The gargantuan cargo plane sat contentedly on the runway at Kamuzu International Airport, Malawi’s international airport, it’s enormous belly filled with 20 tonnes of porridge. Know in Malawi as Likuni Phala, this very nutritious porridge is what we use to provide children in Malawi with daily school meals. Normally Mary’s Meals buys food from within the country in which we are working so that we support the local economy, and that food can be transported in all sorts of ways. Trucks, donkeys, small boats and dugout canoes are amongst the forms of transport I have seen employed to move our food to the schools where it is eaten by hungry children. This though, is the first time I have seen our food loaded onto a cargo plane. But this time, the Likuni Phala, whose ingredients are grown here in Malawi is not destined for children in this country, but instead for those starving thousands of miles to the north, in famine ravished Somalia.
As we fly towards Mogadishu I read the latest depressing UN bulletin stating that 4 million people in Somalia are now at risk of starvation, 750,000 of them imminently. Tens of thousands have already died, around half of them children. Our plane touches down in Mogadishu beside white beaches and a blue sea but as we descend the steps from the plane, the brief illusion of holiday resort evaporates as we are confronted by a broken plane, shot down some years previously as it took off. Our party, consisting of doctors and journalists, is transported by convoy away from airport. Our security, provided by the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, is reassuringly robust. Pick-up trucks full of young soldiers brandishing AK47s , take up the front and rear and move us quickly through streets scarred by 21 years of civil war. A few days previously a Malaysian cameraman had been shot dead on this same route.
The recent retreat of al Shabaab from some areas of the city it used to rule has left a power vacuum resulting in a return to local power struggles and less predictable violence. The crowded pavements teem with armed men in various uniforms or civilian clothing. Later that evening as we unpack in our makeshift accommodation a loud and uncomfortably close explosion makes me start. One of our gently spoken Somalia hosts turns to me and, as if soothing a small child says. ‘Don’t worry. Don’t worry. It was just a bomb.’
Our partners here are a South African based organisation called Gift of the Givers. They have been friends of ours for some time in Malawi where they have supported our work by sinking water wells at some of the schools where we provide Mary’s Meals. They have become the biggest African based emergency response organisation in Africa and in recent months have set up an effective organisation in Mogadishu, relying on a mixture of local knowledge, courage and huge public support from South Africa. They are working to encourage ‘African aid for Africa’ across the continent and while so far amounts donated are modest they believe they believe they are helping to create a new attitude and sense of responsibility. Their success in distributing food effectively and safely in Somalia and the fact that they have been sourcing food in Malawi, where we feed nearly 500,000 children every day and have a good relationship with food suppliers, led us to realise we could help the starving people of Somalia simply by buying food for transport directly into Mogadishu.
At Howadaq camp, in an area of Mogadishu recently vacated by all Shabaab, hundreds of women, many holding emaciated children queue for food the food parcels that are keeping them and their families alive. I am delighted to see a large pile of our Likuni Phala, last seen in Malawi three days earlier already being distributed and some of it nearby being by cooked in huge pots and served to children. This is one of four feeding centres where our food is being distributed by Gift of the Givers and these centres serve a population of 20,000 people who have fled to Mogadishu leaving behind their land and their dead cattle. Fatima is one of those standing patiently in the queue with two small children. She explains to me that Samson is her son but that Howa dressed in a brown dusty shawl is an orphan whose parents died in the famine. She has seven children at ‘home’, a small hut she built of sticks, cardboard, discarded plastic and rags. She had to leave Bay – the latest region to be categorised by the UN as suffering from famine – after all ten of her precious cattle died. She was left with no option but to make the same journey, that at least 100,000 others have made in recent months from rural farms to war weary Mogadishu.
Standing next to Fatima in the queue is Fartune who is holding her very sick child. Pinte’s head is far too big for his little body and his swollen eyes can no longer see. He is three years old and has been sick for one and a half months. Fartuna has never had the chance to take Pinte to a doctor or receive any medical help for her child. She tells me she has another three children at home, with whom she walked 165km to get here. I ask her how her other children at home are. ‘Yes, they are fine,’ she smiles sadly. ‘Apart, from the malnutrition. We never have enough to eat. ’ And now that know that we can do it, this becomes our task, these next few months. To continue sending food from Malawi to feed people who will otherwise starve, knowing that every bag of Likuni Phala we can send from Malawi will save lives.
Founder and CEO of Mary’s Meals