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Opinion: Christmas looks a little different in Somalia where tens of thousands search for food

Trócaire’s Paul Healy tells of a different Christmas in Somalia this year, among those struggling to stay alive.

Paul Healy Trócaire

THE BUILD-UP TO Christmas is certainly different from Ireland here in Somalia in East Africa, where I work as country Director for Trócaire. Not a pub in sight, not a Christmas carol to be heard.

While the new Omicron strain of Covid-19 may be the main story at home and around the globe this festive season, it is the awful pandemic of drought, hunger and the impact of climate change that will be the main challenge for the people in Somalia.

That’s happening especially in Gedo in the south of the country where Trócaire has been implementing lifesaving health services for 30 years. Gedo is a region just slightly bigger than the size of Ireland.

More than 20,000 people go through the four hospitals and 25 health centres that we run in Gedo every month. Most of them are young children, crying, struggling to survive. It is heartbreaking to witness. Sadly, those numbers will increase this Christmas as a rapidly worsening drought and severe hunger grips the region.

Relentless drought

Let me set the scene.

Somalia has experienced more than 30 climate-related hazards since 1990, including 12 droughts and 19 floods. But the frequency and severity of climate-related hazards are increasing.

According to the UN, nearly 3.5 million people in Somalia face a serious humanitarian crisis due to drought, with the Horn of Africa on the verge of its fourth consecutive failed rainfall season. More than 80 per cent of Somalia is estimated to be experiencing severe drought conditions at the present time.

The dire situation has already forced an estimated 420,000 people to flee their homes in search of food, water and pasture for their livestock.

So it won’t be Santa Claus and the celebrations and spending we enjoy at home at this time of the year that will be on people’s minds, especially in Gedo. The reality is my fellow human beings here lack even the most basic needs, including food and water.

Like Joseph and Mary in the traditional Christmas tale, families here will be on the move, forced to leave their homesteads, their lives on the edge with their animals dead, their harvests withered, and their children emaciated.

Seeking shelter

As thousands of desperate families seek refuge in camps for the displaced over the coming weeks, they will meet our staff and the staff of our partners. They will be met with compassion and kindness, the essence of Christmas. This lifeline will in effect be extended from every county in Ireland, thanks to the ongoing support for our work from the Irish people.

It is hard to think of Covid in this context – although we must deal with that crisis too. We are the agency administering Covid-19 vaccines to communities in Gedo. As the main health actor, we oversee the storage and administration of vaccines, as well as Covid-19 and PCR testing.

Just imagine while Ireland is now rolling out Covid-19 booster shots, with 90 per cent of people over 16 years fully vaccinated, only approximately 3% of the population of over 17 million people in Somalia are vaccinated. This is reflective of the massive vaccine inequity in the world.

A huge challenge here is awareness amongst high-risk people including those who have been internally displaced due to conflict and climate change. As well as vaccine administration we have reached over 160,000 people in Gedo with screening, treatment of cases and Covid-19 awareness messages. But there are millions more in need of support.

Life at the heart of hunger

For me, it feels right to be part of this story. I’m content to be here. It feels like a Christmas story in some ways.

I have been working for Trócaire in Africa and Asia for 13 years and it is one of the great privileges of my life to be working for the agency, on behalf of the people of Ireland. Myself and my Kenyan wife and children haven’t had a chance to get home to Ireland for Christmas during that time.

I’ll miss home in Dublin again this year. I will miss the Christmas dinner in my parent’s house, the craic, the family, a nice pint in Finnegan’s pub, a warm fire on a cold night! Who knows? Maybe next year.

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I hope that doing this work, day in day out, is making a small difference. Somalia is an important place to be. We need to be here with the poorest of the poor, and those on the edge of the world.

But my family will make the most of Christmas and try to recreate that same feeling in Nairobi in Kenya where my wife and children are based. The Irish Ambassador will host the Irish in her house for the traditional Christmas Carol event. I will phone home and connect with my family.

We will have my wife’s Kenyan family over on Christmas Day. I’ll do all the things that I’m used to doing at home. I will put up the tree, go to Midnight Mass, watch ‘It’s a wonderful life’ and play Monopoly.

I’ll cook the turkey and ham, make lovely stuffing and hope that my Kenyan family enjoy my western-style Christmas dinner. We’ll probably eat outside. It will most likely be a warm day.

But I will be thankful for all that I have and hope that next year will bring something better to those that I am privileged to work with in Somalia.

Paul Healy is Country Director with Trócaire in Somalia. Please support Trócaire’s Christmas appeal this year at Trócaire.org.

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Paul Healy  / Trócaire

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