It’s hard to imagine any bright spots in the midst of the famine that has gripped the Horn of Africa this summer. Millions of people—mostly children and their mothers—hover on the brink of starvation as they search desperately for food and water. But the bright spots are there, in the compassion and solidarity that people extend to one another during crisis.
When I was in Kenya recently, I met with Hubbie Hussein al-Haji, who heads our sister organization, Womankind Kenya. When overcrowded refugee camps are forced to turn away families who have made the perilous trek from their homes in famine-stricken Somalia to northeastern Kenya, Hubbie and Womankind Kenya are there. I brought with me support from MADRE to expand their distributions of emergency food and water rations.
But I also brought a contribution from a closer source. In neighboring Sudan, MADRE’s sister organization, Zenab for Women in Development, founded the country’s first Women Farmers Union. These are small-scale, organic farmers who come together to share tools, knowledge and resources. Their families are poor, but getting by. The women knew that families were being decimated by famine in the Horn of Africa, and when I told them I was on my way there, they mobilized. They pooled the modest profits from their grain harvest and gave it to me to bring to Womankind Kenya.
We need more of these local-to-local connections. Our partners in Sudan reached out on a personal level to fill the gaps left behind by a failing global food aid system. This is a system that takes your tax dollars to buy grain from giant US factory-farms, an industry that is already subsidized to the tune of billions. It transports that grain halfway across the world, using thousands of gallons of fossil fuel and emitting tons of climate-changing carbon. It dumps that grain on local markets, undermining the livelihoods of the area’s farmers and the ability of communities to build back their food security in the long-term.
Meanwhile, the infuriating reality is that food aid can often be bought locally. Even as I traveled across Kenya, moving away from the drought-stricken northeast, I came upon fruitful harvests of wheat, corn and vegetables.
The food is there, close by. What’s missing is the political will among state leaders to change international policies that enrich corporate farms and keep local food from getting where it is needed. The women farmers of Sudan have seen this dynamic firsthand: aid agencies in Darfur import US-grown food aid rather than buying from the Women Farmers Union in that very same country.
When I arrived in Kenya, I brought a letter, addressed to the women of Womankind Kenya and all of the Somali refugee women and families that they help. It came from our partners in Sudan at the Women Farmers Union. With their permission, I am sharing the letter below. The will may be lacking among our political leaders, but not here. It is these women’s will to build thriving families and communities that keeps them going and that drives their demands for justice.
To Our Somali Sisters,
We stand with you in this time of tragedy and hardship. As women farmers of Sudan, we know what it is like to wait months for rain and to watch our children grow hungry. Every year, when we plant our crops, our families depend on us. Without rain, we have no harvest, and we have nothing.
We made our Women Farmers Union so that we could support each other and so that we would not be alone. Before that, the government did not recognize us and gave tools, seeds and training only to the men. So we came together to share our resources and to demand that the government respect our rights.
Like you, we also know the devastation of war. Many of our families here in eastern Sudan were forced to leave their homes in Darfur because of violence. While our government leaders were focused on war, we women kept our families alive.
Once, years ago, Somalia had a government that tried to help. We learned that the government used to run a program to collect rainwater by digging reservoirs in the ground. But then violence took over, and the drought began to kill your harvests and your livestock. Again, it was you Somali women who supported your communities, but the dangers only grew worse.
In eastern Sudan where we live, farming has always been part of our lives. But recently, the droughts have gotten worse, and they come more often. We had to adapt how we farm to these changing patterns. We know this is because of climate change, a danger created mainly by those in the rich countries.
That’s why we work with our friends at MADRE to raise our voices before governments at the United Nations. This is how we can change global policies that threaten our communities.
When we go to the UN to speak out for women farmers and their communities, we tell world leaders that their policies must change. We tell them that they must support small farmers like us with tools, seeds and credit. They must protect our right as women to own land. They must recognize that food is a right for all people, not just something to buy and sell. They must make real policies to reduce carbon emissions and the climate change that’s bringing drought and famine.
Our friends at MADRE have helped us through the years, when the harvests have been good and also when the rains failed to come. They told us how refugee women and families are coming across the border from Somalia to Kenya. They told us that what you need are the resources to buy emergency food and water to help them live.
And so we are sending with this letter the money that we saved after our last harvest. Usually, we use these savings to improve our communities. Last year, we put a roof on the local school. But this year, your needs are greater than ours. We are able to send you this money because we joined together as women farmers and made ourselves stronger. We hope you will be able to use this gift to feed your children and strengthen yourselves as women.
We send this to you with our blessings. As mothers and as farmers, the future depends on us.
Fatima Ahmed, Director of Zenab for Women in Development
& The Women Farmers Union
Yifat Susskind is the Executive Director of MADRE.