Extreme weather brings chronic crises for families in East Africa

Places like Kenya and Somalia have been devastated by extreme weather in the past few years. Not only do families live in ongoing drought, but more recently, flooding has decimated the sparse conditions that remained in Somalia.

Continue reading Extreme weather brings chronic crises for families in East Africa

Emergency Nutrition for only $11?

We’re in the middle of a campaign to provide emergency nutrition right now. $11 buys one month’s worth of Nutripackets for children who are starving to death in parts of Northern Kenya and Somalia.

There isn’t enough food where they live.

I have to pause and remember to breathe when I hear that. Continue reading Emergency Nutrition for only $11?

One Mom’s Impossible Choice – Tiila’s Story

Tiila had a choice to make.

Either she could keep her baby, or give her baby away.

She longed to hold her child, to watch her grow and learn to talk and laugh, but Tiila knew that wasn’t possible. Because if she kept her daughter, her little one wouldn’t survive.

Continue reading One Mom’s Impossible Choice – Tiila’s Story

From “Red” to “Green” – How Emergency Nutrition is Saving Lives in Somalia

Mothers had no way to feed their babies. Drought decimated crops, water supplies, and livelihoods. Families left their homes in search of any sort of food for their children.

The drought continues to withhold the rain in Somalia, but in villages across Somalia, a bit of hope is breaking through.

Arms that once measured in the red are now in the green, and mothers are breathing deep sighs of relief.

Continue reading From “Red” to “Green” – How Emergency Nutrition is Saving Lives in Somalia

Homeless – but not without hope – in South Sudan

One year ago, World Concern staff were evacuated from Wau, South Sudan, when armed conflict broke out in the area where we’re working. Although our team was able to resume work within a few weeks, for tens of thousands of people, life is far from returning to normal. More than 40,000 are still homeless and living in squalid camps around Wau. Continue reading Homeless – but not without hope – in South Sudan

In Somalia, one in three people have access to clean water; now, Canab is one of them

Canab pours water from a rehabilitated berkad.
Canab pours water from a rehabilitated berkad.

“I am 40-years-old and above,” shares a poised Canab (pronounced Ah-nahb), “and I have lived in Balanbal my entire life.”

Snuggling up next to her without-a-doubt adorable daughter who is wrapped in a pink burka and wearing a coy smile, Canab tells me, “My children are healthy and they go to school. Some people think the school here is not good, but this is where all of my children have gone.”

We’re sitting on the dirt floor of Canab’s thatch hut – located on the main, and only, road in the very rural village of Balanbal, Somaliland. After meeting each other at one of the village’s recently rehabilitated berkads (a local water catchment system), Canab has invited me into her home to impart on me a bit more of her story.

“This land is difficult. We have suffered many droughts and famines,” Canab says, peering out of her doorway. “In the past, there have been times when we have gone seven days without water.”

Seven days.

I ask her how this makes her feel. The only question my dumbfounded mind is able to conjure up in response.

“My children are my heart, so when there is now water, I worry about them,” she pragmatically answers.

Canab's beautiful daughter, Namacima.
Canab’s beautiful daughter, Namacima.

Due to its semi-arid climate, Canab’s village is afflicted by persistent floods and droughts.

“The water is not always enough because we all are sharing, and currently we are experiencing a drought,” says Khadar, a 45-year-old father and lifetime resident of Balanbal.

Due to the area’s extreme weather, water devices such as berkads are necessary in order to catch and hygienically store rainwater – sustaining communities through the seemingly endless dry seasons.

Unfortunately, when a berkad has not been well maintained, it serves as more of a community monument – either inefficiently or un-hygienically storing the water.

“Our berkads used to be dry so we had to get our water from Burao, a faraway town,” explains Canab, reflecting on the past. “We would have to buy the water, but often times we had no money to do so.”

Canab continues, “Additionally, when we suffer, our animals also suffer. For a period of time I only had three goats.”

Muna peers out of her small shop in Balanbal.
Muna peers out of her small shop in Balanbal.

“The berkads containing water are far away. The nearer berkads have dirty water or are empty,” says Muna, an 18-year-old mother and community member.

