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In Somalia: A Good News Story

Somalia has a certain ring to it. If you tell someone you are going to Somalia, the response is predictable. “Oh. Wow. Really? Isn’t it dangerous?” they ask. Then there’s a bit of silence.

What do you know about Somalia? Black Hawk Down? Pirates? Something about US interventions and Mohammad Farah Aidid? War, famine, conflict, kidnapping.

I want to tell you a good story.

It begins with Marian, the Country Director for Medair, and I leaving Nairobi at 4.30am. The taxi driver gets us to the airport in good time, and at 6.45am we board a Blue Sky flight to Mogadishu. They serve us nice little yoghurts and cinnamon buns. We land at an extraordinary airport built by the sea. It is modern and new. I get a visa in about 3 minutes, far less time that it took for one in Kenya. I buy pancakes and espresso at the airport café – Marian drinks water. There is a wifi signal, but it is protected, so I wander back to immigration and a friendly official shares the password of the airport staff wifi with me. Now that’s hospitable.

Somalia A Good News Story 1
A Health Facility in Kismaayo, Somalia, run by TEAR's partner Medair.

At 11.30 we board a small turbo-prop which will fly us south, down to Kismaayo, the capital of the state of Jubaland. Kismaayo is under the dual control of Government forces and AMSOM (the African Mission to Somalia), and it is considered safe. It is a smallish town of around 200,000 regular residents, plus another 50,000 Internally Displaced People (IDPs).

Give that a moment’s thought. Imagine that 20% of your town is made up of people from somewhere else, who have only just arrived in the last two or three years. They have been forced from their homelands by conflict, by extortion at the hands of Al Shabab, by Government eviction, and now, by drought. Many, perhaps most, will never go home. If you have been displaced from your land for more than five or so years, someone else will take it, and it is no longer yours.

That’s how it works here.

In Kismaayo, the displaced live in camps and amongst the community, which is itself poor. There is not much work. There is not much of anything, as Somalia struggles to emerge from political conflict and economic chaos.

In this area, Medair is running a Health Facility in partnership with a local NGO (SomaliAid), and conducting community outreach work, both of which TEAR has supported for the last few years.

In these tough conditions, the Kismaayo Medair staff are working quietly and patiently. The Health Supervisor trains and supports a group of seven Care Group Promoters, who, in turn, train and support some 150 Care Group Volunteers (CGVs). Each of these women take responsibility for health care promotion in around 20 households.

It’s an extraordinarily efficient way to reach a lot of people. Simple maths indicates that 150 Community Health Volunteers x 20 households x 7 family members = 21,000 people reached. In Mogadishu, where Medair has been operating longer, there are close to 900 CHVs. That’s around 125,000 people reached.

Somalia A Good News Story 2

The Community Health Volunteers are the hands and eyes and ears of the project. They promote healthy food, provide ante-natal care, encourage exclusive breast feeding, check for malnutrition, encourage women to give birth at the nearby Health Facility suite, and advise treatment for cholera, malaria, or acute watery diarrhoea.

And people are listening. We went out to the Health Facility, where I saw women lined up with babies in their arms. Children were being weighed and examined, blood was being taken for testing. There was rational prescription of drugs. Fathers were queued up at the Facility pharmacy. As we were there, a baby was being born in the birthing suite.

I sat and talked to a Care Group Promoter and to two CGVs to learn about their work. They knew that what they were doing mattered, and they could all say what had changed, in their own families at least.

Low key, good work, done carefully, in hard conditions. Medair is not spending excessively. Their office in Kismaayo is simple, as were our meals and accommodation. The warehouse where the drugs were stored is air-conditioned, but the offices and guest rooms are not. The volunteers are real volunteers. They are not paid.

Later, I sat with the staff and we talked about ideas to help the work become more sustainable, and how to add value. No one was defensive and the discussion was lively.

So, let’s tell some good stories about Somalis working hard in their own country. Let’s join with them in prayer, and in support.

TEAR assists our partners in often complex and difficult spaces
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Phil Sparrow is a former TEAR Australia International Program Officer, and a former Fieldworker.