Somalia's forgotten heroes

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26/01/2012 - Six months after famine was declared across the Horn of Africa, 460,000 children remain malnourished in Somalia, while four million people remain in crisis. Providing therapeutic feeding vaccines, maternity and a multitude of other services are heroic SOS Children’s Villages teams, who say the forgotten heroes are at home.

As the sun rises across the Somali capital, the air is fresh and the call to prayer signals the beginning of another day. The sound of radio talk shows can then be heard from battery operated transistors placed on the ground outside the entrances of homes where food preparation takes place. Feeling weak as a result of her diabetes a mother squats near a charcoal fire as she prepares a breakfast of sweet tea and pancakes.

In the background – as they prepare to attend the SOS Herman Gmeiner School – two boys and their two sisters condition their hair with vegetable oil as part of their normal daily routine. Another sister looks on in envy, as an extreme long-term allergy has prevented her from going to school for several years. Her father works away from home.

The civil strife that has dominated life in this troubled East African state had meant that the breadwinner’s like her father, Abdi Muse Mumin, must often leave home to support family and relations by way of remittances. In the darkest days of Somali’s civil war and famine in the early 1990s, Abdi witnessed the departure of many of his school friends who sought a better life in Europe and the US. At the time, he found employment as an administrator at the Paediatric Unit of the SOS Hospital in Mogadishu where he was inspired by the work of nursing students whom he observed.

Everyone rolled up their slieves

He recalls, in times of emergency, when resources were scarce how “everyone rolled up their sleeves and the ingenuity of professional staff and students from the SOS Community Nursing College saved children’s lives. Young teenagers suffered from gunshot wounds while intravenous drips kept starving infants alive”. Under very restrictive conditions, the commitment of people such as his nursing school mentor Fatima Haji Mohamed convinced the small town boy that this was the life for him. She was and continues to be a strong believer in “quality training and a strong social ethos” Abdi says fondly.

After five years of training, at the SOS Community Nursing School in Mogadishu, the reputation of Somalia’s only recognised nursing school enabled Abdi to obtain further specialist training in Kenya, where went graduated with a diploma in Community Health. His experience led to his appointment as leader of the SOS Children’s Villages Emergency Medical Programme in southern Somalia.

Today, in villages within a 90km radius of Baidoa, his biggest challenge is to deal with malnutrition that affects an estimated 350,000 children in a country where the ratio of qualified nursing staff to chronically ill patients is the lowest in the world. Due to Al-Shabab’s recent expulsion of most aid organisations in the region - which had provided therapeutic programs- at least 28,000 people are now in dire need of our assistance. The provision of supplies is severely restricted as the road between Mogadishu and Baidoa is often closed, by up to 20 roadblocks that are manned by various militia and military forces.

While her diabetes continues to afflict his wife 200 kilometres away in Mogadishu, “she does not complain,” Abdi says. “She is a very good person who deals with the everyday problems. We are in regular contact by telephone, but conditions here make it very difficult to see my family. I have not seen them for several months – and I miss them very much.” But, the family rendezvous is on-hold as the SOS Community Nursing School graduate must work shoulder-to shoulder with his team and impart his skills to his fellow Somalis who have again rolled-up their sleeves and used their ingenuity to save their neighbours.