers used to sell coconuts for—even before many of the coconut trees were wiped out, one kilo of copra only sold for about six meticais.”
Gastene Nhamadinho, 46, started producing sesame three years ago with Concern’s help—a shift that he says more than tripled his income from 2012 to 2013. And this year, he predicts his income will be higher still. “I lost some because there was too much rain [this year],” he says. “But I still expect to earn about 27,000 meticais with sesame this year.”
Other farmers in Zambezia are seeing their household incomes rise as a result of sesame, and plots of beans and other crops cover the ground in between the sticks of dead coconut trees. Meanwhile, lethal yellowing disease continues to infect coconut trees, dramatically changing the landscape of Mozambique and the lives of people who call it home.
“First we have to take all of the [dead] trees out of here,” says Simão. “Then we can start with other plants, like manioc and sweet potatoes…Then [the land] will give. But if we don’t take [the dead trees] away, it will not given anything.”
Read this article in The Huffington Post.
My reel covers video work I have done in Somalia, South Sudan, Lebanon, Mozambique, and Kenya as well as a live in-studio interview on Al Jazeera America’s Consider This.