Recently, World Concern rehabilitated berkads in Balanbal, also offering hygiene and sanitation community trainings, contributing to a more holistic transformation.

According to Khadar, “Previously, the berkad’s water would only last for ten days. Now the water is enough for three months.”

“The World Concern trainings have taught us how to manage, distribute, and clean the water,” expresses a joyful Canab. “We are also learning about caring for the environment, including planting trees!”

Women stand next to a recently rehabilitated berkad.
Women stand next to a recently rehabilitated berkad.

World Concern is partnering with communities across Somaliland to improve their current water situations as well as prevent future disasters from occurring.

“Our eyes have been very opened by the trainings. We are healthier and so are our animals. We have learned many tangible things. As a community, we are helping each other and giving to those in need.”

Clearly, Balanbal’s berkads are now more than rusted tin meeting points – they are tangible symbols of health, income, disaster risk reduction, and community cooperation.

Going Home: Eastern Chad, then and now

This week I was browsing through photos and documents from 2006-2008, when our staff was assessing the needs of families in Chad in the wake of the Darfur war. Wow. The situation was grim. According to these documents, in 2007 there were about 230,000 Sudanese refugees in Chad, and 180,000 displaced Chadians.

We were planning a response in camps near Goz Beida, a town that previously supported a population of 5,000. By 2008, there were an additional 60,000 displaced people living there. Imagine if your hometown of 5,000 suddenly had 60,000 traumatized, homeless, and desperately needy visitors.

Village destroyed by fire
A village in E. Chad, destroyed by fire.

These families—what was left of them—had survived horrific violence. Armed militia on horseback (called Janjaweed), had lit their grass homes on fire, destroyed their villages, and killed everyone in their path. Only those who hid in the bush survived.

One of those who survived was a woman we’ll call Hawa. I discovered her story amidst pages of data collected by our staff. One way we determine how to help is by talking directly with families—hearing their stories. Hawa was eager to tell hers, and other women gathered around as she spoke, nodding their heads that their stories matched.

Hawa lived in a village of about 2,000 people, their houses scattered along the edge of a seasonal river.  In the short rainy season, they cultivated grain, harvesting enough to feed themselves throughout the rest of the year, plus a bit to sell. 

During the dry season, they dug wells in the dry river bed and grew vegetables to sell in the local market, or to dry for eating.  Each family had about 60 animals that provided them with gallons of milk. 

The girls fetched water while the boys looked after the animals, attending the local school when their chores were done.  There were occasional droughts when times were tough, but they lived a full life and seldom went hungry…

Broken grain containers
Broken grain containers.

Then one day, without notice, men mounted on horses and camels surrounded the village, encircling it, running around the perimeter of the houses, shooting into the air.  Women scrambled, terrified, to collect their children.  A few of the riders charged into the village, killing 40 of the men, setting the thatch roofs of the houses on fire. 

In the chaos, the women ran with their children to hide beyond the riverbed.  For hours the attackers systematically pillaged the village, taking anything of value that had survived and loading them up on the large train of camels they’d brought along for that purpose.  They killed anyone they found remaining in the village, carrying away 3 women they captured alive. 

The attackers even poked around in the ground to find their grain stores.  The excess they could not carry away, they burned to make sure that no one could come back to live in this village.

After hiding for a couple of days, a few of their number returned to the village to see what they could salvage, to bury the dead and to find missing members of their families.  Hawa held a scarred cooking pot.  From all her possessions, it was the only thing she’d managed to save.  But she had all of her children together and was grateful for this.  She didn’t know where her husband was…

Family inside IDP hut
A family inside their hut in a camp for displaced families.

She sought safety amongst the tens of thousands of others in Goz Beida.  Now she had only a grass hut, a crusty cooking pot, a cotton cloth to cover her children at night and a few kilograms of grain to feed her children.  No milk, no vegetables, no oil or even salt. When she’d first arrived, she’d been lucky enough to receive a bag of grain as food aid, but she’d had to sell about half to buy some basics like a spoon, salt for the food, dried okra and soap. 

