With the humanitarian response to Somalia’s food crisis lagging, communities have turned to social media to identify families in need of urgent help
Unable to wait for help from their own government or the international community as they face the prospect of a devastating famine, Somalis at home and abroad are turning to one another for support.
Combining 21st century social media with the age-old clan network – the bedrock of Somali society as well as its safety net – communities are using WhatsApp to sponsor hard-hit families and raise funds to buy them life-saving supplies.
“This is the first time this has been done, because of the level of desperation,” says Jamal Abdi Sarman as he scrolls through a group set up by members of his clan, showing how each member has pledged to donate money.
Based on the formula that one family needs approximately $60 (£49) a month, members of the group decide how many families then can sponsor. Then they deposit the money into a bank account set up by Dahabshiil, the international funds transfer company created in 1970 by a Somali entrepreneur, and post a photo of the receipt on the group to prove that the money is there.
A committee of five people withdraws the money from the account and buys basics for the sponsored families – usually rice, powdered milk and water.
“Initially, people have drawn on their own coping mechanisms for the drought,” says Sarman, who works for an international aid agency.
“But now it’s just too big for them to cope. Their livelihoods have gone. People have lost whatever they had, and have gone into camps for internally displaced people.
“The WhatsApp groups were organised by one person and it just took off, snowballing. Someone added me and then I added another. Then we were hundreds and came up with this formula. Everybody is very concerned about their own clan or sub clan. With this, you know that at least you have taken care of people who you know.”
Humanitarian organisations have been warning that 6.2 million Somalis are on the brink of famine, desperate for the support of an international relief operation that is still proving slow in its response.
Foreign minster of the self-declared republic of Somaliland, Saad Ali Shire, says that immediate relief in the form of food, water and medication is needed in the next two to three weeks: “Otherwise we will be looking at a very dire situation.”
Aside from initiatives such as the WhatsApp groups, Somalis have also been helping each other in more traditional ways. In Somaliland, small agrarian farming communities who have been able to harvest some crops have been taking in nomadic families hardest hit by a third consecutive year of drought. In many cases, the pastoralists have lost all the precious goats and sheep on which their livelihoods depend.
An hour’s drive through parched and barren land outside of Somaliland’s second largest city, Burao, Barre Mohamed shows off the tiny green oasis of crops he has grown using a homemade irrigation system, on a piece of farmland he manages for a local landowner.
Mohamed, 35, is from the Bantu community in the south of Somalia, and, with his wealth of agricultural knowledge, he is also helping dozens of pastoral families who have congregated nearby in an impromptu IDP camp. The farm shares water with them from a farm tank, and food. But daily life is still a struggle.
“We can only spare so much and the pipes have worn and need to be replaced because they are leaking. The tank is dying,” he says, gesturing towards the rusting structure, which stores water drawn from a borehole 500m beneath.
The desperate lack of resources creates tensions between new arrivals and those already there: “It’s causing conflict. If I am not here to constantly regulate the use of the water tank then there are problems because people fight or misuse it.”
Mohamed remains intensely proud of the crops he has cultivated against the odds, pointing to guava, tamarind and orange trees, as well as rows of tomato plants.
“We’ve been able to survive and help some people [on] this small scale, but time is running out.”
To Somaliland’s west, meanwhile, there has been been a small influx of people with their remaining animals to villages such as Carro Malko in the Gabiley district – an area that was once a regional food basket. There was more rainfall here than in other areas last year, so local farmers have a small amount of fodder and grass.
A village committee has been organising the care of the new arrivals, explains Alice Ennals, of the Development Fund, a Norwegian NGO helping to support small-scale famers.
“Each family cares for five to 10 people. If there is a whole family that comes they are given the kitchen-hut, its traditional name, and food that they will then cook for themselves. If there are individuals herders they will sleep under the trees with their animals, but eat with the family,” she adds.
“This is how pastoral societies function – they are dependent on mutual support. No one is questioning it. The next drought might hit Carro Malko more severely, and then they have to send their herds and families to eastern parts.”