I am standing in what many describe as the largest refugee camp in the world, in eastern Kenya. It is filled with Somalis who have fled the horrifying famine now spreading across their homeland.
This is my first trip to Africa since 2007. As fate would have it, I am back at the same time as the United Nation’s famine declaration.
The scenes I have witnessed here outside of the Kenyan town of Dabaab, a mere 100 kilometres from the Kenyan-Somali border, defy description. Nothing could prepare me for this tragedy unfolding before my very eyes. I will do my best to find the words and try to make sense of something so senseless.
All around me, television crews are setting up their cameras under the hot sun, creating a carnival-like atmosphere incongruous with the landscape of hunger and despair. They have come here in search of the best possible “angle” to film starving children and dazed families, who use what little energy they have to desperately flee the twin spectres of chaos and starvation.
Meantime, aid workers from around the world furnish this place with a measure of hope that inspires and amazes me. They prevent me from becoming completely heartbroken because they show, through their urgency and actions, that individuals can make an enormous difference in a crisis such as this.
At a “reception centre” at the camp that welcomes new refugees; more than 1,300 new arrivals have come seeking relief. Seeking life itself. And the aid workers have been alerted that another 1,000 will soon reach these grounds, perhaps later today.
The first triage station here is “health status” where it is determined who is malnourished. Yesterday the sole doctor on duty confirmed that all 1,300 qualify. Yet the centre can only deal with 20 people at a time, so this overwhelmed physician was left with making profound life and death decisions. “This one is not so appallingly malnourished that she will be able to respond to intensive therapy. This one is not…”
Imagine for a moment being one of these Somali mothers and fathers, staring down into the pleading eyes of your children.
Or imagine being the aid worker, having to say, “Please come back tomorrow,” knowing that tomorrow, the mother or father will return alone or carrying their dead child.
Standing in the hot sun, taking in these thousands of moments of pathos, one cannot help but reflect. I am emotionally drained by the end of the day, and yet what I have seen fills me with an intense drive to want to help.
How can one see these scenes of suffering — the forlorn families in search of a little loving kindness — and not feel the heart becoming swollen with compassion and a desire to alleviate the suffering?
Their story needs to be told in such a way that you, the faraway observer, feel it in your very core. The scenes of stark privation must transcend the typical, self-contained CBC and CNN and BBC nightly reports, becoming something that attracts and holds our interest for the long term.
As I search for a way to say that something catastrophic is happening to our human family, I do not want to write another plea for help that goes unnoticed. I want to transport you to the middle of the dust and the crowds and the tents and the heat, to see what I have seen, and feel what I have felt.
I want to compel my fellow citizens of the world, especially from that part of the world where I come from, Canada, to take action. We can make a difference for the better, just as those exhausted yet persistent relief workers have done. Now is the time for us to summon our highest ideals, combining education, mobilization and dedication. I want people to understand that now is the time to act, to solve, to build a better planet.
And in doing so, there rests a hope that we might render the sorts of tragedies I am witnessing here today a thing of the past.