Foreign Policy Blogs

Interview with UN Humanitarian Ambassador to Somalia – Mark Bowden

Interview with UN Humanitarian Ambassador to Somalia - Mark Bowden

Zippora Mbungo, with her grandchildren in Makima, Kenya.

After my most recent post (Drought and Social Enterprise) I received a number of emails from non-profits and NGOs about their work in Somalia and issues facing the Somali people.  Although this post does not exactly fit within the parameters of “Ethics and Economics,” I wanted to share it with you.  I had the opportunity to speak with UN Humanitarian Ambassador to Somalia, Mark Bowden, as well as ActionAid International.

In a press release issued on July 20, ActionAid International talked about a new problem facing the citizens of Somalia and Kenya– stomach binding.  In response to intense hunger and no way to curb it, women are tying ropes or cloths around their stomach in an effort to go about their daily lives without suffering.

Interview with UN Humanitarian Ambassador to Somalia - Mark Bowden

Zippora Mbungo 86 years old (born in 1925). Widowed 4 children – 16 grand children – living with 5 grand children. Zippora binds her stomach, which is common in the Makima region.

This practice is not new, and has been done for generations as famine and hunger enters their lives over and over.  As the drought worsens and famine spreads, more women are resorting to this practice.

According to Zippora Mbungo, an 86-year-old farmer interviewed by ActionAid in Makima, Kenya:

“Women discovered the rope tying trick after we experienced frequent periods of drought and crop failure in our region. Tying helps us to walk and work even when we are starving. When my family has very little food, I give food to my grandchildren first, leaving little or nothing for me. On many occasions the food available to us is maize and I can’t chew on dry maize because I am too old. That is why I tie this rope around me.”

Interview with UN Humanitarian Ambassador to Somalia - Mark BowdenOnce food becomes available, women release the ropes or cloth too soon.  That can often be fatal.  Women have died suddenly when they have not loosened the bindings gradually, according to Philip Kilonzo, Hunger expert for ActionAid Kenya.  The practice is common with women rather than men because they are often unable to pursue economic opportunities.

I spoke with UN Humanitarian Ambassador Mark Bowden on July 21st about this practice and the current crisis in the Horn of Africa.  Although he had not personally heard of stomach binding, he knows that people resort to drastic measures when facing starvation.

“There is a very high level of desperation,” Bowden said.

Interview with UN Humanitarian Ambassador to Somalia - Mark Bowden

UN Humanitarian Ambassador Mark Bowden

He believes that right now the most pressing thing is to provide immediate assistance to the affected areas.

“There is a shortage of money,” he continued.  “We have an emergency response fund which the UN runs, which is drying up.”

While the non-profits are receiving funds, it isn’t enough.  The major giving entity will be governmental.

“There is a concern about the famine deepening,” Bowden said.  “What’s more worrying at a time of famine is measles, diarrheal disease epidemics; these are the lessons from previous famines in ’91 and ’92.”

Bowden has personally been working in Somalia on and off since the ‘80s, but most recently has been assigned there for the past three years.

“This particular period [of drought] starting when the Dayr [October to November] rains failed at the end of the year,” he said.  “The current rains have been late.”

In such a fragile environment, even one season lost to drought has devastating effects.

“People lost their crop production in the main growing areas in the south and lost their livestock,” he added.  “We’ve had three or four years of drought.  Most areas are going to be in famine.  Averting the crisis is going to be very difficult, but we can still save the lives of tens of thousands of children.”

As refugees flee Somalia, they often come with nothing to refugee communities throughout the Horn of Africa.  The Hot Sun Foundation, a group of Somali filmmakers, is sending Survival Backpacks to newly arriving refugees filled with a blanket, a water flask, and shoes.  Click here to read more about their work and to contribute.





Crystal Huskey

Crystal Huskey is a freelance writer, musician and fair trade arts consultant. She has a B.A. in religion and will graduate with her M.A. in international relations in the spring of 2012. She is passionate about human rights and gender equality.

Growing up as the daughter of missionaries to refugee communities has given Huskey a heart for the outcasts and brokenhearted. She believes that much of the world's crime can be prevented by creating economic opportunities at every level of society.