The fields outside lie dry and barren, unable to produce the crops that once fed your family. Meanwhile, the cooking pot inside your hut looks equally bare. All you have is a small amount of rice, borrowed from a neighbour, with which to feed several hungry mouths. Then comes the impossible question: who do you feed first? Is it the eldest child who walks long distances in search of water and needs the energy? Or the youngest child who doesn't understand drought and is less easily consoled?
The United Nations has warned of ‘alarming’ levels of malnutrition, especially amongst children in Puntland and Somaliland. In this desperate situation, that worsens by the day because of the effects of El Niño, there are no right or wrong answers. There are just ordinary mothers doing their best to feed their families.
Here are some of the coping strategies being adopted in Somaliland.
1. Feed the youngest first
As the drought intensified, 30-year-old Malyuun (pictured above) sent three of her eight children to live with better-off relatives. Lack of lush grass to feed her sheep has resulted in over half of them dying. Malyuun then sold five sheep to buy sacks of rice and wheat flour.
Every day she carefully measures her rations to ensure her children get at least one meal. She prioritises the little ones, including her one-year-old son Sakariye-Ahmed. “I give the youngest ones the food first because they cry,” said Malyuun. “I give the youngest ones the biggest portion and the older ones a little less.”
2. Feed the oldest first
Nimah, 28, worries about the fate of her four children, including two-year-old Abdul Salaam who has not drunk milk in for the past six months. The family’s two emaciated cows are too weak to produce it. Instead, Nimah has a reserve of rice and wheat flour donated by ActionAid and other NGOs that she is trying to stretch out for as long as possible.
She gives the older children — her eldest is aged nine — a bit more than the younger ones because they have bigger tummies to fill. “I don’t give the children equal portions,” she said. “The smaller children eat a little less and the bigger children get a bit more.”
“When it comes to food, the children are the priority. They eat first, then my husband and I eat,” Nimah said.
3. Share your meal with your cows
Livestock forms the backbone of Somaliland’s economy. Almost 30 percent of GDP comes from the industry, according to the World Bank.
For pastoralist farmers, such as Malyuun, who make up more than half of Somaliland’s population, livestock provides a vital buffer against destitution. After losing most of her 25 sheep Malyuun is terrified that her remaining two cows and five sheep might die.
“I am always worried about the sheep and the cows that are left in the house, what are they going to eat?” she said. Grazing land has withered to dust so Malyuun has resorted to sharing her meals with her animals.
“The cows sometimes eat with us,” she said. “The same food that people are eating, since there is no grass, the cows eat it. Sometimes I don’t have enough food for the children, the sheep and me. When the food is not enough, I decide not to eat.”
4. Sit still or bind your stomach
For 12-year-old Daeka the drought doesn’t just mean less food and water, it means fewer friends too. Many of her schoolmates have left their village in search of water nearer the coast. “I miss them,” she said.
Her family have lost over half of their sheep. The young girl now eats only one or two meals a day because the family’s income has reduced as a result of the drought. “Sometimes I feel hungry and have stomach pain,” she said. Some days she drinks just half a cup of water.
“When I don’t find food I just sit around,” she said. “There are many other children like me who face the same problems.”
The older generation rely on other coping strategies. Some grandmothers tie rope around their abdomens to suppress hunger pangs, according to Malyuun.
“They tie a rope around their stomachs,” she said. “The old people do that, but the young don’t. The young cope with hunger by continuing to work.”
5. Borrow from the neighbours
Bonds of community run deep in Somaliland. Almost three quarters of villagers said they relied on neighbours for food during the drought, according to a survey of the five worst affected villages by ActionAid.
Shugri, 46, is one of those people. The mother of 10 children, she has only one rapidly thinning cow. In the past, Shugri could always turn to her neighbours. But now, as resources dwindle, not even the strongest bonds of friendship can put food on the table.
“Before I could get support from other community members, particularly when it comes to food. But now we are all in the same situation. Me and the others are the same. So we can’t get support from neighbours.”
6. Store food underground
Fahima’s family used to grow wheat, maize, onions and tomatoes. Some of that food was stored in a hole in the ground to use during lean periods. But now that the dry season has gone on for years, rather than months, the emergency stock is depleted.
“The stored food is nearly empty,” said the 18-year-old. “We use to drink milk and eat fruits like watermelons. Those foods have disappeared now.”
Fahima has five siblings, including a 10-year-old sister called Sim Sim. Fahima worries about Sim Sim, because the younger girl wants milk. “She is so young. She can’t adapt to the drought like older people,” said Fahima. “She still wants to drink milk.”
Fahima walks for three hours to fetch water from wells that have not yet run dry. She says it’s hot, tiring work but she keeps going.
“What motivates me is that there is nothing in the house to drink,” she said. “So I have to get the water. If I stop there is no water waiting for me.”
What these stories show is that women and girls are doing what they can to make the best of a bleak situation. But, as rains continue to elude them, their resilience and resourceful can only take them so far.
Please show women such as Malyuun and Fahima that they are not alone. Donate now to help ActionAid continue supporting vulnerable communities struggling with hunger.
Photo credits: Jennifer Huxta/ActionAid