Not willing to simply watch her children starve, she braved the threat of rape to collect firewood to sell in the hopes of earning maybe 25 or 30 cents which she would use to buy food.  This takes time and plenty of stamina, but must be done in addition to the eight hours each day she spent collecting water.  Even then, it is only enough for drinking, cooking and washing their faces. 

Hawa had lost so much, but she retained her dignity and her will to fight for the survival of her family.

Children during the crisis.
Children during the crisis.

Around the time Hawa arrived in the camp, World Concern began providing emergency assistance there. Knowing that this kind of aid is temporary, we developed ways to help families become self-sufficient, mostly through cash for work, savings groups, and small business development.

The land had been depleted of trees for firewood, so when it rained, the water ran down hill, flooding certain areas, and leaving other places desolate and useless. Nothing was growing.

We began paying people cash to build rock lines that would cause rainwater to soak into the ground and allow plant life to grow again. At first glance, the work appeared tedious and pointless. But families could use the cash they earned to buy food or supplies. And the lush, green growth that emerged after it rained proved this system worked. Families began the long process of recovery.

I came across a statement in one of the reports written during this time that caught my attention. It said, “World Concern is committed to being a long term presence in the area.”

We’ve kept this commitment. We’re still there, five years later. Some of the camps have closed. Others turned into towns. Our focus in Chad has changed as people’s needs have changed.

I remember, about three years ago, asking the staff member who interviewed Hawa what the solution was—what these families really needed most.

She responded, “What they need is to go home.”

For the past year and a half, this is exactly what’s been happening. Families are returning to their villages—or the areas where their villages once existed—and they’re rebuilding their lives from nothing.

Scooping water from a hole in the ground in Harako.
A young girl scoops water from a hole in the ground in the village of Harako, Chad.

Once again, we started by assessing needs when several hundred families returned to the tiny village of Harako, about 40 miles from Goz Beida. A few grass huts were built as shelter, but fields for farming were overgrown with brush. The families had no tools to clear the fields or plant crops, and the planting season was near. Their only source of water was a muddy hole they dug in the sand.

Through One Village Transformed, and with the support of donors and groups like Westminster Presbyterian Church, things look very different in Harako today. Families received farming tools, seeds, and training to plant crops—and their first harvest provided enough to get them through the dry season. A well was dug, gushing forth thousands of gallons of fresh, clean water. And residents worked tirelessly, baking bricks to build the first classroom for their new school, which is scheduled to be completed this month.

New well in Harako.
The new well in Harako, built with the help of One Village Transformed supporters.

Everywhere you look in Harako, lives are being transformed. Out of the ashes, families are rebuilding what they never thought they’d have again … homes, crops, schools, wells.

In a way, things have come full-circle from the horrible tragedy that swept through Eastern Chad a few years ago. Full circle, from disaster to resilience. And restoration of what was lost.

These families are going home. And we’re going with them. Join us, and witness the transformation.

Farmer's group in Harako.
A World Concern supported farmer’s group in Harako that shares tools, knowledge, and seeds to grow healthy crops.

School construction in Harako.
Construction of a new school in Harako has been a team effort. Bricks were baked by villagers, and construction is supported by One Village Transformed partner Westminster Presbyterian Church.

Food Distribution in the Horn of Africa Goes High Tech

Note: This article was originally published on the Huffington Post Impact X blog on Oct. 10, 2012.

World Concern Horn of Africa beneficiaries
As NGOs shift our response from disaster to development, there are still many hungry people to feed.

Getting food into the hands of the hungry in the Horn of Africa is about to go high tech. Seattle-based humanitarian organization World Concern is piloting a new mobile phone app in the drought-stricken region, aiming to streamline the process of tracking food distributed to hungry families and payment to local merchants.

World Concern has been distributing food and emergency supplies to families affected by the Horn of Africa drought since July 2011. As famine spread throughout the region, aid organizations struggled to reach millions of people, especially those living in southern Somalia. World Concern distributed vouchers to hungry families who were able to purchase food from local merchants. The system supports the local economy and helps ensure food reaches those in greatest need.

This method has been extremely effective, even in dangerous and hard-to-reach places. More than 30,000 vouchers have been distributed so far, each representing a two-week supply of rations for a family of six.

World Concern staff uses mobile technology  in the Horn of Africa
World Concern staff members learn to use a new mobile app to track food distributions in the Horn of Africa.

The new mobile app allows field staff to use a tool they are already carrying (a mobile phone) to record data in the field (instead of a pencil and paper), and negates the need for re-entry into a computer at a later date. This saves time and reduces the risk of errors.

The system tracks beneficiaries and the food they receive via bar codes that are scanned into a mobile phone. Merchants have an I.D. card with a barcode, which is also scanned so they can be paid via wire transfer almost instantly.

The mobile app was developed by Seattle start up ScanMyList, whose founder, Scott Dyer, created a mobile application to help retail businesses track inventory. When Dyer saw one of World Concern’s vouchers, he realized the same system could help the humanitarian organization reach people during a disaster more efficiently and track aid more accurately.

Dyer traveled to the Horn of Africa with World Concern to kick off the pilot program, which will put the new technology into action in the field this month, as 4,000 food vouchers are distributed in Eastern Kenya and Southern Somalia.

“Not many people can say they’ve birthed an idea and seen it to fruition,” said Dyer. “It’s super exciting.”

The real brain behind this technology is the custom database, which is not only programmed to receive data from mobile phones, but to “think” about what it receives. The database will identify possible duplicate entries, flag significant variations in data, and crosscheck entry errors. Then, the database is programmed to generate custom reports in real time. World Concern staff can view these on a website, seeing exactly how many meals are distributed immediately.

World Concern and partner agency staff practice scanning bar codes with their mobile phones during a training last week.
World Concern and partner agency staff practice scanning bar codes with their mobile phones during a training last week.

“This technology will enable our staff to report on their life-saving distribution in real-time, increasing our ability to respond to immediate needs as they arise,” said Chris Sheach, deputy director of disaster response for World Concern.

While the “famine” has officially ended in the Horn, the long-term effects of such a severe drought and crisis will be experienced for many years to come. As NGOs shift our response from disaster to development—teaching pastoralists who lost their herds to farm and other forms of livelihood diversification—there are still many hungry people to feed. This new technology will enable us to do this even more quickly and efficiently. It can also be used in other types of disasters, particularly in cash-for-work programs.

We roll VIP style

Kelly Ranck is moving to east Africa to serve with World Concern as a communication liaison. Here’s a report about the impact of latrines and hygiene from her recent trip there.

We roll VIP.

You heard me. World Concern rolls VIP style. I’m talkin’ Ventilated Improved Pit latrines. And this is changing lives.

Clean water and basic hygiene are concepts that we take for granted. In the villages of Kenya and South Sudan, such information is foreign. Though they often live happy (still difficult) lives, many people here have never been exposed to the idea that their lives could be prolonged, and less difficult, if they were to practice good hygiene.

Here is where the VIPs come in. As a part of our One Village Transformed campaign, World Concern educates communities about preventing diarrhea, cholera, and other water-borne/hygiene-related diseases.

VIP latrines in Kenya
New VIP latrines in Kenya. Photo by Kelly Ranck.

World Concern trained the community of Benane, Kenya to build this beautiful VIP. They are now educated as to the basics of:

A. Using the VIP latrines and their importance in preventing diseases

B. How to practice good hygiene to protect and improve their health

Another reason I love VIPs (besides the fact that they spared me from a handful of moments of doing my business in public) is that they enable more children to attend school.  Here’s how they relate: healthy children can effectively travel to and attentively engage in school. Clean water and sanitation are significant factors in increasing opportunities for education.

School kids in Benane, Kenya
Students in Banane, Kenya, wash with water from a dirty stream behind the school. With World Concern’s help, they now have access to VIP latrines and clean water.

Because World Concern has empowered locals to build a Treadle pump, more students are attending class. Instead of spending the large portion of their day walking to water sources in order to gather unsanitary water, children now have access to clean, safe water and more time to attend class. And with latrines at the school, the underground water sources will remain unpolluted and safe to drink.

I look forward to checking back in with the people of Benane and getting some VIP access when I move to Africa!

Follow Kelly’s blog at kelly.worldconcern.org